Nature: Extreme Makeover

Overcome the most common mistakes in outdoor photography with just a few simple fixes.

Nature-Extreme-Makeover
Nature-Extreme-Makeover

Making good photographs has always been about technique and a firm understanding of light. While I still take my share of lackluster images, I now realize that many of these blah photos are a result of simple mistakes -- things we all know but often overlook during the excitement of shooting. I've compiled some common sins of nature photography -- plus simple ways to avoid them.

MISTAKE: Missing peak showtime. FIX: Arrive earlier, stay later.

To say that timing is important in outdoor photography is an understatement. These images from La Jolla, CA, were taken in the same area only about an hour apart.

The first shot was taken as the sun dipped toward the horizon. The directional light and relatively fast shutter speed of 1/80 sec combined to highlight the churning waves, creating tension. But after the sun sank, a palette of colors swept the dimming sky.

For the photo here, I used a slightly wider view and horizontal composition to emphasize the expanse of rock and ocean, while creating some separation among the different elements. I also trusted evaluative metering for the soft, evenly lit scene, closing the aperture to f/13 and keeping my ISO low so that the ocean had time to smooth into a surreal mist. Cooler hues added to the peaceful feeling.

MISTAKE: Mindless flash. FIX: Get it off the camera and dial it down.

Flash can easily make or break a photograph. It's a great way to open up shadows and even out the contrast, which is especially important for birds in shady trees. Flash also helps to define and reveal the small details and colors that get lost in flat or harsh light; it can illuminate a backlit subject or add catchlights to an animal's eyes.

The photograph of a seagull is a perfect example of how flash can be misused: no flash compensation resulted in overexposure of the already light-toned seagull. The background also became darker than the subject. Finally, there's ghosting around the bird's head, a result of a too-slow shutter speed during the flash burst.

Flash looks best when it's not the main source of light, but a filler to bring up dark shadows or to add a little pop to the colors. An accessory flash provides more control than the built-in one, and allows the light to be positioned off-camera, which helps prevent strange eye reflections.

For the burrowing owl, I dialed in a slight -0.3 EV exposure comp in the camera to prevent overexposing the white feathers scattered across the bird. The flash was dialed down by -1.7 EV. This opened the shadows, revealing colors and details without destroying them. The flash also made the owl's shaded yellow eye really stand out, while adding a small catchlight.

MISTAKE: Composition clutter. FIX: Crop in, use the Rule of Thirds.

Sometimes traveling to new areas can be overwhelming -- it's easy to take a shotgun approach to photography, shooting everything and anything. The picture from Joshua Tree National Park is the sort of image that results -- a relatively boring photo of distant boulders and trees.

What struck me most about Joshua Tree was the plants' and animals' drive to survive in such a seemingly inhospitable area. Knowing what feeling I wanted to capture made finding an appropriate subject much easier, and a little looking turned up a lone plant struggling to maintain its precarious hold.

I used a long telephoto zoom to quickly shoot and recompose, and a tripod to stabilize the camera, which let me focus on fine-tuning the framing. The plant was placed following the Rule of Thirds, and I zoomed out to show a pleasing balance of rock and sky. I chose a small aperture of f/16 to ensure that everything was in focus and then waited until a patch of blue sky opened up, framing the plant.

MISTAKE: Too fast a shutter speed. FIX: Slow it down with filters.

The two waterfall photos at the right illustrate just how important filters can be. Every photographer should have a good polarizer. Many effects can be simulated in Adobe Photoshop or other image editors, but not those of the polarizer. It darkens skies to make clouds pop and can cut through glare and reflections on most surfaces except metal. By reducing the effect of haze and waxy reflections, plants can look greener and colors more saturated. A polarizer is also the only way to cut through surface reflections of a body of water, and it can even substitute for a neutral-density filter.

The first photo of a waterfall in Sequoia National Park, with its frozen water, seems unnaturally still; ugly reflections shine off the rocks.

The second picture was taken with a circular polarizer dialed to full strength. The rocky glare is gone, and the true colors come through. The filter also sucked up around 2 stops of light, which, combined with an aperture of f/32, let the water take on a nice sense of movement at a slow shutter speed.

Nature-Extreme-Makeover-WIND-AND-SEA-LA-JOLLA
Nature-Extreme-Makeover-WIND-AND-SEA-LA-JOLLA
Nature: Extreme Makeover*WIND AND SEA, LA JOLLA, CA*Before sunset: Tripod-mounted Canon EOS 5D with 24-70mm f/2.8L Canon EF lens. Exposure, 1/80 sec at f/15, ISO 100.
Nature-Extreme-Makeover-WIND-AND-SEA-LA-JOLLA
Nature-Extreme-Makeover-WIND-AND-SEA-LA-JOLLA
Nature: Extreme Makeover*WIND AND SEA , LA JOLLA, CA*At dusk: Same equipment, lens zoomed out wider; 5 sec at f/13, ISO 100.
Nature-Extreme-Makeover-GULL-PACIFIC-BEACH-SAN
Nature-Extreme-Makeover-GULL-PACIFIC-BEACH-SAN
Nature: Extreme Makeover*GULL, PACIFIC BEACH, SAN DIEGO, CA*Handheld Canon EOS 5D with 100-400mm f/4.6-5.6L Canon EF IS lens; 1/60 sec at f/13, ISO 400. Canon Speedlight 580EX used with no compensation.
Nature-Extreme-Makeover-JOSHUA-TREE-NATIONAL-PAR
Nature-Extreme-Makeover-JOSHUA-TREE-NATIONAL-PAR
Nature: Extreme Makeover*JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK , CA*Before: Tripod-mounted Canon EOS 5D, 100-400mm f/4.6-5.6L Canon EF IS lens; 1/50 sec at f/16. ISO 100.
Nature-Extreme-Makeover-JOSHUA-TREE-NATIONAL-PAR
Nature-Extreme-Makeover-JOSHUA-TREE-NATIONAL-PAR
Nature: Extreme Makeover*JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK , CA*After: Same equipment; 1/160 sec at f/13, ISO 100.
Nature-Extreme-Makeover-WATERFALL-SEQUOIA-NATIO
Nature-Extreme-Makeover-WATERFALL-SEQUOIA-NATIO
Nature: Extreme Makeover*WATERFALL, SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK, CA*Before (left): Tripod-mounted Canon EOS 5D with 70-200mm f/2.8L lens. Exposure, 1/160 sec at f/13, ISO 100.After (right): Same equipment, plus circular polarizer; 1/15 sec at f/32, ISO 100.
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