Advice From The Field

Photograph of a Marmot
Marmots are common in the Rocky Mountains and are very sociable animals. They are related to squirrels.

Wildlife photography is challenging when it comes to getting sharp, noise free images. This challenge is compounded by poor lighting much of the time.

Over the years, I’ve learned a few things the hard way. I’m still learning but I think I have most of it figured out. Here’s my advice on equipment and techniques that may help you improve your results.

Camera equipment.

I’ve moved to full frame bodies. In general, I consider ability to get a clean shot more important than how many shots I can rip off in a few seconds of bursts. I find the full frame bodies to give me an extra stop of shutter speed, or ISO over any crop body (APS-C) sensor body. The two most known action/wildlife APS-C DSLR bodies on the market now are the Canon EOS 7D mkII and the Nikon D500. Impressive equipment for having a smaller sensor, but that smaller sensor is going to cost you a reduction in low light ability and detail. For those of you who are fond of mirror-less cameras, you’ll find the same to be true, but tracking moving subjects to be more of a challenge using the electronic view finder. I don’t believe mirror-less bodies achieve the same level of performance in the field and I don’t use them for that reason.

Since the Nikon D850 is still on back-order, I’ve resigned my kit to the Nikon D810 and D750, both full frame sensor bodies and both with excellent auto-focusing characteristics. In general, I get good results up to ISO 3200 and can even press it further if I have to, using DXO PhotoLab for noise reduction.

I carry a third body, a Nikon D7200. This is an APS-C/crop sensor body that performs quite well. I actually think it has the best image quality of any APS-C body on the market, including the Nikon D500. I’ve found that ISO 3200 is generally usable but loss of image fidelity is more apparent than the full frame bodies at that setting. I have to resort to more noise reduction in post processing on my raw images from this camera but below ISO 3200, I’m getting generally good results. It will crank off shots at about 6-7 frames per second which I think is more than enough. As a matter of fact, I set all my cameras slow speed continuous shooting to 5 fps and find I get more keepers because I’m not constantly moving the camera with the shutter whamming away full tilt. I can take a little more time getting the scene framed in real time and the buffer lasts longer. What I find to be the most useful aspect of the D7200 is that the 1.5x crop is a better solution than putting a 1.4x or 2x teleconverter on a full frame body. I don’t keep a teleconverter in my kit, they simply reduce image quality too much. The D7200 will give a much better result with a similar field of view as a teleconverter.

Another aspect of the crop body to be aware of is shutter speed. I normally set my full frame bodies to 1/1000th of a second shutter speed. With the crop bodies, you lose a stop of shutter speed, so I normally set the shutter for 1/1600th sec to compensate for the narrower field of view and amplified affects of camera shake and subject movement.

I use Auto-ISO on all bodies and I normally default to an aperture of f/7.1 to keep the lens sharpness and depth of field where I like it. By the way, I still read reviews and comments on the internet that the crop sensor body gives a deeper depth of field than the full frame sensor body. This is techno-babble nonsense. Your depth of field is the same on either body with the same lens set to the same aperture and focal length. DOF is a function of the lens. The sensor doesn’t alter the depth of field, it alters the field of view.

I also use center weighted average metering, as most of my wildlife subjects will be consuming the center of the frame and I want to get good exposure on the animal.

For auto-focus on Nikon, I use 3D tracking. I put the focus box on the head of the critter and if the critter moves, that tracking spot should hold to that part of the animal as you re-frame the scene. You must stay aware of where that tracking point is when you start squeezing off shots though. The only time I have issues is when the focus point drifts off the area I originally focused on and I’m not paying attention to it happening. This can result in the camera focusing on the body of the animal and not the face and to me, getting those eyes in focus is what I’m after. Don’t let your primary focus point of the animal drift out of the auto-focus sensor boundaries. I set the camera up to show the boundary in the view finder and I keep the focus point within that boundary. If I operate the camera correctly, I seldom get an out of focus image on the Nikon bodies.

