Monday, August 16, 2010

August 2010 - Coloradoan Xplore Column

Summer seems to have escaped me once again. I had big plans for summertime photography this year, however upon reviewing my files, I have very little to show for them. Rocky Mountain National Park has been a driving disaster with this summer's paving project on Trail Ridge. Normally, I spend several weeks following elk through their summer range in the high alpine bowls. Unfortunately, not this year. The traffic, construction, and dust made it simply not worth the effort. I made an 1100 mile tour of Colorado in mid-July searching for fields of wildflowers. While I found plenty of color, I was a couple weeks early from finding the dramatic alpine scenes I wanted to photograph. Fortunately, all is not lost because a big wildlife event is about to begin. Preparation will be the key to a better chance at photographic success. Pre-visualizing a photograph and having a plan of how you want to make that image is key to getting great results. Sometimes everything comes together, sometimes it doesn't. It’s just part of the process. Having a plan to observe and photograph the event can yield some terrific results.

For me, August signals the beginning of the elk rut. Last year the first photograph I took of bugling and herding bulls was August 30th . The rut is triggered by shortening daylight, not weather or temperature. Right now elk remain high in the alpine country. Bulls are together in bachelor herds. The cows and calves are together in nursery herds. Very soon the bulls will start to separate from these bachelor groups and drift down into timbered landscape to begin scraping the velvet from their antlers. It’s pretty amazing how quickly this event happens. One day elk are high and separated, the next day they show up in Morraine or Horseshoe Park. If you are interested in photographing elk or the elk rut, now is the time to begin planning. RMNP is for the most part a shooter friendly location. Rangers manage the crowds tightly and there is good reason to do so. A testosterone fueled bull elk is unpredictable and looking for a fight. In wildlife photography we often want to get a hair closer, with these guys it’s just not worth it. Park rules don’t let us walk in meadows at dawn and dusk. Approaching wildlife isn’t permitted. My rule of thumb has always been to not do anything that causes a reaction from wildlife. I generally like to break up the locations I shoot to provide a little diversity in action, location and animals. For example, for a week I’ll shoot Morraine Park in the morning, Horseshoe Park in the evenings then mix it up. Sometimes if there is a particular bull I like I’ll just focus on him. Throughout the rut herd bulls win and lose possession of their harem. So if you keep visiting the park you’ll find things are never the same. We’re so fortunate to have this event and resource less than an hour from town.

Depth of field (DOF) is important in wildlife photography. Shallow DOF makes your subject pop from the background. I usually set my aperture at f/5.6 or 6.3 to start. To stop action you’ll also want to maximize shutter speeds. To freeze a walking elk you’ll need 1/250 of a second. Running and fighting scenes you may need 1/1000 of a second. In composing your scene try to avoid centering the subject and if there is motion give room in the frame to allow for the direction of travel. Now is a great time to go up and practice, so when the main event begins you can confidently make those images you've been thinking about.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

July 2010 - Coloradoan Xplore Column

A couple weeks ago I was up in the high country capturing images of mountain goats. I saw something I haven’t seen in a while. It was an 18% grey card. A photographer nearby stopped shooting, reached in his bag, pulled out his card, shot it and then carried on. That photographer was simply trying to zero out his light meter on a known tonal and reflectance value. The scene we were shooting was bright and dominated by white subjects. Our cameras meters are designed to make scenes like this very average and very dull.

There are two types of light meters used in photography; an incident and a reflective meter. An incident meter measures light falling upon it. These are often used in studio settings. While some nature photographers carry them, I find incident meters not all that practical for most outdoor and nature work. Reflective meters measure the light being reflected off a subject. These are the meters built into our cameras. Regardless of the meter used the result is the same. Our cameras light meters are designed to render scenes as middle grey or average tones. Most of the time we go along happily firing off frames and the results we get back are exactly what we see. Every now and then, we encounter a scene which fools our camera and our meter fails us. The mountain goat scene is a great example. If I shot this straight up with a centered or zeroed meter my result will be an underexposed scene. Being dominated by bright tones and white subjects the meter will turn the white colors and light tones to grey, effectively darkening the whole scene. Scenes with dominant dark or black subjects the opposite happens and our images tend to be overexposed.

So do I recommend we all add grey cards to our bulging camera bags? Not necessarily. To our cameras middle grey is not a color, it’s a tone. That means we can find middle grey almost everywhere. We just need to know where to look and where to point our cameras. I have a couple of known targets I go to when I suspect my meter may be leading me down the wrong path. A deciduous tree, green lawn medium blue sky, faded blue jeans and fall color are all examples of middle grey tones. I know if any of these targets are in the same light as the scene I shooting I can meter off them and will get a predictable exposure.

Try it for yourself. Take your camera outside, set it to manual mode and center your meter on medium green grass or leaves of a tree as a baseline. Now explore other subjects and notice how your meter responds. When I first did this I was surprised to see drastically different colors had the same tonal value. Once you have your own list of medium tone targets you’ll find you are much quicker in the field setting your exposure and also more confident in your expected results.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

June 2010 - Coloradoan Xplore Column

On the calendar, June officially marks the start of summer. As for me, I judge the seasons more by what's happening with our landscapes and wildlife. It's been a few months since I've been up to Rocky Mountain National Park. This past weekend I drove through my usual haunts. It's clear the warmer seasons are finally here. It'll be another month before wildflowers really get going, but there is some early color to work with right now. Morraine Park has an impressive display of golden banner flowers. Elk calves are bounding about. This year's nursery herds can be found in the lower valleys for another couple weeks. It won't be long before they move high up into their summer range in the open areas off Trail Ridge road.

I find the landscapes especially impressive right now. Deep green meadow grasses, a touch of early color, budding willows, concentrated wildlife and heavy snowcapped peaks offer a very appealing mix of subjects. Landscape photography isn't my primary area of focus, however, the wildlife subjects I shoot live in some of the most beautiful areas imaginable. So it's hard not to be drawn into capturing these settings. For my eye, the composition choices a photographer makes when creating a landscape image will determine whether the result is a snapshot or an impactful photograph.

The first choice we get to make is whether the image will be portrait (vertical) or landscape (horizontal). Look at the subjects in front of you. Are the primary features more vertical or horizontal? Prominent tall trees or streams flowing away from you are usually better represented in vertical format. If the features are more distributed throughout, horizontal is generally better. I also like to shoot both, and then decide which I like better, when I get back to my computer.

The second choice is about creating depth and interest in the photograph. Think foreground, middle ground, and background layers. The foreground is perhaps the most important choice you'll make. What you place in the foreground will draw your eye into the photograph. Placing a strong, uncluttered subject off center is a great way to anchor your foreground. The middle ground is also important. Many photographers place negative space here. Negative space is the area void of prominent detail. An example might be forested hillsides framing a foreground of forested meadow flowers. The key is this is not dead space, which is an area empty of any content. Your background should also be anchored with a strong subject. For instance, snowcapped peaks or a strong sky.

Now before you fire the shutter look through your view finder. Look at the proportion you've given to each layer. Well balanced images will have roughly a third of the field of view given to each layer. Also look at how the details in your image flow together. It's easy to overlook, but adjust your position, up-down or side to side, to remove any content in your image that overlaps or gets cut off from natural flow. For instance, a fence row in the foreground that sits half way up the tree line in your middle layer. Or perhaps a rainbow that is placed partially into a tree. Try to separate the subjects in your image.

While I enjoy our winter seasons, this time of year is what I live for. It's a great time to be out enjoying all Colorado has to offer.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Nature of Things in the Valley of Bears….

In good weather the flight from Prince Rupert to the Khutzeymateen Valley in northern British Columbia is a thirty minute hop. After two days of flying I was anxious to complete this final leg of the journey. We arrived at Inland Air’s seaplane terminal expecting an early departure. Several days of clear skies came to an end overnight as we stood in a grey drizzle looking at a very low cloud layer. We watched our gear get loaded into two chartered planes and stared at the skies willing things to change.

