6 Steps to Better Nature Photography — Review of Rob Sheppard’s New Book

6-Steps-Paper-RevHere is a fine new print book (which contains a downloadable video component) by master photographer and teacher Rob Sheppard.  6 Steps to Better Nature Photography lives up to its name.  It’s not about technical basics, nor about postprocessing—there are any number of good books on the market (e-books as well as print) that cover those topics—but about six essential considerations for anyone who wants to improve their nature photography to be aware of, take to heart, and put into practice.

What is more basic, more essential to photography than light? And so Rob opens with light. A beginning photographer can be so focused (pun intended) on the subject that he or she is totally unaware of how the light—its presence, absence, quality—is affecting the scene. (It’s a trap into which even experienced photographers can fall.) Chase the light, yes, but cultivate an awareness of how it interacts with your subject. On the theory that a picture is worth 1,000 words, Rob provides three of his own stunning photographs from Acadia National Park as examples of how light at different times of day affects the subject and thus how the image is composed accordingly.

And indeed, composition is the second step Rob covers—specifically, how to go beyond relying on your zoom lens and standing in one spot, zooming in and out to vary your compositions.  Different kinds of lenses influence how the viewer perceives the difference between the foreground and background in a photo, and Rob wants to make you aware of this; he also points out that a macro lens isn’t your only choice if you wish to make close-ups. I remember Rob teaching this very effectively in an online course several years ago. It can be a complicated topic, and I think that the presentation of this “step” could have been improved a tad just by some tweaking of the layout and formatting.

Rob Sheppard cares deeply about the environment—not simply as a collection of photographic subjects but as a living thing, a divine creation; and not only the environment as a whole or as a general concept, but every individual facet of it, from a mountain to an insect or a tiny flower. This reverence (that really is the correct word) is what, more than anything else, informs his approach to his work and to teaching it. Thus in the third step more than anywhere else, about macro and close-up photography, his knowledge of nature, of the habits of living things, comes into play. First, you can’t get pictures of insects the way he does without knowing something about how that insect behaves. Second, whatever kind of postprocessing he does, the end result remains a photograph that tells you some kind of story or conveys some information about the subject – about its natural surroundings and/or its behavior. He doesn’t exploit his subjects as raw material for “digital art,” for example.  The many inserts headed “The Nature of the Photo” not only inform you about Rob’s subjects; they also inspire and challenge you to find out something about the subjects you’re likely to encounter in your neck of the woods.

Again, Rob’s reverence for his subjects inform step four, “Avoiding Boring Photos of Nature” (if you’ve ever read his “Nature Photography Manifesto,” available as an e-book, you’ll know what I mean). This alone is worth the price of the book. You could do worse than write some of them out on index cards and tape them up where you’ll see them regularly.

Rob has been evolving into a master black-and-white photographer and, in step five, shares the fruits of his experience by outlining general principles to keep in mind if you aim to create effective black-and-white images. In step six he covers practical information about something every photographer is going to encounter while out shooting – the weather.

Rob Sheppard presents himself as an experienced photographer who is passionately in love with his craft and eager to share from is knowledge and expertise with the reader. But he never comes across as a big-shot know-it-all. He’s still on a journey too; in fact, the first words in the book are “It’s a Journey.” That’s what makes him entirely credible and what instills complete confidence in you, the reader/learner.

6 Steps to Better Nature Photography includes a video course on composition. The URL is in the back of the book, and you can watch the segments or download them to watch when you want so you needn’t be online to take advantage.  The information is basic but essential and, as always, benefits from Rob’s gifts as a teacher “live” as well as in print. Click on the title of the book or on the image of the cover and you’ll get right through to the relevant page on Rob’s website.

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Repeat Visits Pay Off in Photography

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Photographers who teach and write will often tout the benefits of returning to a spot again and again. It pays to get to know a place well. The season of the year, time of day, weather, light — there’s a whole host of factors that, in an almost unlimited number of combinations, will pretty well guarantee that the spot will never look exactly the same twice. Add to that such factors that are more under your control — your vantage point, lens, focal length, exposure, etc. — and if you’ve found a place you like, it can be a virtual goldmine of different images for you.

I’m going to illustrate this for you with examples of images I’ve made from one of my favorite spots over the years: Second Beach in Middletown, Rhode Island. Water, sand, rocks, light, people — all these and more go into ensuring an endless variety of photo opps.

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The rock with the wave breaking against it is for me one of the main visual attractions on Second Beach. Rhode Island’s coast is often windy and it didn’t disappoint on this January morning. It’s a matter of taking several shots, trying to anticipate what an approaching wave is going to do, and hoping you got a couple of good images out of the perhaps dozens you took. Tip for wave photography: Be sure your Exposure Delay Mode is turned off!

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Here’s a complete contrast. The tide is in and the water is calm. I made these images in the evening in order to be able to get the long exposures needed to get that ethereal look in the water.

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This features a close-up of the piece of rocky coast that’s on the right of the first image. I deliberately heightened the contrast between light and shadow in order to make the most of the morning sun highlighting the people.

