A Thousand Words – Utah

For over 28 years I lived and worked in Utah, and in that time I learned most of what I know about photography.  Beginning after my 2-year church mission to Montana, first in Provo (BYU) and Utah County, then St. George and southern Utah, and finally Providence in Cache Valley – I spent tens of thousands of hours exploring every back road I could drive on, every canyon, and every valley in those areas.  I learned about the wildlife, the wildflowers, the scenic vistas, the state parks, and national parks.  Along with my sons and friends I hiked famous trails like the Lefthand Fork of North Creek trail to the Subway in Zion, descended the Navajo Loop trail in Bryce Canyon to shoot among the hoodoos, and ventured out along the sheer cliffs that dropped to the Colorado River at Tuweep, 3000 feet below – in the extreme western edge along the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park.

As the safari trips piled up over the decades in the American West, so to did the experiences that I had on those long days that began hours before sunrise and didn’t end until late at night.  I felt an urgency to search, though I’m not sure what I was looking for then – yet, I knew something was out there waiting.  I felt an anxious determination to discover what was around me, maybe to see what others had already seen, but to photograph those experiences with my own eyes, my own interpretation.

Even on my church mission in Montana on our half-day off (Monday), we hiked, fished, and explored the areas where we lived.  I learned the forest service roads around Bozeman, Stevensville, and Whitefish; fished the Bitterroot, the Blackfoot, and the Flathead rivers; hiked high into Glacier National Park, Lolo Peak, and the Gallatin Mountains; and explored the infamous Missouri Breaks country of Eastern Montana where the mighty Missouri river serpentines through the bluffs and plains heading east.  

It was in Utah where discovery met photography.  I bought my first SLR 35mm Camera (an Olympus OM-10FC), grew out of that camera (Olympus OM-4T), then grew out of that Camera and System (Nikon F5) over the course of the next decade.  My first photographs were published (Deseret Newspaper Sunday Travel Section Cover Story – 1985) and I began to get images accepted by magazine photo editors.  Images being held turned into images being published.  I photographed my first wedding in 1988, shot my first commercial job (Great Western Savings of California – starring Dennis Weaver) in 1988, had my first magazine cover (St.George Magazine) in 1988, and my first national magazine cover (Audubon’s American Birds) in 1989.  Publication credits and author credits piled up over the next two decades.

It was also in Utah where my passion for wildlife photography began.  It began with Lyman Hafen, then the editor of St.George Magazine, spotlighting a wildlife image of mine on the back page of the magazine each issue. While the quality of the landscape photography in the magazine was impressive, as was the writing – showing off a wildlife image was something new for this blazing red rock country magazine.  My first images for that feature were ok, but not great.Each wildlife encounter led to another, and another.  I began looking for wildlife first, and landscapes second.  While living in St. George I began making trips north to Yellowstone National Park – mainly in the fall for the bugling, rutting bull elk – a key publication species for hunting and nature magazines, like Field & Stream and Ranger Rick.  It was only a decade later when I made a spring trip for baby animals and realized what I had been missing.

After moving to Providence, in Cache Valley in Northern Utah, the quality of wildlife encounters really increased.  Besides the local moose, elk, and mule deer – there were large populations of red fox, sage grouse, and raptors of every kind.  My photography expanded into portraiture (weddings, families, seniors) and more commercial shooting (products, brochures, stock) to go along with the nature (landscape, wildlife, macro) photography I was already involved with.

For those 28 years I lived in Utah I was only been able to photograph about 20% of the state’s amazing beauty, whether landscape or wildlife.  The state is a vast space that refuses to give up it’s treasures to just an occasional visit.  Without living in Moab there is no way to discover all the intricate beauty surrounding eastern Utah.  While I did my best to find those amazing spaces in southwestern Utah, northern Utah, and along the Wasatch Front – so much of the state’s beauty eluded me.

Now in California where I grew up, my trips back to Utah are more selective.  While I do my Utah Raptors Safari every year in mid-February, I alternate years doing a Southern Utah Spring Safari and a Fall Safari.  Some of the amazing spots I’ve found and photographed just don’t lend themselves to being part of those three photo safaris – and now it’s been years since I’ve shot them. Luckily Salt Lake City is my major layover location for trips north to Yellowstone and Glacier – and with one of my sons and his family living in Logan in Cache Valley, I have more reasons to stop and linger on my trips through.

On those layover trips through SLC, Antelope Island State Park is a usual morning destination before heading north.  It is part of my Utah Raptor Safari trifecta of winter shooting locations.  After the fall’s Yellowstone/Grand Teton Safari I come south from Jackson via Bear Lake and Logan Canyon into Cache Valley, then south to SLC.  I know where every dirt road leads, I know where the cool barns, waterfalls, or stands of colorful aspen are – and I know where to look for which animals.  It takes a lifetime of photo safaris to learn that information about a state as vast as Utah, and then, I really only know about 20%. Now I live in California, and that anxious determination to search continues to bubble up within me.  BRP

 

 

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A Thousand Words – Photoshop Processing for Forest Images

I spend a lot of time shooting black bears in forests, dark forests with bright light filtering through trees creating a puzzle-like effect of light rays on the forest floor – one of the most challenging environments for image processing.  Without writing a whole blog article on the art of exposure compensation, I’m going to explain the processing that I did in one interesting cinnamon black bear image I took recently in Sequoia National Park. This image was shot on a Nikon D4s body, at f4, 1/640 second, iso 400, on a tripod.

When I found the bear working through the side of a meadow, shaded by pines in afternoon light – I safely followed him hoping for a more interesting image.  He (no cubs, so assuming a boar) crossed the northern border of the meadow back into the forest and then began working west, directly into the light.  As he crossed through bands of light I continued following and shooting, but the best moments came in full shade with a bright background.  He stood next to an eight-foot-tall broken pine stump and began sniffing at the bark for lunch, in this case, insect grubs.  He had stood so quickly that I hadn’t adjusted my compensation to account for the deep shadows.  In the previous set of images he was in the sun frontlit, so there was no compensation set.  I shot off a dozen images before taking a second to dial in +1 compensation (eV) for the rest, but by then he had bent over some and began digging into the stump, about 4-5 feet up.

So I got the image I expected, a shadowed-out, nearly silhouetted standing bear image with some burned out background highlights.  See the original file below as seen in the Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) Converter in Photoshop CC.

There was a time when, if I had shot this on film or in the early digital photo days, this image’s final look would have looked just like this.  Yes, I could have filled the shadows a little even back then, but the Photoshop processing platform is so much more powerful today.

I began by entering the Lens Corrections dialog box in ACR and clicking on “Remove Chromatic Aberrations” and “Enable Profile Corrections”.  Since my Nikon 500mm f4 SWM lens is pretty old I have to select “Nikon” in the Lens Profile: Make box before the program selects the correct lens and applies the correct lens profile to the image. This is an important step in flattening the image, removing barrel distortion found in the unprocessed raw file.  Every lens has distortion issues, and using the correct lens profile will mitigate the image damage they casue.  For my lens I noticed a small wrinkle is flattened and the outside edges of the image are brightened.  Many types of lens distortions can be fixed by using the lens correction dialog box as illustrated here.

In order to keep this blog post to 1000 words, I’m going to skip other, more detailed exposure corrections I could have used in  Curves, and just go with the corrections I used for this image in the Basic dialog box.
Shown in the image below.

 

Here are my adjustments for each exposure control in the Basic dialog box.  Nothing complex.

I moved the Exposure setting to +.95.  I should have been shooting at +1 eV compensation anyway, but now I’m making up for that here by brightening the overall image.