Our pilots arrived, looked around at the skies, and we overheard a short conversation between the two of them.

"It’s clear at the Khutz, scattered in between. We can follow the coast. Wanna try it?"

"Sure, why not?"

We piled into the two Dehavilland Beavers, taxied a short distance, and took flight. Through heavy, broken skies we followed the coastline north to Chatham Sound, flew through Steamer Channel where we intersected Khutzeymateen Inlet. For nearly an hour we saw nothing but thick grey clouds and the outline of a dark coast. As we broke into open skies an emerald green landscape exploded into view. Snowcapped peaks rose from the Pacific shouldering both sides of the narrow inlet. We slowed, banked steeply, and came to a stop next to the Ocean Light II, our mother ship for the next week. Photographers, gear, and supplies were offloaded quickly. I walked to the bow of the 71 foot ketch and watched our planes disappear into the horizon. I looked around and realized I’d forgotten how it felt to be swallowed up by one's surroundings. I love the enormity of this place.

Khutzeymateen is a First Nation’s word meaning "a confined space for salmon and bears". The narrow river valley is rich in natural resources. Abundant old growth red cedar and Sitka spruce forests made the Khutz a priority for commercial logging years ago. In the early 80’s a small group of conservationists began pushing for protection of the inlet. Their goal was to protect the north coast grizzly bear by preserving the eco-system in which they live. In August 1994, the B.C. government set aside 100,000 acres (about half the size of Rocky Mountain National Park) as a provincial park and Canada’s only grizzly bear sanctuary. Today the area is closed to public access, commercial logging and hunting.

I met Tom Ellison, our boat captain and bear guide, last fall while traveling the middle BC coast into the Great Bear Rainforest. He holds permits to some of the most remote and protected areas in BC, the Khutz being the most exclusive. Tom is one of two guides permitted to enter the grizzly bear sanctuary. He first traveled to the area 25 years ago holding the common belief that bears are vicious, dangerous animals ready to attack man given the opportunity. He carried a gun when he explored the area. In time his perceptions changed and the weapons were left behind. He began to believe bears were in fact gentle animals willing to co-exist if not pressured and harassed. His experience with the bears of the Khutzeymateen soon became personal and intimate. Over the years he’s come to know bears individually. He tells a story about "Lucy", the matriarch of the Khutz for over a decade. She would show in the valley every couple years with cubs. She’d often approach Tom with her cubs in tow. She’d then turn tail and walk into the dark timber for a short nap leaving the cubs behind with Tom. An hour or two later she’d return, collect her cubs, and go on her way. "Lucy" is no longer around, but her legacy lives on. Many of the blonde faced bears we photographed are her descendants and show the same gentle, relaxed behavior.

The Khutzeymateen sanctuary is a large sedge flat cut by several small creeks and tidal channels. To explore the upper sections of the estuary we used a small Zodiak and rode a rising 16 foot tide in each day. We found numerous bears feeding on grasses, bedded on stream banks and on the prowl looking for mating partners. When the tide was unfavorable we motored through the main channel glassing the shoreline for traveling and clam digging bears. The photographic opportunities were endless, limited only by our stamina to stay out in 18 hours of sunlight.

In the past year, I’ve visited the middle and north BC coasts to photograph bears. There is no doubt that the remote, rugged landscape contributes to the estimated population of 17,000 grizzly bears. Despite this flourishing population, there is a huge threat facing the region. Oil, more specifically, the Alberta Oil Sands. Sand is mined from the surface of the boreal forests of Alberta. Chemical processes extract oil from the sandy soil. Distribution of oil from Alberta would be via a future pipeline through the Great Bear Rainforest to the middle BC coast. Tankers would have to navigate the challenging inland waterway to reach the open ocean. In my opinion, this is a disaster waiting to happen. I hope the Canadian government is watching what’s happening in the wide open gulf off Louisiana and reconsidering this project.

The Khutzeymateen is a huge success story showing what results are possible when habitat is preserved for wildlife first and humans second. Send me an email if you’d like further information on bear watching in the Great Bear Rainforest or the Khutzeymateen.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

October 2009 - The Bears of the Great Bear Rainforest

Twelve months of excited anticipation vanished as I stared at the FedX scale. It read 101 lbs, my bags were exactly 35 lbs overweight. A few weeks ago I received an email from my trip organizer explaining the Canadian regional airlines I’d be flying reduced the weight limit to 66 lbs. for all baggage. I ignored his message until the night before departure. Returning home I completely unpacked and found myself staring at a mountain of camera gear, clothing and computer equipment. All of it seemed necessary. Instead of counting down the final hours to departure I was now on the clock and had to decide what I’d leave behind. That’s not an easy process for a photographer spending 12 days hundreds of miles from the nearest road, let alone anything resembling a camera retailer, should disaster strike. After three more trips to the scales I was several camera lenses, one camera body, a pile of computer equipment and several days of clothing lighter. The next morning I stepped on the airport shuttle, still 18 lbs overweight.

I really enjoy traveling, especially to places for the first time. However, my internal wiring doesn’t always allow me to enjoy the journey on trips like this. For me it becomes a logistical process, fraught with anxious moments, of moving gear and bags to each destination hoping items aren‘t lost or left behind. I have two days of travel and three flight segments ahead of me to reach The Great Bear Rainforest.

The Great Bear Rainforest is the most northern portion of the British Columbia coastline. It’s one of the largest tracts of temperate rainforest left on the planet. The coastal mountains rise steeply and plunge into the Pacific Ocean. The coastline is cut by steep inlets and fjords with countless small islands scattered about. It’s location defines remoteness and much of this true wilderness is rarely visited by humans. The area is teeming with wildlife including black bears, coastal grizzly bears, coastal grey wolves, bald eagles and a large assortment of marine mammals. A little over a year ago I met Brad Hill, a BC photographer, who leads a small group of wildlife photographers to explore this region annually. I was lucky to get one of six spots for his 2009 trip.

Our primary focus was to look for and photograph the Spirit Bear. A Spirit Bear is a rare, white-phased form of the American black bear. Spirit Bears are not albinos. The white fur color is caused by a recessive gene and when two copies of the gene are present (one from mom, one from dad) a white coat is the result. The subspecies of Black Bear found in the Great Bear Rainforest is a Kermode Bear. Not all Kermode Bears possess the recessive white coat gene so it becomes a genetic roll of the dice for an offspring to become a Spirit Bear.

Our rendezvous location was Prince Rupert, BC. While I hadn’t met the others in the group it was pretty easy to identify some of them in the airport. Photo backpacks and long lens bags aren't usually carried by most travelers. By late afternoon our group, composed of two Australians, two Canadians, one European and two American photographers, arrived at the Eagle Bluff Bed and Breakfast. We spent the next few hours sorting through gear, testing equipment and discussing protocol for photographing wildlife in remote bear country.

Our last flight was a one hour hop to Hartley Bay on a DeHavilland Beaver seaplane. The weather was cooperative and we were treated to a beautiful jaunt over the coastal range. For the next hour we skimmed over peaks watching one magnificent valley after another drop from beneath us. The landscape was simply stunning. A light dusting of snow draped the peaks. The landscape flowed steeply away from rocky summits through amber tinted tundra to deep green old growth spruce forests before finally plunging into the Pacific. We taxied into the marina and boarded the Oceanlight II, a 71 foot sailboat, that would be home base for the next 8 days.

Tom Ellison is the captain of the vessel and our bear guide. The outfitting business is highly regulated in Canada. The wildlife branch of the BC government issues a limited number of business permits, called tenure, to outfitters. Tom holds some of the most exclusive tenures in BC. He has intimate knowledge of the geography, the eco-systems and the wildlife that live there. He’s an active conservationist and has led numerous changes to environmental policy in British Columbia.

