Elk in black and white at Yellowstone National Park.

Elk in black and white

Elk in black and white

Saw this gorgeous elk at Yellowstone National Park this Spring.

3 ways to start improving your photography

3 ways to start improving your photography immediately.

3 ways to start improving your photography immediately.

A couple weeks ago, I was in the field scouting a site for more in depth photography at a later time. The lighting wasn't great - the sun was a bit harsh but I still took a few photographs. And I must say it felt real good. I've not had a lot of time in the field lately and getting back into the grove of things was nice... really nice!

While there, I spotted some barn swallows feeding their young fledglings. As they weren't overly concerned about my presence(as long as I kept a certain distance), I was able to "work the subject" and slowly improve the photos as I worked on getting back in the groove. While downloading and going through the photos I realized I had a great opportunity to blog about how to improve photos in a couple steps.

I'm guessing most people who picked up a camera(even if it's just a smart phone) probably want to improve their photographs. If you are an aspiring amateur or hoping-one-day-to-turn-pro then it should always be top of your mind. Obviously, there's way more than 3 ways to improve your photographs. But with my little "photo session" I came up with these 3. Enjoy!

Picture 1. This photograph has so many issues. Ugly background, not close enough, weird branches on the right drawing the eye out of the frame.

Picture 1. This photograph has so many issues. Ugly background, not close enough, weird branches on the right drawing the eye out of the frame.

1. Watch the edges of your frame.

In this early photograph of the session, all of these branches in the right side of the screen are in focus as well as the subject. The eye finds this kinda distracting and doesn't know where it should be looking... The bird? or the branches? I had a photography professor that used to say "don't press the shutter until you've checked all the edges and corners". So true! If you see branches jutting in on the side try to re-frame to remove the distractions in the field. 

These distractions not only make it hard on the eye to focus on the subject but they often lead the eye right out of the frame. I'm sure that you generally don't want to make people stop looking at your photographs... but that is essentially what happens when you have distracting stuff on the edge of the frame going out of the frame. Ways to fix this? Move, get closer, take the photo in portrait orientation, change your angle, etc. But the most important one is to look and think before you press the shutter.

Picture 2. We've fixed a few things here. The subject is closer, the background is a little better and the distracting branches are gone.

Picture 2. We've fixed a few things here. The subject is closer, the background is a little better and the distracting branches are gone.

2. Get closer to your subject

Robert Capa is credited with saying, "if you your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough".  There is so much truth to this! You've all seen it, someone with a camera,  and they are standing way to far away and taking a photograph and wondering why they aren't getting any impact. Simple! You aren't close enough!

You can fix this in three ways.

A. You move your feet. This is the best way. You can reframe and remove distracting clutter, your subject will be larger, and sometimes you can get a more interesting angle. Compare this picture 2 with the first one and you'll see it's improved drastically by getting closer and more on eye level with the subject.

Now, in wildlife photography the subject won't always allow you to get closer. It might fly away, it might get agitated, or even aggressive if you invade it's personal space. As a wildlife photographer you should work on learning body language of animals so you can judge correctly when you are starting to upset your subject.

I've said before, and probably will many more times, no photograph is worth harming an animal. If you are endangering or upsetting the subject, back off and start over or move along and go elsewhere. If you don't care about the animal's welfare than your really shouldn't be a wildlife photographer. Your lack of empathy will show up in your photos.  If you want to set your photographs apart from everyone else's the first step is photographing what you love, and you're not doing that if you don't even care about the subject other than "getting the shot". Ok, back off my soapbox now... :)

B. You zoom in. This is part of working the subject. You zoom in, you zoom out, you find what works for the subject. Don't forget that you have this ability!

C. This might be controversial in some circles but if your camera has the spare megapixels, you can always crop the photograph to get "closer" to the subject. Keep in mind how many pixels you need for prints if you intend to print the photograph and don't crop below that, but otherwise cropping can solve problems such as the annoying branch you may not have seen in the field! It's always best to get it right in camera if at all possible, but sometimes... nature and wildlife just don't cooperate!

3. Watch your background

So looking at Picture 2, we've reframed to remove the distracting branches. We'd gotten closer to enhance the subject. But it's still not even a keeper. What's wrong? That background and horizon is really distracting! There's lots of things that be distracting about backgrounds. Clutter, reflections, crooked horizon lines, ugly boring skies, etc, etc.

Picture 3: This photograph is so much easier on the eyes than the previous ones. We've addressed the main issues, and I just love the beautiful background now. So gorgeous!

