Lessons I’ve Learned, Part 1

Mother's Love (Zalophus californianus) ©Mike Spinak

[Editorial Note: I’m posting the picture, above, Mother’s Love, for Mother’s Day. This picture is for all mothers. Thank you. This picture is especially dedicated to three special mothers in my life: my own Ma, Renée, and my beloved friends, Kasia and Jennifer.]


Today, I’m going to share with you a hodgepodge of things I’ve learned about photography, over the years. I hope you find some of this useful. If you like this post, perhaps I’ll make it a regular series.

1 ) The basics of photography (apertures, shutter speed, depth of field, etc.) are simple, and can be learned and understood quickly.

2 )  Mastering the technical aspects of photography, and mastering your photographic equipment, are the easiest parts of photography.

3 ) Technical competence is a start, not an end. Technical competence helps you articulate what you want to say. The prerequisite is having something to say.

4 ) The quality of the results is all that matters. It doesn’t matter how hard it was to get the shot. Photography is not a weightlifting competition.

5 ) Gimmicks ≠ Significance.

6 ) Anything can be interesting, if approached from the right point of view. All subjects have the potential to be great; it’s up to you to find the greatness.

7 ) It’s you, Photographer! It’s not your secret location, not your phat photo gear, not your mad Photoshop skillz. It’s the vision from inside you.

8 ) Seeing is an activity, not a passivity.

9 ) Photography is the same as all other art forms, at the most fundamental level. Such things as the great themes of art (life affirmation, growth of character, etc.), the methods of inspiration and maturation of ideas, the kinds of foibles which make artistic efforts fail (sentimentality, frigidity, and so on), and the qualities that make art lasting (communication, emotional and intellectual significance, originality of perception, self-consistency, and the like) – are the same as for poetry, sculpture, music, and whatever else. Knowledge and experience in making other arts are applicable and transferable to photography.

10) While there is always some newer, better, less expensive camera/lens/computer/whatever about to be released: you’re almost always better off buying the gear you need, now, and getting the value of using it more, than waiting for the better alternative to be released.

11) You have to have empathy for your subject to make your most worthwhile picture of your subject.

12) Intimate knowledge of your intended subject is the difference between accidental photo opportunities and purposeful ones.

13) The most common difference between good photographers and mediocre photographers is that the good photographers put in more effort. You get out of it what you put into it. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but effort may.

Thanks for reading this.


Mother’s Love (Zalophus californianus), Monterey Bay, California

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. For workshops, please go to http://www.hteiw.com/


Miss J. After Eating Chocolate ©Mike Spinak

You might’ve noticed that the picture above shows a little girl, rather than the landscapes, wildlife, wildflowers, and such, which I usually show.

A couple days ago, someone suggested me to a bride-to-be, to photograph her wedding. The bride-to-be replied, “But he’s a nature photographer”.

Yes, I photograph nature.

I also photograph people, as you can see, above. I do a variety of portrait and event photography, including engagements, weddings, births, newborns, infants, toddlers, kids, pre-teens, families, maternity, boudoir, corporate, kid’s sports, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, birthday parties, and more. I photograph them with the same passion, dedication and vision that I bring to my nature photography. I don’t dwell on people pictures much on this site, because this specific website is my nature photography site – but that doesn’t mean I don’t do it.

Monica's Pregnancy ©Mike Spinak

Many nature photographers also do people photography. Take, for examples, the (arguably) two best known photographers in the field, Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell. Besides landscapes, Adams did everything from catalog photos to corporate portraits, for companies from AT&T to Zeiss. He also photographed people for personal reasons, such as his self-funded humanitarian project to photograph the unconstitutionally interned Japanese Americans at the Manzanar War Relocation Center. Adams was a very capable people photographer when he chose to be, as you can see in this picture of Georgia O’Keeffe and Orville Cox. Likewise, for Galen Rowell. During Rowell’s photojournalistic assignments for National Geographic, he photographed the people in his stories as well as the nature. Additionally, he photographed people for humanitarian causes.

While it’s true that knowledge in areas like animal behavior or skills in areas like food styling will give you advantages in specific photography niches, it’s also true that conceptualization skills, understanding light, knowing your photo gear inside-out, recognizing what looks good, being able to communicate ideas visually, and the like, give good photographers advantages that they can apply to any endeavor in every area of photography. There are some compelling reasons why many photographers work in more than one field.