We departed Hartley Bay sailing several hours through Squally and Whale Channels. We anchored the Oceanlight II at Bishop Bay. For the next three days we took a skiff to the mouth of a small hidden stream and packed camera gear a short distance through the birch and spruce forest. Returning each night, we soaked in a nearby hot spring easing our aching muscles from hours of awkward shooting positions and hauling heavy equipment.

The stream banks were littered with salmon carcasses, many partially consumed by the resident bears. Fresh salmon pushed upstream and spawning fish thrashed in the riffles. Bears are in hyperphagia and feed round the clock this time of year. We set up on the banks in two separate locations. Less than 30 people a year visit this creek so the bears paid little attention to our presence. This was my first experience with coastal black bears bears and there are distinct differences. Most noticeably is their size. These bears are as large as interior grizzlies found in the Rockies. The other distinction is their gentle and tolerant nature. Bears wandered up and down the stream all day, some passing a very short distance from our firing shutters. We encountered several bears each day traveling the trails. By keeping still and quiet we were given glimpses into the day in a life of animals whose behavior is completely natural. They exhibited learned behavior that hasn’t been influenced by man. Quite an eye opening experience.

Leaving the Bishop Bay we sailed south through the Prince Royal Channel to our next destination, the Fjordlands. Our attention shifted to grizzly bears. Humpback whales rolled and bubble netted along the way breaking up our time in the galley. There was a lot of anticipation in what we would find at our next stop. Last fall the pink and chum salmon run was almost non-existent causing a steep fall off in visiting grizzlies. Some speculated many may not have survived the winter. Prior to our arrival only three bears had been reported in the area despite an abundant supply of salmon this season. Tom was particularly anxious. He has decades of experience with the bears in this area, many of which he‘s watched year after year. He’s watched small cubs emerge in the spring and grow up to return as adults with families of their own. Over many years some rise to be a matriarch of the valley and then quietly fade away, returning only as a memory.

We anchored in the bay of a large river a couple hundred yards off the beach. Everything was swallowed up by the size of the surrounding landscape. Towering granite domes paralleled the river to the end of a box valley. Waterfalls randomly cascaded off sheer edges draining the low hanging cloud layer. We launched the Kodiak in a steady rain and motored quietly through the estuary. We traveled as far upstream as the tide allowed looking into the understory for traveling or resting bears. We found four grizzlies throughout the morning, but none presented great photo opportunities. Mid-day we spotted a grizzly swimming along the shore with a cub of the year bouncing along the bank . For the next hour we drifted the shoreline watching the pair feed on scattered salmon carcasses. The rain picked up through the afternoon, but so did the bear activity. Over the next two days grizzlies continued emerging in the estuary with the count growing to thirteen. It’s obvious the bears are here to for the salmon. There’s a truce in place and they seem to know this time of year is about feeding, not fighting.

My final afternoon we were back with the sow and cub. She was calling a small island home. She waded the waters edge grabbing fish, eating a portion and sharing the rest with her cub. When they finished feeding the pair wandered back into the cover. The cub was bedded at her feet and the sow began glancing into the deep canyon behind her. She looked alert and we soon found out why. A pair of wolf howls began to roll from the forest. The cub looked up anxiously and they began to move. As the howling continued the bears disappeared. The sow could easily fend for herself, but it’s doubtful she could defend her cub from a pack of wolves. As we returned to the boat we saw the sow again. She had perched herself on a high rock bench. She had a defendable position and a 360 degree view of the valley.

As we sailed south to Bella Bella I had the opportunity to talk with Tom about my visit. I learned that despite it’s remote location and scale The Great Bear Rainforest faces many challenges. Seventy percent of it’s 25,000 square miles remain unprotected. Logging and mining threaten bear and wolf habitat. Unregulated trophy hunting is having a profound impact on the grizzly population. The marine habitat is also having trouble. Open net salmon farms have introduced Atlantic salmon into the ecosystem creating concern on the impact of a reproducing non-native species. Additionally, the cramped confines of netted fish farms are becoming breeding grounds for increased nitrogen levels, disease and parasite infection of native fish stock. Salmon are the lifeblood of the entire ecosystem. Without changes the salmon population could fall to fractions of it’s current levels.
My ten days in the Great Bear Rainforest was the most intense wilderness experience I’ve had. As I walked away I realized wilderness has new meaning, a new definition, and my view of the natural world has expanded. The opportunity to witness true wilderness-the marriage of wild faces and wild places-is something I will savor. As a traveling nature photographer I now believe I have the opportunity, and perhaps responsibility, to participate differently. I want to make images that share more broadly my experiences and give amplitude to those fractional moments of time I borrow from the natural world. Years ago I was told photography is simply visual story telling. I now understand that.

May 2010 - Coloradoan Xplore Column

Last month I wrote about utilizing our local botanical and flower gardens as photography playgrounds, specifically with macro photography. Aside from being a ton of fun, I find macro photography helps sharpen my skills and fine tune my approach in other areas of work. This is especially true with composition. It seems when asked a lot of photographers think macro is always about super close images. Those sci-fi, alien looking images of an insect’s face often come to mind. While that is certainly one aspect, its’ not the only method. For me the creative process is at times limited the closer I shoot. When my frame is full with a subject my image largely becomes about managing depth of field (DOF). When I step back to a shooting distance of even 24” I have so much more creative freedom. DOF will remain shallow, for instance at 24 inches shooting f/8 through a 50mm lens DOF is only 1.5 inches. However, when the frame isn’t consumed with a single subject I can play around a bit more. Compositionally there’s just a lot more you can do.

Placement – Centering or “bulls-eyeing” your subject should generally be avoided. The rule of thirds suggests placing your subject off center making an image more interesting and encouraging your eye to wander and explore. Placing multiple subjects off center can create interesting tension and movement throughout an image as well.

Isolation – When shooting a group of subjects try to isolate one of out the bunch. Unless everything is completely in the same plane you’ll end up with this result anyway, so do it consciously. This is a great technique for layering focus and drawing a viewer into the image. Selecting different objects to place in focus is a great way to create a completely different image with the same subject.

Simplify – My rule is if I notice my background there’s usually a problem. Our eyes are drawn to sharp contrast differences, visible patterns and bright colors. It’s easy to overlook, but make a habit of exploring your background. Look for hot spots (bright contrast), black holes (large, empty dead space) and busy patterns that are distracting to the primary subject. Simply moving a few inches up, down or side to side can often completely eliminate distractions.

Color – Color placement is another compositional tool. To make a subject stand out place complimentary or opposite colors over one another. For example yellow against blue or red against green will make the subject pop. Choosing similar tones or colors, such as blue and green, can soften the image and is a great approach to emphasize texture or shapes within an image.

There are three basic decisions we make when creating an image; exposure, focusing and composition. Today’s cameras can fully automate exposure and focusing. Composition is the one selection that can’t be handed off to the camera. And frankly that’s where the fun and magic happen.

April 2010 - Coloradoan Xplore Column

One of my favorite local photography playgrounds is springing to life again. That being the botanical garden in front of the old Ft Collins High School on College Avenue. There’s a little bit of color to play with now, but in the coming weeks there will be enough to keep you busy for hours. For anyone interested in flower photography, in particular macro photography, it’s hard to beat this location.

Macro photography is simply close up photography. In the purist sense macro photography is capturing images life size or at 1:1. If you open a photography catalogue you’ll find equipment specifically designed for macro work. However to simply go out, have fun and make some beautiful images most of your existing gear will work just fine. In fact, most point and shoot camera do a great job with macro.

I separate images into two camps, documentary and abstract. Documentary is useful if you are cataloguing subjects. However, in my mind, the real fun is abstract or creative images where no rules apply. The two most challenging parts of macro are managing depth of field (DOF) and managing light.