Brightening an image globally tends to wash out the blacks some, so by adding some contrast I’m moving more light pixels back to the dark side from the middle of the histogram, and more light to the light side from the middle of the histogram.

In most cases, especially here, the already shadowed side of the bear, as well as the bright background, are too extreme after adjusting the contrast.  So to counter that, I moved the Highlights slider far to the left to bring back the highlights so no clipping occurs, except for some tiny spots.  I also moved the Shadows Slider far to the right, in order to brighten just the shadows.

To remove the bright spots being clipped, I slid the Whites slider to the left (-28) until the clipping stopped.  It shows as a red overtone when the clipping warnings are on. Likewise, I brightened the dark areas by moving the Black slider (+29) until I felt like the overall image exposure was more balanced.  These 6 controls are critical to making the image exposure appear the way I remember seeing it.  Our eyes are vastly more powerful than the camera in providing our minds with a useful image – so my goal is always to return the image to what I feel was what I saw at that moment.

The Clarity slider (+13) adds contrast between colors, something I refer to as increasing color sharpness.  Backlit subjects can lack clarity in the colors on the shadow side of the image. I also increased Dehaze, a form of mid-tone contrast (+17). I pushed up the Vibrance (+9) until I began to get color clipping in the background highlights. I tweaked up the color Saturation slider (+7) until I noticed more color in the coat of the cinnamon black bear.

These corrections are based on image looks, not on any pre-determined amount.  I’ve heard people say an image needs “so much” of this or that, but I make my processing decisions based on the image in the workspace I’m viewing. You can also tweak individual colors in the HSL Adjustments dialog box in ACR, but I didn’t do that in this image.

This is the completed image out of ACR, prior to final adjustments in Photoshop.  The background lacks some contrast, giving it an HDR effect, but in my final steps of processing it was easy to paint in some extra background contrast using a mask.  I don’t do any sharpening in ACR, so I selected the bear and tree trunk for image sharpening, inverted the selection then did some noise reduction on the background.  BRP

 

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A Thousand Words – Butterfly Photography

As a wildlife photographer, some subjects are easy (bigger, like bears, eagles, or moose), and others not so much (smaller, like butterflies, lizards, and wildflowers).  While reptiles are pretty active anytime it is warm, butterflies and wildflowers are mostly spring and early summer subjects that fade out as the season moves forward towards fall.  There are some tactics that can be used for all small subjects, so I’m going to illustrate some of the equipment and tactics needed for butterflies.

Butterflies

A few decades ago I wrote a newspaper article for the Deseret News in Salt Lake City called “Jewels on the Wind” about butterfly photography.  At that time I was spending many hours per week haunting the backroads of southern Utah, specifically targeting butterflies – I wanted to photograph them all.  I didn’t have great equipment … as a matter of fact, my go-to lens was an old 100mm Vivitar Macro lens with the ability to achieve 1:1 life-size magnification – though I never focused it to its minimum focusing distance.

Another important piece of equipment was an Olympus T-28 Macro Twin Flash system that attached to the end of the lens.  The control unit attached to the camera hot shoe while each flash could be rotated and positioned independently.  Normally I had the two flash heads angled in a bit, giving even light to my tiny subject at about 18 inches, which was a magnification ratio of about 1:3, or third life-size, with the Vivitar macro lens I was using.  The flash operated on TTL (through-the-lens) light metering that required me to turn the power down slightly if I was shooting within that 18 inches. Nikon and Canon make similar units today.

The image above is a perfect example.  The lighting is very even, with enough light spilling into the background to give detail and texture.  I could shoot at f16, pushing it up to f22 if I got closer than those 18 inches.  While the Olympus flash system cost me about $400 back in the late 1980s, Nikon, my camera system of choice today, offers a similar twin flash system for shooting these difficult macro images for about $700 now.

The Nikon R1C1 is shown above.  After a bit of experimentation I learned the best distance to be at, the proper flash settings to use at that distance, the flash angles for the subject and background, and how important it was to get parallel to the wings/body of the butterfly to get the maximum dof (depth-of-field).  Even at f16, dof is extremely shallow at these greater magnifications.

I don’t want to get too technical about lens magnification ratios, but it’s important to know the basics.  While many lens makers might say a lens is a “macro” lens, closer reading might find a ratio of just 1:6 or 1:8 – not a true macro lens which can shoot lifesize at 1:1.  Photographing a penny produces an image on the sensor (or film) that is the size of a penny – that is 1:1.  If the penny is only half it’s original lifesize on the sensor – that is 1:2, etc.

Another important factor with a macro lens is “working distance”.  How far away from a subject do you have to be to achieve a 1:1 ratio?  Whether it is 8″ or 16″ might not seem like a big concern … until being 8″ away from a creepy spider sends tingles down your spine. Then working distance is important.  A  100mm 1:1 macro lens has twice the working distance from the subject as a 50mm 1:1 macro lens. The drawback to the 100mm 1:1 macro lens is the size, weight, and cost (usually more of all three) versus a 60mm 1:1.  After owning both, I prefer the 60mm 1:1 f2.8 macro lens because I found myself carrying it more often, thus using it more often.

One of the drawbacks to using a flash is the light fall-off darkening the background.  Since these systems use TTL light metering, once the correct subject exposure is reached, the flash shuts off instantly.  If one of the flash heads is not aimed towards the background the result is a black, or near black, background that I find distracting (see the image above).  Even in full daylight, shooting with flash at small f-stops and high magnification does not lend itself to fully lit backgrounds because of the working distance.

One way to avoid this is to use telephoto lenses without flash.  While this might seem an obvious move, many butterflies are found in shaded areas where, without the flash, movement from the wind or the butterfly itself would ruin the image.  I’ve successfully used my old Olympus 300mm f4.5 lens (before I moved to Nikon) as well as my Nikon 500mm f4 telephoto lens to capture remarkably sharp butterfly images, in full sun as the image below illustrates.

Finally, understanding habitat and environmental traits of butterflies can lead to better images.  While butterflies like most flowers, they like some flowers more than others.  A simple rule to follow is if the bees are active on certain flowers, the butterflies will be as well – they are good sources of nectar.  Also, some plants are “hostplants” that butterflies will lay their eggs on, and thus be more active around them.  Back in southern Utah, I found that one of the best plants to find was Yerba Santa or the Great Herb.  These bushes would be covered in butterflies throughout the spring and early summer before they tended to dry out.  See the image below.  The Great Blue Hairstreak, aka the Great Purple Hairstreak, is resting on a Yerba Santa bush.  You can see the sticky-looking leaves pretty well.  In the photo above, of the Red Admiral, the meadow of American Bistort flowers provided a great source of nectar – notice the bees in the image.

Lastly, having a great guide book to identify the butterflies is a must.  While expensive, my personal favorite is “The Butterflies of North America” by James A. Scott.  Not cheap, but it has color images of all the species, and their sub-species, and ranges, hostplants, etc.
Good Hunting!! BRP

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2018 Top 25 Favorite Images

What a year!!  I’ve added tens of thousands of images to my stock library this year, but some stand out – at least to me.  The top 25 list is very selective and represents my personal favorites.  I had 8 more days in the field (125) this year than last year and had some new safari locations as well: San Diego Wildlife Safari, Mt Evans Rocky Mtn Goats, Rocky Mtn National Park, and So Cal Peregrine Falcons.  Eight images were shot in my favorite park (Yellowstone) while 13 images are of birds.  So here we go:

#1 Rocky Mtn Bighorn Sheep Head shot              YNP Winter Safari (LINK)
Not a lot of drama in this tight crop of a bighorn ram head shot, but I kept coming back to it as I tried to rank the images.  The eye connects me to the animal – to the winter weather – to the struggle to survive, while the horn damage shows power and dominance. The circle of background snow shows the circle of life.