Picture 3: This photograph is so much easier on the eyes than the previous ones. We've addressed the main issues, and I just love the beautiful background now. So gorgeous!

The third tip is "watch your background" and it's probably one of the most important. How much more pleasing is this third picture than the second one? That horizon that included the ugly grey looking sky was extremely distracting as it cut across the middle of the photograph. It could've been even worse if the horizon had cut through the subject! The difference between the first picture and third is quite remarkable don't you think?

The easiest way to fix this problem is to be aware of it while you are in the field. As mentioned before check the whole frame for distractions, but also check your background. Is there a shiny water reflection competing with your subject for attention? Re-frame! Is that horizon line a problem? Move your feet and get rid of it. 

In conclusion

As you go out in the field try to keep these things in mind. Check your frame before you press the shutter. Anything distracting? What's the background look like? Can and should I get closer? Or a different angle? If you are worried about the bird flying away, than take the photograph first, and then work the different angles. See how much you can improve on the first photograph!

Horse Painting

Horse Painting

So I haven't been doing a lot of photography lately(though I do have new stuff from Ireland last year that I will post soon). I have, however, been working on painting quite a bit in the last two years. Unfortunately, I have been in a bit of a frustrating slump in the last month or so - basically hating everything I worked on. Finally, I made something that I'm halfway happy with. 

I decided to try my hand at a horse painting - a subject I love to photograph. The above photo shows the current state of my painting. I'm pretty surprised I like it, as I don't normally like painting with reds and oranges. Here's a few work in progress photographs:

Day 1

Day 1

Day 1. First I painted the background with acrylic paint. A lot of purple and tan. After that dried, I spent some time studying it while turning it upside down, 90 degrees, etc. I've been trying to exercise the ability to see shapes or picture in my abstract backgrounds - ideas that I want to bring forward into the final painting. I did see the partial image of a horse's jaw and mane hidden in the background, and decided that's what the painting would be(sorry, I didn't take a photo of this step - not sure if anyone else would've seen the horse or not). Next up browns and tans, trying to bring the horse to life. The jaw(mandible?) is wrong here, but sometimes I need to step back, photograph the work, to figure out what's not working. I ended the day here. Don't feel I'm out of the slump yet, but much happier than I'd been for a while with my paintings. 

Day 2. I had two goals on day two. I wanted to fix the proportion issues, and I wanted to brighten the painting(I just wasn't in the mood for browns and dark purples). Here's how I ended day two. I felt it was better... but still not happy with it, and still not feeling out of the "I hate everything I've done" slump.

Horse in oil 36x36

Day 3. I decided that part of my "I hate everything I've done" slump was that I just wasn't liking the look of acrylic paint. I missed the richness of oils. I really try to like acrylic - you can do some amazing things with it. One of my favorite things with acrylic is dripping paint - and I've yet to find a way to satisfactorily mimic that in oil. So I keep trying to like acrylic... and just keep coming back to oil.  

Anyway, due to my frustration with several of the paintings I've been working on, I decided to just play with this one a bit, and see what happened. First off, I used oil sticks with the lovely yellow, and some blue. I was starting to like it. Then I got my regular oils out, and put a glove on, and decided to "finger paint" - meaning I didn't use a brush, just my hands and occasionally a palate knife. I started with the background, greens, oranges, some cold wax, and even sand for texture. Didn't really like it, so I scraped most off at one point and started over. Then I moved to the horse. I used that gorgeous red color - a color I have previously avoided in paintings, as I normally don't like it. Here, this time, it spoke to me - made me happy! Some purples, blues, yellows, and greens later - I'm liking the horse, so I go back to the background. Finally, I'm done, as the paints too wet to do any more without making a mess. But, at this point I decided the edges were all to "sterile"... I don't know how else to describe it - I wanted it to be more free and less "perfect" so I just kinda smeared it with my hands - outward from the horse. Finally! I like something I'm working on, again. It's a nice feeling! I haven't decided if I'm done yet. Time will tell!

Celebrate International Cheetah Day Dec. 4th!

It's International Cheetah day! Watch the video below and use this link to see how you can help: http://www.internationalcheetahday.org/#HowToHelp

I have great respect for CCF in Namibia and the work they are doing to protect the endangered wild cheetah. I donate 25% of all my proceeds from any cheetah photograph that I sell, to help CCF's efforts.

Cheetahs are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red list. And have become extinct in 23 countries they used roam. They are at about 10% of the population they were in 1900.