Category Archives: Photo Instruction

Here Comes The Rain Again: Tips For Shooting in Crappy Weather

Angry Bird: Drenched Cattle Egret in St. Augustine, Florida

I went down to Florida and it rained. No this wasn’t your refreshing spring shower variety either, it rained 12 inches in 72 hours – most of it sideways.

As I mentioned in a previous post here, bad weather is often welcomed by landscape and nature photographers for all the reasons you’ve heard over and over again. Bad weather can inject drama and mood to your images and then there’s the soft, diffused light that comes with cloudy skies, etc. And all of this would indeed be true. But sometimes bad weather is just a royal pain in the ass. I’m sorry, but there’s just no better way to put it. Last weekend’s rain would be one of those times.

During our bird photography workshop in St. Augustine, we managed to dodge the heaviest rain and got some photography in during the lighter showers and brief lulls between the squalls. Yes, productive photography can be done during light or moderate rain and it won’t kill you or your camera. Here are a few tips on how to manage rainy weather photography:

1) Keep yourself as dry and comfortable as possible. It’s difficult to think creatively when you are feeling miserable. A waterproof shell and pants helps keep you dry and happy, otherwise you’ll look and feel like our friend, the angry bird.

2) Use a rain cover over your camera to keep it as dry as possible too. In light rain, I really don’t worry too much about my camera getting wet. Most modern DSLRs handle light rain without any problems short of submerging it (the same cannot be said of saltwater, however). Still, if you need some piece of mind consider one of the following products: Think Tank’s Hydrophobia, Lens Coat’s Rain Coat, and the Vortex Storm Jacket. A shower cap, on the other hand – complementary at most hotels, works just as well.

I just don’t like working when I don’t have an unobstructed, intuitive feel for the camera and all its controls. The cover is always in the way and I can’t concentrate on what I’m trying to do. Therefore, in the rain I prefer to shoot naked.

3) Use your lens hood. I’ll admit that this lens accessory is one I rarely use, but it does keep drops off the front element of the lens – a major annoyance when shooting in the rain.

4) When not worrying about getting yourself and your camera wet, look for some unique photo opportunities in the crappy weather. Reflections off wet surfaces can offer creative options that fair weather doesn’t provide. Backlit raindrops are yet another. The image above is a good example of that.

5) Have dry cover nearby. Don’t leave yourself exposed to a torrent of a downpour. If you are going to photograph in the rain, plan on having shelter that is relatively close in case the bottom falls out of the rain clouds. This makes infinitely more sense if there is a chance of a thunder storm in the forecast.

6) Dry your gear as soon as you return to your home or hotel room. Storing it while wet just invites mold growth in the camera and lenses.

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Let Go Of The Literal

One of the best pieces of advice I can give a beginning photographer to help he or she create better compositions – an aspect of photography with which they all say they struggle – is to let go of the literal and embrace the abstract. That doesn’t mean you should start making abstract images, although that’s not necessarily a bad idea either, but instead see the scene abstractly.

So instead of seeing mountains, trees, rocks, and a river, for example, you would look for shapes and lines and how they relate to each other and the surrounding image frame.

For the image above, the corresponding abstract diagram could look like the one that follows:

Notice it contains no reeds, reflection of trees, nor lily pads, but only a poorly-drawn half oval shape and some radiating lines. The literal is gone and all that’s left is the abstract. I could ask myself, “Is this an interesting design that holds my attention?” If no, I would move on. If yes, I have something to work with.

When working with students in the field, I might ask them to squint their eyes a little so the the literal is blurred out and all they can faintly see is the skeletal structure of the scene. This is good practice if you’ve never tried it. The literal just fleshes the image out.

When photographing in a beautiful place, it is too easy to be seduced by the scene’s literal beauty and overlook what really makes a strong composition. The way I see it, there is always time to sit back and appreciate the beauty of nature. In fact, I force myself to step away from the camera from time to time to just sit back and soak it all in. That’s important for many different reasons. But when it’s time to get to work, I’m looking much deeper into the scene for the abstract qualities that are going to take it beyond just a pretty picture and into the realm of true artistic interpretation. That means letting go of the literal.

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Water and Motion

Curiously, one of the most often-asked questions I receive (aside from inquiries on which camera I use, which is just plain ridiculous) is how I make the moving water in my images smooth, silky, foggy, like cotton candy, etc. It’s curious to me because of how easy it is to do. A camera, lens, tripod, polarizing filter, and some overcast light are all that’s needed to achieve a long shutter speed in order gain this effect.

I call this the illusion of motion since a still photo cannot literally illustrate movement but a long shutter speed can still express it effectively.

But merely saying you need a long shutter speed is not enough information for a beginning photographer. For example, how long is long enough?