#2 Male and Female Vermilion Flycatchers   Morongo Bird Safari (LINK)
Could well have been my favorite shot.  Over the years of bird safaris to Morongo I’ve shot many vermilion flycatchers and this image displaying behavior and interaction is certainly at the top.  The eye contact between the female (perched) and the displaying, calling male pushes this image to the top.

#3 Yellowstone’s Most Famous Grizzly Family    YNP Spring Safari (LINK)
This sow grizzly (right) with her nearly adult daughter interacting just weeks before they separated shows the familial connection between parents and young – as easily ascribable to wildlife as well as humans.  I don’t name wild animals, but I think everyone knows their humanized names by now.

#4 Red Fox Sleeping in Winter in Yellowstone    YNP Winter Safari (LINK)
This image is all about behavior.  It was viciously cold and windy on this January day in the park and after giving us many opportunities, the red fox curled up on the edge of a rocky cliff, wrapped his tail around his face, and fell deeply asleep – no doubt knowing that many tough, cold, hungry days lie ahead.

#5 Peregrine Falcon Take-off                          Peregrine Falcon Safari (LINK)
While I’ve shot many peregrines, this morning of photography in Rancho Palos Verdes was different. Adults and juveniles filled the air, zooming and doing aerobatics in the updrafts of wind rising up the cliff face.  Landing, calling, and then leaving were just a bonus to photographing this powerful bird.

#6  Tundra Swans and Storm Clouds           Klamath Wildlife Safari (LINK)
Lower Klamath NWR that covers the Oregon/California border has become one of my favorite safaris.  While I started shooting as the swans took off, it wasn’t until they happened to pass in front of the distant mountain and storm clouds that the image really came alive.  I like the energy (flight and weather) the image shows.

#7 Rushing Western Grebes                     Oso Flaco Lake Bird Safari (LINK)
Santa Margarita Lake is the afternoon half of the Oso Flaco Lake Bird Safari in March. We happened upon a series of Western and Clark’s Grebes performing their amazing mating season water dance – known as rushing.  Behavior and Interaction mixed – couldn’t be better (well, they could be coming right at me…..maybe next time).

#8 Red Fox on a Wintry Day                                      YNP Winter Safari (LINK)
Without the snow falling this is just a very standard red fox image.  But the wintry conditions tell a tale of survival.  The fox’s heavy winter coat and its blazing eyes shows it will survive and flourish.  The bright snow is reflecting light up into the fox’s body and face, giving me a nicely exposed shot (+1 compensation).

#9 Baby Least Terns Huddling Together           Snowy Plover Safari (LINK)
The 2017 Snowy Plover Safari became known as the Ventura Death March. But in 2018 we had comfortable conditions with a little breeze and low humidity as we walked the shoreline photographing snowy plovers, least terns, sanderlings, etc. Not only are these chicks hard to find, but they are hard to photograph.  They wait for their parents, camouflaged in the sand, to bring another minnow.  These two were probably born a few days apart given their different coats of fluff.

#10 Pied-Billed Grebe Family                                  Snowy Plover Safari (LINK)
Another family shot from the same safari.  This pied-billed grebe family poses together around mom.  Like shooting on snow, this image was taken at +1 compensation and the overcast conditions game me some beautiful reflected light detail.  Fighting over who rode on mom’s back, the chicks jockeyed for position and attention.

#11 Bald Eagle Enduring                                             YNP Winter Safari (LINK)
Winter safaris just have so many opportunities for unique images.  This bald eagle sits above the Lamar River, not really hunting for fish in the river below him, more just enduring the high wind and blowing snow. Sometimes its about survival at below zero temperatures.

#12 Channel Island Gray Fox            Channel Island Gray Fox Safari (LINK)
On the ride out to Santa Cruz Island from Ventura we photographed whales and saw dolphins – and it was just a beautiful day. Within 5 minutes of arriving at Scorpion we were photographing these small, calm foxes.  They eat insects, grubs, and small rodents – but with no other predators they are at the top of the food chain, and are very relaxed. This image demonstrates that as this fox snoozes in the late morning sunshine.

#13 Dreamy Aspen Glade                 Colorado Fall Landscape Safari (LINK)
After shooting along the Delores River we came upon this Forest Service Road that I had never been up before – in the San Juan National Forest.  Every curve was dramatic color and amazing landscape views. As we crept higher up the road photographing mule deer bucks and dusky grouse we happened upon this stunning scene. Even a wildlife photographer like me recognized the scene as remarkable. The bed of ferns changing colors just made it that much better.

#14 Grizzly Squeeze                                            YNP Fall Wildlife Safari (LINK)
Four months after shooting image #3, I was lucky enough to encounter this sow grizzly again, just a few hundred yards away from where I had shot her previously.  While the image is a bit cluttered with branches and brush, watching this 350 pound grizzly squeeze through this opening between fallen logs was a joy to watch.  Later she laid her head down on a log, in full view, and took a nap – great image, but didn’t make the top 25.

#15 Little Bighorn Rams Playing              YNP Spring Wildlife Safari (LINK)
Taken in late May high on Mt. Washburn near Dunraven Pass, these little rams enjoy themselves jumping, dashing, and running around the little remaining snow along the road.  They practiced some light head-butting, bent over a few small pines for fun, and just generally played all around us.  Just a 70-200 lens here.

#16 Delores River Magic                    Colorado Fall Landscape Safari (LINK)
Every Fall Colorado Safari I stop at this point along the Delores River to photograph these blazing cottonwoods.  The aspens on the mountainside behind the river are still green, but the river just glows in cottonwood color.

#17 Aerobatic Male Allen’s Hummer                  Hummingbird Safari (LINK)
This safari, in Santa Paula, CA – is just hours of non-stop action. This aerobatic Allen’s Hummingbird, among the 35-40 others, gave me dozens of opportunities to shoot unique flight action.  Here in full sun, no flash was needed to get reasonably sharp wings.

#18 Baby Bobcat Butt                                             Bobcat Wildlife Safari (LINK)
This little bobcat gave me just seconds to get a few shots before he vanished into the brush.  I used my trusty squeaker to get his attention back. 2018 has been a very good year for bobcats.  I’m writing this on December 16, so I still have a few bobcat safari days coming up before the end of the year – but activity and encounters are definitely up over 2017, a year when I got skunked a couple of times.  The other day we had 12 bobcat encounters in one day, a record since 2014 when I had 16 encounters in one day.

#19 Singing Green-tailed Towhee                              Black Bear Safari (LINK)
Photographed during a black bear safari high in the Sierras in Sequoia National Park, this green-tailed towhee has been a long sought after subject for me.  Finding them isn’t that difficult, photographing them is.  They are an energetic, quick moving, ground feeding bird that tends to stay in deep brush … until I shot this image near the Crescent Meadows parking lot.

#20 The White Weasel of Death                               YNP Winter Safari (LINK)
The definition of “chase” wildlife photography is getting shots of these amazing little predators.  Short-tailed weasels in winter coat are called ermine.  On both the winter safaris this past January we had numerous encounters with them.  They can move incredibly fast, snow or not.  They disappear into the snow, popping up 20 yards away just seconds later. We would race back and forth, hand-holding (which everyone knows I hate to do) our lenses, trying to stay up with the perfectly blending-in predator.  Without the dark eyes and tail tip most encounters wouldn’t happen at all.  This little guy just leaps through the snow as I pan and shoot, completely relying on my equipment to keep up.

