[Editorial Note: This post is intended to be a companion part to the previously posted Get Lucky. Although the subject matter is mostly different, they’re both significant aspects of how nature photographers take pictures which appear to be very fortunate, on a consistent basis. Whereas part 1 was largely about how to maximize opportunity, part 2 is more about what to do with it, once it comes knocking.]
In the early 1900s, George Raymond Lawrence set up his photography studio in downtown Chicago, with the admirable slogan “The hitherto impossible is our specialty”. No idle advertising conceit: Lawrence overcame “the hitherto impossible” repeatedly. He invented the first relatively safe flash powders, along with designing portable towers, electrical circuits for igniting charges, and smoke catching canopies… all to pave the way for indoor flash photography. He similarly designed his own panoramic banquet camera, which paved the way for large group photos; built the largest camera in the world (operated by 15 men!) to fulfill an assignment to make a grandly sized photograph of a train; and developed the equipment and techniques which paved the way for kite-aerial photography, so that he could make pictures from a bird’s eye view. In his pursuits, he singed his eyebrows, burst his eardrums, blew up a building, and fell hundreds of feet in a platform that broke free from a balloon – but, in the end, he got the shots he was after.
While George Lawrence was more extreme than we mere mortals dare follow, he epitomized the imaginativeness, the ambition, the dogged determination, and the strategic mindset that many nature photographers also use to accomplish “lucky” shots.
Nature photographers use imagination when they look at what is, and conceive of what could be, when they study the scenes in front of them, and conceive of the most extraordinary photo possibilities within those scenes. Ambition comes into play when they keep their minds open to include the seemingly absurdly-difficult-to-photograph possibilities, and when they choose to pursue those shots. Determination factors in when they start encountering obstacles to getting the shots they are attempting, and when they resolve to work through those obstacles. And strategy is the means to solving those obstacles and getting the shots.
With the photos I make, it seems almost every picture involves some impediment. Part of success with consistently accomplishing “lucky” shots in nature photography is an unwillingness to accept that a photographic situation is impossible to record. I try to approach every scene with dogged determination that there is always a way to get the shot, with the right strategy properly executed. Success involves analyzing the situation, improvising, and creating a solution.
Here area few examples:
Above is a picture of a tree swallow. I wanted to get a picture of a tree swallow in flight, with the bird fairly large in the frame. Anyone familiar with tree swallows will probably quickly recognize the problems with photographing them.
1) Birds can fly anywhere they want to, but I want to get within less than ten feet (preferably closer to five feet) of one in flight.
2) Tree swallows are about as small, fast, and erratic in their flight characteristics as birds get. These characteristics border on being beyond human reflex speed and beyond camera autofocus speed (especially at extremely close proximity). To get a properly focused, well composed shot of a tree swallow in flight, it is necessary to find a way around this problem.
Okay, so we’ve defined the problems; now let’s solve them.
In order to solve problem #1, I relied on the plan of figuring out where the tree swallow will want to be, and positioning myself there first. So, where do I know a tree swallow will want to go? To its nest, of course. So, in this case, I positioned myself close to the flight path into the nest. (Note: This is not acceptable to do with many birds. In some species, it will disturb the birds and make them abandon the nest. Don’t try this particular technique unless you know your subjects well enough to be able to assure avoiding negative impact.)
Now, for problem #2: I choose a two part strategy: [A] Figure out a situation when the tree swallow has to slow down, and prepare for photographing the tree swallow, then; [B] figure out how to maximize the performance of my gear.
So, what is the situation when the tree swallow must slow down?: Wind. The bird will be slowed down when it must fly against a strong wind to get into its small nest opening.
And how can I maximize my camera’s autofocus performance? First, pre-focus to very close to the distance at which I intend to get the shot; second choose an angle to the sun which will display the tree swallow with a lot of contrast (since autofocus relies on contrast).
Once all of that was worked out, I got the shot with relatively little difficulty.
Above is a picture of a type of shooting star flower, Dodecatheon redolens.
While wind was the solution in the case with the tree swallow photo, wind was the problem, here. The surfaces of the flower and leaves catch the breeze, and the long, delicate stem offers scant wind resistance. The smallest tremble would ruin the shot, which is photographed at about life-size. The modest wind was too strong to get a sharp shot at the shutter speed I needed in the relatively dim lighting.
There are lots of ways to deal with wind, when photographing single wildflowers, up close. Usually, using these techniques in combination is enough to sufficiently minimize the wind, to get the shot.
• Fast shutter speed is, of course, one technique, when available.
• Flash can help get a fast shutter speed, in certain cases (but can affect the look of the picture in a way that is undersired).
• Stabilizing tools are another technique. Two or three wooden kebab skewers, driven gently into the soil, propped against a long stem from opposing sides, can hold the stem in place well enough to drastically cut down the flower’s back-and-forth bounce. Other good alternatives to skewers include a straightened wire coat hanger/baling wire, and a product from Wimberley, named The Plamp. If none of these are on hand, you can often use sticks at the scene, or find a flower stuck in place by other plants. Using your hands is a final resort. (Hands are often a poor option, due to stinging nettle, poison oak, fire ants, etc. Further, hands aren’t steady enough for close up photography with slow shutter speeds.)
Propping plants in place can cut the problem down by about 95%, but usually won’t solve the problem entirely, because the skewers need to be low enough on the stem so that they are not in the picture… and this still allows the top of the stem to bounce.
