A typical nature scene, especially woodlands and meadows include a lot of visual clutter and overlap when seen from the typical human angle of view. When we press the camera’s shutter button from that perspective, everything is permanently recorded into our digital image. We are frequently disappointed when the photo “doesn’t look like what we saw”. Plenty of studies have been done on comparing human perception to a camera’s imaging system. Moral of the story is that we focus differently and our optical systems have different dynamic ranges than cameras currently in existence.
How to compensate for the ever all-seeing camera lens? “Organize the chaos.” A well known phrase to experienced photographers. How to organize? One of the many techniques is to seek symmetry in nature photography. Absolute symmetry is rarely going to present itself, but we will still seek it…
In my photo below I’ve aligned my angle of view to have two nearly parallel trees create a natural rectangle (or is that a rhombus?) around the sun.
New Jersey nature photo of an overcast sky as framed by two large trees and their gnarled branches. Handheld capture from the #Tamron 16-300mm VC PZD lens and #Canon EOS T5 #DSLR
This photo was taken two days in Morris County, New Jersey. My typical daytime macro setup of the Tamron SP 90mm VC 1:1 lens and Canon EOS 60D was used handheld. I do like to use a tripod as much as possible, but a paper-thin blade of grass blowing in the wind becomes an even more difficult target from a tripod.
An isolated view of a caterpillar with a contrasty yellow and black coloration photographed in portrait orientation.
A sharp frame after two or three DOZEN attempts at squaring up to the blade of grass, getting the camera sensor fairly parallel to the caterpillar, getting my composition locked in, and eliminating motion blur within the frame. If you are going to bother trying to take a snapshot, you might as well take the time to make sure you’ve applied all of your skills and knowledge to the shot.
1/250th F/5.6 ISO 200 in Manual Exposure mode.
It is a widely accepted concept in people photography and wildlife photography that getting the eyes of the subject sharp will make or break a photo. One obvious exception being abstract photography. In can be pretty tough to gauge sharpness on macro critters, and it is not easily achieved in outdoors field photography. By my estimations, I take at least one dozen shots of each composition while looking through the viewfinder and being thoughtful of my shutter speed to get the photo I am after.
A magnified view to aid in image sharpness checking. RAW preview on left and optimized JPEG on right.
A composite image shows one of the few frames that met my sharpness standard for this capture of an Orbweaver spider. It is not blurry before processing and it is not blurry after processing. The main changes are contrast enhancement along with light noise reduction and global sharpening.
An outdoors spider in New Jersey, photographed handheld with the Tamron SP 90mm VC and the Canon EOS 60D.
Above we see the full view of my macro photo in its native 3:2 aspect ratio with no cropping performed. Using my 60D and Tamron 90mm VC, I manually exposed with settings of 1/100th F/4.0 ISO 200.
I do get occasionally get asked about my post-processing workflow. I am an advocate of “getting it right in the camera”, and most of my photographs are presented in a straightforward manner so I spend a trivial amount of time in the “digital darkroom”. When shooting at higher ISO’s (800 and above), I find the need to apply a little extra TLC to photos.
The left side is my photo with my default RAW conversion settings applied. The right side is my final optimized image with additional selective noise reduction and sharpening performed for maximum image quality.
The above side by side view shows my typical RAW file with default settings applied (very light noise reduction and sharpening). On the right I have gently applied more noise reduction on only the background, and additional sharpening on the bird’s face only. This took me less than 5 minutes to prepare my photo for web and basic print usage.
One of our most common Warblers in New Jersey, here is a striking male in his typical habitat. Photographed with the Tamron SP 150-600mm Lens and the Canon EOS 7D.
The photo above is finalized JPEG for online presentation. Cropping would increase the apparent signal-to-noise ratio of the image, and I did not feel a crop was in order for this shot.
This male Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) was photographed at the Troy Meadows Natural Area in New Jersey. Photography equipment used includes: Tamron SP 150-600mm VC Lens, Canon EOS 7D DSLR, Manfrotto 055x ProB tripod.
Exposure info: 1/160 F/8 ISO 800
My typical nature photo post-processing workflow is very short and sweet unless I have to remove sensor dust spots from shoot at a vary small aperture. I do like to present my images as realistically and un-manipulated as possible. My still image format is always camera RAW to get the best possible dynamic range and so that I can make my own decisions over noise reduction and sharpening. I had the great fortune of finding a wild Black Bear descending a tree in Northern New Jersey today.
