This was the first year since moving to Arizona in 2007 that I have not been in some remote corner of the world for the season of Spring. I took full advantage of this opportunity and spent the past three months chasing the light throughout the American Southwest. I was recently asked by Arizona Highways to lead a Best Of The West Photo Workshop for them in April of 2018, this was the perfect opportunity to scout for that upcoming itinerary and fill out my portfolio in those areas of the State.
The plant life in the Southwest is unlike anywhere else in the United States. Gigantic Saguaros and other varieties of cactus decorate certain sections of the landscape while other parts support species that dominate a specific region, as is the case in Joshua Tree National Park. I happened to be there when these ancient trees bloom and found some wonderful subjects. This image of one bowing down to the earth, burdened by the weight of time, was one of my favorites due to its unique shape.
I would be remiss if I didn’t share one of the wonderful shots I captured of the Grand Canyon during this adventure. Here is a place that is impossible to put into words or offer an image that does justice to the majesty and glory of gazing out at one of the seven wonders of the world. When the sun cuts across the ridge line at sunset and casts beams across the vast opening it is truly breathtaking.
No trip in the American Southwest would be complete without walking around under the cover of darkness in the shadow of ancient rock formations, so I returned to do just that last weekend. My travels took me north where there is limited light pollution in order to photograph the Milky Way. Here in the wee hours of the morning the galaxy explodes above and leaves one feeling incredibly small. It is therapeutic, it puts life in context and heals your tattered soul. The adrenaline that courses through you standing there can not be duplicated. What a wonderful world.
The simple reality I discovered is that the West will never be won, it is a wild and free land for those who are willing to go out and seek its raw dimensions. If you would like more information on my upcoming Best Of The West Photo Workshop you can find complete details at this link. Three spots filled the day it was announced and space is limited. I can’t wait to return to these exceptional destinations next year with my group and look forward to sharing our images with you at that time. I am now off to lead my Ultimate African Adventure Safari, I’ll put together an in depth trip report from our experiences once we return. Thanks for reading!
Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. – Nathaniel
NOT ALL CAPTIVE WILDLIFE FACILITIES ARE CREATED EQUAL
On Monday March 6th, 2017 poachers broke into a French zoo, shooting a four year old White Rino and sawing off its horn. Officials say this incident is the first of its kind in Europe. A Crocodile at the Belvedere Zoo in Tunisia was brutally stoned to death by a group of visitors on March 1st, 2017. Earlier in that same week a horrific incident at the National Zoo in El Salvador resulted in the death of a Hippo when it was attacked by a group after dark with metal bars, knives and rocks. Obviously the management at these facilities didn’t participate in these heinous crimes, but you have to wonder if there are sufficient protective measures in place for the animals if this is happening in the first place. These are not isolated incidences in remote corners of civilization either. Every day wild animals are mistreated at captive facilities throughout the western world.
In 2013 Sea World was exposed in a shocking documentary titled Blackfish. As an organization that had been viewed for generations as a destination for clean family fun, Sea World turned out to be anything but.
Many animals are bred illegally without proper monitoring of genetics, causing all kinds of complications for the baby animals and a deterioration of the species gene pool. I’m pleased that the local Phoenix Zoo here in my home state of Arizona is fully accredited with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and participates in the Species Survival Plan (SSP) for 29 different species. AZA accredited zoos that are involved in SSP programs engage in cooperative population management of various endangered species and conservation efforts. These include research, public education, reintroduction, and on site or field conservation projects. There are currently 172 species covered by 116 different SSP programs throughout North America. The goal of the SSP is to engage in animal husbandry and research projects for selected species that are in need of conservation efforts. SSP programs focus on animals that are in danger of extinction in the wild, when zoo conservationists believe captive breeding programs may be their only chance to survive. These programs also help maintain healthy and genetically diverse animal populations within the zoo community.
