Taking good photos, part I
To start off with, I am going to talk about clothes. Why? Because most nature photography takes place out-of-doors, and you’re not going to take good photos if you are cold, wet, and miserable, or hot, sweaty, and miserable. Being miserable doesn’t promote good photography. The photo at the top of this page was taken on a day when the high temperature was in the mid-teens, the wind was blowing 30+ MPH sustained with higher gusts, and occasional snow squalls coming in off lake Michigan. I know most of you won’t venture out in weather like that, I saw only one other person that day. I am not going to lie to you and tell you that I was snug as a bug in a rug, but I wasn’t freezing, either. After about an hour on the beach, I was ready to head back into the woods and behind the dunes to get out of the wind and warm up. But, I was comfortable enough for an hour or so in those conditions to capture some of the best pictures I have ever taken.
Today’s gear is amazing, so much better than what was available just a decade or two ago. Since people will be reading this from all parts of the country, I am not going to go into specifics here, but just say that dressing correctly is a big part of the reason I am able to capture so many stunning nature photographs. Because, when you are comfortable outdoors, you are willing to spend more time outdoors, and the more time you do spend outdoors, the more good photos you’re going to get. So don’t skimp on clothing, buy quality stuff that will last you for years, and it will pay off in the long run. Since I spend so much time outdoors, not just on photography, but also fishing, hiking, and kayaking, my outdoor wardrobe is dedicated for outdoor use, I don’t wear it to work, or for casual, around town.
OK, now you’re dressed right for the outdoors, so get out there! You can get some good pictures of nature from indoors, and I never pass up that opportunity, but for the most part, being outdoors a lot increases your chances of getting good pictures. Pay attention to the weather reports and plan your excursions to fit what the weather is going to be like on the days you’re going to be outdoors, and the time of day you are out there. It is difficult to be too specific here, since I am in Michigan, and what works here may not work the best in other parts of the country. But here are some general rules of thumb. Wildlife is most active early in the morning around sunrise, and again, just before sundown, so if you want wildlife pictures, you should try to be outdoors when the wildlife is most active. If the weather is bad, wildlife will hunker down to stay warm and dry. If you know where the places are where wildlife does take shelter, it can be a great time to be there when the weather is bad, for animals don’t like to move from sheltered areas when the weather is awful.
The most dramatic scenery pictures are usually shot during either really great, or really bad weather. The best times to shoot scenery are bright sunny days in the morning, between 8 AM and a little after noon. For some reason morning light yields sharper, crisper pictures than afternoon light does. Of course sunsets are one exception to that rule, as is approaching bad weather, like thunderstorms moving in on a mountain range, or huge waves breaking on the Lake Michigan shoreline.
The best advise I can give you is to start keeping a journal. This blog is rapidly becoming mine, replacing the one I was doing in a word processor. It can be as elaborate or as simple as you like. It could be nothing more than a collection of notes done on the notepad that comes with all Windows computers, but it pays to jot down where you went, when you were there, and any notable happenings. You could use WordPress.com as I am, and you can make your blog completely private so that no one but you can see it, but you will be able to create links and insert photos to help you remember, and for future reference. The more I blog, the more I am using this as a reference for myself. The ability to create links means I don’t have to sort through the dozens of bookmarks I have saved, and the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is true. You can do all that in a word processor, but I am finding that WordPress is easier once you learn it. I think most of the major blogging software give you the ability to keep your blog private if you don’t wish to share with the rest of the world. No matter how you choose to keep a journal, keeping one will help you pick the best places and times to be outdoors to increase your chances of getting great nature photos.
One more thing before getting to the actual taking of photographs, and that is, take your camera with you whenever you are outdoors. That may sound silly, but most people only bring their camera when they are specifically outdoors to take pictures. I always have a camera with me when I am outside, even for walks around the apartment complex here. When I am travelling to and from my destination, my big camera is in its case on the passenger side floor with the case open so I can reach over and grab the camera in less than a second. My little camera is either in a coat pocket, or on the passenger seat where I can reach over and grab it. A camera packed away in the back seat, or worse, the trunk, does you no good if you see something along the side of the road, from an animal to a scenic shot where changing light can make or break a picture. Having a camera ready and within reach at all times increases your chances of capturing those really good pictures most people miss, and lament, I wish I had my camera with me. You know what Karl Malden used to say about the American Express card, “Don’t leave home with out it”, well, that applies to your camera, don’t go outdoors without it. I don’t think I can stress this enough, a camera is only useful when you have it with you. If you stop for a picnic lunch at a rest area or roadside park, take your camera with you, don’t leave it in the car. As you’re eating, a rare songbird could land in a tree near you and offer you a once in a lifetime chance for a great photo, and if your camera is still in the car, you miss that chance.
Once you have learned the basics of photography the next step is learning how to hold your camera correctly. It may sound simple enough, but holding your camera correctly is a big part of taking good photos, but the biggest thing is practice. You have to take a lot of pictures to become good at taking pictures, and when you practice enough, holding the camera correctly becomes second nature.