#21 Varied Thrush in Storm                     Northern Pygmy Owl Safari (LINK)
 We were busy working on Northern Pygmy Owls when this Varied Thrush showed up as snow flurries drifted down.  Though a bit obscured, I love the color pattern on this bird and while it’s common, it is difficult to photograph.  I shot this image along the General’s Highway before getting to the Giant Grove.

#22 Ring-necked Pheasant explosion          Klamath Wildlife Safari (LINK)
We had been seeing dozens of pheasants along the Lower Klamath NWR road network when we arrived on the east side, near the northern road intersection.  A truck ahead of us let out his Labrador to run in the bushes along the canal and field. I guess it was a training run for the dog, as no one was hunting and few folks (none) were around besides us.  The dog flushed hundreds of pheasants in just moments, sending a cloud of birds passing over us and across the road.  Pan, back-focus, and shoot – and keep shooting.

#23 Nanny and Kid Goat on Mt. Evans               Colorado Goat Safari (LINK)
This nanny Rocky Mountain Goat is shadowed by her kid wherever she goes. At an elevation of 14,271 Mt Evan’s is one of Colorado’s fourteeners.  Luckily for us, the paved road travels all the way to the top – the highest paved road in North America, and the 5th highest paved road in the world. These goats are feasting on dwarf willow that appears as a low growing mat between granite rocks; other food includes Rocky Mountain columbine and dwarf alpine sunflowers. We also encountered bighorn sheep, mule deer, coyotes, pika, and a number of small birds (brown-capped rosy finches, pipits, rock wrens, etc).

#24 Drake Ring-necked Duck                        San Diego Wildlife Safari (LINK)
Getting a shot like this is more difficult than it looks.  The number of birds, wind direction, sun direction, and lake orientation all come into play.  One of my favorite spots to shoot on the San Diego Wildlife Safari is Santee Lakes east of San Diego.  Wood ducks, ring-necked ducks, wigeons, osprey, white-tailed kites – and many others make this a great birding destination.  One of 8 spots we shoot on this safari.

#25 Orange-crowned Warbler                     Sequoia Black Bear Safari (LINK)
Last but not least.  The meadows we photograph the black bears in are homes to a myriad of small birds and woodpeckers, and my list of birds is extensive. This little bird was shot rocking on the parsnip stalk in Huckleberry Meadow.

This list came from about 200 images I flagged from images I processed after each safari I did this year.  It is completely subjective – with half the photos being birds.  I could have included elk, gray wolves, coyotes, great gray owls, etc – except those images I shot this year were distinctly familiar with images from past years – so I just passed on all of them.

From winter safaris to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, to National Wildlife Refuges, to animal specific safaris (peregrine falcons, hummingbirds, black bears, bobcats, etc) we who live and photograph in the American West are truly blessed with a lifetime of amazing locations and critters.  BRP

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When Wildlife Photography Fails

As a connoisseur of wildlife photography I’ve been disappointed lately by much of what I see online – both in my own images and in others.  It doesn’t take a genius to build up a friend’s list on either Facebook or Instagram that brings some of the finest wildlife images to your computer monitor – instantly – changing every few seconds with more images, more beauty, and sadly, more craziness.  Some photographers post to show off a great encounter, some post to show any encounter, some to build their brand for greater financial gain and fame, some post in order to make political statements and exhort others to action – putting wildlife right in the middle of the most recent, ongoing, and bitter battles of right vs left and hunter vs non-hunter, among so many other diametrically opposing views.
Most of the wildlife photographers I know, amateur and professional alike, see something in a great wild image, or encounter, that transcends any simple definition – and portrays some unique wild moment. There is no “we” love wildlife, while “you” hate wildlife – because in that moment that is always too brief – we all stand in awe of the scene before us.  Our hearts race and our hands begin to sweat, it seems our nerves immediately fray, time flies and creeps at the same time.  We all try and use our camera equipment in the most efficient, productive, and skilled way possible – but we get what we get.  Some more talented folks get better images, some just get good images – but that moment is etched in our consciousness in it’s purest, most unspoiled form. We all have that image forever. We share that with those standing next to us, and we share it with our image viewers.  The moment is the same for all of us.

Wildlife photography fails when we, the image viewers, fail to appreciate or understand the process of experience that went into that image.  No one just starting out will take a magazine cover quality shot first time out of the gate. It can’t be done because so many of the variables involved in producing that image only come from experience and luck – the right kind of experience, and those experiences cascade you forward in your photography skills. Your “luck” increases as your experiences lead you forward.

I recently stood with others photographing a famous grizzly sow in Yellowstone, near the Lake Butte Overlook.  I’m sure some of you were there, or had been there over the past years she called this area home.  She and her newly kicked loose adult cub stayed within a half mile of each other – though their familial relationship was over, and grizzlies are notoriously unsocial animals – you just never know, events might bring them back together sometime in the future.  They are both beautiful bears, but capturing images that portray behavior is extremely difficult. I had shot these bears over the past 3 years, each encounter was an opportunity to record the life of a grizzly in some small way.

Wildlife photography fails when we only examine the photo aesthetics and fail to understand the complexities of the subject.  It’s a great image of a bear in a meadow versus a great image of a grizzly sow eating clover roots during a period of hyperphagia when it’s life depends on how much weight it can put on before winter.  One of the hardest things for wildlife photographers to do is to say to ourselves “what do I see.” The inexperienced see only that moment. They see how close you are, or how sharp the image is, but not how much behavior you captured in any particular image. Behavior and interaction are the only two characteristics that separate good images from great images. Other factors like action, color, contrast, background, etc can add to an image – but it’s behavior and interaction that push it to be a great image.

Wildlife photography fails us when it doesn’t portray respect for the subject.  While it’s pretty safe to say everyone respects grizzly bears, it’s another aspect of great photography to show that respect in images. Well, the closest images  (an end goal born into every wildlife photographer apparently, me included) portray the least respect for our subjects. I hate saying that, but it is true. Head shots are portraits of wildlife, just like headshots for business executives that go on the company website or a business card. While sometimes dramatic, they are one dimensional and shallow – while wedding, anniversary, family, b-day parties, social event images, etc show life, character, and interactions.

One of my many pet peeves are parents that take images of their kids while standing up, high above them, shooting down (putting the subject in an inferior position) – instead of getting on their stomachs or kneeling – and shooting at eye level.  You can change the perception (by the viewer) of the subject (dominant verses submissive) by simply shooting up or down.  You can change the perception of the subject (advancing verses retreating) by being in front or behind a subject.  You can change the perception of the subject (aggressive verses passive) through implied movement and eye contact.  So in the field you look for moments that will exemplify those traits – you move, and move again, trying to position yourself for that moment, to capture that image.

Here are some chronic wildlife photography fails I see everyday in my photography and on social media online:

– animals doing nothing but sitting, standing, or walking. We need to photograph animals doing animal stuff, i.e. living their lives in the wild, eating, fighting, raising young, interactions with other species, etc.  While it isn’t always possible, that’s the goal.

– shooting from a terrible position.  While not always fixable, a bad position is your problem to solve – move your feet, move your car, wait for a better moment!

– less than sharp images.  Use a tripod whenever possible. A camera that can shoot at higher iso settings with good quality (normally an FX sensored camera body) will get you that little bit extra shutter-speed. Delete the damned blurry ones and be done with it. Move on, try harder, do better. Never publish your bad images online just because that’s all you got from the encounter.  Chalk it up to experience and get rid of them.

– don’t think being “cute” will save the image.  By cute I mean adding a vignette to a wildlife image (as if we didn’t already know where the subject is), over-sharpening (I hate high radius sharpening that leaves halos), over-saturation, or some bizarre negative space crop that will only confuse the average viewer. Excessive darkening, blurring, and all obvious Photoshop fixes need to be avoided. If you can’t make it subtle, don’t do it.

