Monday, August 14, 2017

Photo Contests: What's the Point?

Best in Show in NANPA's 2017 showcase, Scapes category
I'd like to thank the photographer who recently posted the following comment on one of my Facebook posts for inspiring this entry:

"Many years ago I won a honorable mention and was published. Got no money, the magazine lost my slide and denied any wrong doing. Never applied again. I consider natures best a vanity publication."

This comment was in response to my mentioning that I will be applying to Nature's Best Backyards 2017 photo contest, as I have done every year since 2014. I have spent a total of $120 on this contest and the only time I was recognized was in 2014 for this image of a green iguana (see below). The photo was printed in the beautiful Nature's Best Photography's magazine and I received no monetary reward.

I don't know what compelled that photographer to make that comment other than to let people know he's been a photographer for decades and is too important to be bothered with said contest, but it got me thinking about my motivations for submitting images to this and other contests.

One of the winner's in the 2014 Nature's Best Backyards photo contest
In all honesty, any photographer likes to see his or her image recognized by other photographers. Period. Perhaps the potential monetary reward is what drives one to a photo contest, but I doubt that is the main reason. Please consider that aside from the unlikely chance of winning money, submitting images to legitimate nature photo contests can be advantageous to a nature photographer.

First, contest results provide a platform to reach a wider audience and improve your credibility. If respectable organizations or photographers see your image as being worthier than hundreds or thousands of others, that has to mean something, right? I realize that a nature photo contest is simply a moment in time and judges are humans that come with personal preferences and biases. A photo may get tossed aside in one contest, but win recognition in another. The reality is, being recognized by others is very legitimate and can lead to a more successful business, if photography is your primary income.

Winner of National Audubon Society's fine art category, 2015

Second, I truly believe photo contests can make you a better photographer. I know it's subjective and what appeals to one judge does not to another. But the reality is, after I submit photos to a contest and don't get any of them recognized, I begin to analyze and wonder what I could have done different and what can I do to improve. I also look at the ones that did win something and try to figure out what it was about that image that made the judges give it high marks.

Third, and this may be the one you need to be thinking hard about; recognition can ultimately translate into income. I am not talking about prize money (which is an appealing bonus), I am talking about that novice photographer that saw your photo in Outdoor Photographer magazine and contacted you about a workshop. I'm talking about all those bird and art lovers that saw your image in National Audubon Society magazine and contacted your website to purchase a print. That's money and primary income for many photographers. Winning a contest sets you apart from the rest, and it may give you that push to become a full time photographer.

Honorable Mention in Outdoor Photographer magazine's 2015 American Landscape photo contest
Let's face it, being recognized by an organization such as Outdoor Photographer magazine, National Audubon Society, NANPA or Nature's Best Photography is a very legitimate way to gain a foothold in the business of nature or fine art photography. The fee of submitting photos to a contest can ultimately bring you a return. In the meantime, you can develop a resume that will improve your reputation as a passionate and hardworking photographer.

I'd like to add one last thing. I really am not one to toot my own horn and so many of my friends feel compelled to remind me of this. As a woman, this is a particularly sensitive topic. So when some photographer makes a negative comment about my interest in a photo contest, I shrug it off. Because there is nothing wrong with wanting to see your image in print. Nothing wrong with that at all.

Finalist in NANPA 2017 showcase and Outdoor Photographer magazine's 2017 American Landscape contests

Monday, July 10, 2017

Be Obsessed

You may or may not relate to this, but I am at the stage in my photography when selling prints and exhibiting my work are attainable goals. I guess what this means is, I have a photography business. Along with the marketing and recordkeeping stuff, the amount of time I spend photographing and the type of photographs I take should be in line with my business goals. That would be considered good business sense.

So why would I spend several hours photographing something that is an unlikely subject for prints and exhibits? I recently spent several hours over a long weekend photographing dragonflies and for no tangible reason. Practically speaking, the most I might get from a dragonfly photograph is a stock image (among a zillion other dragonfly stock images), maybe one that's artsy enough to consider selling as a print (doubtful), or to submit to a photo contest (a definite possibility). From a business perspective, all those hours spent photographing dragonflies will provide little, if any, monetary return.