Captive wild animals at non accredited facilities are often used for “shows” to perform in front of audiences, sadly there is one of these located right here in my home state of Arizona. To find an accredited facility near you search the database on the AZA website. Game Farms (where many photographers go to quickly pad their portfolios) are some of the worst offenders. Animals often have food withheld so that they can be manipulated more easily with bait by their handlers in front of the throngs of photographers that are paying big money to photograph them. Another atrocity of these game farms in the euthanization of healthy animals. As pointed out by Ted Williams in his article, a Montana game farm euthanized eight wolves in one year because they were “dangerous.” In other words, their behavior was too wolflike. Thomas Mangelsen, one of the world’s most respected wildlife photographers has been speaking out against game farms for years. Those leading photography groups to photograph in game farm settings are equally guilty as the people running the facilities. They vehemently defend this robust revenue source of theirs, much like those that are profiting from photographing baited wild mammals and birds do.
All too often today wild animals are used as a source of our entertainment, like some extension of the internet or television, instead of being respected as the amazing and intelligent creatures that they are. The images in this article are from the new ‘Captive Emotions‘ series that I’m currently working on to illustrate the lives and behavior of captive wildlife species.
Please know what you are supporting before you go to your next captive wildlife facility. We should respect, love and protect the natural world, not exploit and seek our entertainment from it.
If you’d like to view the growing collection of images from my Captive Emotions project please visit this link.
Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. – Nathaniel
The natural world creates its own perfect balance, each part contributing to the health of the whole ecosystem. This is a fantastic short video documenting the major role apex predators play in the wild and their relationship to other species as well as the landscape itself.
A GLIMPSE INTO THE AFRICAN MIGRATION SEASON
I recently returned to Africa in August to lead my second safari of 2016. This trip was for the incredible migration season, arguably the greatest annual event in the animal kingdom. No matter how many times one has witnessed the migration it fills you with awe. Each day brings with it new adventures and a glimpse into the real life behavior and challenges of animals that call the Masai Mara their home. Despite the greatest efforts of directors, I have never seen a TV program or movie that comes close to duplicating the experience of witnessing this adrenaline filled action first hand. A poet writes a verse, but the reader does not see the mind of the author, they only catch a glimpse. So too it is with any attempt to convey the true African experience in a video production, no matter how well it is executed it still falls short. Certainly one can get a sense of it, but it just simply cannot do it justice. Knowing this and in full disclosure of the same, I will share with you in brief some snapshots from my experience of life in the Mara. Though it is certainly not sufficient, one cannot help but try to convey the marvel of this exceptional event.
Should you have the chance I cannot encourage you enough to embrace the opportunity and go experience this incredible event. You will see the cycle of life as it unfolds and write your own story to share once you depart. I’ll be returning there again in 2017 to lead my Premium African Migration Safari, if you’d like more information you’ll find it here at this link.
If you’d like to see a collection of images from my recent trip please visit my Africa – Masai Mara Portfolio.
Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. – Nathaniel
Yesterday was officially the last day of what has been a very busy summer, and today ushers in the new season of Fall. Over the past few months I’ve had two safaris in Africa, one photo tour in Iceland and I depart on Sunday to lead my Autumn photo tour in Lofoten, Norway. My travels throughout this year have been very rewarding. I have enjoyed the company of many wonderful people whom I now consider good friends. During the course of the year I’ve spent time reflecting on the nature photography industry. There are a couple tendencies I have noticed relating to landscape photography, I’ll call them familiarity and fantasy.