Lenses

I’ve found the most useful lenses to be super-telephoto zooms that cover the range between 80mm and 600mm. On my bodies I use the Nikon 200-500mm VR on the D810 and the Nikon 70-200mm VR on the D750. I keep a 24-120mm VR in the kit for those occasional wide angle and landscape shots. For the most part, I don’t change lenses when working. It subjects the lens and camera sensor to dust. I hate having to delete dust specks from the image and hate cleaning sensors even more. When I do change lenses, it’s always within the confines of the vehicle with the windows rolled up and the camera body facing down.

What about the big primes?

I see a lot of folks using these big monsters and for good reason. They have the best image quality. But they are also bulky and cumbersome to use in the field unless you’re sitting in a fixed position and not likely to need to move around much. They are like shooting clay pigeons with a howitzer though when it comes to flexibility. Hand holding a 600mm prime lens is not for the weak of arm and is not an ideal solution for photographing moving or multiple subjects rapidly at different distances. The fixed focal length is also going to limit your framing and composition choices. I see a lot of the same types of shots coming from these lenses because of that.

The big primes typically require an additional investment of a good sturdy and expensive tripod and gimble head. Using a big prime will cost you lots of money, reduce your mobility, reduce your composition choices and you will simply not get the variety of shots that the zooms will get.

Most super-telephoto zooms can be hand-held by the average person and when the light gets low or the bulk gets bothersome, an effective tool is the mono-pod. I use a mono-pod on the 200-500 about 2/3 of the time. I keep it in the back seat and can pull it out quickly and move around nimbly with a camera attached to one. They are light and also make a good walking stick when you have to hike. I like keeping the weight down and the mono-pod gives you that little extra stability over hand-holding without the bulk of a big tripod with a huge prime attached.

As for filters on the lens. I don’t recommend them. All they do is foul up your image quality. If you have a UV filter on your expensive lens, you’ve reduced the image quality to that of a $50 piece of plastic. If you’re worried about protecting the front element of your lens, try using a lens cap and hood. They are much better protection and the money you save is worth more than the delusional belief that UV filter is doing anything for you.

Lastly, I always keep a couple of plastic trash bags and a cotton towel in the kit. The trash bags are a great way to protect your camera in the rain and they don’t require a lot of fumbling around when you need to use one. Don’t buy those custom rain guards unless you’re going to be working in monsoon or blizzard conditions. I bought one years ago and it sits in the cabinet, used only one time.

Your mileage may vary.

Reality Bytes

Recently back from a week long jaunt in Northern Colorado, I was anxious to begin editing new photos and updating stock agencies. Little did I know that my photography world would take a 90 degree turn.

First, let me say, if you are using a computer and don’t have a backup strategy for your image files, you are going to pay the price sooner or later. I have a backup strategy. A series of 1-3 terabyte external USB drives. I’m religious about backing up my business files at least weekly. I thought I was being religious about backing up my image files too.

For the majority of today’s photographers relying on computers is a must. I’ve gone through 4 different computers in my studio over the past 15 years or so. My current configuration in the studio is a PC that I built from scratch. I have roughly 19 Terabytes of hard drive storage attached to an i7 based motherboard with 64 gigs of ram and a dual monitor setup.

With all of those hard drives, a failure is inevitable and those failures will occur when you are not paying attention more often than not. The real question is how well you’ve backed up your images.

My images are kept in directories by subject matter and sub-directories by year. Most of my cataloging is done via Adobe Lightroom so along with my image files are xmp sidecar files that define all the editing I’ve done to each file. All told, I have about 50 different active Lightroom catalogs scattered among multiple hard drives in my computer.

The day after I returned home from Northern Colorado I was anxious to begin editing my latest batch of moose photos. I downloaded the new images to a directory on one of my 3 terabyte hard drives and imported them into Lightroom and started mining the best shots for editing and uploading to my services. On the sixth image, things went south. I could no longer access the hard drive I was working from and that hard drive contained a lot of my wildlife photos. Close to 70,000 images in total.

A quick scan indicated that the computer still recognized the presence of the drive but the drive was corrupted somehow. The utilities built into Windows 10 are not very robust. I couldn’t solve the problem without some type of advanced intervention. The first thing I did was go to Best Buy and purchase a new 4 terabyte hard drive. It installed easily and after a few minutes partitioning and formatting the drive, I was ready to restore my backups.