My obsession with the dragonfly began one evening when I noticed by chance hundreds of them hovering around some bushes. The evening light was warm and soft and the sun still high enough for good lighting. I came back with the camera and spent almost an hour with the dragonflies.

I couldn't wait to get back to them after that first session. So for the next few days, I spent most of the golden hours available with the dragonflies. I was obsessed with capturing dragonfly images of varying sorts, backlit, frontlit, solid backgrounds, dynamic backgrounds, colorful flowers, multiple subjects in one image, and so forth.

So this got me thinking, why bother? Perhaps there are intangible benefits to one's obsession. Here's where I think we, as photographers can benefit from allowing ourselves to get sidetracked into photographing an unlikely subject. 
  • Practice time. Compared to not photographing, time spent shooting improves your camera skills, one way or another. If you are a bird photographer, you don't need always need birds to practice your craft and enhance your technical skills.
  • Creativity unleashed. I truly believe that as you go from one shot to another of a subject, you begin to develop a sense for that subject. This frees your creativity and provides you play time for experimenting with lighting and composition.
  • Learn something. I never paid much mind to dragonflies until now. As with any new subject, I want to learn about it, so I have been researching dragonflies as a result of my photo shoot with them. And there is a joy in that. When it comes to wildlife, I never get over the fascination.
  • Teachable moment. Use the experience to teach others and/or add it to your workshop offerings. Photographing dragonflies may not be a priority for a new photographer, but macro photography in general may be. Your experiences simply add to your expertise and credibility.
  • Reputation. Submit to a photo contest and/or upload images to a photo community website. The time you spend photographing a specific subject gets known to other photographers. At the very least, you can see their images of the same subject and learn from them. You may not want to be known as a "dragonfly photographer", but let's face it, when you photograph dragonflies, you ARE a dragonfly photographer!
The next time you see something that captures your eye, get obsessed and put that camera to good use.

Workshops available.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Fill the Frame

Horses and peacocks, can you think of two animals so different from one another? The differences are many, but from a photographer's perspective, the two can be approached very much the same way.

I recently photographed horses living on a ranch where rescued animals come to recover. They were surrounded by the messiness of a stable and a cluttered ranch environment. Case in point, I was enjoying the playful interaction of two horses displaying affection for one another and wanted to capture the moment. It proved to be difficult not only because the horses constantly moved, but because of the surroundings. Mostly, the oddly shaped heads of the horses made it difficult to compose an image. Trying to overcome these things, I zoomed in to fill as much of the frame with their heads as possible.

After spending a short time with the horses, I realized that I was most attracted to the eyes and how the mane fell on the forehead. Because of the awkward shape of the horse's head, I decided to zoom way in and fill the frame entirely with the horse's profile and focus on the eye. Sometimes, the horse moved its head a certain way that I could zoom out and include its torso, such as this one.

Recently, I visited a city garden where several peacocks live freely. Buildings and various natural objects interfered with the background when I zoomed out to capture the entire peacock displaying its feathers. As with the horse, the peacock is beautiful from a distance. But, to isolate it from its surroundings, you have to zoom in on a piece of the bird to fill the frame.

Zooming in is an intimate way to capture certain animals. It allows you to highlight specific characteristics, such as the eyes or feather details. 

When capturing a well known animal, go beyond the obvious and look more closely at the details. Fill the frame with the subject and don't be afraid to experiment with various compositions.

Observe your subject and give it your best shot.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Workflow Revisited

Recently, I read a NANPA (North American Nature Photography Association) blog by Tom Horton titled "The six myths that frustrate aspiring photographers". Myth #2 is It's all about the camera. The following is a quote from Horton in regards to myth #2: "No, it is all about the software. Or stated another way, for a given photographer of given skills, software has rescued many, many, many camera deficiencies - but it never happens the other way around. Yes, there are real differences among the digital raw material that various hardware produces, but the ability of software to affect the post-camera image is orders of magnitude greater. Photographers with good sofware skills can correct individual colors, increase apparent resolution, eliminate optical errors, cut through the haze, smooth skin, create complex effects, and a hundred other things that cameras are powerless to fix."