One reason is because of personal interest. People are multifaceted. Lots of people have developed their interests in more than one area. There’s a whole world of fascinating subjects, and time enough to pursue interests in more than one of them. This applies as much to photographers as anyone else. Even beyond developed interests in specialized areas like Rococo sculpture, evolutionary epistemology, or underground hip-hop, there are certain things that interest almost everyone. Most people have some interest in nature. It’s our world. It’s where we came from, and it’s bred into us. Nearly everyone is interested in people. It’s who we are.

Another reason is money. Few photographers are getting wealthy at this occupation, and those who do achieve that level of success often need to put in decades of effort before it gets to that level. The average Joe/Josephine photographer can’t so easily afford to turn work down. The reality is that most photographers work in more than one area, out of economic necessity, as well as loftier reasons.

Yet another reason is cross-disciplinary skill development. Perhaps you’d find that photographing people would hone your abilities with showing interaction. Or, perhaps you’d find that photographing wildlife would hone your ability to work with natural light. The details will be different for each photographer, but almost all photographers will find that expanding into new areas will lead to developing new skills and further honing old ones.

There’s no reason to confine yourself to just one narrow area, and every reason in the world not to. If you’re not already diversifying your photographic interests and skills: go explore your world, and grow as a photographer.

Miss J., After Eating Chocolate

Monica’s Pregnancy

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. For workshops, please go to http://www.hteiw.com/

Vertical and Horizontal

Courthouse Towers (Vertical), Arches National Park, Moab, Utah ©Mike Spinak

You may not realize it from looking at my pictures, here, but I often have an alternate version of the same subject.

Courthouse Towers (Horizontal), Arches National Park, Moab, Utah ©Mike Spinak

I often shoot both a vertical and a horizontal version.

In my mind, one version is usually my first choice, and the other is my second choice. I make the one I prefer, first. Then – if time and conditions allow – I flip the orientation ninety degrees, make minor recomposing adjustments as necessary, and shoot it again.

If I prefer one version, and shoot it first, then why do I bother to make the second version?

I do it because I can never know what publishers, and various other clients who license stock, will need for their end uses. Someone might want a picture for a vertically oriented magazine, or for a horizontally oriented coffee table book. Or perhaps an interpretive panel at a park, or billboard, or – who knows? Even for my own private use, it’s hard to predict what the  future may hold. Maybe I’ll need a particular shape to fit into a display. Or, perhaps I’ll want to put a picture on a mug, or t-shirt, or whatever else. Further, I can’t predict how developing technologies, such as laptop computers or iPads, will affect market preference for a specific orientation. So, when I can, I cover my bases – just in case.

This quick post is just a little tip that you might want to consider shooting both vertical and horizontal versions, when you can. Especially if you may have professional aspirations.

Happy shooting.

Courthouse Towers, Arches National Park, Moab, Utah

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. For workshops, please go to http://www.hteiw.com/

  • Michael Russell - Good advice. I also shoot one of each because I am not always sure at the time which I will favour later. Saves me from wishing I had shot the other orientation when I am editing.ReplyCancel

  • naturography - Thanks, Michael.
    Yup, that can be another good reason to shoot both.ReplyCancel

  • Melli - I agree with that. Good advice, one that I try to put into practice as often as possible. Sometimes more successfully, sometimes not.ReplyCancel

  • Mark Peterson - Mike – I totally agree. Many years ago when I was first starting out, I took a workshop with Bryan F. Peterson (who now runs PPSOP). He had a quote he repeated like mantra all week: “When’s the best time to take a vertical? Right after every time you take a horizontal!” I’ve followed this advice ever since…never shoot a subject without some H/V version, even if one doesn’t “feel quite right.” Cheers! MarkReplyCancel

  • naturography - Thanks, Melli.ReplyCancel

  • naturography - Thanks, Mark.
    Is that the same Bryan Peterson who wrote Understanding Exposure?
    P.S. It’s great to see you, here!ReplyCancel

  • Mark Peterson - Yes Mike – same Bryan Peterson! And thanks for the welcome – I’ll surely visit often!ReplyCancel

Finding Your Special Strengths

Monterey Paintbrush (Castilleja latifolia) ©Mike Spinak

More than half my lifetime ago, I met a wonderful young lady, just as she was starting college. We fell in love. In order to be with her more, and in order to share the same knowledge and experiences as hers, I tagged along with her to all of her classes.