– I don’t see the world in black-and-white, or in sepia tone. If you want to impress me with an image I want to see it in it’s natural color state. Our photography viewer minds are such that I will look at an image, and immediately compare it to every similar image I have ever shot of the same subject in my mind, instantly – and none of those are in black-and-white or sepia either. BW is more of a landscape process than a wildlife process.  Some images can naturally appear to be monochromatic due to shooting conditions.

– Don’t be afraid to critique (different from criticizing) images, or to accept a critique. No one gets better without a little push here or there. I have a system for acknowledging images on social media – here it is: Good Image – a simple like. Very Good Image – a brief reply and congratulations. Great Image – longer reply.  Excellent Image – some kind of joke or teasing text to indicate I’m amazed by the image.  Like …. “did you take that?”

Back to our grizzly sow. We initially parked on the Overlook Road.  The sow was below us working through the old burned timber, pulling up roots here and there but consistently moving away.  At a point when I thought it was useless to shoot anymore from that position I saw that a small crease between little hills would eventually lead her down to the road. Bears will usually follow the course of least resistance, just like people, so we drove down onto the main highway and parked at the mouth of that crease, across the street, and got set up.  After a bit other vehicles began arriving – so apparently the bear was moving in our direction.  She suddenly appeared up the little draw and continued to grub for roots, moving down the draw towards us.  Perfect.  We couldn’t have been in better position to capture images of her feeding, moving towards us, climbing through the fallen timber, looking towards us, etc.  The ranger appeared and opened a section of road for the bear to cross, but that didn’t effect us much because we were by my truck which was one corner of the opening for the bear.

Up and over she went through the logs – and then I saw two logs laying near each other, one higher than the other.  I thought “please go between them and not over them” and she did just that.  Thank you. It isn’t a perfect picture, it has some weed obstructions, but it’s a great behavioral image of a grizzly feeding through her environment.  As the encounters pile up our shooting experiences get better, our images gain a certain amount of gravitas that others will notice.  You will begin to notice your own style and those types of images will come easier and more often. Avoid photographer fails, avoid the common, push for better.  BRP

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Always Colorful Colorado

I’ve done many photography safaris to Colorado and never been disappointed, never. On my most recent trip a few weeks ago at the end of September we hit patches of mountains that still had more green aspens than yellow, but it didn’t take an hour of driving to find color that was at its peak. I define peak color as 75% of the trees are changed, with 25% in the process of changing or still green. But while color is important to fall landscape photography, it isn’t everything. Images that only have color have to have other landscape elements to keep a viewer’s interest – otherwise we look, admire, and forget. I would like to think that my landscape images have more elements than just color as a subject – with composition, contrast, foreground elements, subject interest, etc.

My anchor image for this article is the following high-key shot of ferns  and aspens changing colors that was taken along the Hillside Drive Rd, also known as National Forest Service Road 436, in the San Juan Mountains north of Delores about 15 miles.

We had already shot numerous amazing views from Road 436.  We had shot muley bucks and grouse off this road as well. But as we followed the road around the mountain ridges, up and over small saddles that passed us from one colorful canyon to another, we entered this small acre sized grove of aspens that were carpeted with ferns.  It took only a second to realize how truly gorgeous this small area was.  The morning sun had risen above the mountain ridge high above and was just beginning to filter through the tops of the trees, not yet striking the ferns. We all just stared in awe – and then got to work shooting.

I consider this to be my favorite landscape image from the 5-day safari.  It doesn’t show the most color, or the greatest or thickest grove of aspens – but has a symmetry that draws my eye back to it again and again. It does have flaws, not the least of which is the perspective being unchanged after processing, but I liked the inward leaning lines of the outside aspens going towards the main aspens in the center. There were amazing sights everywhere, as here along the Delores River about 12 miles north of the town of Delores on Highway 145. The first rays of sunrise catch the golden color of the Cottonwoods that line the river, while in the background a mountainside of green aspens are still waiting for their moment to turn to gold. I’ve stopped at this very spot over the years and each time those background aspens look different – varying from green to gold.

But with all the color, Colorado still provides an amazing assortment of majestic mountain peaks, glacier carved cirques, clear lakes, and old mine buildings that add important counterpoints and contrasts. Since going there last year the Crystal Mill, near the community of Marble, has become another must-stop location.  You can rent a jeep, quads, or razors in Marble to take you – or sit in my F-150 as we bounce in 4×4 mode over the rocks and steps for the 4 mile ride out to it. But it is absolutely worth it.
One thing you can count on is change.  And this year you had to pay the guy $10 and sign a liability release to go onto his property (which surrounds the road opposite the Crystal Mill) and under a cable to get down to the river. You could shoot from the road for free.  Petty, but still worth it. The Crystal Mill is an iconic Colorado location, much like Maroon Bells that we had shot earlier in the morning. The two are only 90 minutes apart, not counting the 4 mile dirt road.

On the other hand, if you arrived early enough you could drive right up to a parking lot that borders Maroon Lake, and the trail you shoot Maroon Bells from. Since we arrived on Monday afternoon and had shot Maroon Bells that late afternoon – we had a good idea of the need to arrive early, and we did at 5:30am. With sunrise 90 minutes away (not considering the mountain peaks/ridges blocking the sun) we kept warm in the truck until the sheer numbers of arriving photographers (who had to park much farther away) prompted us to tripod-up and find our initial shooting positions. Like the Crystal Mill, Maroon Bells is an iconic spot – but with far better access to the masses of photographers patrolling Colorado this time of year. Looking back, I think the fact that it was a Tuesday morning – and not a Friday – Sunday, is what got us a great parking space. I couldn’t imagine going there on a weekend.
This image, with the sun hitting the Maroon Peaks and reflecting down into the little valley is my favorite.  It is an HDR image composite made up of 5 images – otherwise there would be a washed out sky and peaks.  The lake was down 5 feet, leaving a considerable shoreline that had been roped off – for what reason I couldn’t imagine. I don’t think walking on dirt and rocks, that would normally be underwater, would be considered environmental damage. Just more fun changes from my last visit. The image below was taken in the late afternoon under flat lighting conditions … quite a difference.
We spent a couple of days shooting around both Telluride and Ouray – both of which have great eating locations (as does Silverton, south of Ouray). One of my favorite roads is Last Dollar Road, above the airport outside of Telluride.  The road crosses from the south up and over a pass leading through the Mt. Sneffels Range and exits onto Highway 62 near Ridgway.  Old western buildings, fences, and dense stands of aspen make for great landscape elements.

We shot seas of aspens, brilliant colors, just overwhelming colors – but the best images had iconic locations, western buildings, and mountain peaks. The final image was taken by Chester Jagiello of my truck on Road 436… no words needed.

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Goodbye My Friend – Fred Topalian

Only a couple of you reading this knew Fred Topalian.  Fred opened a camera store in St. George, Utah two years before I moved down there from Provo, UT – in 1985.  When I would travel to SG to work occasionally, while attending BYU, I would often stop into Camera Country on Bluff Street and buy film and camera equipment from Fred. When I moved to SG in 1985 I spent a lot of time at Camera Country, talking with Fred about all types of photography and running my personal strategy for becoming a full-time photographer past him. We where both raised in California, him in SoCal and me in NoCal, and while our personal lives weren’t that similar – our love of photography was. He had worked as a photographer in Las Vegas for awhile before moving to SG.  He was 7 years older than me and had insights into the business of photography and life in general, that I always had appreciated.