‘Familiarity‘ you ask? We’ve all heard of (or met) the photographer that snubs others with a heavy dose of elitism because they never shoot iconic locations, right? (Odds are that same photographer spent their early years as a photographer shooting those exact locations they now sneer at). First of all, let me say that I can appreciate their sentiment to a degree. Given the opportunity, I’d strongly prefer to shoot in a wilderness area that hasn’t been trampled by millions of footprints and find my own fresh compositions. However, there is a reason that those ‘overshot ‘ locations are popular. There the strongest compositions tend to be fairly obvious and the scenes are very photogenic. It would seem unwise to be too quick passing judgement against an image from one of these ‘popular’ places. I personally haven’t spent time poring over other photographer’s compositions, trying to replicate their shots, (and I don’t say that from a position of arrogance either). I say it because I have taken shots in National Parks, only months later to discover someone else had a similar composition as the one I’d taken. Does that mean I shouldn’t have taken that shot? I think not. The simple fact is that I saw a beautiful landscape which appealed to me and I made an image as a result of my emotional response to that scene. I lead photo tours and safaris to some of the most popular photography destinations in the world. It would be easy for me to become jaded and forget that many of my clients have never seen these views, vistas or wildlife species before. As a photo tour leader I believe it is my duty and obligation to my clients to remember what it was like to see these incredible places for the first time. So what do I do? Personally I like to view this as a challenge to visit the same location multiple times and find ways to create a new interpretation of the same scenes each time I am there. If the light or the weather changes from the last time I shot that place it is easier, but in similar conditions, what then? The beauty of this is that you don’t have to travel around the world to exercise this discipline. See how many times you can visit the same regional park in your area and create a new composition of the same scene. This is where testing your creativity comes in, embrace it. Once we have become so familiar with spectacular locations that we can no longer appreciate their beauty and find fresh compositions in them, have we not lost our vision?
Creativity brings me to our next topic, ‘fantasy‘. This is the handicap some people put on their own photographic potential. Prior to traveling to a new destination they will scour Google images, searching for photos and compositions of their intended destination, painfully stunting their creativity in the process. Arriving on the scene they are unable to think for themselves, all they see in their mind’s eye is the shot of another photographer. They race around looking for the vantage point that produces the image they recall from some forgotten corner of the internet. You may laugh, but sadly I have had people show me photos, and all but ask me where the photographer’s tripod legs were positioned when that particular shot was taken. All I can think is what a horrible experience that must be, to constantly be attempting to fashion your own work in the shadow of someone else, to have your vision clouded by the compositions of another. While it is true that we have all learned at some point in our life by copying, it is only intended to be a stage in our development as photographers, not the fulfillment. Executing our own work though the work of our peers or photography “idols” is not life, but fantasy. Individuality is freedom from the norm, and though not always popular, it is alive!
If you’d like to see a collection of images from my recent tour please visit my Iceland Portfolio.
For information on my upcoming Iceland trips see my webpage: NOW Tours.
Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. – Nathaniel
© 2016 Nathaniel Smalley Photography – All rights reserved.
A DAY ON THE CHOBE RIVER
Life on Safari is never dull and the memories you return home with are unrivaled. I recently traveled to Africa for my 2016 Chobe River Safari and wanted to share a glimpse into what a day on the river was like in my newest trip report.
I arrived in Botswana under sunny skies with temperatures in the mid 80’s following a brief flight from Johannesburg. Our group boarded a hotel shuttle for the ten minute drive to Chobe Bush Lodge and got checked in. As I walked to my room I was surrounded by a varied chorus of birds singing in the canopy above me. A group of Baboons scuttled under the boardwalk as I passed by. The youngsters cautiously hid in the under growth until I was past and then raced to rejoin the adults. A couple of large Warthogs rooted in the trees behind my room before roaming further on in search of better feeding grounds. I could hear their squeals as they lumbered along in the mid-day light. The rustling sounds and branches swaying above me was a reminder of the local monkey population, yet they remained hidden from my sight. Only an occasional cry would confirm their presence. I spent the next couple hours getting settled into my room and resting by the pool while I waited for our afternoon photography session to begin.
Aguana, our river driver, was a large, stoic man with a eager smile. He expertly guided our boat on the river ensuring we were in the correct position for the action and to maximize our opportunities where the light was best for photography. Our dock assistant, was always there when we needed help loading our gear onto the boat in the morning or carrying it back to our rooms at the end of the day’s excursion. As we made our way out onto the water that first day we were almost immediately met by a pair of Carmine Bee Eaters that entrained us with their acrobatic flight patterns. Their behavior of tossing bees into the air before eating it was fascinating to photograph. Beyond them we came across a small, but colorful Malachite Kingfisher hunting for its next meal. It’s larger cousin, the Pied Kingfisher, had large colony nesting in the river bank nearby and numerous adults were in the area showing off their striking black and white plumage.