I liken it to shooting. I grew up as a hunter and a marksman, and holding a camera steady as you press the shutter is just as important to photography as holding the gun steady as you squeeze the trigger is to marksmanship. Any motion you impart on the camera as the image is captured will cause the image to be fuzzy or blurry, something we don’t want. The longer the focal length of the lens you are using, or the higher amount of zoom, magnifies any and all movement that occurs when the shutter snaps.
The best method of holding your camera is a tripod, next best is a monopod, next is to find a support of some kind to help steady you and the camera, and finally, holding the camera by hand. Truth is, I seldom use a tripod, they don’t fit well with my methods of nature photography, and tripods add more weight to carry while hiking or kayaking. Lugging around an extra 5 pounds or more of tripod while hiking makes it hard to bring one along. If you do buy a tripod, buy a good one. The cheap ones are worse than no tripod at all. They don’t hold the camera still, and on more than one occasion, I’ve been about ready to shoot a picture only to have the pan lock fail and the camera swing out of position, requiring me to start over again. It’s frustrating more than anything, but after several of those types of frustrations, you get out of the habit of using a tripod, even when you should. For the best landscape pictures possible, you should use one.
I do use a monopod on occasion, I should use it more, but again, it doesn’t fit that well with my methods of photography. A monopod is a single pole that you can attach your camera to the top of to help you hold your camera steady. It’s like a walking stick that you can use to hold the camera steady. By bracing it against a stump, or tree, or fence, or anything else solid that’s handy, it is almost as steady as a good tripod.
Anytime I find something to rest the camera on, or to help brace myself, I do. That can be a fence, a tree, a building, a sign post, a vehicle, or any other solid object that I can set the camera on, or lean against in some way to steady myself. Be creative when it comes to finding and using something as a rest. Anything solid helps.
I take almost all my pictures holding my camera by hand, as will most people. To start with, you don’t want to “lock” your muscles and joints. I know that sounds contrary to the idea of holding a camera steady, but the human body isn’t a tripod. When you try to lock your muscles and joints, you actually cause tremors in the muscles that are locked. Relax, use only as much muscle power as it takes to hold the camera up. Just as in shooting, if you hold either a gun or a camera with a death grip, you’ll miss the target. You want to hold the camera almost gingerly, as if you were afraid it would break like an egg if you squeezed it too tightly. Since we all have different sized hands, and use different cameras, I can’t tell you the best way for you place your hands, you’ll have to experiment a little to see what works best for you. Keep your upper arms against your body with your elbows resting against your stomach to help hold steady, again, don’t press, just let your arms relax.
Once you learn how to hold the camera, the next thing is breathing. Again, just as in shooting, controlling your breathing is important to remaining steady as the shutter clicks. When you are ready to shoot the picture, take a deep breath, hold it for a split second, then begin letting it out very, very slowly as you gently press on the shutter release. That’s gently press the shutter release. Any motion of the camera during the time the shutter is open is going to reduce the quality of the picture taken to some degree. Jabbing the shutter release with your finger is going to cause camera movement. If there is a lot of light and the shutter speed is very fast, you may not notice it in the final picture, but the lower the amount of light, the longer the shutter is open, and the more you zoom in on a subject is going to magnify any movement you impart to the camera.
Try to avoid holding your camera at arm’s length if you can, but sometimes you will have to in order to capture the picture you want, so it pays to practice once in a while, even if it isn’t the prefered way of holding your camera. Same with holding the camera with one hand, sometimes you have to, so it pays to practice that once in a while as well.
A little side note, if your camera has a strap, hold onto the strap whenever you are taking a picture. Not only can the strap swinging around in the breeze cause camera motion, you don’t want a good shot ruined by having the strap show up in your once in a lifetime picture.
I think the best tip I can give any one is to just go out and practice, take pictures, lots of them, lots and lots of them. I take my camera along with me everyday during the week when I walk around the apartment complex where I live, and have for a couple of years now. It is a rare day when my camera never leaves my pocket, I usually take at least a couple of pictures, and it isn’t at all unusual to come back with 20 to 50 pictures. It isn’t like things change that much here from day-to-day, but there is almost always something here to practice taking pictures of. The more pictures you take, the better you will get at taking pictures.
That’s the great advantage digital photography has over film, digital is free after you buy the camera. Taking a bad picture costs you nothing, it isn’t going to ruin your camera, so get out there and start shooting! Not all your pictures are going to be great, but don’t just delete the bad ones, analyze them first. Why was it a bad picture? Did you move? Did the subject move? Was the lighting wrong? If so, how was it wrong? Was your composition wrong? How could you have improved it?
It may be hard to criticize your own work, but that’s the only way to get better, as long as you’re not overly critical of your work. Every one takes bad pictures, it happens, so if you don’t get the results you want right away, don’t let that stop you from trying to improve, just keep shooting, and learn from your mistakes.
Let’s say you are out walking in the woods and see a wildflower you would like to photograph, but you aren’t sure if using a fill in flash will help or not. No big deal, shoot a couple of pictures each way, with and without the flash, just remember what order you took them in. When you get home and load them on your computer, you can compare the to see which worked best under the circumstances that day. You may find that you like both, but for different reasons. If your camera has a macro setting, try that with and with out the flash as well. So what if you come home with 10 pictures of the same flower? Compare them all, keep the ones you like, and delete the rest after you know why they didn’t come out as well as you would have liked. Just keep shooting.