DOF was a real headache for me until I stopped fighting it. For instance, a shooting distance of 10 inches, at f8 and a focal length of 100mm will give you DOF of 0.05 inches. That’s not much to work with. So you have to make some choices on what your subject will be and how you want to present it. To begin with explore the scene through your camera and compose the image hand held. Pay attention to the background in your image. Try to achieve uniform color and tones. Moving even a few inches can simplify and eliminate distracting shapes or stark contrast. Once you have the shot you want, place your camera on a tripod (this is when you’ll appreciate a tripod that folds nearly flat to the ground). Make sure the back of your camera (actually the digital sensor) is parallel and in the same plane as your subject. With extreme shallow DOF if your camera is even slightly angled it can be enough to cause part of your intended subject to be soft and out of focus. Turn your autofocus to the manual setting. I do this for a couple of reasons. First most cameras autofocus systems struggle at this working distance. Second, what you choose to place in focus is part of the creative process. Also set your shutter release to self timer. This will help to eliminate any vibration from pressing the shutter.

One of the cool things with macro is with a couple of ‘tools’ you can do it all day long, regardless of light conditions. I carry a small umbrella and a small reflector. By placing the umbrella around or over my subject I can soften light during intense times of day. Adding the reflector allows me to re-direct light brightening the subject.

Now comes the fun part. Use the narrow DOF to your advantage. Move up, down, in and around your subjects. Try shooting through leaves or flower petals to create a filtered effect. A couple weeks ago I learned about a technique called ‘focusing with your toes’. Lay on the ground with your elbows acting as a tripod. Push yourself forward and backward using only your feet. As you do you’ll see different images created as the plane of focus travels. Moving only a couple of inches will completely change the image. There are endless possibilities as our landscape continues to wake up to spring. Your only limitation is the number of memory cards you carry in your camera bag.

March 2010 - Coloradoan Xplore Column

March and April are great months on the wildlife photography front with bird life subjects being my first choice to observe and make photographs. Locally, I’d start with the ponds on our open space areas around town. As ice pulls back from the shoreline waterfowl are filling in the edges as they pair up and begin building nests. The easy access and their tolerance of human traffic make them pretty friendly targets for a camera.

A little south of Ft. Collins at St. Vrain State Park (exit 240 on I-25) is one of the largest Blue Heron rookeries in the state. The rookery is to the west of the park and on private property. While the location doesn’t permit close quarter shooting there is a lot of activity which brings other photographic opportunities from this normally shy subject.

For those interested or willing to drive a bit further, Sand Hill cranes would top my list. The Sand Hill migration is an epic journey. Beginning on the gulf coast many of these birds travel as far as Siberia to nest. A documentary image of the journey alone might be enough, however, Sand Hills are gorgeous and entertaining subjects . They stand nearly three feet tall, their bodies are light gray with rust colored highlights, white cheeks and a deep red patch on their forehead. They congregate in our part of the country to pick waste grain from fields and put on necessary pounds to complete the spring migration. It's during this stop that they are available for the photographer. During the day they forage in fields and perform their mating dance. It’s a spectacular show as birds toss sticks in the air, bow to one another, hop, and leap into the air with outstretched wings. Portrait and action shots abound throughout the day. It’s best to photograph from or near your vehicle. Walking into a field or trying to approach on foot is wasted effort. As evening approaches they return to river bottoms. An endless stream of birds glide, parachute, and roll from the sky as they roost for the night. In the morning, they begin walking upstream concentrating in numbers just prior to taking flight in mass. Sand Hills are graceful, deliberate flyers making it relatively easy to capture aerial shots. Add in the possibility of spectacular light from sunrises and sunsets and you have the ingredients for some dramatic images. Sand Hills do show up randomly around Ft. Collins. But for the best experience you‘ll need to drive a bit. The Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge is a little over 4 hours from Ft. Collins. As many as 20,000 cranes visit this area. For area lodging and current bird counts visit for the most up to date information. Around six hours from Ft Collins you can find yourself at the Rowe Sanctuary in Kearney, Nebraska. This is ground zero for the migration. In some years as many as 400,000 cranes visit this stretch of the Platte River. Visit to get information and make reservations for blinds or tours.

Winter was a real grind this year. The season of frozen fingers is finally drawing to a close. Enjoy the re-emergence of spring. Whether viewing or photographing bird life, it’s a great time to get outside with your camera.

February 2010 - Colorado Xplore Column

Cabin fever must be striking the photography community in Ft Collins. In the past month I’ve received several emails asking for my thoughts on locations, classes and workshops. Apparently I must not be the only one filling out dates for the months ahead. For the most part, I go solo on trips as I find wildlife photography harder to do well in large numbers. However, I really enjoy and look forward to attending a couple of photo workshops each year. It’s a relaxing activity shared with others who have a similar passion.

From my experience workshops break down into a couple of categories:
Skill workshops focus on a specific skill or technique. Some workshops are categorized by level (i.e. basic, intermediate, etc.). Others offer instruction in a specific technique. For example sunrise, sunsets, people, or macro photography. These workshops are great if you’re looking to build base knowledge or a go deeper with a specific technique.

Location workshops are my favorite. These are opportunities to visit a great location with an instructor or leader that is intimately familiar with photographing the location. There is usually a classroom session where topics and techniques for that location are covered. The rest of the time is spent in the best spots shooting during the best light. If you’ve ever wanted to visit a location, but were hesitant due to logistics and options, a location workshop is a great choice.
Workshops will shorten your learning curve with new techniques or locations. Working in a small group gives you the opportunity to share ideas and results with others. In most situations the instructor sets aside time to review your work. As a result, you get lots of feedback and you can then apply your learnings to the next day when you go back out.

So how do you find a photo workshop? There are lots to choose from. A Google search the will return thousands of results. You can start there and narrow it down to an area that is of interest. Another great resource is photography associations. Many of these organizations have forums where members post upcoming events. Rocky Mountain Nature Association ( in Estes Park offers dozens of courses that begin in May and run throughout the summer.
Making sure it’s top notch takes a little more work:

• Start by asking to speak with someone who’s attended the workshop. Get clarification on the instructor's experience and style of teaching.
• Confirm what the workshop includes, and what it doesn’t. Lodging, meals and transportation are key considerations, especially if your location is remote or if you have particular needs.
• Ask for an equipment list ahead of time. Don’t worry if you don’t have everything they recommend. Many local camera retailers have a rental department.
• Practice before you go. Re-acquaint yourself with your camera, the settings, the manual and your accessories. In the darkness of morning, on location, is not the time to find out a filter is missing or that you can't remember the menu choice to bracket a shot.
• Pack the right clothing. Weather offers mood to a photograph and often the best images come during the most uncomfortable weather.

Feel free to send me an email if you are looking for additional information. Remember that the best cure for cabin fever is planning for Spring outings and Spring is right around the corner!

January 2010 - Coloradoan Xplore Column

I got another reminder this past weekend of how fortunate we are to have such abundant natural resources in and around Fort Collins. Once the holiday season is over I need to keep myself busy. I’m never sure exactly which day it will arrive, but sometime right after the first of the year I get spring fever. It’s odd because I look forward to winter. I enjoy the colder temperatures, the mood of snow covered landscape photos and the cooler feel of winter light. Regardless, I get antsy this time of year, so when I got an invite to tag along and photograph a goose hunt I jumped on it.

