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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Paying Photographic Homage to a Catskill Ruin

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Abandoned buildings get a lot of attention from me and my cameras, and the Cold Spring Resort in Tannersville, NY is one I’ve returned to again and again. It’s one of the few still remaining from the heyday of the Catskills resort industry. On Saturday I visited for the fourth time—or was it the fifth? In any case, the poor building is in such condition that I never know when a visit will be my last before the place finally gives up the ghost.

Speaking of ghosts, if there are any of those occupying the Cold Spring Resort’s many empty rooms, they are friendly ones. The place has a palpable, positive energy about it that I attribute to the countless people who vacationed here back in the day.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThese are photos from the latest trip. When working on a unified project (which this visit was in aid of) it’s best to process all pictures in a fairly uniform way, but I had to make one exception here with the monochrome image; it was taken with a point and shoot, which produced a color cast that, try as I might, I couldn’t get rid of except by completely desaturating it. (Even without the persistent color cast the image fairly screamed monochrome – there was no color to speak of except for that bit of greenery that, well, isn’t all that green.) I finished it off with Nik Silver Efex Pro.

The other images—made with the Nikon D7100—were subjected toNancy_6_9 rather minimal postprocessing, by which I mean that I did the usual basics in Lightroom and then finished the enhancements in Photoshop – but no plugins, despite my array of Nik and Topaz products. The day was overcast with a sky almost (fortunately only almost) verging on blah washed-out monotone, and in order to help the building and surrounding flora to emerge from the murky grayness I selected the sky, used Brightness/Contrast to darken it and increase the contrast where necessary, then inverted the selection and increased the brightness and the vibrance to make the building pop—not only the building but also whatever greenery, foliage, and flowers were present. Nancy_6_4It was important to me to make enough images showing the building (or parts of it) among the vegetation that’s slowly taking it over; a contrast between the dying building and the lively-colored vegetation that, ironically, in its autumn colors represents the dying of the year. At least for some it does; my favorite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, wrote that “Nothing is so beautiful as spring,” but then Fr. Hopkins had never experienced the stunning colors of autumn in the Northeastern USA.

I owe the idea for the postprocessing approach to renowned photographer and teacher Rob Sheppard, who is an unfailing source of wisdom as well as technical insights, though, as they say at the end of the Foreword to every academic book, “Any imperfections are strictly mine.”

 

The Art of the Photograph: A Review

Art of the photographThe Art of the Photograph: Essential Habits for Stronger Composition, by Art Wolfe and Rob Sheppard. Foreword by Dewitt Jones. New York: Amphoto Books, 2013.

If you were to buy only one book to inspire your photography and take it to the next level, The Art of the Photograph is the book to have. This magnificent book was created by the unbeatable combination of master photographers Art Wolfe and Rob Sheppard—specifically, it offers you photos by Art Wolfe and his stories about how he learned and now approaches his craft, along with Rob Sheppard’s text. Having had personal experience of Rob’s thorough and enthusiastic teaching, I can say that he is up to form in this book.

What makes Art Wolfe’s photographs the ideal visual material for this book—aside, of course, from his being one of the most outstanding photographers in the world today—is the amazing variety of subjects he captures. He travels the world, photographing everywhere from the Palouse to Antarctica,  photographing people, landscapes, even abstracts. In fact, he advises you not to limit yourself by self-identifying as a particular type of photographer but, instead, to be open to everything. One of the valuable concepts I’ve learned from the book is to be looking for the photograph, not for the subject.

The chapters are titled “Finding Inspiration,” “Discovering the Subject,” “Constructing the Image,” “Camera and Lens,” “The Elements of Design,” “Color and Black-and-White,” “Light and Composition,” “Creative Solutions,” “The 10 Deadly Sins of Composition,” and “Equipment and Workflow.” The chapters offer springboards to help you formulate your own philosophy of and approach to photographing; this is not a “how to” book of the technical aspects of photography.

One of the great strengths of The Art of the Photograph is that it is conceived, in part, as a dialogue between the authors and the reader. This is vitally important. If you’re going to teach something as complex as Essential Habits for Stronger Composition (the book’s subtitle), you have to provide the opportunity for the student to appropriate the material for themselves, to reflect on how it applies to them. This is achieved by questions for reflection at the end of each chapter. So, do keep a notebook as you make your way through the book, not only to jot down your reflections but also to make a note of concepts that pop out at you as particularly important.

One of my favorite parts of the book (as well as the most challenging) is Chapter 9, “The 10 Deadly Sins of Composition.” Here is your moment of honest reckoning, as you acknowledge which of these sins you are guilty of. Come to terms with those “sins” of yours, improve your work accordingly, and you’re well on your way.

One word of caution, and I highlight this because inevitably someone is going to criticize the book for something it wasn’t intended to do: Aside from basic exposure information, Art does not go into detail about how he captured and processed each photo. That’s not the point of having the photos in the book: the point is deftly expressed by another master photographer, Dewitt Jones, in his foreword: “Don’t analyze them, just experience them. You are in the presence of one of the finest photographers of our time; let his images instruct you. Let your eyes understand the lessons that the text will eventually teach your brain.” In other words, make the photos and their individual elements your own; let them help you to be an active learner rather than a passive recipient of information.