When I accessed my backup drives what I discovered was deflating. Yes, I had backups but many of them were not very current with most ending in early 2018. Any images stored on the failed drive that were newer than February were not backed up, except to two catalogs that I had recently backed up. Catalogs that I had been working on. Out of sight, out of mind. I had failed to keep all the backups current and in one instance I could not find an entire catalog of Bighorn Sheep in the backups. My heart sank. Over 10,000 photographs gone forever, or so I thought. I restored what I could and began coming to grips with my oversight.

Once I had restored my backup files to the new drive, I began the process of trying to recover the defective hard drive. I was lucky. I found a utility called TestDisk.

TestDisk is a freeware utility written by Christophe Grenier at www.cgsecurity.org. It runs in a DOS window and is a very basic non GUI interface. TestDisk found my hard drive and I was able to scan the contents of the inaccessible disk. I was also able to get a clue as to what happened. It appeared that a recent update to Windows 10 may have spurred this problem on. I found numerous Windows swap files on the hard drive and I had specifically told Windows not to use that hard drive for a paging file. Somehow, Windows began barfing swap files on to the drive and it corrupted the boot sector. The drive light was staying on all the time and disk activity was reporting at 100% on the idle drive.

Using TestDisk, I was able to locate all of my photographs stored on the defective drive and able to copy them to the new drive. Time consuming to say the least, I was able to recover everything I needed from the bad drive, along with the xmp files that contained my Lightroom edits.

What I learned is what I already knew. Keep your backups current. If you aren’t backing up your photos you will eventually lose them. Digital storage is temporary. My slack attitude about staying current with my backup routine almost wiped out years of work. All because I lulled myself into forgetting to do the necessary computer work to insure there were second copies of everything I had.

So, guess what I’m doing today? I’m backing up all of my files, one catalog at a time. It will take several days to accomplish, or should I say nights. I’ll begin a backup in the evening when I’m done working for the day and let the computer groan away copying everything to external hard drives while I sleep.

My advice to you. Back your images up now. You could wake up in the morning with a good backup or you could wake up to a crashed hard drive and lots of missing photos. Windows won’t alert you until it’s too late.

The Consumerization of Photography

The best photographs tell a story.

I’ve been working with digital imaging since the early 1980’s. Before digital photography began, newspapers and magazines were the pioneers in the move away from analog (film.) The advancement of radio transmission opened new doors for newspapers. Microwave radio and satellite communications were at the leading edge of this move to new imaging techniques. Newspapers that wished to publish nation wide or world wide found that it was cheaper to transmit their images via radio frequency than it was to produce mass quantities of film and fly or truck that film to their printing operations.

During the early days of digital imaging, there was no mass consumer attraction to gigabytes and megapixels. Photography for the average Joe out there was either amateurs who found the combination of art and technical enticing, a dedicated art form practiced in niches and commercial advertising work or photojournalism for promoting products. By the late 1990’s, digital cameras began appearing on the market as mass produced consumer products and with that came the proliferation of the Internet photography related web sites.

Here we are now in 2018 and photography has moved into the future. Film is still used in many commercial settings but digital image files are the predominant product format. The technology that was in use at the start of digital imaging still exists, but commercial use of satellite and the older microwave links has morphed to the internet over TCP-IP high speed data links. It’s still a matter of costs for those producing photography filled product.

As the Internet grew in popularity, so did the number of websites devoted to the new technology. Today the primary medium for displaying photography is the computer and most of the photographs we see are on the internet. Photography as become a major consumer market and the art aspect has been drowned in a sea of mediocre photographs of common popular scenes and subjects and post processing techniques.

The other side of the coin is the morphing of Internet websites devoted to consumer reviews of equipment and accessories, splattered with fun filled experts cavorting around waving their expensive equipment at us to convince us they are somehow important to the art and article.

So what’s wrong with that? Nothing, if that’s what the masses want to see and what today’s photographer wants to get from their photography. Sharing the experience. It all really boils down to drawing the attention of consumers to sell something.