I am not one to promote a brand, be it camera or software; but, Tom Horton has written something that I have believed for many years. Put another way, I wouldn't be the photographer I am today if it were not for Photoshop. The reality is, hitting the shutter button marks the end of only the first part of what goes into creating an image. What follows can be a long process of enhancing the beautiful qualities and details of an image through various non-destructive adjustments.

Compare these two screen shots, the first showing the original (out of the camera) without visible adjustments, and the second being the finished product.

The finished product includes many adjustments to such things as contrast, color, shadows and brightness. And many of the adjustments were not applied to the entire image, but rather selected areas. The image was shot in February 2015. There were other images from that same day that I processed immediately, but for some reason I didn't get to this one until much later. I worked with it for awhile and not satisfied with the results, would just put it away for later. As I continued to learn new skills in Photoshop, I eventually went back to this image and made new adjustments to it, until I was finally happy with the finished product, 27 months later.

While I spend hours in the field and test many technical aspects of my camera, my learning curve for processing an image continues to rise. As I learn new Photoshop techniques and how to optimally apply them, I become a better photographer. I pay closer attention to details and my art continues to expand and deepen. So when I hear photographers proudly state "No Photoshop used on this image" as if using Photoshop is beneath them, I just cringe. Because I know that if that photographer took the time to learn and use Photoshop, he or she would expand their photographic horizons and dare I say, improve their art. And that's what it's all about.

Workshops available.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Alone in the Wilderness

Standing in my solo canoe.

I was reading an article by photographer Erin Babnick titled, "Is it better to photograph nature alone"? Erin points out the advantages of shooting with other photographers, not the least of which is safety in numbers. And for those starting out, going out with more experienced photographers can be a powerful learning experience. I know this firsthand. In addition, other photographers may give us inspiration, opportunities to learn new tricks, or guide us to unfamiliar locations or wildlife.

But with all those advantages, I prefer going it alone. Don't get me wrong, shooting with other photographers has been a positive experience and a necessary part of my growth as a photographer. But it is my alone time when there are no distractions that has greatly nurtured my growth and development, especially in the creative realm. But probably more the case is that I have been a solitary photographer out of necessity because I mostly photograph from my solo canoe.

The only way to get this shot was by paddling a mile or so and launching the canoe in the dark.
Whether or not I am in the canoe, I can focus my attention on my surroundings without the distraction of others. I can stray off the path and discover nooks and crannies, unfettered. I can spend way more time than necessary observing a tree or bird, or I can meander aimlessly. In this manner, I have created some of my best photographs and have gained inspiration for many more. Believe me, I draw inspiration from other photographer's art, but when alone in the wilderness, it is intrinsically derived and unique to the situation. The canoe has given me this luxury, but I would do it by foot just as often.

On this particular morning, I wasn't expecting to photograph spider webs. But there they were.
Because I go out alone, what holds me back is usually the weather.  If I had to go to a location with another person each time, I would miss way too many opportunities. And while I relish in discovering new places, old familiar places are my biggest draw. The familiarity offers comfort but also allows me to dig in and pull out that inspiration. I am not sure if I could find another photographer willing to go to these locations as often as I do.

There is nothing I enjoy more than being alone on Biscayne Bay. Sometimes, I find only my boat to photograph, but it is always worth it to me to go there.
I paddle 1.5 miles one way to the bird rookery, have been doing that for the past 9 years, at least 5 to 6 times per year. I am always alone with the birds.
Going it alone may not be for you, especially if it is fear for safety. I challenge you to over come some of your fears. Take it in steps, go to a location with others before you venture out alone. Do your research on areas ahead of time. Stick to areas where you know you will have a phone signal. Don't go in the dark. If you are hiking, get use to carrying extra weight like a first-aid kit, extra water. Dress appropriately and know the weather forecast. Always let someone know where you are going and how long you intend to be gone.

Bottomline, don't let fear keep you from photographing.

