Photography FAQ
(Frequently Asked Questions)

Continued/Part 2

Q: Do you have any favourite techniques?
A: "Not really - I like to experiment whenever possible with techniques like multiple exposures with and without defocus, multiple filters, long exposures, etc. and blur effects either by subject movement or camera movement. I do think it is important to experiment with new and different techniques. Now more than ever, if you want to get nature images that will beat the increasing competition and have that 'wow!' factor, it is essential to aim to get different and unique images - whether of action or behaviour, or by creating a particular composition in special light, or by using particular techniques. With wildlife photography, I do prefer actively stalking in preference to hide work or baiting."

Q: What equipment would you recommend for beginners at nature photography?
A: "Obviously this depends very much on the kind of nature photography you wish to do and how much you can afford to spend on equipment. Presently, the main requirment is an SLR (single-lens-reflex) camera - that is, a camera where the subject is viewed through the lens by means of a mirror mechanism. The camera make is not as important as whether a good, comprehensive (and, perhaps, affordable) range of lenses and accessories is available for it. Bayonet lens mounting is better than screw-in lenses. The camera should have full-aperture TTL (through-the-lens) metering (and auto-iris) and a range of shutter speeds of at least 1/1,000th second to 1 second (and 'B' - shutter remains open as long as release is pressed). The camera does not have to have any kind of auto-exposure or auto-focus - manual settings and manual focusing are fine - and a built-in motordrive is not essential. However, one of the most useful and desirable features of the camera is a depth-of-field preview button - this allows you to manually close down the lens iris to the taking aperture before taking the photograph, serving two important functions: firstly, to some extent it helps you to gauge the degree of sharpness of foreground and background parts of the image, and secondly, it can help you spot any foreground and/or background elements in the scene which may be brought into sufficient focus so as to become distractions in the photo.

"At the moment, 99% of nature/wildlife photographs are produced using 35mm equipment mainly because of its portability (especially with big telephotos), ease of use, and variety, with an immense choice of cameras, lenses and accessories with a wide range of prices. The quality that can be attained with modern lenses and films is quite remarkable and this, combined with ease of use makes 35mm format the primary choice for most nature photography.

"A good 35mm 'starter' kit for general nature photography would consist of two camera bodies, a wideangle lens around 28mm, a standard 50mm lens or 35-80mm zoom, a medium telephoto zoom around 80-200mm and a 300mm or maybe 400mm telephoto. There is currently a huge choice of high quality new equipment at very reasonable prices and there are still many secondhand lenses (usually manual-focus) at bargain prices. Nowadays, zoom lenses are no longer considered to be inferior to fixed focal length lenses in terms of quality in everyday practical use in the field and it's now possible to cover the aforementioned 'starter' kit with just a 28-300mm zoom lens! However, there are compromises in terms of maximum aperture, lens shading, close focusing capabilities - also if you lose or damage the lens you're stuck. Better to opt for, say, a 28-80mm zoom and perhaps a 100-300mm zoom. Note, though, that at the longer end of zooms is where a wider aperture really counts, both in terms of ease of focusing (for manual lenses) and light-gathering power which permits faster shutter speeds to stop camera shake and/or subject movement and/or allow use of slower, better quality film.

"If you want to shoot wildlife proper (that is, birds, mammals) there is a lot that can be covered with just a 300mm lens but, sooner or later, you will find that the extra 'pulling' power of longer lenses becomes essential for some subjects (or, conversely, to keep you at a distance from nervous subjects). Choose telephoto or long-focus lenses in preference to catadioptric (or mirror) lenses as the latter, although lighter and more compact (and usually less expensive!), suffer the limitation of a single fixed aperture (usually quite 'slow' - f5.6 or even only f8) and are also inclined to produce rather distracting doughnut-shaped out-of-focus highlights.

"Teleconverters, which fit between the (telephoto) lens and the camera, are a useful way of increasing the 'pulling' power of a lens but, for full aperture work, both the individual lens and the individual converter should be of the highest optical quality and must match well together (not all do, even the top makes occasionally have particular individual lens/converter combinations that don't match well). Bear in mind that the converter will 'magnify' any optical deficiencies in the prime lens, however slight, and may also introduce more aberrations resulting in softening and general degradation of the image. This can often be counteracted by stopping the lens down by around two stops so that even a relatively cheap converter can produce sharp images when used with a high quality lens - but note that when using a converter there is also a price to pay in terms of loss of light gathering power: a 1.5x converter reduces light gathering power of the lens by about one stop (e.g. effectively, f4 becomes equivalent to f5.6), a 2 x converter by 2 stops (f4 becomes eqivalent f8), so with lenses of maximum aperture f5.6 stopping down two stops may then mean shooting at an effective aperture of f11 or even f16! Using more than one converter is possible but should only be done with the best optics for full aperture shooting and light-loss is additive (so using two 2x teleconverters together would reduce light-gathering power by four stops(!).