Where this approach is lacking, in my opinion, is that everything has morphed into consumerism and the attainment of new toys. Consumerism in photography has driven the serious photographers away. It’s driven the story tellers to find something different.

Photography as always been a magnet for the technically inclined. That’s how I got in to the business. I was an engineer and learning the technical aspects of digital imaging was paramount to my doing my job. Cameras and lenses and darkroom equipment were the tools of the craft and have always been attractive to the technical hobbyist.

Now that our thinking has been embedded into the internet photography age, consumerism has taken over. The days of the paying gig are becoming farther and fewer between. So much so, the running joke is “what’s the difference between a photographer and a large pizza? A large pizza can feed a family of four.” There is more truth to that joke than you may imagine.

Newspapers, once a staple profession for photographers, are cutting or have cut their photography staff to the bone. Some have eliminated photojournalists from their ranks completely, preferring to simply have their journalists use their iPhone camera. Television news is a wasteland for professional photographers. Everything is crowd sourced now. Turn on the local news and you’ll see lots of mediocre photographs sent in from viewers substituting for what the photojournalist used to do.

Where does this leave someone who wants to pursue photography as a profession? Disappointment I’m afraid is the most likely destination. It goes back to the old theory of supply and demand. When the supply of photographers goes up, the demand goes down for any one individual photographer. The market is booming for photographic equipment, but the market for good photographs is decreasing. The most skilled photographers have to compete with everyone who owns a camera. The potential client is going to think economics for their wedding or event or art and look for the best bang for the buck. Talented amateurs can compete with professionals by giving their work away. A professional has to charge for their service. The amateur working for free can always find a welcome clientele when the product is given for free. When I hear of a photographer working for “exposure” it’s all I can do to not break out laughing. Getting a lot of “likes” on Facebook isn’t really going to earn you much money. That exposure is roughly the equivalent of being a plastic bottle floating around in a large blob of plastic debris in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. For a working professional, finding a source of income in photography is becoming more and more problematic.

Serious photographers have taken to the Internet to promote themselves. I’ve been doing this for years myself. I’ve written technical and interest stories and published them. Some have been widely successful, other articles have not fared so well.  I have enough material for a couple of books. But who needs another book saying the same thing that’s been said again and again?

The meaningful content hasn’t much changed, just the person writing about it. Today’s Internet photography website has drifted away from the art form and towards consumerism to make money. Photographers looking for income on the Internet have consumerized their websites with advertisements for the consumer photography industry to the point that they really don’t have much of interest to say about the art, it’s more about buying your next camera or lens from their link so they can get a cut of the sale.

Many a photographer has had to change their business model to find a vein of income and that reality has changed the content character of photography related websites. Dwindling are the days of informative articles on technique and subject. Instead, consumerism has taken over as the driving force.

The staple websites on the Internet now feel more like sub-contractors for gear sales. In a manner similar to the heyday of audiophile, appreciation of photography as an art form isn’t what it’s about now. It’s about megapixels, dynamic range, lens sharpness, sensor technology, glazed over technical facts that substitute for information devoted to the creation of compelling art and how to market that art, in much the same way that music reproduction became a consumer study in total harmonic distortion, wow and flutter, noise reduction and high fidelity. People were convinced to spend thousands of dollars on obtaining the ultimate in audio reproduction quality. Never mind the art, it’s about the equipment and selling it. Today’s audiophile is now stuck with digitized mp3 or low quality audio streaming on equipment that has the technical performance of an abandoned car. I would even argue that the quality of music as an art form has suffered as a result of technical burnout. The industry arced and cheap plastic junk is now used to reproduce the same music that the consumer wants to hear over and over again. The innovation peaked and the interest waned until the consumer aspect became what it was all about.

The photography related situation on the internet has almost become comical. I’ll give you a few examples. Now, I don’t know these people and I’m sure they are just trying to make a buck like everyone else, but consider the thought.