I love discovering mangrove tunnels, you never know what you'll find around the turn.
Occasionally, I camp alone in the Ten Thousand Islands. It took years of camping experience with others to get the nerve to do it!

As far as I know, I am the only person crazy enough to navigate the Chokoloskee Bay oyster beds in the dark to get to this location in the middle of the bay to photograph.


Sunday, February 26, 2017

Just Follow the Light

A slow shutter speed blurs the white ibis wings, giving this well-lit scene an abstract quality.

Most of the time, I go out to photograph something specific; birds, waterscapes, spiders. But sometimes, I have no specific subject in mind. Recently, I spent a morning chasing only the light, with no particular subject in mind. I began the morning on Biscayne Bay, minutes before sunrise. The sky was mostly cloudy, dampening the sun light. Not exactly the colors I was hoping for, but there was an appealing subtlety to it. Using long exposures (greater than 30 sec), I attempted to capture the moody scene with some details in the clouds and foreground rocks. I pointed the lens to the left of the sun instead of directly toward it. In this way, the available side light added dramatic textures to the clouds and their reflections.

With enough angled sun light, clouds can appear dramatic; the reflections are a bonus.

It can be argued that light is the most important element in photography. This makes sense to me because the way I approach photography is by seeking out the "best" light in my subject. I am not sure how to define best light, except to say that I know it when I see it. On this particular morning, I wasn't focused on any one subject, although with Biscayne Bay spread out in front of me, it commanded the morning. But then at one point, the light behind me grabbed my attention. As the sun rose over the water to the east, behind me was a scene of brilliance that otherwise would not have gotten a second glance. The clouds broke just enough to allow a warm glow to bath the palm trees. I turned my back on the water and examined the trees through the viewfinder and began composing. Seconds later, clouds covered the sun and the brilliant light was no more. I turned back to the water.

These cabbage palms just light up with the warm glow of the morning sun.

In the meantime, white ibises were flying across the cloud-covered sky, punctuating the whiteness with their flight formations. Using a relatively slow shutter speed (1/60), I captured them with some blur on the wings. By that time, the combination of sun light and clouds offered pastel colors to add to the fanciful flight of the ibis (top photo).

Soon, the birds were gone and I had worn out my welcome at Biscayne Bay. I headed to another location with an idea of recapturing black vulture silhouettes in the Australian pine trees. I wanted to create more images similar to this one, but with a variety of bird poses, including some spread out wings.

If only that bird had spread its wings.
Unfortunately, the vultures were not there that morning, but something else presented itself. A few killdeer were in the water-covered parking lot. Trees reflected on the water and this looked beautiful. No one was there, just me standing in an empty parking lot with a few small shorebirds. It was an easy scene to ignore or disregard. The skittish tiny birds were too far away from me to fill the frame. But, the light on the water was attractive and I didn't care that it was on a parking lot. I stayed with the unassuming killdeer long enough to witness a few fly in, such as this one.

Glad to have captured some action on the water, but I probably would not have tried without the beautiful reflections appearing on the water.

I drove out of the park toward the main entrance. Before leaving, something distracted me. It was just a tri-colored heron standing next to a small pond, but it looked so beautiful in the morning light. I parked the car and walked to the pond. I stood on the ground that was slightly higher than where the bird stood next to the water. I saw an opportunity and got on my belly. I wanted to isolate the bird's profile by adding out-of-focus grasses to the foreground. I waited for the bird to move it's head so that the sun light captured its red eye. I have captured so many heron profiles over the years, so seeking out another one is not a priority. But when I have a well-lit profile against a natural background and foreground, I don't mind adding another to the list.

I love to isolate a bird and the out-of-focus grasses help to emphasize the bird's profile.

Later, I came home and while downloading the morning shots, I stepped outside and noticed something rather interesting. Hundreds of tiny tadpoles were swimming in the pond behind my house. It was irresistible. The sun was high and at an angle. I attached a polarizer filter to the macro lens and set out to capture the tadpoles. Totally unexpected, I spent about 30 minutes or so composing various scenes of an unlikely subject.