We also encountered a elusive Green-backed Heron who posed boldly for us on a sunken log. Every 500 yards or so a majestic African Fish Eagle could be seen in the trees or high in the sky above us. As we traveled further up the river we found Hippos with their young feeding on the lush grasses and we saw our first elephant herd along the shoreline. A number of Marabou Storks could be seen as we made our way further into the park. Despite their unflattering appearance they were incredibly striking birds. Pied Kingfishers continued to dot the shoreline as we moved further up river. A pair of African Skimmers put on a stunning aerial displayed while feeding along the waters surface. As the sun began to descend to the horizon we turned the boat back towards the lodge just in time to see a large herd of Cape Buffalo making their way onto one of the large grassy islands in the center of the river. The young Buffalo calves interspersed in the herd made for great subjects. On the opposite bank crocodiles lurked in the shadows regretting lost opportunities of the day. As the setting sun merged into the horizon the whole sky became a blazing shade of red and the gigantic orange sphere slowly faded way giving place to the rising moon and the creatures of a cool Botswana night. The food buffet at each meal was incredibly diverse and the espresso ice cream was impossible to refuse. Perhaps my favorite day was when a local, traditional African dance troupe performed at our evening meal. I was caught off guard by how beautiful their singing was. While sitting eating my meal, it occurred to me that it would be impossible to feel sorrow while hearing their joyous voices. This is Africa. I’ll be returning there again in 2017 to lead my Ultimate African Adventure Safari, if you would like more information you will find it here at this link.
If you’d like to see a complete collection of images from my recent trip please visit my Africa – Botswana Portfolio.
Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. – Nathaniel
WINTER PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE POLAR CIRCLE
It is hard to believe that two months have past since I returned from leading back to back photography tours in Iceland and Norway. I had a great groups of dedicated photographers for both destinations and we enjoyed shooting in some incredible conditions. People generally have one of two reactions when they consider the thought of participating in a photography tour to a colder climate. There are those that will jump at the chance relishing the challenge and new experiences, asking eagerly, ‘Where do I sign up?!’ The remaining personalities typically respond with ‘Over my dead body!’ or mutter something about how they’d turn into an icicle. Another objection I’ve heard is fear of the damage their camera will suffer from the snow. First of all, if your equipment is worth its salt then it should be able to manage a little dusting of snow. The main risk with camera gear in a colder climate is extreme temperature changes. If you you allow it to gradually adjust then you shouldn’t have any problems.
Keeping batteries in a base layer pocket close to your body should extend their life in the cold when they aren’t in use. Secondly, at the end of the day the simple reality is that their really is no such thing as ‘bad conditions’, just a lack of creativity. We live in an age today when apparel manufactures make gear and clothing that will keep us comfortable in nearly any type of weather or at any temperature. I’m speaking from experience. Last year I led an winter expedition in the Himalayas to photograph Snow Leopards in the wilds of northeastern India. With the the right type of clothing and apparel you can endure some pretty extreme conditions. Finally, perhaps one of the best kept secrets about winter in Iceland (and particularly Norway) is how mild the winters are. The general assumption is that just because it’s in the polar circle it must be frigid. The reality is that almost all of Norway’s coast remains free of ice and snow throughout the year. Norway and Iceland are located along the same latitude as Siberia, Greenland and Alaska, so it is often expected to be a land of bitterly cold weather. However, due to warming influences of the northern Gulf Stream, the country actually enjoys a fairly mild climate. Average daily temperatures in the winter are typically above 32°F or 0°C. The good news is that this rampant misconception drastically reduces that number of photographers that visit these Nordic regions during the winter months, leaving it for groups like mine to enjoy. Once you’ve experienced and shot these locations in the summer, winter is a whole new experience. Like peeling back that layers of an onion, winter removes all the ‘fluff’ from the landscape and leaves one composing from a raw, rugged scene… and it is breathtakingly beautiful. I’ll be returning to lead my two Iceland Summer Photo Tours in July and I’ll be off again in September to lead my Norway Autumn Photo Tour. Below are just a few more examples from my winter tours, if you’d like to see more visit my Iceland Portfolio or my Norway Portfolio.
Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.
Recently I was requested as the guest speaker at Audubon Arizona’s showcase event in November, featuring award winning images from the 2015 National Audubon Photography Competition. The event was very well attended and I enjoyed an engaged audience as I discussed the topic of award winning bird photography. Due to the popularity of the topic, I chose to compile some of my notes into a blog post here.
Though I haven’t personally invested a lot of time entering my work, I have been asked to be a judge for a number of different nature photography competitions including the distinguished Natures Best Photography – Africa (a division of Nature’s Best Photography), Viewbug.com and others.
Birds were my door into photography way back in high school. These days I rarely go anywhere for the sole purpose of watching birds, but that hobby helped shape my career as a professional nature photographer, and as a result birds will always hold a special place in my heart. I now carry a camera in place of my binoculars when out looking for avian subjects. So you might ask, what am I looking for when I photograph birds? Creating successful bird photographs requires one or more different elements in our composition. Obviously there are many that could be listed, but for the sake of simplicity I’ve limited it to 10 elements. In the caption of each photo in this article I have detailed the main elements from this list have been utilized in my photographs. They are as follows:
– Action | Behavior | Humor | Personality | Friendship | Light | Perspective | Habitat | Depth of Field | Nostalgia –
Despite popular opinion, bird photography isn’t all about having a big lens. While it can certainly help achieve certain images, there are many creative ways to photograph birds that certainly require more effort, but produce great results. This image of a Great Blue Heron in flight was taken with my 70-200mm zoom lens and a teleconverter making it effectively a 400mm lens. Capturing this image came down to being prepared for the bird as it flew in front of me, as opposed to having a piece of high powered glass.
To further illustrate my point I want to show you the image below. This is perhaps the most popular photo I’ve ever taken. What camera was it taken with? My Sony Cybershot Point & Shoot, 8 megapixel camera! Sure, it’s not a bird photo, but it proves a point; Creativity and being passionate about your subject trumps expensive equipment every time.
- -This image was licensed by Nikon for a corporate presentation.
- -It has been shared to every corner of the world.
- -Published in international magazines and used in multiple articles.
- -Occupied 1st place on 500px ahead of over-saturated landscapes and photos of half-naked female models.
So the next logical question then is how does one get close enough to these subjects without spooking them. Birds tend to be very skittish of humans, and for good reason, in fact I’m wary of humans at times myself! When we photograph birds and wildlife we want them to be relaxed and in their natural state. I’m strongly opposed to using bait to lure in wild subjects, but that’s a whole topic in and of itself. (If you would like to read more on the topic of baiting birds and wildlife click on this link). I also refrain from using calls and recordings. As much as possible I want my wild subjects to be acting out their normal behavior patterns as though I was not present. This is when I capture my best images. The longer we sit still and the more we blend into our surroundings the more comfortable birds become with our presence and the closer they will come to us. The clothing colors that we wear can effect how birds react to our presence. Stay away from whites, reds, yellows and other brightly colored clothing, these colors are often associated with danger in the natural world. Instead choose earth tones or even camouflage. Bird blinds are another option allowing us to photograph birds without being detected. Many species are much easier to photograph in the spring when they spend a majority of their time singing, displaying their bright breeding plumage and engaged in territorial disputes. Sometimes a bird will be all but oblivious to human presence during this time of the year as they’re so preoccupied with finding a mate and defending their turf. Below is an American Redstart singing his heart out at Magee Marsh, along the shores of Lake Erie in Ohio. Magee Marsh is a bird photographer’s paradise!
Conversely, nesting season can be one of the most difficult times to photograph birds, as they are trying to be secretive and all their attention is consumed with feeding their young. While nest sites can be intriguing to photograph, one should take extreme caution to do so at a safe distance so as not to stress or make the birds feel threatened. No photograph is worth rising the welfare of the nestlings, regardless of how cute they are.