Here is my finalized and optimized image with my typical watermarks and downsized at 900px as I generally do for web usage:
A wild Black Bear descending a tree in North NJ. Photographed with the Tamron SP 150-600mm VC, the Canon EOS 7D, and a Manfrotto tripod.
Taken with a tripod-mounted Tamron SP 150-600mm VC Lens and Canon EOS 7D. I had no time to prepare for the shot or change my camera settings. I had previously dialed in ISO 800 F/8.0 +2/3 Exposure Compensation in Aperture Priority Mode, so the shutter speed was to be determined by my camera’s meter. In this particular shot my 7D did a good job of gauging the brightness and I was left with a shutter speed of 1/80th of a second and a good exposure. In the world of wildlife though, this is a relatively slow setting and prime for blur of subject movement.
Below are 100% crops to reveal what is really going on behind the scenes in my “digital darkroom”
On the right is a very unflattering view of my unprocessed RAW at high magnification and on the left is a slightly more flattering view of my output JPEG at the same magnification.
As you can see the eye and fur definition is lacking on the SOOC file on the right. The Tamron SP 150-600mm VC is very sharp near the 400mm focal length and at apertures like F/8. Unfortunately AI Servo focus is often less accurate than One-Shot focus. Other reasons for image softness may include: very slight subject movement, auto-focus sensor slightly off the bear’s eye, shooting in the shade (low contrast on subject), and perhaps the panning movement on my tripod head.
After my initial default global sharpening of the RAW file, I applied an additional low-intensity High-Pass Sharpening layer. I still was not happy with the definition on the bear’s face. I created an additional layer of global High-Pass sharpening, but this time I erased the effect off of the background to prevent introduction of widespread digital noise. I also feathered the remaining sharpening a bit, by tracing the bear’s outline with an eraser tool set to 50% to maintain a natural transition from subject to foreground. This is one method of performing selective sharpening to optimize images and get the best out of your photos.
Happy to answer any questions about my workflow if you leave them in the comments.
I am generally a fan of semi-automatic exposure systems when looking to photograph wildlife. Specifically, I begin most outings with the camera in Aperture Priority Mode, and having an extra 2/3 stops of lights dialed seems to work pretty often. However, as soon as I see a tricky lighting situation through my viewfinder I will try to get into Manual Exposure Mode as quickly as possible.
A macro photograph of an Orange Sulphur butterfly in New Jersey. This backlit capture was made using the Tamron SP 90mm VC 1:1 macro lens and the Canon EOS 60D DSLR.
Camera settings: 1/200th F/5.6 ISO 200
Above photo is a handheld capture with one of my typical rigs for closeup photography, the Tamron SP 90mm VC lens and the Canon EOS 60D. The goal with this backlit photo was to get a good amount of illumination showing on the butterfly itself. To achieve this, some of the brightest parts of the scene are pushed out of gamut because of the dynamic range restrictions of DSLRs. As cameras are programmed to expose for the median tonal range of an image, it would require a significant increase in exposure compensation to get what I was after. Turning the knob to Manual Mode and dialing in my desired settings was a much more succinct process.
“Blowing out the highlights” is not always a sin in my book, as I’ve learned to “see how a camera sees” and envision the end product. Indeed there is some detail loss on the fringes of the butterfly and also on the petals of the flower, but in this case I think that adds to the “warm” feel of the image.
Cover for my free short but detailed PDF ebook on Wildlife, Macro, and Landscape Photography. Get your $5 PayPal donation ready… but only if you feel like paying for it 🙂
Press release for upcoming eBook:
Nature Photography in 20 Frames
By Dave Blinder
I’ve completed the content for my first eBook which will be offered in its entirety as a free download, no strings attached, no trojan viruses, etc. My short illustrated PDF is currently undergoing quality checks and proofreading. I will provide download locations as soon as possible. If anyone finds value in the book, I would greatly appreciate a $5 PayPal donation (info included in book) as I have done this work at my own expense.
Within the book I have provided full DSLR settings for each photo shown as well as a grid overlay to demonstrate the composition. A focus point is also superimposed on each shot to show where critical focus was set. The nature photos in my book encompass my personal approach to shooting Macro subjects, Landscapes, Birds, and Other Wildlife.
My PDF eBook will be completely free for non-commercial usage and distribution, but may not be altered in any way. I will offer the eBook via email, my personal website, and try to have it uploaded to popular file sharing services as well. I will be available to conduct private and public seminars to expand on the subject matter to support my material.
