Monthly Archives: April 2012

Get down on the ground!

Warning: the following post contains images (OK, ONE image) which may be disturbing to some readers.  Sorry.

Well, it’s been a while, but it’s not like I haven’t been shooting.  Got a lot of shots lately, and I’ve learned a lot in the recent past.  A couple of lessons on off-camera flash, one of which I’m going to add now.  Here’s the thing about flash: one of the reasons I’ve avoided flash photography is that the only way I could do it (built-in flash or flash on the camera) created awful shadows and harsh lighting that I just didn’t like. With the new camera, I finally have the ability to get the flash off the body and create some interesting lighting.  I learned recently that the flash “foot” (a little plastic stand that came with the flash) has a tripod mount, so now I can set the flash wherever it will create the proper effect.

But before I learned that, I was back in macro action and was wandering my yard looking for interesting subjects.  The Little Tikes playhouse out back is just about the last thing one would expect to shoot with a macro lens, but there it was.  And it has quite the collection of tiny (around 3/8”, mostly) spiders crawling on it when the sun is out.

Turns out, shooting spiders is a little tricky.  First of all, when you get that close to a spider, he tends to do one of two things. He either turns around, giving you an excellent view of his… um… spinnerets;  or he sort of crouches down, giving a view of his back but not much else. In addition, when you’re that close and the spider is that small, the flash on the camera (internal or external) doesn’t do you much good, as it tends to shoot past the spider.

Never one to be deterred, I went through the following steps… I set the flash in wireless mode, and took it off the camera.  Couldn’t get it to stand up in the grass, so I said “heck with it” (literally—out loud; the spider thought I was talking to him) and set it on its side, pointing generally at the spider. Then I laid down in the grass myself, got really close to the spider, looked through the viewfinder and manually focused.  Set the camera back to autofocus and started shooting.  With fresh batteries in the flash, it was recharging pretty quickly and I was getting some pretty well-lit shots.  During this time, the spider was moving around a little and I knew he was going in and out of focus, but there was no way to know for sure so I just kept shooting.

At some point, he turned around and looked right at the flash.  I followed the front of him with the camera, and as a result, got the best shot of the bunch—that’s the one shown here. 


Now, let’s talk about some techie stuff related to this shot.  I had been shooting earlier in direct sunlight, so I had applied about -1.75 stops of exposure compensation for some flower shots.  As is my usual habit, I forgot to check my settings before I started shooting the spider shots. That meant that the compensation was still in place, and I was therefore starting off dark. I had selected an aperture of f/10, to try to create a little more margin for error with regard to the focus point—the depth of field is shorter on macro shots to begin with, and reducing it even farther by setting f/6.3 or F/8 would have added to the challenge.  This reduced the light even further, so the camera defaulted to the slowest shutter speed I had allowed, that being 1/60 sec. Since this is still too dark the next move was for the little computer inside the 60D to start bumping up the ISO until it got to an acceptable meter. The result, after all that, is what you see.

What I like best about this shot is the shadow of the spider.  It looks like something out of a 1970’s cartoon, for those of you who are my age. And I also like the look on his face—reminds me of a Star Wars character, for some reason.  Anyway… lessons here?  Check the settings—you’re not in that big a hurry. And don’t be afraid to get dirty. It’s OK for you AND your gear to lay on the ground! 

Sticking Around

I have mentioned on occasion a couple of things: first, that I’m a pretty patient person when it comes to taking pictures (as long as it’s not too cold out!); and second, that I share the view of the great nature and wildlife photographer Martin Bailey (see the links page…) that luck plays a significant role in photography. Take for example the shot of the hawk that I posted earlier (Why “Always”?, below). Yes, I had the camera sitting next to me, and yes, I was driving through a wildlife refuge. Those things were not luck.  But I happened to see the bird, and have time to get the car stopped, window down, camera on and up, and then shoot just as he took off! That particular dose of planetary alignment had not a whit to do with patience, and almost everything to do with luck. But sometimes, those things seem to combine to make what ends up being a great shot.  

I heard a photographer once say, and I really wish I could remember who it was, that you should never assume that you have “the shot” and take off.  Stick around, he (or she) said, and you might see something that is more than what you already have. I was driving through the park one afternoon, and saw an adorable squirrel in the fork of an old tree. He was having a snack, and I stopped to practice a little bit. I took three or four shots that I really liked, and started to set the camera down, when I remembered that advice and left it up for a moment.  Maybe twenty seconds later–which seemed like a half hour since nothing was happening, hence the reference to patience again!–he started to groom himself in the way that small mammals often do, rubbing his paws on his face. I blasted off about ten more frames, not having any idea whether they would be worth keeping and frankly not caring much; then he quit, and headed around the back side of the tree. Before driving away, I paused to look at the LCD on the back of the camera, and behold: 


(Before those of you with good eyes start to type, yes, I know that the shot is noisy, and over-sharpened. I’m experimenting with Photoshop Elements but I’m not very good at it yet.  I just wanted to get a post up on this subject, and while I’m not proud of the edit, I am pretty happy with the image!)