Fred later moved Camera Country to St. George Boulevard, then years later built a custom commercial building farther east on SG Boulevard. The walls of his store were lined with old cameras he had collected, local photos, and in southern Utah his store became the go to location for all things photography.  New and used equipment, lighting stands and strobes, tripods, bags, backdrops, and 1 hour processing – not to mention a source of information and experience. As I advanced in photography I met a number of people at his store that had a big influence on me – none bigger than the editor of St. George Magazine, Lyman Hafen.  SGM began running my photos and articles (2 Covers) and even had a “wildlife page” dedicated to one of my images each issue.  I owe my initial success in southern Utah to Fred, his friends and clients became mine.

Over the years we became fast friends.  We went out shooting together exploring the nearby mountains and the Arizona Strip country, played golf, water-skied, drove quads around Pine Valley Mtn –  and just had a good time.  Fred was always an upbeat person, telling stories, and commiserating when things weren’t going right for either of us.  When he left town on vacation or to learn about some new Noritsu 1 hour machine he was buying, I watched his store. He promoted me as a nature photographer and did everything he could to help me succeed – from slide film and processing at cost, to deals on equipment, and tips on business tactics. Even as late as 2010 he tried to put together a photography show for me to do in southern Utah for his old clients.

As the years passed our lives went in different directions, as they so often do.  I moved north to Cache Valley, Utah and eventually opened a photography studio in Providence to go along with my freelance magazine work, while Fred married Kim in 1993 and settled into a happy, fulfilling life. They traveled together, worked together, and enjoyed their cabin at Pine Valley Mountain.

Digital photography eventually did in the 1-hour printing business, and online camera retailers made buying equipment cheaper elsewhere.  After many decades in southern Utah, Fred eventually was forced to close Camera Country.  But Fred continued on successfully, building homes and flipping houses in the hot SG housing market – and then he ran into health issues.  Pancreatic Cancer isn’t kind or slow and it eventually claimed his life, just two weeks ago in St. George – surrounded by Kim and the kids and grandkids.

When I saw Kim’s Facebook post about his death I was deeply saddened.  It had been a couple of years since I’d stopped into his home in Washington, next to St.George, to visit about our lives and catch up.  For a decade after I had moved north whenever I was passing through for a photo safari in southern Utah, or on my way to California, I would stop by the store and we would go to lunch.  He had stories about his kids, I had stories about mine. But as life got busier even those brief visits gradually stopped. A couple of years ago we visited on the phone – so I knew about his health issues. He did all he could to stay with Kim and the kids for as long as possible.

Kim and Fred

There was no cell phone technology back in the 80’s and 90’s – so quick grab images and selfies that are so common today were non-existent then.  I looked through tens of thousands of images and found 2 of me – that Fred had taken, and one image of him and Kim that he had sent me as a Christmas Card – that thankfully I had kept.  I wish I had an image of the two of us.  One that Fred had taken was of me standing along a sandstone cliff where we were rappelling over the side shooting a great horned owl cave nest – one of my favorite images, taken in 1986. Thanks for not letting go of the rope, Fred.

Brent Paull, by Fred Topalian 1986

Our friendship was stretched out over 35 years, and has traveled through the national and state parks and dusty back roads of southern Utah, but it ended for now with that Facebook post. I attended his wedding to Kim at Pine Valley Mountain in 1983 and shot a few wedding images of them, it was a typically beautiful blue-sky southern Utah day.  Unfortunately, I missed his memorial service while in Colorado on a recent photo safari.  I feel a bit guilty now of not having told him enough how grateful I was for his friendship.

Fred was a great friend to everyone, but was an especially loving husband to Kim and to their kids and grand kids. There is no doubt in my mind that is how Fred would have wanted to be remembered by everyone.
Goodbye my friend.  BRP

 

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A Thousand Words – The Coming of the Fall Elk Rut

There are few things I look forward to as much as the autumn elk rut in Yellowstone National Park.  While my home in California is still hot (though cooling, especially in the morning) the long drive north brings higher elevations and changing colors. With the Colorado Autumn Safari coming days before the Yellowstone Fall Safari – I’ve had at least a few days to acclimate … and it does feel good.  No matter how many great landscapes I shoot in Colorado, and the wildlife, Yellowstone is the best….the best.

My anchor image of a bugling bull elk in a snowstorm was taken last year in the park, just north of Mammoth Hot Springs near the campground.  The weather report had predicted a snowfall of 4″ to 6″, but the snow didn’t stop until there was 12″ on the ground – and the common yellow fall grass had been morphed into a winter wonderland.

This image was a flashback to all the years when snow fell during the fall elk ruts.  If I had to guess I would say I saw snow at the end of September or early October about every 6 years – so over my 35 years of Yellowstone photography its only happened 6 times.  Sometimes the snow would close park roads, like it did last year around Mammoth.  It wasn’t until the afternoon when the plows had cleared the roads enough for them to open back up.

I’ve done blog articles about how to know the size of an elk’s rack (LINK) and have talked at length about the marvel’s of Yellowstone’s fall, especially in 2011  (LINK) but the snow and cold makes such a difference in elk rutting activity for photography.  One of my first photography targets when I was starting out in the early 1980’s was rutting bulls, the bigger the better.   This image (above) shows one of the best rutting displays I have ever seen   The bull crossed a meadow in the Madison River Valley on a frigid morning, constantly bugling, tearing up the fall grass, spraying urine on himself – all to make an impact on a small herd of nearby cows. Other bulls moved away from him, not willing to meet him head-on in a fight, relinquishing the cows.  Between bugles he did an inordinate amount of grunting and bellowing.

With cold weather not just the elk rut increases in activity, but also the other animals preparing for either their rut, or for winter survival. Bears enter a phase called hyperphagia where they eat and drink non-stop, putting on needed fat to survive their coming hibernation.  Other animals like foxes will cache food, remembering each spot when hunger or lack of hunting success strikes during the winter.  Ungulates like elk, deer, and moose live on dried out autumn grass and shrubs, like willows and aspens.

Another bull (above) moves out of a forest of pines to challenge for the rights to breed after an autumn snowstorm in 2012, about a mile west of Canyon Junction.  This guy, for all his bravado, retreated from the cows when approached by the dominant harem bull – which unfortunately, also approached through the pines blocking my angle for images.  Sometimes the best shows (and bugling) are put on by satellite bulls that have to try to pick off cows from the dominant bulls harem.  It’s all about rack size when it comes to dominance.  However, since elk can’t count points and only estimate the size of their own rack – I’ve seen small 6×6’s run off bigger bulls because of their aggressive display and willingness to fight.

This image (above) is mis-labeled as a winter image, but actually it was shot on film in the fall of 1996. It was later published in BUGLE Magazine.  I know it was fall because it was shot along Indian Creek south of Mammoth Hot Springs, when that road south would have been closed in the winter.  I especially like the background river, his trail in the snow, and the bull’s shadow on the snow revealing that it was shot in the late afternoon, since I was looking north when I took this image.

Besides the show being put on by the bull elk, strong fall weather also makes for dramatic landscape images as well as increased animal activity.  After a long summer season there is finally an edge of cold weather seeping into the park’s valleys, and in the mornings it can have quite a bite to it.  Even without a large snow storm the nearby peaks will get a dusting of snow from passing fronts.Cooling temperatures throughout the Yellowstone Plateau means morning fog along the rivers and around the lakes, like in this image of a 7×6 bull elk drinking in morning light along the Madison River.  The fog, like shallow snow, melts quickly when the temps begin to rise later in the morning.