I’ve never done still photography in a live hunting situation, so when I pulled into the field I was still undecided how was going to approach this. While the group went about setting up decoys I wandered around their blind. I marked distances, evaluated backgrounds and picked a couple spots behind the blind where I could hide my camouflaged self and camera. In the end I decided to start with some longer shots so I drove to the south end of the field and parked. I assembled my camera gear, walked to the edge of a cattail marsh and sat down. I began searching the sky for signs of the morning flight from Fossil Creek Reservoir. Wildlife photography is often long periods of waiting and watching so I made myself comfortable. Throughout the year a lot of the work I do is focused on a specific species, season or event. When I get dialed into one thing it’s easy to miss other activity happening right under my nose. I can remember a number of trips where I commented “it’s pretty slow right now, there just isn’t much going on.” That morning was different, as time wore on I began to notice all kinds of life. Song birds were jumping around the weeds picking up seeds. A pair of redtail hawks cruised above the cattail marsh. A lone bald eagle paid a visit to a cottonwood tree behind me. I heard the yip of a nearby coyote. The longer I sat there, the more I began to see. As if on cue, a pair of red foxes emerged from the cattails. For the next hour I watched and photographed these two foxes hunt and play throughout the field. They finally bedded down for a mid-morning nap a short distance from where I sat giving me a couple of unique poses and expressions. As I walked back to my vehicle I realized I didn’t take one photograph of geese, but I did make several other images by simply finding a spot, sitting down and letting things happen. I’m pretty sure the next time I’m feeling things are a bit slow I’ll remind myself of this winter morning and that in the natural world there is never nothing going on.

December 2009 - Coloradoan Xplore Column

If you’re interested in bird photography it’s becoming a target rich environment around Fort Collins. In the last few weeks thousands of migrating geese have arrived joining our resident population. I’ve also seen a growing number of bald eagles showing up at Fossil Creek Reservoir and along the Poudre River east of town. Avian photography has been a seasonal thing for me. I’m not sure why, as they present endless action shots and their interactions with one another can be pretty entertaining. So for the next couple of months I’ll be staying closer to home and enjoying the growing numbers of waterfowl and eagles in our local area.

Birds are active subjects, sometimes finicky and are found in a variety of settings. The type of photograph I want to make dictates my choice in location, time of day, and equipment.

In the Field
Waterfowl use our city parks and open space areas as resting, feeding, and watering locations. These spots tend to be more forgiving for photographers as birds tend to be more accustomed to human traffic and will often tolerate a closer approach. I like these locations for capturing close up portrait images. If you pick a spot, sit down and wait you’ll usually have plenty of natural action play out in front of you. I also like to work locations outside of town. This involves a little more time and effort, but it’s worth it for me. Geese are creatures of habit. They use larger bodies of water (Fossil Creek and Windsor Reservoirs for example) as resting locations and leave en masse twice a day to eat. By watching their direction of travel I can usually locate a field they are hitting each day to feed. Geese are followers, so when one group favors a location there are often large numbers joining in. I then begin knocking on doors to get permission to access the field.

Once I have selected my location I consider two things to determine how and where I set up. The first is the sun. Place the sun to your back or at least quartering behind you. Backlit wildlife images are some of my favorites. However this is often a waiting game and it’s flat out painful to search the sky with the sun in your face. The second consideration is the wind. Try to place the wind at your back. Birds land and take off into the wind and I typically prefer the action coming towards me.

Camouflage is an important piece of equipment when I shoot in field. I’ve used a variety of blinds, but for the most part I find them too restrictive. Portable blinds limit my field of view and are a hassle to move around. I also find sitting inside an enclosure takes away from the experience. Instead I choose to wear camouflage clothing and also cover my camera. I’ve had great luck with this approach as I can shoot any direction and have complete freedom to move and readjust. It’s also a much more intimate experience with wildlife, which I prefer. The key is get to your location well before the birds show up. Trying to sneak up on 1000 pairs of eyes with a tripod and camera is impossible, not matter how good your disguise is.

I mentioned this can be a waiting game. Dress for it. I can tell you from personal experience you won’t enjoy this or stay long if your limbs are going numb.

Behind the Camera
For action shots my choices are all about maximizing shutter speed. For flying shots I want shutter speeds in excess of 1/1000 of a second if I can get them, especially if I’m hand holding the camera. For portrait shots my choices are about choosing an aperture setting to give me the depth of field (DOF) I want in the image. Choosing a smaller aperture setting (f/5.6 or smaller) provides shallower DOF allowing me to isolate the subject. If I want more of the field of view in focus I choose a higher aperture setting (f/11 or higher) to give me deeper DOF. With portraits I also consider my point of view, or the angle I’m shooting. I try to avoid shooting down or at a sharp downward angle if I can. When I place my shots horizontal to the subject or close to ground level they look more natural and I’m much happier with the results.

It’s a great time of the year to experiment and play with your camera. Mix things up and see what results your eye likes best. If you spend a little time learning a location, show up early and plan your shots I’m sure you’ll come away with some great images.

November 2009 - Coloradoan Xplore Column

November seems to be the month where most of my time is spent sitting in front of my computer, rather than sitting behind my camera. Some of it is weather and the season, but a lot of it is sheer necessity. I have thousands of files that need further sorting and also deserve a second look. Having a structured process for handling and safeguarding images makes this work a lot easier. Like many I have a workflow I follow that sorts, organizes, processes and protects my files. I don’t think there is one right way to do this. What I do think is important is that you keep your process consistent. Protecting and backing up your image files is easy to overlook.

There are three parts to my workflow:
-Backup newly captured files in the field
-Sort, catalogue and backup files
-Post process and backup files

Yes, backup is a common theme. Last January my PC completely died without any indication something was going wrong. I would have lost years of work if I hadn’t backed up my files. Here’s an overview of some of the things I do to ensure I don’t lose any content.
Most my shots are on 4GB memory cards. There are a couple reasons I do this. I’d rather distribute images across several cards, rather than have an entire trip on a few. Cards do fail and they do get lost. The thought of losing everything on a trip is a tad scary. When I’m traveling I make several backup copies of my files each night. The contents of one 4GB card fit onto a single DVD disc. Making a one for one copy is a simple process. Larger memory cards would require me to divide the files across several disks, leaving room for error.

I also keep a data storage drive in my camera bag. The one I use is an Epson P-3000 multimedia viewer. It’s has a 40GB hard drive with a 4 inch display. I can back up my cards in the field without a PC and view the contents quickly. It’s a nice device to have when you need to erase a memory card to keep shooting and don’t have time to fire up a PC.

When I’m traveling I make a minimum of three copies of image files each night. I burn each memory card to a DVD disk, I copy files to my data storage drive and I keep a copy on my laptop hard drive. If possible, I don’t erase a card until the contents are securely on my home system.

I use Adobe Lightroom to import, view and sort files, deleting the obvious misses right away. I catalogue content using the date taken and a keyword subject. This allows me to go back and quickly find a file remembering the date of a trip or simply the subject. For post processing I’ve begun using Capture One as a RAW converter and Adobe Photoshop for more detailed work.
I don’t keep any image files on the internal hard drive of my home system. Instead I have a series of external hard drives dedicated to specific content. One stores my original files, the second stores my Lightroom files, the third stores my Photoshop files and the fourth stores my ready to print files. A fifth drive backs up each weekly. And yes, I admit I’m a bit over the top, once a month I put a copy of my original and my post processed files on yet another hard drive which is kept in a safety deposit box away from my home. Hard drives do fail, for a complete fail safe process I would have all my files on physical media such as a solid state drive or DVD disks. Maybe I’ll get to that this winter.

Digital photography has made it almost free to take pictures. Regardless of whether you are the family historian or shooting for income, take care in how you handle your image files. With a little planning you’ll be able to easily find, enjoy, and restore your images, should there be a mishap.

Coming Attractions:
There is plenty of wildlife action to be found. The Big Horn Sheep rut will be winding down in December, but rams are still active and can be found with groups of ewes. The Idaho Springs to Georgetown section of I-70 in a great spot. In the Rocky Mountain National Park area elk can be found moving to places where there is open ground for grazing. In between snow storms, I like Morraine Park. Keep an eye out for coyote and fox. Winter is a great time to photograph these guys. Their coats are beautifully full and they’re much easier to spot against winter landscapes. Around Fort Collins the annual arrival of waterfowl will begin and before long, bald eagles will start showing up at Fossil Creek Reservoir. There is a lot to look forward to as winter sets in.