Chasing these tadpoles through the messiness of a pond was challenging.
I think what impressed me most about that morning is how most of the shots taken were unexpected and varied. But they all had one thing in common; the best light.

Workshops available

Monday, January 16, 2017

Creating a Photography Project

While attempting to keep the focus on a fast moving beetle, I could capture the beautiful patterns created by their movement.

You hear it often; giving yourself a project is an effective way to learn and grow as a photographer. Projects are such individual things that there are infinite examples of what a project might be for someone. Not only that, projects come in all sizes. Sometimes, a project comes as an attempt to get out of a creative rut or to learn a new skill. In my experience, most projects are found unexpectedly.

I was drawn to the abstract patterns created in the water.
Almost always, it begins with a first or an unusual encounter with an animal. Examples are the goldensilk orbweaver spider and the cassiopeia (upside down) jellyfish.  A couple days ago, I paddled on the East River in the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve to photograph birds. The last thing I would have considered doing was photographing a water bug. But, ten minutes on the water and my attention turned to a strange but beautiful scene. Birds stood in the trees or flew overhead in the morning light, but I did not pay attention to them. Instead, I was mesmerized with what was happening on the surface of the water.

By isolating a single bug, I attempted to use negative space to compose an image.
These bugs are known as whirly bugs. In a small area of the river, hundreds of beetles whirled around.  There was something about the way the light was capturing them that caught my attention. The water disturbed by their whirling motions played with the light and it was just so beautiful to see. Not having anything to lose, I gave it a whirl (pun intended). With my telephoto lens, I watched the bugs through the viewfinder. Soon, I was seeing abstract compositions of varying lighting situations. I attempted to single out one or two bugs and capture their wake as they glided speedily away from me.

Back light on these tiny beetles make the water surrounding them glow in the dark reflections of the trees.
Sometimes, I had the sun facing me, sometimes behind me. Sometimes trees reflected, sometimes the blue sky reflected. And sometimes, I purposely created ripples in the water to play with the bugs and their movements. The challenge was focusing on a bug that is about 1 inch in length. Tracking one was very difficult with their unpredictable and extremely fast movements.

I converted this one to black & white for some reason.
I stayed with the bugs for a couple hours. As with any first encounter, I download all the images and begin to analyze and think about what to do differently the next time. And it is for this reason that I now have a new project, the "whirly" project, to add to my list. Why bother? At the very least, I can practice my tracking focus skills. But really, it just gives me another excuse to photograph water movement.

This is what I was going after, the beautiful curves created by the water movement.
Get out there and find your next project!

Frequently, dozens of beetles would become active causing the water to boil with activity.
Workshops available

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Simplicity of Wilderness

I love simple compositions filled with negative space. Good thing, because quite often as I paddle my canoe in large waters, I am surrounded by negative space. I say this after recently returning from a 6-day paddle trip through the Ten Thousand Islands. As always the case, these multi-day trips are characterized by a variety of things; but this particular trip will always be remembered by the hours of paddling through endless calm blue waters joined to an endless blue, cloudless sky.

Nothing but blue.

And I loved it for what it was; calm waters that provided an opportunity to photograph from a steady canoe, gentle and playful ripples that created tones and textures, a cloudless sky that seamlessly consulted with the water interrupted only by something of my choosing. Wide angle lens or telephoto, the possibilities for simple compositions revealed themselves as both panoramic and vertical designs.

Use of a polarizer filter is essential in these shots. It reduces the glare on the water, thus revealing its intimate patterns. It gives the sky a richer blue, but it only works if the sun is at a 90 degree angle from the lens. In other words, the sun should be to your left or your right, and it should be relatively high in the sky. If you have that, you have endless possibilities.

If you are going to go simple, composition is key, because that's usually all you have to work with. Rule of thirds is a good rule for these images. Lines and patterns become key elements. Compose thoughtfully, play with the water and take many shots of varying compositions. But ultimately, create an image to invite the viewer into the scene and to feel the calmness of having infinite space surround them.

The hypnotic and calming rhythm of nature is what I feel when I am in my canoe and what I wish to convey in my images. Learn to photograph what you feel when you are in the wilderness.

Workshops available