If you’d like personal notification upon release of my eBook send me an email – email@example.com
Thanks very much,
Denville, New Jersey
Plenty of terms for the type of DSLR photography illustrated in the main image below and to tell you the truth I don’t even know what to call them. Panning blurs may be the most logical terminology in my opinion. Anyways, I often forget how much I enjoy looking at this type of capture. It seems to boil the bird down to its very essence: shapes and colors.
Photo demonstrating intentional use of a slow shutter speed along with panning of a telephoto lens.
Picture taken using a Canon EOS 7D and the Tamron SP 150-600mm VC telephoto lens. Tripod lens collar is mounted to Manfrotto 055xProB tripod and Manfrotto junior fluid head. Camera settings: focal length at 600mm, Manually set shutter at 1/30th, aperture at F/14, ISO 100, Camera RAW, Auto White Balance, VC On, Servo Focus Mode, High Speed Motor Drive. Photography location: Ocean County, New Jersey. Atlantic Ocean that is…
This type of photo can sometimes be performed in Aperture Priority mode by using a low ISO and large Aperture number to slow down the shutter. The shutter speeds that usually work best for me are between 1/13th and 1/50th. Your mileage may vary. My goal when preparing for this kind of shot is to get a good amount of definition on the wildlife while emphasizing some motion (in this case the wing beats). I also want a nice bright exposure that will retain a lot of details in the highlights but still have my histogram as far to the right as possible for maximum detail. Compositionally speaking, I may be looking to place the bird prominently in the frame without cutting off any appendages or I may want try to include some scenery like showing the bird flying across the water’s surface. There is a great deal of trial and error in this style of photography. Patience, persistence, and studying other photog’s successful photos will go a long. way.
When I first began doing photography, I thought that the prime objective was to freeze all action to record a moment in time. Getting a sharp capture of a fleeting moment can indeed be difficult, whether it is a closeup view of the supermoon rising on the horizon, a sports photograph like a MLB baseball player nailing a fastball, or a bird photo like trying to shoot a tiny Tree Swallow mid-air. There is also great validity to having motion within your frame. In some cases, this can evoke moods like quickly fleeting action or on the other hand, serenity.
DSLR Nature Photograph from New Jersey showcasing how motion caused by wind can express time and add further dynamics to an image.
The above image was taken recently at the New Jersey Shore using a tripod-mounted Canon EOS 60D camera and the Tamron SP 90mm VC 1:1 F/2.8 Macro Lens. Camera settings in manual exposure: 2.5 seconds F/7.1 ISO 100. VC off (lens stabilization motor), Mirror Lock-up, 2 Second Timer, One Shot Autofocus (near the middle of the grass), and Auto White Balance.
I think the crescent moon has a really great distinctive shape, a shape I generally associate with a peaceful sky. The grass that I have included within the frame is typical vegetation of the mid-Atlantic shoreline, so this gives a nice sense of orientation for the viewer. For others, the grass may be reminiscent of a prairie or meadow. The back and forth motion of the blades of grass tell us that time is passing, and also gives the photo a much softer edged appearance than a motionless capture. I did shoot several similar frames, but in the other images I actually felt there was too much motion and not enough definition on the grass.
Several of our local species of butterflies like to rest on whatever flat surface they can find. I often see butterflies in the middle of dirt trails, dirt roads, and gravel roads. Probably a nice place to bask for a cold-blooded life form, but not necessarily the ideal scene for a photograph.
A closeup view of a small and interestingly marked native butterfly of New Jersey.
DSLR photo of an American Copper butterfly using the Tamron SP 90mm VC 1:1 F/2.8 Macro Lens and the Canon EOS 50 DSLR. Camera settings in Manual Exposure Mode: Shutter at 1/50th Aperture at F/5.6 and ISO 200. Autowhite Balance is selected (my typical default), RAW file size, One Shot focusing in Continuous Drive Mode. VC (in-lens stabilization) On.
This dainty insect is actually sitting on an unattractive dirt trail here, but the camera’s angle of view disguises the surroundings. To get this view I am lying prone on the ground (a very common posture for good wildlife photographs) and the camera is pressed to my face. I will often fill the frame as much as possible while trying not to have the subject looked too cramped within the image frame. I did have to angle the Canon 50D slightly downward to keep the butterfly’s legs in the photo.
Using the “focus and recompose” technique, I pressed the shutter halfway down after initiating autofocus directly on the butterfly’s eye, and then I angled the camera until the lens hood of my macro lens was touching the ground, but the camera body was not. This low and close-focused perspective has disguised the fact that myself and the butterfly are surrounded by a trail of non-photogenic packed dirt.