Over the years, one of my favorite “online” photography website hosts was Thom Hogan. His primary fixation, was for a long time confined primarily to  Nikon users. Okay, great. If you wanted to know about Nikon gear, he was and still is an expert. As a photographer, he’s above average, but as a source of information concerning photography as it related to Nikon equipment he was informative and accurate. But what happened to Thom? For the past few years he seems to be mailing it in. He’s gone off into the world of camera manufacturing economics and business commentary. I used to work for The Wall Street Journal, so I understand business news and the people targeted by that content. For the last few years, he’s had to change his business model to find better ways to make money. It’s been a subtle change, keeping the same general look and feel but his content is now focused on financial reports and speculations on how one camera manufacturer is competing in a market. He’s broadened his scope to increase his content, now including business speculations on Canon, Sony and other camera brands. What he’s not writing about to any great extent is photography. It’s mostly writing to support marketing and consumerism. Sorry Thom, but that’s my view of the road. I’ve yet to find anything useful in understanding Nikon or Canon’s quarterly results when I’m in the field looking for moose. The man needs to write, that much is certain, but what’s the point? Is this his path or his destination?

Another well known Internet expert is Ken Rockwell. He may be the king of marketing camera equipment, but his published technical and art related subject matter is now hard to find in his current string of published articles. His technical reviews have fallen into a cookie cutter approach, using what looks like form letter reviews where a few facts and images are inserted into some kind of default review article. His articles now are little more than sales pitches and raving about things he’d like you to buy from a link on his website. As a source of knowledge, he looks like he’s “jumped the shark” from my view of the road.

We have the bigger, heavily consumerized websites too. DPReview being the elephant in the room. What began as a nice informational website has now become a marketing blitz and the content is now focused on consumerism. They’ve attempted to keep up with the technical and gear issues, which has a place, but it all feels like they are pointing you towards a purchase. This to me is the reincarnation of consumer audiophile world based on technical specifications of the gear with a spattering of “look at me” stories from their staff and around the web. When you dig deeper, what you’ll find is a very limited set of actual technical reports and reviews on lenses and cameras that seldom identify functional flaws or problems. Heck, they didn’t even publish an in depth review of the Nikon D810 until shortly before the camera was replaced by the Nikon D850. I’m sorry, but technical reviews of obsolete equipment that are aimed at consumers are not that interesting to me.

There are examples of websites that seem to have stuck to their original theme of presenting interesting and informative information on the art of photography. The Luminous Landscape comes to mind and there are still many others. Founded by the now deceased Michael Reichman, his colleagues have continued to present photography articles that are strongly related to the art of photography. They too have to make a buck, so you’ll find advertisements there as well, but they’ve never come across as trying to talk you into making your next purchase based on a veiled product placement in content designed for the consumer. If you want the good stuff though, you’ll have to pay a modest subscription fee. That’s okay, they need to cover their costs. But it’s not obnoxious and doesn’t come across as perfunctory like many of the big sites do.

As for me, I’m content with keeping my photography web sites about photography as it relates to my world. I share my experiences, I share my photos and I’ve found a way to make money doing it without selling out to Amazon or B&H Photo. I don’t have the following that the large consumer websites enjoy and I don’t have to feel like a car salesman when I post something. I’m quite happy telling a story. It doesn’t matter who is listening so long as someone does.

Your mileage may vary.

Setting The Record Straight

A recent television news story about some guy in Frisco, Colorado harassing a moose that strolled into town. Moose strolling into town is pretty common in Frisco. Idiot humans are fairly common too.

http://denver.cbslocal.com/2018/05/06/man-caught-close-moose/

This guy is pretty dumb. Harassing a moose is a stupid thing to do. They can weigh up to 1,200 lbs and those hooves will crack your skull wide open.

What irritates me is when the Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokespeople spout stupid things in television interviews.

Contrary to what this CPW spokesman says, and I know this for a fact.

Moose are not territorial.
Moose are not aggressive.

Moose are, however, short tempered.

Moose are very dangerous once irritated.

Humans are territorial.
Humans are aggressive.

Get your facts straight. Spouting crap doesn’t educate anyone.

I once heard a CPW spokeswoman state “If it wasn’t for hunters, we wouldn’t have wildlife”

There are some really fine folks at CPW, but when the people they put in front of a camera don’t know what they are talking about, it makes them look bad and it gives these beautiful wild creatures a bad reputation that isn’t deserved.