When Ralph Clevenger's students step into his classroom at the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, CA to learn nature photography, it doesn't really matter just what they want to shoot-landscapes, animals, plants, bugs, even people. Their teacher can do it all.
Clevenger remembers how he arrived at the school as a student in 1976, thinking only of learning underwater photography. Nearly three years of study changed that. "The whole outdoors subject matter opened up," he says. "I was really enlightened about the possibilities."
A look through Clevenger's photography shows how true that is. Snakes coil right next to images of the Big Sur coastline. Bikini-clad surfers stride down the beach in one frame, while bees zoom among the flowers in another. An iceberg image shows far more than just the tip. In fact, he doesn't really draw much distinction between a flower shot and a landscape. "It's all photography," he says. "It's only what you put in front of it [the camera] that changes."
Clevenger comes by his interest in the outdoors naturally. His father is a lifelong outdoorsman, one who first took his seven-year-old son diving off the coast of North Africa while working in the oil industry there. The younger Clevenger became a diver and biologist for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, CA. Later, after starting his photography career, he worked for renowned nature shooter George Lepp, learning both the business and artistic sides of photography.
So what do Clevenger's students find in his classes or in the workshops he gives around the world? Though he's been teaching since 1983, he says he feels he's in the classroom primarily as a working professional who's willing to share his knowledge and experiences. "I'm not going to teach you anything," he says. "I'm just going to provide the opportunity to learn"-an opportunity that he says mainly comes through shooting.
That doesn't mean he has nothing to offer students beyond a camera and an assignment. Trying to "motivate them by example," he asks them to study others' photos and even paintings to develop an eye. In fact, he's an advocate of taking an Ansel Adams book and going through it-upside down. The reason: "To learn that strong composition doesn't depend on the subject matter." (In other words, Adams could have been photographing nudes or buildings; the photos would have been powerful no matter what.)
Clevenger has advice to offer for almost every kind of nature photography. Want to shoot flowers? "Finding a pretty flower is half the battle," he says. How about animals? "It's behavior" that makes the photo.
Most of all, he talks about not shooting: "Most great nature photography has to do with patience," whether waiting for the right light or watching for a snoozing creature to do something interesting.
Clevenger teaches workshops that are open to everyone, but the Brooks Institute is targeted at people who want to earn a living from photography, and he takes pride from helping students do just that. "There's a lot of satisfaction from seeing a student who goes on to be successful," he says. "It's certainly great to know that you had an impact on somebody's life."
Nature How-To TipsChange POV. Shooting flora? Try swapping the macro lens for a wide angle, like a 20mm or 14mm. "It's a whole different way of looking at flowers," Clevenger says.Capture motion. When photographing animals, "look for behavior. You want your subject doing something besides just sitting there, even if it's just a yawn."Get the lay of the land. In landscapes, his rule of thumb: "If it has an interesting foreground, you need to think wide angle. If it has an interesting background, it's telephoto."Stay a spell. Don't shoot on one-night trips, which don't leave enough time in one setting. "It should be two to three nights minimum" in each place.Experiment. Try different ways of working. "I was doing a work-shop in Alaska with this guy who had more equipment than I did, but he'd never shot a close-up-only animals, and at a distance." Be open to other possibilities.Sit tight. Above all, nature shooters need patience. Good photos come to those who wait!