Never let the weather stop you ……… never.  The only weather I’m not inclined to leave my truck to shoot in is a torrential rain – and that’s mainly to protect my camera equipment.  Severe cold, snow squalls, sprinkles or light rain, snow on the road, thunderstorms, even high winds can add an interesting element to otherwise ordinary images. When clients ask me about the potential weather for a Yellowstone safari, I tell them it will possibly snow (fall and winter and spring) daily, rain daily, and there will be thunderstorms daily – but there will also be blue skies and perfect conditions everyday sometime – so never worry about the weather.This grizzly image was taken on spring day in early June.  A quick moving storm front dropped about 4″ of snow overnight in the Soda Butte Valley near the Trout Lake trail head, and just as quickly melted by 11am – showing only green grass. One of my personal favorite images because the grizzly is watching 3 of my sons run to my left to shoot video from a slight hill.  Fun.  Only a lush, green Yellowstone spring offers better wildlife photography than a chilly, possibly snowy, Yellowstone Fall. Irregardless, I will be there.  BRP

 

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Macro Images in the Digital Age

Back in the late 1980’s I was particularly fascinated by macro photography. At that time I was shooting an Olympus OM-4T camera body and my macro lens was a Vivitar 100mm 1:1 lens.  In time I added an Olympus T-28 Macro twin-flash system that mounted to the end of the lens and provided adjustable directional lighting – kind of like movable studio lighting on rolling light stands.  The OM T-28 system allowed me to point one of the flash units at the subject, and the other flash unit at the background – both units controlled by a unit that sat on the camera’s hot-shoe and performed the TTL (through-the-lens) function of image exposure control.  With some practice I learned how to compose images that looked more naturally lit – without the black background so common when using single light sources on macro subjects.

I define macro photography as an image of a small subject taken in order to emphasize it through magnification. Some like to say the image has to have a ratio of 1:1, or life size magnification, to be true macro photography …. but I don’t, that excludes too much.  For me, it’s all about composing an image to emphasize it through magnification – at any level, even 1:4 (quarter life size) or 1:8 (one eighth life size).  While a true macro lens like either Nikon’s 105mm f2.8 1:1 macro, or their 60mm f2.8 1:1 macro, or Canon’s similar lenses will go life size, you don’t have to rack it out that far in order to shoot macro images. The Mexican Blue butterfly (below) was shot at about 1:6 life size so I could include the Prairie Clover.  

The side-by-side comparison (above, both shot on Kodachrome 64) of a Mexican Blue photographed with just a single flash (left), versus two flashes (right) from the OM T-28 twin flash.  A single flash, up close on a macro subject, would yield a black background if the background was any distance away.  Many professionals shot macro images in the studio, using multiple lights, under very controlled conditions and rarely ventured into the field with multiple flashes.

While film was a tremendously limiting medium back then, it was the only game in town.  About the highest ASA (ISO today) film you could use was 400 – and it was poor.  The four 35mm films I primarily shot were Kodak 64 Pro, Fuji Velvia 50, Fuji Provia 100 (sometimes pushed to 400), and Kodachrome 200. On the 120mm medium format side I rarely shot anything but Fuji Velvia 50 roll film.  These were all slide films – magazine photo editors weren’t likely to accept any negative films, just slides – or “chromes”. They were better quality films, had a higher contrast ratio and more importantly, put on a light table an editor could see exactly what he had and could edit through many images quickly.  Another drawback to film was there could be no mistake in exposure….zero….none.
High contrast, mid-day lighting in the lizard image (above, shot on Fuji Provia 100) was a definite drawback in producing a quality macro-type image. By using the twin flash (below) lighting could be improved and produce a better quality image with more even lighting. Digital photography has become a game changer for macro photographers.
Once you get an idea of how macro lighting (flash) will affect the look of the image you can more carefully look for subjects that will benefit from it.  In today’s digital photography world, with the ability to alter the subject’s highlights and shadows in processing, and with much greater latitude in choosing an ISO appropriate for the lighting conditions – macro photography couldn’t be much easier.  While macro photography has transitioned from film to digital – getting close to your subject has never changed.When I evolved from Olympus (a system I loved, but not large enough in terms of equipment and lens options) to Nikon, and then from film to digital, the need for flash decreased.  Flash didn’t go away, but it was needed as often.  With an Fx sensored camera, like a Nikon D4s or Canon 1Dx, the ability to push iso levels above 1600 reduced the need for flash in many lowlight situations.

One thing that hasn’t changed has been the need for depth-of-field (dof) in macro images where the subject is very close to the lens.  All the images shown so far were taken at f16 – a very small f-stop producing maximum dof, but at the cost of shutter-speed, which is where the flash came in providing extra light. Being able to shoot macro subjects at ISO 1600 (digital) instead of ASA 100 (film) is a 4 stop increase in ambient light hitting the subject at the same f-stop, negating the need for flash in many situations.Today it takes a tripod and a reasonable iso setting to get an image in nearly impossible lighting conditions. The Mountain Lady’s Slipper (above) image was taken in near total deep forest darkness. It was shot at f11 at iso 3200 at a shutter-speed of 1/30th second using my Induro tripod. No flash, no reflectors or fill of any kind. That image would have required a full second of exposure on film or more, which for an image with detail up-close, would have required many images – even with a tripod – to guarantee success.
This is another image(above) that would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, back in the days of slow-speed film.  Shot in the field in Death Valley National Park, the afternoon wind blowing a gale – yet, a high iso, an appropriate f-stop, and hand held due to difficultly maneuvering a tripod still resulted in a great macro image. Still, this is a true 1:1 life size macro image.

So given that macro photography has become much easier with our modern equipment and image processing abilities – that leaves one final key – and that is learning how to look and find great macro subjects.
While not strictly a macro image (above), it is a macro subject – a small piece of a bigger subject. I was working through some folded and eroded sandstone up on the roof in Zion National Park, near Checkerboard Mesa when I stepped over this Gambel’s Oak leaf. I didn’t touch or move it – just shot it with my medium format Mamiya camera as it was.  Macro photography is about seeing small.  Zion can be overwhelmingly big, with broad landscapes and rock monoliths that take your breath away – but I had my knee pads on and I was prepared to look small.

Digital photography allows us to crop-in to an image, increasing the apparent magnification without actually using a macro lens, or even getting close.  As sensors grow in pixels our ability to crop-in even farther increases – that wasn’t true with film. The grain in the film emulsion was such that any cropping-in highlighted the grain (think noise in digital photography) and decreased the quality of the image.  In other words, you had to get in close with a macro lens to produce a macro looking image on film.  No more.
This sharp, colorful image of tiny mustang clover in Sequoia National Park is just a small piece of a much larger image showing a 16″ x 24″ patch of flowers.  This cropped-in image shows about 2″ x 3″ of that larger image.  I did shoot this with a 60mm f2.8 1:1 macro lens, but at about 1:8 magnification.  In other words, I wasn’t shooting the lens at its maximum close focusing ability.  You might ask, “why not?”

One aspect of macro photography is working distance – how far the camera is from the subject.  Getting close to a butterfly sounds good, but if it means immersing yourself in the bushes with its other insect life (think bees, wasps, spiders, etc) then it doesn’t seem so attractive.  Using a longer lens, standing back farther and then cropping in can result in just as dramatic an image without the squeamishness of a close approach. The same is true if your subject is snakes and lizards … things that bite.
As a wildlife photographer I don’t carry my macro lens with me in the field – I usually leave it in my truck unless I know I will use it. No sense carrying more weight than I have to – the 500mm f4 lens and tripod are heavy enough. So there are times (above) when I’m seeing macro images  and only have my 500mm lens, so I shoot them with that.  This image was taken with my 500mm telephoto lenses at minimum focus distance – and I know that because I had to back up 2″ to get it in focus.  And then for this final image I cropped-in and discarded about 50% of the whole image. The final presentation here is at about 1:4 life size.