Even the most common species are popular as babies, like this pair of Herring Gull chicks (above right) navigating through a large patch of ice plant on the California coastline. For this image I climbed on top of a railing along the ocean cliff to get even higher perspective (see below). This allowed me to shoot down on my subjects and isolate them in the frame from one another. If I’d shot them straight on then they would have blended together into a fluffy blob with two heads.
Capturing fledglings in their natural element in great light can produce some really magical results. Below a baby Canada Goose is struggling to put down a large dandelion blossom. The early morning sun on the dew covered grass creates the perfect shooting conditions for an image like this. I got low to the ground on eye level with my subject to help put the size of the surroundings in perspective. Using a shallow depth of field helps to isolate the gosling from the habitat and draws the viewers attention directly to the subject.
By getting very low to the ground when shooting this Golden Plover chick, the subject appears much smaller and more vulnerable in the overall scene, which is what I was going for. This impression is enhanced by the fact that I centered the subject and composed the bird low in the frame with lots of negative space above it. This image breaks one of the main rules of composition, known as ‘The Rule of Thirds.’ The rule of thirds states that: ‘An image is most pleasing when its subjects or regions are composed along imaginary lines which divide the image into thirds – both vertically and horizontally ’. This just goes to show that all the ‘rules ‘ of photography are made to be broken.
Unlike the previous example, this image below was composed following ‘The Rule of Thirds’. You can see the owl’s eyes, as the primary point of interest, are located right where the top left intersecting lines meet. This photo has nice balance to it with the double Aspens on the right offsetting the ‘weight ’ of the owl on the left. I’ve used depth of field to manage how much of the surrounding habitat is in focus.
With bird photography almost every image will have more impact if you can get on eye level with your subject. Sometimes photographers don’t put a lot of thought into the angle at which an image is taken, but considering the role it plays in creating a successful image it aught to get far more attention. People are instinctively drawn to an photo taken from an unusual angle. For the image below I had my tripod in the water and was laying down with the upper half of my body stretched out over the edge of the bank to operate the camera and capture this shot. Needless to say that is not a comfortable position to be in, but often capturing the best shot requires a bit of physical discomfort to achieve the desired results.
A fine art photograph is taken with the goal of creating a work of art. It goes beyond the literal aspect of the scene or the subject photographed and creates an image that shares the photographer’s personal vision, a metaphorical aspect or message. This type of photography is more about making a photograph, not just taking a photograph. Documentation is great for certain types of photography, such as forensics where the purpose is to record the scene in the most literal and factual manner possible, but fine art photography is is about more than just creating a documentary image. While defining exactly what constitutes fine art photography may be impossible, here are a few points to consider in describing it:
- 1). What a fine art photograph illustrates must be different from what is observed when the shot is taken.
- 2). The purpose of a fine art photograph is to share the photographer’s personal vision of the scene or subject.
- 3). When looking at a fine art photograph it’s clear that the photograph was created by an artist and not just by a camera.
Often after catching and swallowing a large fish a heron will open and close its beak activating its throat muscles and helping it to fully swallow its meal. Knowing of this behavior and watching for it allows you to capture a shot like this one of the Great Blue Heron on the right and gives the impression of a loud audible call from your subject.
That is exactly what I was going for when I took the image below of this Green Heron. It looks as though the heron is screaming at the top of its lungs, when in reality it was simply trying to work down its morning meal.
Shooting into a glowing sunset certainly has its challenges as images can easily end up over-exposed. Be sure to take care not to look through the viewfinder when shooting directly towards the sun, use the live view function on your camera if possible. You’ll notice that I’ve composed this image with the sun just to the left of the frame to allow me to shoot while looking through the viewfinder. When the sun is still above the horizon, sunrise and sunset can provide photographers lots of light to work with, and as a result you are able to shoot at faster shutter speeds and freeze motion or smaller apertures for greater depth of field. That is exactly what I’ve done here with this flock of Arctic Terns over the coast of Iceland. In the image below I have taken advantage of the extra light to shoot at f-14 giving me more depth of field in the image and showing more of the layers in the distant hills.