October 2009 - Coloradoan Xplore Column

Earlier this month I completed my first trip to photograph coastal bears in British Columbia. While I've had experience with their interior cousins this turned out to be some of the most challenging photography I’ve done. Throughout the west we are graced with hundreds of days of bright sunshine each year. Working on the edges of daylight I’ll have to adjust something things, but normally when I head into the field the quantity of light is not usually my primary concern. While the weather in BC was unusually nice, working in the diffused light from cloud cover and the shelter of the rainforest canopy forced me to make some significant changes in my approach. To properly expose a scene and capture wildlife action I had to push my equipment and choose settings I had never used or tested.

We have three knobs to turn when making exposure choices. Aperture, shutter speed and ISO.
• Think of aperture as the throat of your camera. Aperture settings (f/stops) determine the amount of light entering the camera measured by the size of the iris or opening in the lens. Smaller aperture values (f/2.8, 4.0) are wider in diameter permitting more light. Smaller values also provide shallower depth of field (DOF). Increasing the aperture value decreases the amount of light gathered, but also increases DOF.

• Shutter speed is the amount of light entering the camera measured in time (seconds, minutes). Shutter speed also plays in when handholding or shooting off a tripod. A rough guide for handholding is the slowest possible shutter speed used should not go below the focal length of your lens. So if shooting a 200mm lens, you should shoot off a tripod if your shutter speed goes below 1/200 of a second.

Aperture and shutter speed work together in the following way. A smaller aperture, passing more light, permits higher shutter speeds with shallow DOF. This is generally what wildlife photographers are seeking. Larger apertures provide deeper DOF, but pass less light and require slower shutter speeds. This is typically a landscape photographer's formula and not a problem when shooting off a tripod.

The third variable in exposure is ISO. The rule of thumb is to use the lowest ISO setting you can. For most of the wildlife and landscape work I do locally I can get by with ISO 400 or less. When you can’t get the shutter and aperture combinations you need to make an image you have to increase ISO values to buy bandwidth.

• ISO determines the sensitivity to light of film or the sensor. Typical ISO settings range from 100 to 1600. Smaller values are less sensitive or slower, higher values are more sensitive or faster. There is also a quality component to ISO settings. Faster, or more sensitive ISO values can also introduce noise, diminishing the quality of the capture. We’ve all seen images enlarged to a point where a grain or snow effect emerges. With digital cameras this noise shows as random red or black dots and fuzziness in the image.

The bears and the environment in BC broke all my standard variables and for capturing workable images. We were shooting fast and at a variety of angles which required 90% of my shots to be handheld instead of off my tripod. This was tough when slinging long lenses. To compensate I had to get the fastest shutter speeds possible. With the soft light, DOF became a real problem for me. I could increase my aperture setting, giving me more light to work with, but not without the expense making images with too shallow of DOF. My only option was to increase ISO. I had shot very few images with my equipment above ISO 800 so I was really concerned about the quality of images I’d be taking home. I took advantage of the web to research my cameras capabilities before we hit the field. DXO Labs ( is an objective, independent lab that tests digital camera image capture quality. By reviewing their site, I was able to determine how my camera would perform at ISO settings well beyond anything I had shot previously.

In the end I shot most of the 6000+ images I captured at ISO 1600-2000. Having gone through these files I do have more noise than I’m accustomed to. However, it’s not beyond what I can deal with and correct on the computer. Exposure is what differentiates a good photo from a great one. So the lesson for me is broader preparation and more thoroughly ringing out a camera’s capability. I can assure you this winter I’ll be shooting a lot of test images so the next time I find myself with a new set of variables I’ll be better prepared to handle them.

September 2009 - Coloradoan Xplore Column

I’d be hard pressed to think of a time of the year that better defines photographing the Colorado landscape than fall. Wildflower season might be a close second, but let’s face it our tourism billboards of grand mountain landscape often have gold highlights. While our fall palette may not be as diverse as in some parts of the country it’s a spectacular showing. Especially if you slow your pace and look down and around, there is plenty to work with beyond the big, sweeping vistas.

I learned an important lesson a few seasons ago when I was out working on fall landscapes. As usual, I found the light I preferred was on the edges, dawn and dusk. That left me with a big part of the day where the scenes around me were awesome, but the mid-day light was harsh and resulted in less than interesting photos. On a whim, I took off on foot with no real agenda for my camera. I began wandering into deep, hidden canyons and dark, thick forests. In these sheltered settings I found I could use the landscape itself to create the light I was looking for.

If seasons have personalities I’d have to say fall would be comfort, restfulness or repose. In autumn I enjoy shooting stream and cascades. The hurried energy of summer is gone and water levels now present an almost zen- like feeling. Sprinkle in the red, purple and orange hues from ground cover and you have some amazing scenes. In canyon or forested locations you can often shoot into late morning and early afternoon since light is filtered through the canopy of the forest or sheltered by the canyon walls.

I’ve also learned to think small. Walk off trail and look down. Lichen covered rocks are draped and sprinkled with golden leaves. If you look closer you’ll often see dew still clinging to flora. The canvas of the forest floor can keep you busy for hours. To find the light you’re looking for all you have to do is move your feet.

For me, landscape photography is about making composition choices. It’s about arranging subjects and elements of the image together into a photograph that tells your story. The first choice I make is what glass I want to shoot through. Your lens selection is making a decision on what you want to include and what you want to exclude from the scene. It’s about the perspective and relationship you want to create between the subjects in the image. Our eyes see the equivalent of a 50mm lens, but they also see 180 degrees. The first thing to accept is we can’t create the same image our eyes see in one shot. A focal length less than 50mm widens the angle of view, reduces the perspective of size and expands the perspective of space. A focal length greater than 50mm does the opposite. It narrows the angle of view, increases the perspective of size and compresses the perspective of space. Unless I’ve scouted a location, I typically study a scene and look at my composition options before I slap a lens on and start firing away.

Depth of field (DOF) is another important consideration. For wildlife it’s easy, you usually want your DOF to be narrow blurring everything around the subject to make it pop and stand out from the surroundings. For landscape it’s very different. Our choices are a big part in how we create visual depth in a two dimensional medium. Larger f stop numbers (f/16, f/22 etc) give us deeper DOF. Meaning as you look into the photo more of the image is in focus as you move from the foreground to the background. Most DSLRs today have a DOF preview button. It’s not perfect, but it does help. By pressing the DOF preview button your viewfinder shows you how much of your scene will be in focus when you press the shutter. Another technique for handling DOF is hyperfocal focusing. It sounds technical and it can be confusing. Google hyperfocal and you can find a long list of resources that do a great job of explaining the technique. By using a hyperfocal chart you can very quickly determine what setting on your camera is necessary to obtain maximum DOF. I have a laminated chart in my bag that I refer to frequently. This may all sound really complex, but it’s not with a little practice. And with digital there’s no cost to make mistakes.

So when you head out to start capturing our fall season think about a couple of things:
• Study a scene before taking a shot. Look for distracting elements. Our eyes are drawn to bright, high contrast areas. Unless you want these included in the image get rid of them. An example might be a bright or grey colored sky. Crop the image through the viewfinder.
• Work a scene. Take a broad, sweeping shot. Zoom in for a different perspective. Move your feet and change the point of view.
• Look for complimentary colors. Yellow aspen leaves against a blue sky really pops. The same is true with red ground cover in a green forested location.
• Look for opportunities to create depth in your photos. Think about DOF and placing objects front to back in the photo.

August 2009 - Coloradoan Xplore Column

The end of August brings two emotions for me. The first is a little disappointment knowing that summer is rapidly winding down. When the snow is flying I'm a planner, making long lists of what I want to do in the warm, green months ahead. When I review the list this time of year it's always far from complete. The good news is two of my favorite months are ahead.

