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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Au Natural...pt1

Its all about the light, and in this first installment of Nature Photography tips, we look at some basic tools to enhance your nature photography, and some simple ways to modify light...

Like many budding photographers, my first inclination towards photography was attempting to capture the beauty of nature around me. But growing up in glacially-flattened Western New York didn't afford many opportunities for Ansel Adams-like vistas, unless you were interested in photographing large expanses of steel plants (which in retrospect I wish I had done, ala Gunther Cartwright).
So I developed into a Macro-nature photographer, exploring intimate small spaces tucked into the larger, and otherwise rather boring, landscape. This both necessitated and allowed small lighting schemes to be employed in order to light the subject in a more idealized manner. It would be difficult to apply anything other than the found natural light to a large area like a waterfall - you'd have to take what you get when you got there. Which leads us to my first tip for outdoor nature photography: Photograph primarily in the early morning hours just after dawn, or early evening hours into dusk.
This is known as "sweet light", and is much more interesting, colorful, and soft than the usually harsh light of mid-day.
So if you can't control the light, you can at least control the time of day you're utilizing it. But, other than when we're on vacation, retired, or free all weekend, its difficult for many of us to get to that great spot, 2 miles from the trailhead, at 6am:

Soft light in Hanging Rock State Park, NC

But you can get great photos, even in the middle of the day with lousy light, if you focus on smaller spaces where you can control that light. Here are some tools that I used today for this lesson, and they all fold-up and fit into a small messenger bag, including my camera:
The small brown messenger bag can be seen just behind the tripod, leaning up against the bench. In the photo are, from left to right, small white umbrella, large gold reflector down front, small silver reflector above that, small Slik tripod, messenger bag, bag of chips, and white balance target, which also serves as a reflector as the reverse side is silver. Like everything else here, the bag of chips is also a tool, not just an unhealthy snack.


In the photo above, you can see the size of the small reflector when unfolded. Very small, about 9 inches on a side. It folds up into a 4 inch circle that can be tucked into a pocket, camera bag, or messenger bag. Its stiff, and can be easily propped up against sticks, a rock, tripod leg, or held at the proper angle in order to reflect light back onto a small subject. Reflectors are important tools for modifying light - you use them to reflect light into the darker side of your subject in order to keep shadow areas from plugging up. Demo of what I'm talking about in a bit.. 

Another, almost essential tool for capturing intimate landscapes is a tripod. The one shown below is very small, very light, and very versatile. It's a Slik Sprint Mini, and costs about $80. It does have several limitations - its very small, so will not handle anything heavier than a very small DSLR, and it only expands up to 42 inches, so it won't stand eye-height for most people. But the tradeoff is that its very compact and light when collapsed, and as you can see from the photos below, the flexibility of the leg arrangements allow it to get very close to the ground for macro-work, and allows good stability on uneven terrain, as the legs can be adjusted independently.



So, I attached my little Olympus EPL2, with macro lens, atop this little tripod and set out to find a badly lit subject in the middle of the day - right near high noon:

Fig.4 - Midday sun

So here's some flowers, above, that aren't lit too badly - you can tell what it is, its nice and colorful, and little detail seems to be lost. Many would consider this a pretty successful shot if this were their flower in their garden. But look what happens when I place the white umbrella, from the tools photo in Fig.1, between the flowers and the sun:
Fig.5 - w/white umbrella
The lighting is much more even, and I'm not as distracted from the flowers by all the harsh shadows. Placing the camera on a tripod leaves my hands free to employ other tools like umbrellas, reflectors, even backdrops, without having to juggle the camera too. And I know my composition and focus are already set and unlikely to change.
But as much as an improvement over the first flower photo this is, I find it a bit too even and flat. I would like to bring some directional lighting in to better define the various surfaces in the flowers and help make it a bit more interesting. But not to the extent the raw sunlight was giving in Fig.4. Here's where my reflectors come in. Using the small reflector seen in Fig.2, I held the small umbrella with my right hand over the flowers, and using my left hand, held the small reflector at an angle to bounce some of the sunlight back onto the left side of the flowers to give some directional lighting. The tripod mounted camera was triggered by using the self-timer:

Fig.6 - umbrella on top, and reflector at left
Now we're getting somewhere. This looks like a naturally lit photo, with some early morning sunrise raking in over the blooms, when instead it was shot along a footpath, in harsh midday light. 

Compare the unmodified and modified results side-by-side:

with Umbrella and reflector
No light modifiers used

Like I said, the first effort isn't exactly terrible, but hopefully you can see what an improvement our final result is. It only took an extra minute,and you need not spend lots of money. Yes, if you don't have a tripod, you should get one - you should have a tripod anyway, even if you only ever use a small point and shoot camera. You can see how these 2 photos are almost identical other than the lighting, and it leaves your hands free to manipulate reflectors, contemplate your composition, or move branches out of the way (never, ever cut or pull-up objects that are in your way, be kind to nature and just hold them out of the way for your shot, then replace them where they were).
And you don't need to go out and buy fancy umbrellas and reflectors. Using a piece of cardboard or jacket to shade your subject works just as well as the umbrella I used. And remember that bag of chips?
Fig.7 - Mylar chip bag
Many snack bags are made of mylar, and are shiny inside. Just open them up, and you have a small, instant reflector:

Here's the chip-bag reflector in action. You can soften the reflected light a bit if its too harsh by crumpling the bag and introducing lots of wrinkles in it, which will bounce the light around more:
Without reflector - light is harsh and shadows are dark

Chip Bag reflector to the rescue!


  1. Great tips! I am looking forward to our next class, so we can try this. I know a guy that just spent a fortune buying several 4 foot reflectors. Wait until I tell him he could use a chip bag.

  2. Maybe there are 4 foot bags of chips at Costo!