Back light can give an photo a very special effect and enhance shapes and forms. Back lighting works best when the details on the edges are more important than the colors of the subject. Here a Snowy Egret is beautifully illuminated by an early morning beam of light that perfectly highlights a stray feather on its chest. In a shot like this I’m adjusting my camera settings based on the reading from my camera’s light meter is giving me for the brightest parts in the image. By doing this most (if not all) of the distracting back ground elements fall off into the shadows and help to further isolate and emphasize the subject.
When seeking bird subjects to photograph there are a few questions we can ask ourselves that will aid us in finding them in the best conditions. What is the dominant habitat for the location you are photographing? Researching the region and knowing the geography will aid you in being better prepared for the type of vegetation and/or terrain you’ll be working in. For most bird species the year is divided into different activities (migration, nesting etc.). Understanding what birds are doing at different times of the year will help you learn when is the best time to photograph them. Where do the birds in your part of the world like to nest and feed? Discovering where their food sources are will lead you to the birds. In the image below a Northern Parula Warbler feeds on small insects inside the seed heads of an Alder Tree, knowing this information makes locating my subject more predictable.
Depending on what part of the world you grew up in, seeing a Robin in a blooming Crab Apple Tree can be synonymous with spring and feelings of happiness. Having grown up in New England shots like this one of an American Robin bring back great memories for me personally. Capturing a familiar subject in an identifiable scene often takes a bit of planning, but when it is done right you can create a heartwarming photo that has a lot of appeal in front of the right audience. Photos that resonate with a viewer often do so because there is some nostalgic connection that they have with the image. I can’t track how many times I’ve been told by clients purchasing a print that they were ‘buying a hummingbird photo because their mom loved hummingbirds and the photo reminds them of their mother’, or they simply ‘had to have that print of the ocean because they grew up on the coast and the photo reminded them of home’.
This look of a Burrowing Owl in the image to the left is achieved by photographing it from just the right angle and produces the look of a stern school master (or perhaps your father when he’s angry at you). Capturing birds from the best angle and at the perfect moment can yield exceptional results that give your subject a personality all its own. Photos of birds and wildlife that show a recognizable personality immediately resonate with the viewer and tend to be very popular.
Images that illustrate friendship between two wild subjects (whether actual or perceived), always evoke positive responses. Places where birds and wildlife both find food sources together are great locations to look for this kind of interaction and capture these types of shots. I found this sea lion and cormorant sunning themselves together on a rock along the coastline of California.
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of studying bird behavior in the field. That’s how I was able to be prepared for a shot like the one to the right of the elk and magpie. I watched this magpie that was hanging out with a herd of Elk, eating parasites out of their fur and foraging underneath their feet. I witnessed it fly up and land on this one elk’s back numerous times before I got the opportunity to capture this shot. Anticipating bird behavior is absolutely essential for capturing winning bird photographs. Also be sure to read up in your bird field guide. There have been numerous birds that seeing them for the first time I immediately knew what they were just from having looked at them in my bird field guides or having read about their behaviors so many times in the past.
The final image I’ll discuss is by far the most comical image I’ve ever captured. This photo below of a Sandhill Crane was taken before I’d really gone full time with my photography, but it is consistently one of my best selling photographs. This image is also one of the few images of mine that I’ve entered into a photography competition. However, when I did in 2012, it took home Honorable Mention from the National Wildlife Federation Nature Photography Competition. People love humorous images of birds and wildlife so I jump at the opportunity to capture a photograph like this. It’s also the only image from my bird portfolio that was taken in captivity. This photo was shot on an a family outing there with my children at the Sandhill Crane exhibit in the Phoenix Zoo. Since beginning to work as a professional photographer I no longer take photographs of captive subjects. All the photos that you’ll see on my website were taken in the wild.
In conclusion I’ll say that the absolute best way to produce award winning images is to get outdoors with your camera. The more you’re out in the wild looking for avian subjects and watching bird behavior, the greater your odds are of seeing and capturing an exceptional image. After all, even if you don’t get the image you’re chasing after, I can’t think of a better way to spend the day than being outside surrounded by your feathered friends. So boost your award winning potential, and grab your camera… the birds are calling.
Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.
You may have dreamed of traveling to Iceland, as I did for years, longing to photograph its incredibly diverse landscape. A plethora of images had tempted me for a decade or longer, enticing with massive waterfalls, glowing sunsets and noble Icelandic horses. Admittedly the allure of this magical country is hard to resist. As recently as a few years ago I had a powerful ambition to capture all the ‘iconic’ shots so often published of Iceland, but over time something in me changed. I’m not sure exactly what it was that altered my perspective, perhaps it was a number of factors. I noticed that my interest had shifted towards photographers that were creating more subtle, unique compositions and capturing the hidden elements of a scene, as opposed to the more obvious, grand shots that have almost become common now. I also became weary of what I perceived to be a rabid pursuit of ‘epic’ light. I do not mean to imply that there is anything wrong with photographing ultra-dramatic light and conditions, we would be remiss as photographers if we did not. Unfortunately though, the message often conveyed is, “If there isn’t a flaming sky, stay home” or even worse, “If there isn’t a flaming sky, just paint one in later with Photoshop”. Despite the general popularity and initial impact of these ‘sensationalized’ images of nature, I felt there was something missing. That approach to landscape photography left me feeling jaded. It is to the point now when one posts a photograph depicting spectacular light that they run the risk of their audience automatically assuming that the saturation slider was pushed too far to the right, or some Photoshop processing trick was executed. The viewer usually doubts, even if only sub-consciously, that the conditions represented in the photo ever existed. Often in today’s culture of digital nature photography great liberties are taken when processing files, pushing them far beyond the realm of reality. We’ve labeled this ‘artistic expression’ and moved on. I became more certain with each passing day that there was something forgotten, something overlooked…
Waiting for our attention, beyond all the hype about towering waterfalls and blazing sunsets, there is a quite landscape.
It was with these thoughts on my mind that I arrived in Iceland and began my quest to capture the beauty of this land from a fresh perspective. My first impression was that none of the photos I’d seen could do this amazing country justice. The photographic potential of the landscape in Iceland is staggering, at nearly every turn I found inspiration and elements that caught my eye, begging to be photographed. Since this was our summer photography tour we had nearly 24 hours of light each day making for nearly endless opportunities.
One of the great benefits of this ‘midnight sun’ is that the ‘golden hour’ stretches into multiple hours and the window for soft light during sunrise and sunset has a much longer duration. Due to its proximity to the polar circle and location in the center of the vast Atlantic Ocean the weather changes frequently. Some days we would awaken to bright sunshine and a soft breeze and another day troubled, stormy skies with 60 mile per hour wind gusts. Regardless of the weather, the landscape is enchanting, and from a photographer’s perspective it is paradise. Glaciers, icebergs, volcanoes, lava fields, geysers, waterfalls, rivers, mountains, meadows, flowers, birds, horses, beaches and the mighty ocean, what’s not to love?
We visited many of the iconic locations throughout Iceland, but you might not know it looking through my Iceland portfolio. I wanted to shoot what resonated with me personally, not what garnered recognition or would get lots of attention on social media platforms. Much of the time this approach worked well, other times it meant visiting an iconic location and finding nothing that caught my eye but the obvious composition. When this occurred I’d set my gear aside and drink in the beauty surrounding me, capturing mental memories of the scene to enjoy forever.
My one regret from our tour is that it did not last longer. Thankfully I’ll be back in 2016 to lead our Iceland Winter Photography Tours in January and February where we’ll experience Iceland decorated in winter’s embrace. I can’t wait to return and hope that a journey to Iceland is in your future as well, it’s truly an unforgettable experience.
There are stunning waterfalls everywhere in Iceland… be sure to look beyond them and find all the other beauty this land holds for those who seek it out.
Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.
Feel free to email me directly for information on next year’s tours and please also check out: Iceland Photo Tours
Enjoy a hi-res gallery of the images from this article in my Iceland 2015 Portfolio .