Just a little heads up, this coming week I'll be doing a series on the Masai. Monday I will be kicking it off with the “People of the Maasai Mara.” This was my second time visiting with the Maasai people, and it was such a great experience I want to share it with you. See you next week…John
It’s been a while since we’ve had a Q&A session so thought I would clear my inbox and answer a few questions I’ve received over the last few months.
Mitch: Do you have a favorite camera bag?
John: I own more camera bags than I do pairs of jeans, but my favorite all around camera bag is the Think Tank Street Walker. If I’m walking the streets or throwing some gear in my car then this is the bag I’m taking with me.
Lisa: I see that you sell prints online. Can you make any real money doing this?
John: I have sold prints online using services like PhotoShelter and LiveBooks but it’s far from a steady income stream. Selling prints online requires a lot of work. The mistake a lot of people make is thinking, “well, my images are online they should be selling themselves.”—that’s simply not the case. To be successful at this you need to promote your online work, build a reliable database of interested buyers and sell yourself. I can’t emphasis selling yourself enough!
Warren: How do you make your desktop calendars?
John: I’ve always used Matt Kloskowski’s very simple desktop calendar procedure outlined in this video HERE.
Shea: Four things that you always have in your camera bag beyond the obvious camera, battery, etc.
That’s it for today. As always if you have a question feel free to leave me a note on the blog or email me directly. Take care, John
John: You have some amazing bird images. What is the toughest part about getting a great shot?
Chris: There are a lot of things that go into a successful avian shot. But no matter what style shot, I think the most important factor is planning and visualization. If you plan well, the execution of the shot is relatively easy.
Let’s start with visualization. What is the shot that you want? Do you want a bird on a perch? If so, what kind of perch? Would you like the bird singing or eating? Do you want a bird in flight? And so on. Of course, the shot you want will change depending on the bird and your shooting environment, and will develop “on the fly” (pun intended) during your shooting time. However, it’s important to place a visualization in your mind’s eye.
Once you visualize your shot, planning takes over. To me, the top avian shooters, like Alan Murphy or Arthur Morris, constantly produce stellar images because they plan.
“Planning” incorporates a whole host of factors and objectives. For the image itself planning can include:
- Light (of course!)
- Wind direction
- Type of shot
- What kind of bird
- For the mechanics of getting the shot itself, planning can include:
- Habits of the bird
- Staging area for the bird
- Food for the bird
- Type of perch
- Skittishness of the bird (do you need a blind?)
- Lens size
- Many other factors come in to planning, but you get the idea.
Let’s take a real life example. I was with Alan Murphy in Texas and we wanted a shot of a Kingfisher that was hanging around on a local pond. For our planning, we knew what shot we wanted and we knew the habits of the bird. Here’s what we knew:
- We wanted a perch, so we put one in the water and dressed it up with some moss.
- Kingfishers love fish, so we bought some minnows.
- Kingfishers are very skittish, so we knew we had to have a blind.
- We wanted the sun at our back, and very little wind.
- We wanted the Kingfisher to face us, so we knew we had to put the food source between the bird and ourselves.
- We knew that Kingfishers like to “stage” and survey the scene before flying to a perch, so we set up near a shore tree.
- We had to keep the minnows in one place for the bird to feed, so we got an inflatable baby pool, filled it with water and tied it in front of the perch.
So, after all that planning, we were in a blind before dawn, with the sun to our back, facing a perch that had fish corralled right in front of it. After all that, snapping the shutter when the Kingfisher landed was relatively easy!
There is a funny part to this story. Despite what we thought was a perfect plan, the Kingfisher showed up before dawn and ate all our minnows before there was any light! So the next day, we put a net over the minnow filled pool and strung fishing line up to the blind. The Kingfisher arrived early again but could not get the fish. When the light was right, we pulled the net off from inside the blind. We had a happy bird, and happy photographers!
John: If you had to give a newbie some advice in relationship to bird photography–what would it be?
Chris: Well, in addition to the planning above and the right gear, which we’ll discuss next, I’d say a few things:
Practice and practice some more, and be prepared to fail. Many times. Don’t get discouraged, as good avian shots are hard to come by, even for pros.
When you are comfortable with your camera and your bird, try to get shots that don’t have the “hand of man” in them. Try to eliminate feeders, fence posts and such.
Like all photography, looking at other photographers’ images really helps.
Nothing will accelerate your learning curve faster than attending a workshop or shooting with an accomplished bird photographer.
John: Being a photographer and an owner of a photo gear business gives you a unique perspective. If you had to give advice on buying gear what would it be?
First of all, know that avian photography is expensive. Very. With avain photography, it seems you can never have enough reach. We constantly use teleconverters and search for longer lenses. When Canon came out with their 800mm, scores of photographers dumped their 600mm lenses and moved up despite the cost.