I have two primary activities over the next eight weeks. The elk rut and fall landscapes. This month let's focus on elk photography. Here's what's ahead. Mid-August elk remain high in their summer range. Locally that means at or above timberline. Herds remain mostly separated. Bulls are grouped together, as are cows, yearlings and calves. This changes quickly. Early snow can push elk off their summer range temporarily. However, the primary driver of environmental and social change is shortening days. Bulls will begin wandering alone. Nursery herds soon become harem herds. Last year I found bulls together still donning full velvet in mid August. Two weeks later over Labor Day some of the same bulls were alone, velvet freshly removed and bugling in Horseshoe Park.

Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the top spots for wildlife watchers and photographers wanting to witness this fall classic. I've met photographers from all over the country who travel here, in our backyard, to shoot this spectacle. The most popular locations are Horseshoe Park, Beaver Meadows and Moraine Park. I do about half my work from roadside locations, the rest on foot across the trail systems.

I've been going to the park for over 20 years to watch the rut and for the most part it plays out pretty consistently. However to capture the event as a photographer my results are directly proportional to my preparation. So this month I begin driving the road systems. I get reacquainted with parking locations and changes year to year. I talk with rangers to understand their crowd management plans. The times of day park areas are closed to hiking and any yet un-posted seasonal parking closures. I also hit the trails. Prime time is dawn and dusk which means I'll often be traveling to or from locations in the dark.

I also completely prepare my equipment before I leave the house or camp. When I arrive all I have to do is grab three items and go. I carry two cameras. One body with a 500mm lens. I mount this one to a tripod and carry it over my shoulder. The second camera is paired with a 100-400mm. I carry this one in a fanny pack. In my pack I also have extra batteries, memory cards, a 1.4 teleconverter, a shutter release, a lens cleaning kit and a small absorbent cloth.
The daily routine is pretty predictable. Early morning elk are found in open areas. Cows and calves graze toward forest edges. Bulls are busy keeping their herds intact and facing off with challengers. For the most part this is a vocal feud, but every now and then, horns are locked and dust flies. These are great moments. There are a couple of hours of activity before the elk find their way into dark timber to bed for the day. The reverse process plays out in the afternoon with elk back in the open toward dusk.

I pick a spot with the sun directly or quartering behind me. I sit, listen and watch. I watch the herds general direction of travel and I look for repeating behavior with bulls. Bulls will get into a pattern of peeling off the herds, charging into the open, bugling, scraping and then wandering back. I'll adjust my position only to get into a facing position. Running from spot to spot on a trail or roadside seldom works. If anything the commotion pushes the animals. My number one rule is never do anything where the animal reacts to me.

My exposure choices are pretty consistent. I usually start with ISO 400, moving up or down with light. For aperture I select f/5.6-6.3. If I'm using a teleconverter I use f/8. I adjust my shutter speed to compensate for the activity in front of me. For a walking animal you can freeze action at 1/60 to 1/125 of a second. A running subject I like to be at 1/500 of a second or faster.
Sitting and waiting allows me to plan my composition. I shoot from a sitting position and try to capture the natural moments that tell a story. Your point of view or shooting angle is also important. Try to avoid shooting down. When picking a location try to get eye level or slightly below the activity if possible. Also pay attention to the background. There is nothing more disappointing than having captured that killer shot, only to find some distracting element you missed. For portrait shots fill the frame and pay attention to not clip antlers or part of the body. Shoot both horizontal and vertical shots. Avoid centering the subject giving room for the direction of travel or the direction it’s facing.

Most of all, enjoy this annual event. It's a great family activity. With a little planning and preparation this experience can be even more enjoyable.

July 2009 - Coloradoan Xplore Column

Photography is a process of constant learning through trial, error, breaking rules and experimenting. Early summer presents so many opportunities to make nature photographs I find I have to pick a few to focus my efforts. Selecting a couple of projects allows me to fine tune my approach. I also can begin to anticipate changes as the season progresses. For wildlife, by following a subject, I become familiar with their range, behavior and daily routines. In the case of landscape, I get to monitor what’s happening at what elevation and how rapidly change is occurring. I also get to evaluate what light I prefer. By repeatedly working my subjects I find I can incrementally improve my results and capture peak times.

I consider myself a wildlife photographer first, landscape and flora come second. I have an annual calendar that details what I plan to work on each month of the year. When I look at the month of July there are several notations. On the wildlife side my favorite subjects are the elk herds hanging out in the tundra bowls at timberline. I also like to look for velvet antlered mule deer in the forest edges. Elk are predictably found in bachelor herds(groups of bulls) and nursery herds (cows and calves). For the most part I don’t find portraits of bull elk in velvet this time of year all that interesting. I look for shots that take advantage of the landscape they live within, more animal-scapes. Shots with majestic bulls against open, high altitude terrain with towering peaks in the background really tell a spectacular story. I love to sit with nursery herds looking to capture those tender moments between a mom and her offspring. Making these kinds of photographs usually means a commitment of time. My choices on camera settings are pretty straight forward. I chose a relatively shallow depth of field to make the subject pop. I find a neutral tone to expose my scene. In composing the shot I consciously avoid centering the subject giving room for the direction of travel or the direction it’s facing. Knowing my camera settings are dead on I sit and wait. My favorite wildlife shots are those capturing natural behavior and tell a story. The ones where I’ve been able to borrow a moment in the season.

The other notation in my calendar this month is wildflowers. I’ve been scouting locations for the past month. With our wet spring it looks to be a banner season. The issue I constantly face is the images in my mind eye don’t match the scenes I see through my lens. I have this on-going challenge of initially not being able to break a down a scene. I’m conflicted between seeing the large, grand scenes with fields of color and the more intimate, delicate micro scenes. I naturally want to look at it all. In doing so I quickly find the stalks of dead grass, the brown beetle infected trees and so on. The imperfections stand out and I begin to discard the scene. By returning over and over to a location I begin to see possibilities. When I finally start to break things down they become workable and I begin to see a photograph. There are so many options when shooting flora. Here’s a short list of things I do:
1. Plan to shoot a lot. Digital affords making mistakes.
2. Shoot off a tripod.
3. When composing a shot avoid centering the primary subject.
4. Shoot early and late, avoid harsh mid-day light.
5. Shoot both vertical and horizontal frames.
6. Look for opposite colors with strong contrast. Red, pink against green. Yellow against blue.
7. Hunt your frame. Look for distracting contrast, black holes or unidentified objects.
8. Move your feet. The nice thing with wildflowers is they don’t move. By relocating a couple of inches you can completely recreate the shot.
9. Get low, change your point of view. Shoot flower level or ground level. Shooting up at a flower makes for some really unusual shots.
10. Experiment and have fun.

Coming attractions:
Wildflower opportunities abound.

Elk remain happily grazing in the high country. These dynamics will begin to change in mid August in anticipation for the rut. Look for deer in open meadows adjacent to timbered slopes early and late in the day.

Rivers are dropping to levels I find interesting for photographs. The raging, swollen streams flow with a more relaxed attitude and streambanks are lush with mature growth. Back country waterfalls also begin to show a little personality. Shoot water scenes when sunlight is completely off the water. Shaded or cloudy days are best.

June 2009 - Coloradoan Xplore Column

For most of my adult life I ran around with a fly rod chasing anything that swam. When asked “what do you like about fly fishing?” I usually answered, “It’s not just the fishing I enjoy, it’s also the places my fly rod takes me.” The same is now true with photography. The journey is as much a trill as the final result. I like where my camera leads and I enjoy how the world looks through a camera lens.

Learning to translate how my eye and my camera sees took asking a lot of questions, trial and error. There are distinct differences in field of view, focusing and dynamic range of light. For instance, our eyes see roughly 180 degrees. Except for specialty lenses, a cameras field of view is much less. Our eyes focus at roughly 3 degrees, basically a single point or a very narrow band. A camera can be in focus across the field of view and to infinity. Where our eyes make up the difference is with rapid eye movement. Our eyes constantly shift around, rapidly jumping from one object to another, making it appear our entire field of vision is in focus. Our eyes also have much more capability to identify detail across a broad range of light, seeing 12 to 14 stops of light. Our cameras can see something like 5 stops of light, across shadows and highlights. When it comes to dramatic contrast range there is no way a camera can capture everything our eyes see in one image.