Not only is The Art of the Photograph an indispensable resource for the individual learn-on-your-own photographer, but it would also be an invaluable text for a college-level course on composition for photography majors. Professors in art programs, take note.

New e-Book by Rob Sheppard

A Nature ManifestoRob Sheppard is a well-known name in nature photography. He has enjoyed an impressive career as editor of Outdoor Photographer, that indispensable Bible for all whose vocation or avocation is photographing the natural world, his photographs and writings (do check out his Nature and Photography blog) continue to inspire and delight all who are interested in this field, and he is a dedicated and enthusiastic teacher of online courses at BetterPhoto.com.

Rob has just published a new e-book, A Nature Photography Manifesto, and I urge you to visit his website to download it. A personal nature photography manifesto is precisely what this book is: Rob’s philosophy about the relationship between nature and photography and how this informs his approach to his nature photography. But–and here’s why I strongly recommend that you download the book–he goes beyond that: he challenges you to examine your own relationship between nature and your photographic approach to it, and to ask yourself where you may be wanting.

Rob challenges us to go “beyond pretty pictures.” The trap inherent in photographing nature is that it’s relatively easy, with even a decent point-and-shoot and a basic knowledge of composition, to go out and get pretty pictures of nature scenes, some iconic and some not. But nature deserves better. The world deserves better. How can you go beyond the cliche shots, the merely pleasant pictures, to craft images that express your own unique relationship with nature and thereby make the viewer really sit up and take notice? This is what’s urgently needed today. People have an innate need for and a right to beauty. We can provide this through our photography. Further, the natural world depends on us to get our pictures out there–images that produce that instant “awe and wonder” reaction–to show the world what’s at stake, what we have to lose, if we don’t take proper care of the natural environment.

A Nature Photography Manifesto will probably make you uncomfortable; it did me. Which is as it should be. Discomfort is a major factor that propels us to grow, or to be healed of something that’s niggling us. But Rob doesn’t just leave you with that niggling feeling: four of the chapters end with “Consider these ..” — points for you to reflect on; questions or observations for you to ponder. Go back to these questions and points when you have time, perhaps even keep a notebook to write your responses. You’ll end up approaching nature photography with a strengthened sense of your own unique potential contribution to this increasingly important art (or, dare I say it, documentary) form.

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.

Processing Photos for Black and White

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The original unprocessed jpg

Two weekends in a row I was on field trips with other photographers and both times the light was such that I knew I was going to end up doing a lot of processing in black and white. It happens sometimes, especially on a very bright, contrasty day or on a day with dull, boring light (as distinct from the kind of overcast that, say, makes colors on flowers and trees pop).

The second of the weekends began at Sandy Hook in New Jersey. The historic Sandy Hook Lighthouse is the oldest in the country, and there I was, looking at it in the most boring light conditions imaginable. But this wasn’t going to stop me–I like to photograph lighthouses and I was determined to make something of it. Fortunately there was a pretty decent hint of clouds, not one of those pale, totally blank skies. OK. Let’s go for a composition that’s a bit different and that has the clouds surrounding the tower. After all, I had been to Sandy Hook twice before on bright, sunny, blue-sky days and taken the typical “postcard” compositions.

Another problem was that the lighthouse appeared to have acquired considerably more rust stains than I remembered from my last visit in January 2010. Those would have to go.

Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov, who was also a master orchestrator, said that you can’t orchestrate well what hasn’t been well composed. This observation has more than one application in photo processing. For one thing, you can’t take a poorly lit photo, add a B&W layer (or slide the saturation lever all the way down), and think, presto, problem solved. You need to do some optimizing of your original first, preferably starting in Raw. Increase the contrast, increase clarity, work with Levels. Only then can you begin to work with theB&W.

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The processed image

Sometimes when you decide to process a photo in B&W you may be open to anything, have no particular notion of what you want your end result to be, and so you try the presets in the B&W layer in Photoshop or (for the adventurous) the whole gamut of presets in Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 until you find one that’s a good starting point, then you start tweaking various settings until you get a result you can live with. (I’m currently in a high-structure craze and sometimes deliberately force myself to try something “soft” just to remind myself that there are other ways of making my photo look.) Better yet, though, is when you start with an idea of how you want it to look, then try the presets until you find the one that corresponds to what you envision, then do the necessary tweaking.  That’s what happened with this lighthouse photo. I wanted that dark tone and contrast in the sky–then, as an experiment, decided to see how bright I could make the lighthouse (including giving it a digital “paint job”). The Red Filter did the trick. This was done with a B&W adjustment layer in Photoshop; I wasn’t envisioning anything as adventurous as what you can get with Silver Efex Pro–not just now, anyway.
If you want a great wealth of B&W tips from the really top pros, let me recommend two things. First, Harold Davis’s book Creative Black & White. Harold is a superb teacher. Check out his website too. Also, Rob Sheppard has been getting into a lot of B&W work of late, and he teaches an online course at BetterPhoto. Rob, too, is an excellent teacher, and this course has videos as well. Check it out, and check out Rob’s fine nature and photography blog.