Most avian photographers also have a crop factor camera (like the 1.6 crop Canon 7D) for better reach.
For gear advice, I’d break components down to four areas: camera, lens, tripod and head.
I won’t delve too much into cameras as there are so many out there. If you are just starting though, get a crop factor camera to give you some reach, like a Canon 50D or a Nikon D300. If you think you will shoot birds in flight, make sure and step up from the entry level cameras to get a better autofocus system.
For your lens, I’d try and get the longest lens you can. You may have to stretch, but if you are going to continue in this field, you’ll end up with a 500mm or 600mm down the road. You don’t have to start there, of course. The 70-200 f2.8 works well with a teleconverter, and can get you on the way. One great starter lens is the Canon 400 f5.6. It’s about $1200 new, and will get you some long reach right away, so you can find out if avian photography is your thing. It’s also a great hand-held lens for flight. One warning though: if you are used to shooting a smaller lens, and get a taste of the reach of a 400mm, you’ll be drooling over the 500mm in no time.
As to tripods, there is a standard answer we give on workshops: nothing will improve your photography more than a good tripod. It’s best to “buy ahead” with tripods more so than with lenses. If you think you are going to end up with a 500mm, then go ahead and buy the tripod that carries it. Smaller tripods are harder to resell than smaller lenses. In the tripod category I would suggest a 3 Series Gitzo, either basalt or carbon fiber, or 3 series Induro carbon fiber. Is a 3 series overkill for that Canon 400 f5.6? Probably. But you’ll move up, and you’ll want to protect your investment in your lens. One thing good about tripods is their longetivity. My 3 Series Gitzo is 7 years old. I’ve changed camera bodies many times in that time frame.
The last component is your tripod head. If you only want to shoot static birds and don’t think you’ll ever go larger than a 400 f5.6, a good ball head is fine. But if you ever want to shoot birds in flight, no matter what size lens you have, you’ll need a gimbal head. Wimberley, Induro, Jobu and 4th Generation all make fine gimbal heads. Most work for any size lens, from a 70-200mm all the way up to an 800mm.
Come to think of it, of all the components, the camera body is the least place where you have to stretch or “buy ahead”. I’d take a non-pro camera body like a 50D any day, and use the extra savings to purchase a good lens or tripod.
John: If you had to pick one lens and one lens only, what would it be?
Chris: If you’ll let me have a teleconverter, then I would say that if I could only have one lens, it would be a 300mm f2.8. With that lens, I can cover close subjects, and I can get to 600mm easily with a 2X converter. It’s important to have an f2.8 though, as with an f2.8 your teleconverters will not slow down or shut off your autofocus. For both Canon and Nikon, their 300mm f2.8 lenses are among the sharpest, if not the sharpest, they make.
John: Is it true they use fake backgrounds when photographing birds? If so, why? And how do you go about setting that up?
Chris: No, it’s not true we use fake backgrounds with bird photography. (With one exception for hummingbirds). Those nice, blurred backgrounds that highlight our subject bird are accomplished with good lenses and depth of field control. More importantly, when we plan a shot, the correct background is one of the most important factors. You see a lot of jockeying around in avian photography to get the right background, more so than for the subject bird! We do “manicure” our backgrounds sometimes, for example snipping off a bright flower 30 feet behind the perch, or piling up leafy branches to cover up a bright spot.
Hummingbird flash photography does have fake backgrounds, usually a big print of an out of focus plant. The reason? If you are trying to freeze a hummer’s wings, your flash speed is so fast, that if you did not light up a background, you’d end up with midnight black around your subject bird.
Reader Question: The thing I’d like to know most is how to go about getting great images in your own backyard or local park without having to get into all the camo gear and hides.
Chris: The answer to this statement really lies in the type of bird you want to photograph. Some birds, like hummingbirds, tolerate humans just fine. Urban and backyard birds are mostly fine with us as well. But if you want to photograph a shy bird like a Pileated Woodpecker, you’ll need a blind.
Birds around the country have different tolerances of humans. For example, I cannot get within a few hundred yards of the Wood Ducks in my backyard stream, but in Albuquerque I could practically pat them on the head!
Reader Question: I have been stunned by the talent of Fergus Gill, winner of the Veolia Environment Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year for two years running. Both were images he got in his back garden!
Chris: From reading about Fergus, he noted that he was in his garden every day photographing, and his local birds acclimated to him. There is a lot to be said for this technique as to your back yard. The more you are out there shooting, the less the local birds will pay attention to you. Your odds will increase as well! In addition, if you get an abnormal event like a big snowfall, birds will be so focused on food, they will be likely to overlook your presence.
Reader Questions: What if I can’t make a workshop? Do you have any resources for aspiring bird photographers?