Learning to see as your camera sees is an important skill for all photographers. Without it, you’ll consistently be scratching your head looking at an image and saying, “well that’s sort of what it looked like.”

With landscape work I have a photograph in mind I want to make. Every now and then something just catches my eye. Driving to Denver a couple weeks ago this is exactly what happened. The rolling hills east of the Berthoud exit stopped me in my tracks. The hillsides to the east of the interstate are covered with alternating strips of maturing winter wheat and fallowed soil. These green and deep mocha patterns undulate diagonally toward the horizon. It was late in the day, the light was low in the sky. In my minds eye I saw a photograph with this mosaic crop pattern, lit with great afternoon light and towering thunderheads billowing on the horizon painting pastel hues. I’ve now made 6 trips to this spot and have yet to take my camera out of the car.

When composing a new scene I’ve found I have to scout the location and plan thoroughly how I’m going to set up to make an appealing image. I’ve knocked on doors to secure permission to walk into the field. I’ve watched morning and evening light to see what I like better. I’ve wandered around the wheat field to find the location that gives me the best rendition of the scene floating in my head. I’ve also studied the horizon to identify distracting objects like oil wells, farm houses and tree lines. Anything I don’t want in the shot. There are also a couple of “tricks” I use when studying a scene. One is called the squint test. This is where you squint your eyes while looking at your scene. This helps to see contrast similar to how the camera will capture it. Where the shadow and highlights live. It’s not exact, but it works for me. Another is to cover one eye. This gives me a feel for how I want to handle focus and depth of field. The farmer told me he’ll be cutting this field in July so I have a couple more weeks to make a photograph. If I don‘t get it done, it’ll go in my field journal as another “to do” item on what’s becoming a long list. Seasons are short and time always seems to run away from me.

Coming attractions:

The menu of choices for July is pretty deep. My first choice would be wildflowers. Start in the parks and valleys of Rocky Mountain National Park and work your way up in elevation over the month. There are wildflower festivals in some of the mountain towns. Crested Butte is one that comes to mind in mid-July. The Snowy Range outside Laramie is another choice spot. For wildlife look in the open bowls on Trail Ridge. Both elk bachelor and nursery herds can be found comfortably grazing in many areas. Keep an eye on the skies if you wander off the road up there. Afternoon thunderstorms appear quickly. I’ve huddled under rock outcroppings more than once waiting for lightening squalls to pass.

May 2009 - Coloradoan Xploore Column

“My favorite place to go is where I’ve never been” is a quote that has always made sense to me. I’ve spent the last week poking around northwestern Montana looking at country that’s fresh to my eyes. New landscape and seasonal transitions are a distractive mix. You can see and feel the tension between the seasons this time of year. The night air remains cold, but not enough to slow spring’s momentum. Rivers are on the rise, landscape is greening on the edges and wildlife is beginning to move toward their summer range. Winter is finally in the rear view mirror.

This morning I’m set up at the confluence of two rivers. Behind me, to the east, the Absaroka Range is beginning to glow as civil twilight approaches. Shadows cast across the landscape as the full moon slips from the sky toward the western horizon. For the past year I’ve been working to capture a full moon in the instant where the contrasts of day and night collide. I hope this will be one of those special moments where great light and great places meet. Weather changes suddenly in this part of Yellowstone and this morning proves to be no exception. Today the sunrise never gets a clear shot at Lamar Valley.

The transition from winter to spring can be a challenge for me. Spring makes me impatient. My first round of images always seems to show that. Change is everywhere and I feel the urge to capture it all. Winter makes me forget I can linger a while, watch things unfold and slow down. In looking at my favorite pictures there is one common theme. I made decisions on what I wanted to create before I pressed the shutter. When I work to make an image, not simply take a picture, I’m always happier with the result.

More often than not with landscape photography I usually set out with a particular shot in mind. Other times I’ll just wander about and see what presents itself. In either case when I’m drawn to something I stop myself from lining up and firing away. I explore the scene and ask “what specifically do I find appealing.” I look for mood, a story or an expression. Once I know what I want the image to say I make my exposure and composition choices. A wide aperture will give me shallower depth of field allowing me to emphasize the subject. For depth in the scene I’ll choose a narrower aperture. My shutter speed choices determine whether I’m looking to stop or create motion.

With wildlife photography I really slow my pace down. It’s not unusual for me to sit with a subject for several hours. The images I find most appealing illustrate natural behavior. Practice and preparation is important to get the results I’m looking for. I start by learning environmental, seasonal and behavioral characteristics. This helps me locate animals and anticipate patterns. Color variations and tonality is also important. A visit to a zoo or game farm is a great way to practice exposure choices. I also choose a wider aperture to knock down or blur the surrounding space. This will help make the subject pop if the background is busy.
Whether you are making landscape or wildlife images the goal is to enjoy time outside. Capture a moment with meaning to you and share those images with friends and family.

Ray Rafiti is a Fort Collins nature photographer. He's a field contributor for Nature Photographer Magazine and a member of North American Nature Photography Association. He can be reached at Visit his work at

April 2009 - Coloradoan Xplore Column

Welcome to Wild Faces, Wild Places - Nature Photography. The desire to pursue nature photography was the result of colliding life interests. Born a "fresh air' junkie I've spent much of the past 30 years traveling and exploring diverse wilderness with a fly rod in one hand, a camera in the other. I've always been drawn to the outdoors favoring anything off the beaten path. A few years ago I made my first wintertime visit to Yellowstone National Park. During this trip my path crossed with the Druid Peak wolf pack. For five days I followed the Druids as they wandered their territory in Lamar Valley. Being witness to this intact eco-system was an instant catalyst for change in my life. Wildlife photography, in particular Rocky Mountain predators, has become my passion.

This will be a monthly column where I'll share approaches to exploring the natural world through the lens of a camera. I'll cover three content areas each month.
Road Trips - I'll share information on locations, seasonal timing, subject behavior and environmental characteristics of projects I'm currently working on.
Ready, fire, aim? - I'll dive into the mechanics or 'technical' side of photography. The emphasis will be how to take the mystery out of using your camera and how to optimize your results in the field. Much of what I'll cover will be around the use of SLR or DSLR cameras. However, point and shoot photographers won't be excluded.

Coming Attractions - Each month I'll provide a couple suggestions on subjects, locations or events in the local area that might be fun to explore with your camera
Nature photography can be as demanding or casual as you like. Our National Park system is one of my favorite destinations for the work I do. Great wildlife and landscape images are often available from roadside pull outs or short, self-guided nature trails. The fall elk rut in Rocky Mountain National Park is a great example. You can capture spectacular images of harem herds and bull elk from several roadside locations. For the more adventurous endless trails into the backcountry provide access to hidden landscapes and undisturbed wildlife.
How do I maximize my results and experience in the field? It starts with preparation. I want to know something about the behavioral and the environmental variables of my subjects. For instance I know in early summer elk will be split into nursery groups and bachelor herds. Cows will be together taking care of the new arrivals. The bulls will be together fattening up for the battles later in the year. I also know they will be more active early and late in the day. Heading out in the middle of the day will yield images of elk lounging around ruminating their breakfast. Probably not what I'm looking for. Even the most modest preparation will enhance your experience in nature, with or without your camera.

May is just around the corner and to me that means bear season. I'll be heading to Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks the beginning of May to photograph bears. I'll talk about that next month. I'll also start in on the choices photographers need to make before the shutter is pressed.
Ray Rafiti is a Fort Collins nature photographer. He's a field contributor for Nature Photographer Magazine and a member of North American Nature Photography Association. He can be reached at Visit his work at

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