She double-majored in biology (with an emphasis on botany), and art history (with an emphasis on the Renaissance). And so it came to be that I inadvertently ended up with a fair education in these fields, too. While I found them interesting, I would’ve been hard-pressed to imagine any way that I’d ever apply this knowledge to anything.

Nearly a decade later, I took up nature photography. I now apply what I learned then to my occupation almost daily.

One of the great things about photography is that you can bring your own quirky background in other areas into your photography to create your own strengths and carve out your own niche. In fact, to become your best as a photographer, you must.

Rather few of the most noted photographers were formally educated in photography. Instead, they applied their idiosyncratic backgrounds to make their photos of the outside world reflect what was inside of them. Ansel Adams, for example, trained as a classical pianist. Adams’s foundation in music tinted his view of photography, and  he drew analogies between them, such as, “The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance”. If you listen to him play piano, it becomes obvious that he later came to treat tone in his pictures exactly as he first treated tone in his music. In the words of famed clarinetist Rosario Mazzeo about Adams, “I think that the subtle and wonderful tonalities of his pictures are echoed in his music. You listen to just a few phrases, something like the Bach Arioso or the flow movement from Moonlight Sonata and you’ll hear Zone System and everything else, right there.”

People tend to think of doing photography in terms of operating a camera, rather than in terms of making an image of something. Photography often demands additional areas of knowledge and skill, which have little to do with operating a camera, lens, and lights. Glamour photographers may need a keen fashion sense, skill at applying makeup, and good people skills. Food photographers may need skills in cooking, food styling, and decorating. Nature photographers generally have strong naturalist skills, such as the ability to track animals, basic knowledge of geology and meteorology, the ability to key out taxa, and so forth.

Photography serves as a vehicle for your special combination of abilities, interests, and understanding, which your background has instilled into you. When you tap into these, you’ll find your own special strengths as a photographer.

Blossoming as a photographic artist is predicated upon connecting these to what you choose to do with your camera.

Monterey Paintbrush (Castilleja latifolia), Point Lobos State Beach, California

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. For workshops, please go to http://www.hteiw.com/

  • roteague - “People tend to think of doing photography in terms of operating a camera, rather than in terms of making an image of something. Photography often demands additional areas of knowledge and skill, that have little to do with operating a camera, lens, and lights.”

    These sentences bear repeating.

    Excellent article.ReplyCancel

  • Brian Harwood - Outstanding short article Mike.
    Everyone has a special something about them to tap into. I fail to see my own unique & special strengths. Your article causes me think & that makes for a great article.ReplyCancel

  • naturography - Thank you, Robert.
    Thanks, Brian.ReplyCancel

  • Matt Adcock - Great content amgio.

    My BFA in technical theater production and 3 years of professional experience in a management position building, lighting, and painting sets really boosted my ability to “SEE” a different world of light. I feel thankful to have had those experiences.

    PS, I love love nature photography amigo, your images are beautiful!

    thanks for posting this contentReplyCancel

  • san jose wedding photographers - photographer san jose…

    I saw this really facinating post today….ReplyCancel

How To Isolate Subjects, Part 3

Common Raven (Corvus corax) ©Mike Spinak

[Editorial Note: This is the third part of a series, showing methods of isolating photography subjects. Part one is here. Part 2 is here.]

In the picture of a common raven, above, I isolated the subject from the surrounding elements of the scene by using a lens with a rather narrow angle of view. Generally speaking, the longer the lens’s focal length, the narrower the angle of view. I took this picture with a 300 millimeter lens, with a 1.4x teleconverter attached, for a total focal length of 420 millimeters.

“Angle of view” is the angular extent of a scene shown by the lens. Imagine a cone of everything the lens takes in, extending out from your lens into the scene you’re photographing; the angle of view is the angle of that cone. Here’s a top-down diagram, to make that concept clearer.