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When the waves are up, this is a popular spot for surfing, including surfing on these stand-up boards, which attracts all ages. Here I’ve turned slightly to the left to make the most of the golden early morning light. In the background is the silhouette of Sachuest National Wildlife Refuge, a favorite site for photographers and birders alike.

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Again looking left, this time a wide-angle view featuring clouds and reflections toward the evening.

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Finally, a classic example of “Don’t forget to look behind you”: the spires of St. George’s School against a red setting sun.

Another featured attraction close by is the famous rock where Bishop Berkeley used to sit, ponder, and write. It was Bishop Berkeley who posed the question, “If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it still make a noise?” Berkeley’s rock is a photo opp all in itself.

Intimate Landscapes by Robert Rodriguez

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Robert Rodriguez, Jr. is one of the greatest landscape photographers working in the Hudson Valley. Robert has that most important gift of all — knowing how and when to capture the beautiful light. But that gift doesn’t come without hard work, work that takes time. In fact, at Sunday’s reception for his new show at the RiverWinds Gallery in his home town of Beacon, Robert emphasized that the most important “tool” in a nature photographer’s kit is time–time to return again and again to a specific place in order to scope out the best compositions and to wait patiently until the lighting conditions are optimum for your vision of a scene. As an example, he pointed to his stunning black-and-white image from Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, taken during a vacation with his family, and recounted how it took four visits to that particular site before the light was right and he got the image he wanted. This is food for thought in a day and age when prodigious prolificness seems to be demanded of photographers; Robert shows that one needn’t buy into this.

And a gorgeous image this is. I find it interesting that many nature photographers are turning to black-and-white, not exclusively, but certainly a sufficient number of magnificent black-and-white landscape pictures are turning up that one can speak of a black-and-white renaissance.

My little snapshot at the top of the blog gives you a modest (very modest) idea of Robert’s work through the windows of the RiverWinds Gallery. If you have the opportunity to visit his exhibit, it will be at the gallery through March 4. Visit the gallery’s website for opening hours and directions. It is very easy to get to (if I say that, it’s guaranteed to be true), right off Route 9D from the I-84, and Beacon itself is worth visiting, especially for art aficionados and anyone who would appreciate amazing views of the Hudson River.

Enjoy the Unexpected (or, an afternoon at the Cherry Pond)

Rob Sheppard is one of the best photo bloggers around. He brings a reflective and philosophical dimension to his writing that I don’t think I’ve encountered so consistently since the passing of the late, great Galen Rowell.  In his most recent post, Rob describes how he arrived at his intended photo destination too late for the “good light” — and made the most of it, experiencing things he would have missed had he arrived earlier and then not stayed on. Nature is not bound by arbitrary rules, he says, and he was amply rewarded by being open to (and taking advantage of) what was available instead of being disappointed by something not conforming to rigidly preset expectations.

It was timely that I read Rob’s post when I did, because I had just returned from a few days’ foliage shooting in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and had a similar experience — the difference being that I knew in advance that I was heading right into the unexpected and had to be open to anything. At this time of year, with the seasons changing, the New Hampshire mountains create their own weather, and anything is possible, including experiencing bright sunshine, clouds, rain, snow, and wind all in one day, in fact all in one afternoon. Things can change drastically when you travel a couple of miles. So, all I knew when I headed northwest for the Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge was that it wasn’t likely to be pouring rain, which was fine, all I needed to know, it was the last thing I wanted.

Getting to the Pondicherry trailhead is one thing (I’ve met many native New Hampshirites who’ve never heard of the place); then you have to hike in a good mile or more to where the action is: the shore of Cherry Pond with the spectacular view of Mount Washington and the Presidential Range on the other side. It was quite a windy day, which meant (1) the light and other atmospheric conditions might be changing several times in the course of a minute; (2) there might not be any reflections of the mountains on the pond. It did turn out that the wind occasionally abated enough to create some reflections on the pond, but I discovered that the action of the wind, when it blew, on the water produced its own kind of beauty — a shiny texture. As for the rapidly changing light and other conditions, there was nothing to do but set up the camera, find a good composition that could be tweaked here and there, watch and enjoy nature’s amazing show, and press the shutter button whenever nature’s kaleidoscope produced a new version of the scene in front of me. It was indeed quite spectaular. We’ve heard of son et lumiere — “sound and light” shows, but this was neige et lumiere — snow and light, as the interplay of snow showers and sunlight continuously created different scenes on Mount Washington’s peaks. When I arrived in New Hampshire a few days earlier there was no snow on the mountains. The morning after my visit to the Cherry Pond, Mount Washington could be seen from North Conway completely covered in snow gleaming in the bright sun. Amazing. Sun, snow, and mountains, bless the Lord.

Here’s a selection of images from this shoot. I’m not going to dwell on the technical details — that’s not really important except to say that I tend to do much less processing in straightforward nature shots than in other types of images because I want to let the natural beauty show through, and thus my processing is aimed at helping that along rather than at enhancing the image in a way that suggests that the Creator didn’t get the world quite right.

These and my many other photos (always adding new ones) can be viewed (and purchased) on my Zenfolio site.