Roaring Fork, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee. 1-second exposure @ f16

For most stream and waterfall images, I usually aim for a shutter speed in the range of 0.5 to 2.0 seconds. The example above has an exposure time of 1 second, which seems just about right for this image. I prefer the illusion of motion in my water images most of the time but I still want to retain texture and detail in the water. Under most circumstances, exposure times over 2.0 seconds renders the water as an unattractive, featureless white smear.

Yet this is not always the case. There are other factors that must be considered before deciding on a desired shutter speed.

1)   The volume of water. As a general rule, the greater the water flow, the faster the shutter speed. A heavy waterfall with a great volume of water will lose more texture and detail with a longer shutter speed than a similar waterfall with less water.

2)   The focal length of the lens. If you think about it, the water (or any moving object for that matter) must travel a much greater distance to span the image frame with a wide-angle lens than a telephoto.

3)   The subject’s distance. Again, the same principle in #2 also applies here. The farther away the stream or waterfall, the longer the water must travel to span the image frame than a closer subject.

4)   Personal taste.

Schoodic Point, Acadia National Park, Maine. 1/8 second @ f11

Schoodic Point, Acadia National Park, Maine. 1/8 second @ f11

Of the four factors listed above, personal taste – or scene interpretation – is probably most important. For example, a relatively slow shutter speed can express grace or fragility. A faster one can project raw power or even violence. In the example above, the relatively fast shutter speed of 1/8 second expresses the explosiveness of the wave as it crashes on the rocks. Had I chosen any slower shutter speed and the detail in the exploding wave would have been lost.

Hunting Island, South Carolina. 30-second exposure @ f18

In the example above, I preferred no detail in the water.  I wanted this image to reflect pure simplicity and any waves on the ocean’s surface would only be unwanted, unnecessary distractions. A 30-second exposure smoothed out the water, giving me the simple, elegant image I was hoping for.

To achieve shutter speeds of many seconds, you will need a low ISO and/or small aperture and/or low ambient light and/or filtration. As to the latter, I use neutral density filters for long exposures when the ambient light is too bright. Neutral density filters are made of darkened glass which absorbs light without imparting any color cast to the image.

For beginners, a 3-stop ND Filter is a good start. A 10-stop ND Filter will allow for much longer exposures even in bright sunlight, but it’s difficult to focus and compose the scene in the viewfinder since the filter is nearly opaque.

A third alternative is the Singh Ray Vari ND, which allows you to change the strength of the filter to fit each lighting situation.

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Chasing Magic


During my trip to Iceland in 2011, I had every intention of making it to the beautiful Snaefells Peninsula to create a dramatic image of Kirkjufell (the mountain) and Kirkjufellsfoss (the waterfall). For one reason or other, I never made it to this part of Iceland and I didn’t give it much thought over the year that followed.

Last month, I had the pleasure of leading a workshop to Iceland with my co-leader Joe Rossbach and eleven great students. The day before the workshop began, Joe drove to Kirkjufell and caught some amazing light at sunset, all while I was hunkered down on another part of the island socked in with heavy clouds and spitting rain. The next day when he showed me his images from that evening, I congratulated him and then immediately hated him. I still do, Joe..

It took me four visits to this location (including once with the workshop group where we had nothing but clear skies) to finally get it right. No clouds, too many clouds, car trouble – there was always something wrong until this particular night. Surprisingly, I was still disappointed when I finally folded up the tripod around midnight and called it a long day. As good as the color and light was, it could have been so much better still. Seconds after this version was captured, the light shut down and the sky faded to a deep blue.

Kirkjufell is a beautifully-shaped, symmetrical mountain just west of Grundarfiord Bay. Danish sailors, who often frequented this part of the country, called the mountain “The Sugar Top.”

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Essential Composition: Leading Lines

The following is an excerpt from my upcoming e-book, Essential Composition: A Guide for the Perplexed. I’ll make an announcement post here on June 12, the date of its release.

I’m sure you’ve heard – or perhaps you’ve uttered it yourself – that it feels as if you can “walk right into” a certain photograph. What characteristic gives the viewer an invitation to be pulled into the image and become a participant in it? More often than not, it’s the successful use of leading lines.

The use of leading lines is powerful compositional tool that helps the photographer “lead” the viewer’s eye and attention toward the focal point of the image. Lines also help give an image structure and establish flow and direction, keeping it from becoming visually static.

Leading lines control and manipulate the visual experience by pulling the viewer on a dynamic journey through the scene in the very specific way that the photographer intends; near to far, up or down, from corner to corner. All the while, the viewer’s eye is moving, stopping only when it reaches the photographer’s pre-designed, intended resting place. The lines can be horizontal, vertical, or diagonal, straight or curved, literal or merely implied. As long as they are purposeful and meet the intentions of the photographer, they can be useful in giving the image dynamic flow.

The release date of Essential Composition: A Guide for the Perplexed is June 12 and will be available for download in the Earth and Light e-store.

 

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