The little fella (or whatever) almost looks like he’s shy and hiding from the camera! 

So if I had gone with my usual behavior–“I got the shot, now I’m moving on to the next thing”–I would have missed this one. Of course, I could have sat there for another ten minutes without seeing anything interesting, and that’s what patience is all about.  But I got lucky. Speaking of luck, the settings on the camera weren’t luck this time, as I had just finished shooting this guy in the same spot “on purpose.” This was taken with my 60D (for which I still owe a review) with the Canon 70-300mm IS lens, in aperture priority mode at f/5.6, with +1 exposure compensation. The camera did its part, giving me 1/400 sec and ISO 320. A couple of points–the 1/400 speed is the camera compensating for the focal length (I took this at 300mm), which is why it chose ISO 320 instead of dialing back the ISO to, say, 200 and clicking slower. And the 320 should not have generated as much noise (grain) as is in this shot, so I’ll be looking at what I did wrong in Elements to create that noise. 

In any case, it’s a cute shot.  It’s a good lesson. And it’s a reminder that sometimes the more patient you are, the luckier you get!

Why “Always”?

Recently I have had a couple of lucky breaks in the photography arena. That is, I’ve been in the right place at the right time and got some shots that surprised me.  Here’s one of them. I was driving through the country and saw a bird on a limb.  I stopped, dropped the window, grabbed my camera, and as I was getting ready to shoot, he took off.  This is the result. For those who are keeping track of the numbers, this was in aperture priority mode, f/7.1, which gave me a shutter speed of 1/500 at ISO 100.  I had previously selected a full stop of exposure compensation.  This is a crop, by the way.


I really like this picture, but that’s not what this post is about. You see, in the course of passing this around, I’ve had an interesting series of conversations.

When I show a really good shot to someone I usually get the response that’s so common it’s almost a joke: “Wow, that’s a great shot, you must have a really good camera!”  That’s a bit like telling the Cake Lady, “Wow, that’s the best cupcake I ever had—you must have a really good oven!” But the next response is the one that bothers me—“you shoot like a professional!”


No, I don’t.  I shoot like an amateur. There’s a line, and I’m not interested in crossing that line.  Here’s why:

First of all, I’ve gotten to the point where, when I point my camera at something and push the button, I am reasonably sure what’s going to happen. But I’m not EXACTLY sure—and that’s the key difference between me and those whose living is photography. Take, for example, Naomi Weber—when Naomi pushes the button, she knows exactly what’s going to happen, because this is what she does. When my son was born, I took two hundred shots in 24 hours; a couple of them are hanging in my “gallery” even now. But when the time came to get the real pictures, I hit and never looked back. Why? Consider the baking analogy again: my wife makes cakes.  She makes the best cakes within three hundred miles. But when she needs bread, she goes to the bread guy.  Naomi shoots newborns, and she’s the best at it.  When you need a specialist, you go to a specialist.  That’s how I feel about pictures.  If it’s not critical, I’ll shoot it myself; if I absolutely have to have it, I will go to the pros. I’m an amateur.

Second, as I said in my first post, I REALLY love taking pictures.  This winter, I’ve spent a good bit of time standing out in the cold waiting for that one good shot so that I could see it on the screen and admire it as something I’d created. That’s enough for me to justify the cost of my equipment and the time I put into the craft. But one thing I’ve learned about business is that the vast majority of the business owner’s time is put into tasks OTHER THAN the fun stuff.  The successful pro photographer spends easily more than half of his or her time doing things other than shooting. Heck, I don’t even like post-processing, let alone trying to market, print, package, frame, design, study…you get the picture, right? I don’t want that kind of pressure. That’s pro stuff. I want to shoot.  I’m an amateur.

Finally, “professional” isn’t necessarily about the quality of the work. I take the occasional good picture, but I have a day job, I add value at my day job, and that’s how I make my living. That suits me well. But I know people who have taken the art of photography to the next level, and who have decided to feed their families with the fruits of their labors. For me to take on portrait work or (God forbid) event work would be to take money out of a market to which those folks are dedicated. That’s not where I belong, not because I’m not good enough (I’m not) but because that’s not what I decided to do with my life. In that sense especially, I’m an amateur.

Listen—I believe that someone who’s “always an amateur” can take some really good shots.  I plan to keep shooting, and hope to keep getting better; sometimes you will see images with my name on them that you might consider to be “professional” in quality. So you show up at my blog or my facebook page wanting to buy a print?  We can make an arrangement—I’m always looking to trade. But when you want me to take pictures of your child,  your party, your wedding…I can provide you the names of some people who will manage that task much better than I will.  They’re the professionals. I’m… yeah, I know, you get the picture!