There are other ways to turn your standard lens into a macro-workable lens. The two most common are close-up screw-in filters that come in different magnifications, and extension tubes that move the lens farther from the camera body thus increasing magnification. The filters are less expensive, but easier to lose and get fingerprints on. The extension tubes come in different lengths, have no glass in them (they just move the lens farther from the body) but in using them you lose the longer focus of the lens … no focusing to infinity. Both of these methods (there are others as well – bellows, reverse mounting lenses, etc) are workable, but time consuming. I have a 8mm extension tube that I use on my 500mm lens occasionally and it works pretty well on meadow butterflies.

No matter what lens you use, straight or in combination with filters or tubes, there is an amazing world down at ground level – you just have to go down on your knees or stomach to find some of them. BRP

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A Personal Note

Today, I’m sitting in the Denver Sheraton Hotel, my wife attending meetings about the software her ambulance company uses, and I’m staring out the room window to the west, towards the not-to-distant Rockies. The mountain ridges are capped in snow, and probably will be for another month or two, maybe longer. The foothills are lush green and a warm breeze is gently blowing through downtown Denver this mid-may day – people seem to be out in force on the streets below.  But the crowds are impersonal, walking with their heads down, keeping to themselves, doing whatever it was they needed to do in downtown Denver.  Like so many others the mass of people only made me uneasy, and miss the quiet of the mountains that much more.

Emmett-Utah

Evan, Jason and Emmett, me (May 2018)

Jackie and I spent the other night in Glenwood Springs on Interstate 70 at a favorite hotel, ate at a favorite restaurant, and enjoyed the springlike conditions, blooming trees, and calling songbirds along the nearby trail that follows the Colorado River.  The natural beauty was similar to so many other places we have seen, and are drawn too – but none of our kids live here – and we could never live here for that reason.  Secondly, having lived in Montana and Utah for many, many winters – I know my wife’s tolerance for extreme weather conditions would be sorely tested.

Leaving Glenwood Springs we drove through Winter Park and up to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) where we photographed an agreeable black bear. Last May we were in Winter Park for a little family reunion. One of my son’s, a marine stationed in Okinawa, was out to Denver with his family for a wedding on his wife’s side. Jackie and I rented a cabin in Winter Park and invited my other sons and their families to join us for a short reunion. And while we didn’t get all the wives and grandkids, still it was fun visiting.  During that reunion we all piled in the vehicles and drove up to RMNP, also seeing the years first black bear, as well as moose, elk, coyotes, bald eagles, and osprey. On the drive to Winter Park last year we were buried by 24″ of snow that surprised us, but really it just made the reunion that much more memorable. We had to shovel out the cabin, go for cold walks in the snow with the grandkids, and enjoy some snowball fights. I wimped out going outside and getting into the sauna with my four sons – they got to visit for the first time in years and I enjoyed letting them – having dad in the sauna would have no doubt changed the conversation.

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Ryan, Jason, me, Evan, Matt

My wife and sons have accompanied me on hundreds of trips into the mountains, whether the Rockies, the Wasatch, or the Sierras – as well as to both coasts and the deserts of the southwest. We are a family of wildlife people – sometimes we just watch, sometimes I’m shooting – but we are all spotters and watchers. I used to pay the boys $1 (hey, they were young) for the first one to spot a mammal on our yearly summer trips to Yellowstone. They have all been on the ground with bears, moose, elk, wolves, great gray owls – and all the other critters we have encountered and photographed together. As the girls have married my sons and joined the clan they had to adapt to that unique family dynamic – and to their great credit they have.

The reality is that life takes us down different paths. Certainly my path has changed directions so many times that it would take a dedicated GPS compass to track all the twists and turns. And while I have settled into a pretty stable and consistent life pattern, there is no doubt that more stops/starts, goods/bads, and other course changes are ahead – that’s the only way it could be for any of us. In my 58 years I’ve found that the good times blend together forming a calm mosaic, smooth except for the bad times that jut out like pins and needles every now and then. No one gets out of this life without their share of love and pain, happiness and sadness – but it does seem to gradually moderate as the years pile up.

There isn’t a day when I don’t think about our kids decisions, relationships, children, health, or their jobs.  But it gets easier, and as the weeks, months, and years flow by they all seem to be on great life paths – moving forward, gaining more education, moving to better jobs, successfully living their lives.  But there is a constant thread that goes through their personalities – a familial link to either their mother (Kelli, Mark, Scott, or Lisa) or father (Evan, Matthew, Ryan, and Jason) that forms a bedrock foundation to their lives.  I witness it with my wife’s kids, my wife witnesses it with my son’s.  Sometimes Jackie and I seem to float in an sea of goodwill and love that our children provide us with.  Occasionally we act as referees, but mostly we just laugh at their antics, stories, and memories of growing up with us.

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Brent and Jackie

I trace my love of wildlife back to my mother.  As a kid we took vacations to Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, or to our cabin in Felton.  She was quite the wildlife spotter, and for many years enjoyed coming on summer vacations to Yellowstone and Glacier with us – always concerned equally about the boys looking for animals and having their seat belts fastened.  She is nearly 80 now, her mobility reduced by neuropathy in her feet, and her memories fading with advancing dementia.  But while she might have forgotten how long she has been retired or what countries she has traveled to, she is all present when you talk to her – especially sharp about her kids and the things she finds important.  She has no trouble talking finances or politics, her significant other Joe, or the fact that she does not like having a car anymore.

Mom

Mom – Patricia L Paull

About a year ago I was showing her wildlife images on my phone (mom is NOT online so there is no browsing my website images or blog articles) when she saw an image of a bison mother with her calf walking under her chin, in a protective stance.  Something in that photo resonated with her, and I thought it had to be that she felt that it reflected her and us .  I eventually had the image printed 24″x 30″ on steel and it replaced a “coconut people” painting she got from Haiti 30 years ago that had hung above the bed in her guestroom.  On her living room table are two books I published on wildlife photography in the American West. My favorite image of us is from my days at BYU in Provo, Ut, about 1984.  Mom had flown out to visit and we went skiing at Alta Ski Resort outside Salt Lake City.  In the image we are in red ski jackets holding our skis and standing in the parking lot at the end of the day, smiles all around.

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Just before I started this blog article, when I first got up this morning, I did a search for birding hotspots in the Denver area, tomorrow being my agreed upon photography day.  My son Ryan lived and worked in Denver after graduating from college, meet his wife Karlie here, but eventually his work as a contract analyst for a Defense Contractor took him to Huntsville, AL.  He knows the ski slopes but probably not birding locations.  My oldest son, Evan, bunked with Ryan for awhile here when he did an internship in Denver while getting his electrical engineering degree.  They spent time in RMNP, and running up and down mountains in the nearby Front Range doing things brothers do.  With Matt transferring back to Quantico, VA from Okinawa son it won’t be long before another reunion is possible.

Tomorrow morning when I head out at dawn to my searched out birding locations around Denver I will reflect back on my wife and family, on the support I receive from them, and on the wildlife adventures we have all shared and enjoyed.  Places like Yellowstone seem legendary, or even mythical to some, but to us the park is a comfortable home-away-from-home, a place where memories and adventures date back to the beginning of their lives.  We are all at ease in the mountains.  There is a web strung between us all, and when experiences and encounters happen to one of us, the vibrations find their way to the others – through pictures or stories. I received a letter from my 9 yr old granddaughter, Juliette, living in Okinawa the other day.  We write little one page letters back and forth and she is unabashedly bold.  She stated she wanted me to take her to go photograph wildlife when they moved back to the States … it couldn’t be any other way between any of us. BRP

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