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It's Not Rocket Science

Some time ago, during one of our presentations, an audience member floored me with the question, “Why did you keep that particular photo?” As if we could possibly have any photos that were not masterpieces. The image in question was a wide angle shot of a hummingbird hovering with the Costa Rican rainforest surrounding it.

Hummingbird and scenery, costa rica
White-necked jacobin photographed with wide-angle zoom and
single flash to show the bird and where it lived.


It’s not that our questioner considered the image a bad one, but he could not think of a reason to keep it. It probably would not do well in a photo contest or club competition, and it would not make a wonderful print. The person was not necessarily wrong. The image would not make a good, stand-alone print, and it has certainly never won any awards. However, that’s not really why I worked long and hard to take the photo.

Leaf cutter ants
Leaf-cutter ants are an integral part of the rainforest, and their parades are common sights. This was taken with a 180 macro, a flash in front and a flash behind to show the translucence of the leaves.


Why do we photograph, and perhaps more importantly, why do we keep the photos we do? Why didn’t I delete the hummingbird photo after seeing that it didn’t meet the obvious criteria for being a “good” photo? Allow me to wander off topic for a moment and talk about octopi--believe me, it all ties together. An octopus in a New Zealand aquarium has been taught to photograph the visitors that come to see and photograph it. Cephalopods do appear to be a good fit for photography. There are times when I thought an extra arm or two would come in handy. The point is though, this boneless creature is taking perfectly acceptable photos. Granted, octopi are the Einsteins of the mollusk world, but it’s still pretty obvious that taking pictures is not exactly rocket science. All photographers are doing pretty much the same thing. Among the few variables we can play with are: where we point the lens (even the octopus could figure that one out), when to push the shutter button, how much to include in the frame, shutter speed and aperture.

Sloth
Whether you see them or not, the rainforest is full of creatures big and small. Even though it was at eye level,
this sloth had to be pointed out to me. Taken at 100mm, ISO 1600.


We’re not doing this because it’s an intellectual challenge. We’re doing it because it’s a creative challenge. In spite of the rules of composition, it’s still an activity of the heart more than it is the head. Regardless of our intentions, most of us will never do anything truly meaningful with our photos, like convince the powers that be to preserve and conserve, or change the mindset of environmental villains. Most of us will always concentrate on taking pretty pictures. The pretty pictures are an end in themselves, and there is nothing wrong with this. Many people, like Cathy and myself, find that they are compelled to make an effort to capture the beauty around us. The universe pretty much demands it. We find that we are dragged into the cold, the hot, rain, snow and sometimes even pleasant weather, just to witness and record that beauty.

Costa rican landscape
Of the few variables we can play with, where we point the lens and what to include in the frame are two of the most important. The colorful blossoms beside a cascade in Costa Rica almost dragged me to this spot.
5 second exposure at f22.


The beauty surrounding us exists on so many levels we find that we are constantly stretching the limits of what we can do and what our equipment can do just to get to the core of the miracle, just to show what it means to be a part of the biosphere, a part of the universe. In Costa Rica it’s relatively easy to get great hummingbird photos--great bird photos in general, but they don’t show the relationship between the rainforest and the animal. That’s what I wanted. That’s why I worked so hard to get the hummingbird photo. There was no way I was going to discard it.

Aricari eating coffee bean
This aricari eating coffee beans had a serious caffeine addiction. Taken with a 100-400 zoom.


Green honeycreepers eating berries
Juvenile green honeycreeper begging to be fed even though it’s standing next to the berries.
Taken with a 500mm and 1.4x teleconverter.


Back in the film days, a very popular environmental writer wrote an article that questioned the necessity of capturing any more wildlife images. His argument was there were already plenty of hummingbird photos, or elephant photos, or whatever photos. We didn’t need anymore, and all of this photographic attention was stressing the creatures unduly. How idiotic. If anything, this planet needs even more people immersing themselves in the core of the miracle, and it doesn’t matter if they are doing it mentally, visually, with paint and easel, hammer and chisel, or with camera and lenses. No, this isn’t rocket science. It’s much more important than that. It’s a pursuit of the heart and soul.

Rufous-tailed hummingbird at flower
Rufous-tailed hummingbird feeding. Taken with 100-400 zoom, 1/1250 sec, ISO 800 and no flash.

Think Wide

Wide-angle lenses have always been my favorites for landscape photography. I’m blaming it on David Muench. His trademark images featuring strong, point blank foregrounds with spectacular backgrounds were one of the big reasons I became interested in nature photography in the first place. I never got into large format equipment because I like the freedom of the 35mm format, and I’m too lazy and undisciplined for large format.

Grand Staircase Escalante NM
Taken at 10mm with small sensor camera. Wide-angle lenses are ideal for
getting close to foreground elements and still including the background.


The first thing most instructors tell aspiring landscape photographers is narrow your focus. Analyze the scene to determine what it is that makes you want to photograph it, and compose around that. This almost always means shooting tighter than you originally planned. And this is a legitimate technique to teach. Let’s face it, nature is messy, and a wide-angle lens is going to include more picture elements that don’t support your center of interest. The more you can tighten your focus, the more distracting elements you can eliminate, the stronger your photo is going to be.


Toadstool & Flowers
Taken at 10mm with a small sensor camera. I like to see the big picture.


However, that doesn’t change the fact that I like to capture the big picture. I want to see the immensity of the scenery, and this is where a wide-angle lens shines. It’s also easier to handhold a wide-angle lens if you’re traveling light (or if you’re just lazy), and because of this it’s easier to use a wide-angle lens in weird positions, positions that you may not even be able to get a tripod into. A wide-angle lens automatically provides more depth of field because it tends to make the picture elements smaller. These lenses are great for making sunstars and minimizing flares simply because they make the sun smaller.

Balanced Rock Reflection
Taken at 10mm with a small sensor camera.
The pothole is only a few feet across, but there are no distracting elements.


Desolate environments, places without a lot of vegetation to clutter up your image are ideal for using wide-angle lenses. Some of my favorites are Death Valley, the alpine tundra of the western mountain ranges, and the high deserts of Arizona and Utah. One thing to keep in mind is that wide-angle lenses emphasize negative space. If there is a blank spot in a field of flowers, a wide-angle lens will make that empty spot larger and more distracting.


Glacier NP
Taken at 17mm, the lilies in the extreme foreground were used to cover a blank spot in the field.


I should probably mention that Cathy prefers to shoot tighter, picking out details in the scene, and even in the most desolate landscapes, she comes back with more keepers than I do with my wide-angle lenses.