• Shooting in the early morning is another technique. Air is usually most still in the early morning. Sometimes, if you are lucky, it’s possible to get completely still air in the early morning.
• Waiting for still air is another technique: Even during a windy day, there will usually be momentary lulls in the wind. If you wait long enough, you can often get a fairly breezeless moment.
When waiting for still air, view the flower through the viewfinder when the wind starts to die. (It’s too straining to view it through the viewfinder constantly while you wait for the wind to calm.) Mentally line up a specific part of the flower with something in your viewfinder ( i.e., one of the marks etched into your focusing screen), and watch the movement of the flower in relation to the marks in your viewfinder, in order to see when the flower is completely motionless.
In this case, none of the techniques above could be applied in a solvent manner. So I resorted to a different kind of technique:
I timed the arc of the sway.
A flower, on the end of its stalk, bounces back and forth with each puff of breeze. It bounces from its furthest point from you, through an arc, to its closest point. Where, along that arc, is best for taking the picture? Most folks take such pictures at the middle of the flower’s arc of sway – but that’s the worst place.
Call the furthest spot in the arc from you, where the flower begins to sway toward you, “0″. Call the spot where the flower is closest to you, the spot where the flower ends its sway and goes back,”10″; then evenly space the in-between numbers along the arc. Now, suppose that, during the exposure, the flower moves through two steps along the arc.
If we begin an exposure when the flower is in the “4″ position, coming toward us, then it continues toward us though positions “5″ and “6″, heading in the same direction. But, if we begin when the flower is at the “9″ position, coming toward us, the flower continues to position “10″, then reverses back to position “9″. Starting from position “4″ leads to an exposure with the flower moving across a two step distance; starting from position “9″, it’s only a one step distance. This, alone, cuts the motion blur in half by shooting a flower toward the end of its arc of sway, instead of in the middle. Additionally, the closer the flower is to the end of its arc, the more the stalk is tensioned, so equal wind force moves a flower progressively more slowly toward the end of its arc than in the middle. The flower will almost hold still, for an instant, toward the very end of the arc.
Thus, instead of merely halving the motion blur when photographing the flower near the end of its arc of sway, doing so actually will most often be able to reduce movement to a quarter or even an eighth.
So, very near the end point of the arc of sway is the best spot/instance along the arc of movement, for reducing motion blur. Of the two end points, I prefer to shoot close to the end point farthest from me, as this gives the best depth of field, and seems easier to anticipate and properly time.
And that’s how I got this shot.
Now, you readers get a chance to try your hands at photographic problem solving.
Here’s a bit of a puzzle for you to work out. This case isn’t nature photography, but it still gives you a good case for applying the same type of skills which go into solving problems and getting the shot when confronted with a seemingly impossible barrier.
In this link is a pop science article which gives a statistical analysis of your chances of getting a picture of a group of people where nobody blinks. (For the sake of this puzzle, let’s assume it is accurate.) For those who don’t want to read the whole article, let’s skip right to this part of the conclusion:
“…He found that photographing thirty people in bad light would need about thirty shots. Once there’s around fifty people, even in good light, you can kiss your hopes of an unspoilt photo goodbye.”
So, let’s suppose that you had to get a shot of a group of 50 people, where nobody blinks. And for added difficulty, let’s suppose that you have to do it in one shot, i.e., have to succeed on your first try. What could you do to get a high probability of obtaining a group shot of 50 people with no blinks, on the first try?
It can be done!
There are probably many solutions. I’ll explain what I would try to do at the end of this blog post.
So, above are three cases of using strategy for success, three cases where one is confronted with a seemingly difficult or impossible photo situation – but there can be elegant solutions available, if one thinks things through.
This is the way I approach nature photography, every day, but with one more important note.
The final note on this idea of using strategy for success is that strategy can employed proactively, as well as reactively. In other words, I use strategy not only to overcome obstacles, but to bring what I envision into my photographs.
Here’s a quick, simple instance of what I mean.
This American kestrel seems to be flying directly at me. Several people have commented to me how lucky I was to get this shot. Of course, there is always an element of luck when photographing nature subjects in the wild, uncontrolled. Nonetheless, this was a planned shot, with the specific intention of getting a shot of the kestrel coming straight at me.
In this case, the kestrel was sitting on its perch, eying its prey on the ground. It was clear that the kestrel was going to swoop down upon its prey when it felt the time was right. Thus, the simple, successful strategy for getting the shot of a kestrel coming straight at me was to place myself further down the same line it would have to take to pounce on its prey. It did, and I got the shot.
If you become strategic, to overcome obstacles in the way of the shots you want, and if you become proactive with strategy, to make your dream shots come true, then consistent “luck” will be yours.
My solution to the problem, above:
The problem is involuntary blinking, but people do also have partial control over opening and closing their eyes, so the solution I would look for would involve coming up with a way to emphasize people’s voluntary control over their eyelids. So, what I’d try is:
Tell everybody to close their eyes. Then tell them to open their eyes on the count of three. Right when everybody opens their eyes, take the picture. (They may not all be looking into the camera, but the chances are good that they’ll all have their eyes open.)
Morning, Tenaya Lake
Tree Swallow in Flight
American Kestrel Coming at Me
All pictures and text are © Mike Spinak, unless otherwise noted. All pictures shown are available for purchase as fine art prints, and are available for licensed stock use. Telephone: (831) 325-6917.