Chris: I sure do. For the basics on bird photography, including technical details such as exposure compensation, I would recommend Arthur Morris’ books: The Art of Bird Photography and The Art of Bird Photography II (actually a CD).
If you have your camera basics down and want to learn how to do songbird set-ups, particularly in your own back yard, you can’t beat Alan Murphy’s CD: The Guide to Songbird Set-up Photography. I help Alan with a couple of workshops every year, and continue to be amazed at the setups Alan comes up with. I swear the guy can talk to birds.
I want to thank Chris for his time and if you're interested in seeing any other work by Chris then make sure to stop by his portfolio HERE.
I plan on featuring a few more photographers in the coming months so if you're interested in being interviewed for my blog then leave a comment on today's post. Have a great weekend and stay tuned to Monday's announcement of the Black and White Photo Contest winners.
It’s been a very busy week so I’m sorry if I’ve been a tad quiet on the blog. By the time this blog goes live I’ll be seeing my girls off in Bozeman as they fly back east. It’s always bitter sweet seeing them go. They’re my main support team, but it will give me some down time to focus on a new writing project, as well as my photography.
It's been a few weeks since our last Q&A but here we go…
Julia: Do you use a lot of filters when you’re taking landscape shots?
John: It really depends on what I’m trying to achieve. Much of my filter work can be done in Photoshop or Lightroom, but if I have a sky that really needs to be punched up, I’ll use my Lee Filter Kit and throw a graduated neutral density filter on.
Kevin: I’ve been using Lightroom for several months now and I’m curious how often should I back up my catalog?
John: You can never have too many back-ups..;) But, these catalogs do get large so I typically will back up my catalog twice a week depending on how much editing I’ve done. I try to keep 3-5 catalog archives on file, and every time I run a new back-up I delete the oldest back-up.
Millie: How important is setting your white balance?
John: This really depends on a lot of factors. I shoot in raw so it gives me more freedom to adjust things in Lightroom or Photoshop, but typically I try to set my white balance accordingly before I take a photograph. The trick is to remember to change the settings if the conditions change. I’ve been out many times and had my camera on a “cloudy” white balance setting just to have the weather improve and then forgot to change the setting to “sunny”. Some photographers prefer to leave it on Auto White Balance and make the adjustments in Lightroom. I recommend trying it both ways and seeing which process works best for your workflow.
Peggy: How can I order one of your prints?
John: If the photo is on the blog, then just click on the image and it will take you to a shopping cart. If you have any problems whatsoever, then just drop me an email.
Anna (my daughter): When did your beard get so gray?
John (Dad): How old are you?
I hope everyone has a wonderful weekend. If you have a question you would like to submit for my Q&A Friday then just fill out the form below or leave a comment on the blog….take care, John
Send me your Q&A questions
[contact-form 1 “Contact form 1”]
It’s been a few weeks since I’ve done a Q&A Friday so today’s will be that day folks! But, before I start answering a few questions I just want to remind people that I really do enjoy answering questions so if you have any please feel free to drop by the blog or email me and I’ll do my best to add it to one of the future Q&A sessions.
Irene: I have spots in my photos. I clean my camera every time. And I can’t seem to get them to go away. And I can’t find where they are on my lens. How do I go about of removing them? HELP me with the spots, please………
John: It sound to me like you have dust on your sensor. Digital camera’s sensors are magnets for dust…think static. You can have your sensor professionally cleaned by a camera store (e.g. I know places like Calumet Photo charge around $55.00) or you can clean it yourself using Sensor Swabs. Now, to be totally honest I tend to be a little lazy on this front myself so if you use a program like Lightroom or Photoshop you can eliminate these dust spots simply by using the healing brush. One click and they’re gone!
Lauren: I’ve debated buying a long lens (500mm) for photographing wild life but it’s a big expense. I have a 70-200 but it just doesn’t give me the reach I need. Any recommendations?
John: I always recommend renting a lens if you’re on the fence. A 500mm is a big investment and if you’re not sure you’ll use it that often renting might be the way to go. Another good option is to consider investing in a 1.4x or 2x extender. You’ll lose a couple of stops of light using extenders, but the advantage is you’ve just increased your maximum range to 280mm ( 1.4 extender) or 400mm (2x extender) at a fraction of the cost of a 500mm. In Yellowstone, I typically use a 1.4x on my 70-200..;)
Ed: Just curious — what are the major differences between working with .jpg and raw format images? What are the pros/cons of each? I've worked only in .jpg so far, but my PhotoShop version allows me to work with RAW images. Any preferences?