"In addition to the camera bodies and lenses, buy (and use!) a good, solid tripod as use of one does mainly two important things: firstly, it reduces the risk of camera shake affecting the photograph, and secondly, it slows down your photography and makes you think more about the photograph you are about to make, instead of the temptation to just 'point-and-shoot'. The last piece of equipment worth carrying with you in the field is a flashgun, which can provide vital fill-in lighting or even all the lighting. For other photographic accessories see following.

Q: What accessories would you recommend always having in the camera-bag?
A: "All the following are accessories that I have found handy to always have in my camera-pack and add little to the overall bulk and weight of the pack:

Polarising filter - to darken blue skies, reduce haze, reduce reflections including reflections from shiny plant leaves, can double as a neutral density filter
Warming filter(s) - to compensate for both overcast light and clear blue sky light
Grey graduated filters - to help control contrast range and tonal range of the scene
Filter wrench - light plastic gripper to remove stubborn screw-in filters
Stepping rings - if needed, to mount screw-filters to lenses with different diameters (all my Nikkor lenses from 20mm wideangle to 80-200mm zoom have 52mm filter thread)
Cable/remote release - to reduce camera vibrations
18% Grey Card/white card - grey side for metering reference, white side as reflector for close-ups
Film leader retriever - useful when films are changed mid-roll
Mini Maglite torch - to see what your doing after you've photographed the last of the sunset... - the Mini Maglite is small and uses two standard AA-size batteries
Plastic bags - to keep equipment dry both in and out of the camera-bag
Black plastic tape - for sealing flash-cord connectors, securing zoom/focus ring on lenses used vertically, securing lens-hoods, etc

and for close-up work:

Extension tubes - fit between the lens and camera body and greatly increase close-focusing capability of the lens
Close-up lenses - screw into filter thread and increase close-focusing capability of the lens (though not nearly as much as extension tubes)
Coupling ring - connects two lenses togther via their filter threads - by coupling a 50mm standard lens onto the front of a 200mm lens the 50mm lens acts like a 'super' close-up lens permitting real macro photography (that is, greater than life-size magnification) in the field
Lastolite reflector - this clever gadget is about 15cm in diameter when packed but springs out to form a 40cm diameter circular reflector - the plain white one is most useful as it can be used not only to reflect light for filling in shadows but also to diffuse bright sunshine."

Q: What advice would you give to beginners at nature photography?
A: "Respect the welfare of your subjects above all, whether mammal, bird, bug or flower. Do it for love rather than money(!). Buy the best equipment you can afford, bearing in mind that the lens is what really counts, the camera body is secondary (autofocus excepted). Read books and magazines to learn the technical bits and techniques. Always carry a notebook and keep detailed notes on how you take each picture so that you can learn from your mistakes, until you gain experience and confidence with your equipment and technique. Use a tripod whenever possible! (for the reasons given previously). Be prepared for many disappointments, not only the 'just-misses' in the field but also the 'if onlys' back at the light box. Whenever you look through the camera viewfinder think "is there any way that I can improve this photograph", perhaps by slight change of position, change of lens, use of filters, or perhaps by returning when the light is better! If you think you are onto some good photographs, don't be economic with the film - better to throw away pictures that didn't work rather than wish you'd taken more. Try to be ruthless when editing your photos - throw out any that are poor technically (very overexposed, very underexposed, out of focus, camera shake, etc), no matter how much effort was involved to get them (I know - it hurts).

Be ruthless when editing your photos .....

"As well as learning about photography, learn about your subjects, both via books and direct study and observation in the field. When photographing animals, try to keep your eye to the viewfinder as much as possible so that you are ready for fleeting actions or poses - but also keep an eye on your frame counter! - if it's already on 30-something the best shot is bound to be frame 38! (that is, off the end of the film - it always amazes me how many of my best shots are frame 36 or 37). Always think about the light - its direction, how contrasty it is, its quality ('warm' as at sunset, 'cool' as through overcast skies, mist, etc) - firstly in terms of its effect on your subject and secondly its effect on your film - learn to look at the scene the way the camera and film will see it (this comes with practice and experience). Try not to get too discouraged by photographs that haven't 'worked' for one reason or another but analyse why they didn't work and think what could be done to remedy it next time.