The narrower the angle, the smaller the area of the scene that the lens shows, while any given part of the scene takes up a larger portion of the picture. This applies not only to your subject, but also to the background behind your subject. The narrower the angle of view, the narrower the slice of background area which will be visible behind the subject, too. Here’s another diagram, to show how this works.

Here’s a quick demonstration of this:

Photographed with a 15 mm Fisheye Lens, with a 180 Degree Diagonal Angle of View

Photographed with a 420 mm Lens, with About a 5.5 Degree Diagonal Angle of View

The two pictures above show the same flowers photographed at the same size (i.e., they cover the same length in both photos). I photographed the first with a 15 millimeter fisheye lens, which has a full 180 degree angle of view, including literally everything in the scene forward of the lens (with “fisheye” non-rectilinear distortion). I did the second shot with a 300 millimeter lens with a 1.4x teleconverter, for a 420 millimeter total, which has a narrow angle of view of only about 5.5 degrees. In the first picture, you can see everything from the sidewalk I’m standing on (in the lower right corner) to the wall and fence of a building (along the top). In the second shot, you can only see a few square feet of the area almost immediately behind the flowers.

The ability of long lenses with narrow angles of view to show just small slices of background almost immediately behind subjects can be utilized to isolate subjects, by selecting angles to the subject which single out small patches with a minimum of distracting elements behind the subject. That’s just what I did, in the case of the common raven picture at the top. I photographed this raven at Bryce Canyon National Park – where the bird was perched on a trash can in a busy parking lot. I positioned myself at an angle to the raven where there was a small slice of greenery from a tree behind the bird, and then waited for the bird to turn to an angle and pose that I liked.

To give you a better idea of what the entire scene around the raven looked like, I’ve made a crop of the raven’s eye, and enlarged it, brightened it, and supersaturated it, to make the reflection in the eye clearly visible.

Crop of Common Raven's Eye, Showing Parking Lot Reflection

As you can see, I was able to dramatically reduce the extraneous elements of the scene and isolate the subject, using just one of a few sparsely spaced trees as carefully selected background.

If you have a telephoto lens and any small patch of uncluttered area somewhere in the background of your subject, then – with a little bit of observation and effort – you can often employ a narrow angle of view to isolate subjects from their busy backgrounds quite nicely.

If you want to isolate a subject, use tunnel vision.

Common Raven (Corvus corax), Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

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.

  • Toni Aull - Outstanding!!
    Especially the one single eye vision. What a reflection!!ReplyCancel

  • Don Salper - Mike,

    David Salper put me on to this today. I saw all three isolating parts. I’m glad I did. Thank you, Mr. Zealot. Your work, your ardor, and your careful explaining are enviable.

    I am up close and personal with this raven…and feel privileged.

    The back-lit and isolated garlic mushrooms allow the gossamer spider web to show, which I love; and I’m wondering if that is a little fly on the left mushroom?

    The passiflora tendril is stunning, and your patience to get it exemplary. An artist would give his or her life to create something that beautiful. I guess I’m thinking of Alexander Calder.

    Macloskey’s violet–what’s the use of words, only wonder will do.

    Trees and sky make great partners, which you show with the weathered bristlecone pine. I’ve been wanting to get down to the Getty photography tree exhibit but haven’t made it yet.

    Hiking and mountain air are clearly some of the side-benefits from your work and artistry. Again, enviable.

    Thank you.

    Don SalperReplyCancel

  • naturography - Hi, Don,
    You’re welcome; and thank you very much!
    That’s not a fly on the left mushroom; it’s some tiny bit of organic fluff – I can’t tell what, exactly. Maybe a piece of a feather.
    I love being able to get out into the mountain air, while also being able to create.
    I hope you come back and visit, again. I have about 70 other articles on here, plus new ones coming all the time.ReplyCancel

  • Kimberly Hosey (Arizona Writer) - Great explanation and illustration of your technique, and that raven shot is just spectacular!ReplyCancel

  • naturography - Thank you, Kim.
    And by the way: Welcome to my site! it’s great to have you visit.
    Also: I was looking at your picture of your little boy with the dove, yesterday. That picture just warms my heart every time I see it.ReplyCancel

  • naturography - Thank you, Toni.ReplyCancel