John: I work strictly with raw files when I’m editing. The best way to understand the difference is to think of it in these terms: A RAW file is much like a negative. The photographer can change the white balance, colors, exposure, crop etc without effecting the negative. A JPEG is more like a print. The camera embeds the color, exposure, saturation, hue, etc right into the file. JPEG advantages are smaller sized files, require less processing, and write faster to a card. The downside to JPEG is lesser quality, less data to manipulate, and less control over the image. The advantage to a RAW file is the file contains all the information needed for future manipulation and typically the quality is much greater. The disadvantage of course is the file size is larger and it requires extra time for processing. Truthfully, I think most professional photographers are shooting in RAW these days, not that there’s anything wrong with JPEG, but it depends on how much control you want over the file.
It’s Q&A Friday….
First off let me say thanks for all the emails and comments about my True Americana post…it was much appreciated. I mentioned earlier in the week I would follow up and tell you my bear debacle. I was driving into Yellowstone with a Jeep loaded to the brim with dogs, people and gear when we passed a large group of people and park rangers out in the field, all looking towards the stream. I suspected a bear, given the crowd and the number of rangers, and sure enough I was right. Except it wasn’t just a bear. It was a mother and her three cubs, all feeding off a bison carcass in the stream. Folks, I have to tell you I wanted to grab a chair, a long lens, and a tripod and line up with all the rest of the photographers; but I simply didn’t’ have time. I ended up using my 70-200 with a 1.4 extension to get this shot, but to truly do the image justice you would need a much longer lens. I ended up free handing the shot because as luck would have it my tripod was at the bottom of my gear sack—lesson learned again! But, walking away and saying I’m not going to take the shot because I didn’t have the right gear just wouldn’t fit with my personality. No regrets means making the decisions you know you can live with….for me it was leaving with some photography versus none at all.
Now for the Q&A:
Q—Amanda—Whenever I shoot with a longer lens my images tend to be blurry.
A—Camera shake is more likely with a longer lens. Small movements are increased due to the sheer length of the lens, combined with the fact that the lens is generally heavier, therefore harder to stabilize with handholding. Camera shake can be reduced by using a tripod, or monopod for sports. If you’re shooting stills, a cable release combined with a tripod is always handy; another option, albeit one that takes more time, is to use the camera’s self timer. If you’re shooting freehand, make sure you’re using image stabilization and your speed is set as fast as your focal length.
Q—Aaron— I have a question about file management. It turns out that I am roughly the digital equivalent of a hoarder and probably need an intervention before my files come crashing down on me (or my hard drive finally refuses to store anything else). My problem is that I can’t decide what to keep, how long to keep it, and what to do with things that need to be archived. How do you manage your files? Do you keep all your raw files as well as any tiffs or jpegs you create from them? How long do you keep files before you archive them? What do you use to archive them? Help!!!
A— I think you’re probably not alone here. The short answer to this question is that I use a Drobo, so storage is never a real issue. I should note here that I don’t store anything on my local/internal hard drive. However, I recognize that this system is not cheap, so there are alternatives. Hard drive space in the form of external drives is cheap…I mean it’s crazy cheap by today’s standards. If you are using your local drive currently, you can purchase a 500GB external drive, such as the Western Digital Passport, and use that to catalog your older photos that you just aren’t using currently. A couple times a month I go back to my image library (usually a few years back) and clean house. It’s easier for me to go back two years and look at images and say “man this just doesn’t work nor will it ever work” then look at an image I took just yesterday and say the same thing. At this point, after some clean up, you could transfer some catalogs to the external drive (make sure it exports out the actual photos, and all the file formats), and make sure to label the drives, so that you have a working system.
As far as my workflow, I use Lightroom to manage my entire library. Upon importing my photos I convert everything to DNG. I generally keep all the files, tiffs and DNG’s. My first step when uploading is to weed through my photos by deleting blurry shots, test shots, etc from the drive. The images I plan on working on I simply assign a 5 stars rating. I work only on those images, and once I’ve finished my editing I assign them a Green label, which for me means “good to go.” Keep in mind, the 5 stars and green labeled images represent a small fraction of my entire library, but that doesn’t mean I throw everything else out. I rarely delete photos of my friends and family (unless they’re just too blurry)….like I said hard drive space is cheap. Another option is to keep only your 5 star images on your local hard drive. You never know when you’ll need to enter your best photo into a contest! You can then make a monthly practice of archiving the unrated images to your external drive. There’s nothing wrong with being an image hoarder providing you have a method to your madness. Keep in mind, organizational tasks such as keywording, ratings systems, folder organization and healthy back-ups will make you sleep better at night
I hope everyone has a wonderful weekend. I’m heading into Yellowstone today to visit Old Faithful and talk to some rangers about my upcoming Photowalk. If you’re interested in joining me on Scott Kelby’s Third Annual Photowalk then click HERE to learn more. If you have questions, or follow-up questions, please submit them, I’d love to answer them.
Very best, John