"Decide how you intend to use your photographs - if all you want are prints then shoot with print film but bear in mind that you may have no control over how your pictures are printed (most are machine-printed) and hand-printed enlargements can be expensive; ISO 400 colour print film allows hand-held camera for most conditions and can now produce good quality prints up to maybe 24 inches (60 cm) before the grain size becomes too obvious. If you just want to do slide shows then medium to fast slide film (ISO 200 to 400) and hand-held camera is fine - even slightly 'soft' slides can look sharp on the big screen!. However, if you want to have your photos published and to beat the increasing competition, then higher standards are required and you will need to get the best from your equipment and technique, which usually means slow to medium speed transparency film, tripod, and greater effort. Finally, whatever your aspirations, your photography should be enjoyed."

Q: What are your thoughts on digital manipulation?
A: "Although I have my reservations, I am not anti-digital and believe it is another tool (albeit a very powerful tool) for the photographer and its use can be as legitimate as conventional image manipulation techniques to create the final image - such as use of filters, printing on different contrast photo papers, lith film, process techniques, etc. Indeed, in many respects, I look forward to the day when digital photography supersedes conventional film as the latter is a relatively fragile medium, easily damaged both before processing and after, and is difficult to copy without some loss of information. Digital photography should also give the photographer much more control over how the final image will appear, both from adjustments at the taking stage as well as subsequently at the computer.

Digital manipulation?......

"However, with nature photography in particular, I believe that photographs of nature subjects or natural events should either still depict an actuality - a moment in time captured by the camera - rather than a post-produced 'Jurassic-Park' type image of what the photographer wanted it to be, or else it should be obvious (or made clear) that it is a photographic interpretation or montage (whether produced at the time or later), so that the skill of creating the image lies not just in the ability to use ever more complex and expensive equipment but in the ability of the naturalist/photographer/artist to be there and to see and capture the moment. Any subsequent digital modification should, perhaps, involve nothing more than 'tweaking' tones, colours, contrast rather than more radical modification such as moving/removing/adding elements. Beyond this it can be argued that one perhaps enters the domain of nature illustration or 'nature image creation' rather than nature photography per se. I guess it is up to each photographer to decide where he/she draws the line, but each of us should ask ourselves what we wish to achieve with the photographs we produce, bearing in mind that the general misconception of 'the camera never lies' still applies, particularly with 'straight'-looking photographs of nature/wildlife.

"In this respect, I find it saddening and frustrating that more and more 'wildlife' (mammals and birds) photographs published nowadays are, in fact, captive or tame subjects in a 'set-up' situation - manipulated before the camera if you like - and usually produced primarily for commercial reasons but give the impression of having been photographed in wild conditions with all the requisite skill and expertise that implies. Unfortunately, these kinds of images are usually published with nothing to say otherwise (and, let's face it, most publishers don't really care as long as the image fits their requirements). Now add to that the capability of making seamless digital composites of several elements from different photographs and it is becoming more and more difficult for even an informed viewer to judge whether the resultant image actually occurred or is 'made up'. My general impression from both informed viewers (that is, photographers) and uninformed viewers (that is, non-photographers) of nature and wildlife images (and, to some extent, landscapes) is that the mere hint of any digital 'jiggery-pokery' immediately diminishes the perceived artistic and emotional value of the image and the skill taken to achieve it.

"Nevertheless, I already know of several professional UK-based 'traditional' nature photographers who have said that they would certainly 'improve' an image digitally even to the extent of moving/removing/adding elements rather than just 'tweaking' tones or colours. Therefore, I think we will be seeing more and more nature/wildlife images which have been digitally 'idealised' (perhaps substantially in some cases) and it will become increasingly difficult for even very informed viewers (pro nature photographers) to judge the authenticity and veracity of such images and whether they were produced mainly by skilful photography or mainly by clever use of the computer. It will also become increasingly difficult not to 'go with the flow' because, as a professional (nature) photographer, I have to accept the economic and commercial imperative to produce some images that will satisfy the market demand, beat the increasing competition and be published (and paid for!). Already, the catalogues from most of the major stock photolibraries contain numerous 'straight'-looking nature/wildlife images which, to my eyes, are just too good to be true and which, I suppose, might be near-impossible to get using straight photography, but there are also more and more images which, to the informed eye at least, are more obviously the result of digital manipulation. I think it is important that the person viewing such an image is made aware of how it was created in terms of wild/captive and 'straight'/manipulated, and that nature photographers should be open and honest about these aspects (though, as mentioned before, publishers seldom concern themselves with this).

"I have to confess though that, even though I enjoy photographing animals wherever they are, I do not get as much artistic and emotional satisfaction from photographing them in captivity, or from actively 'designing' wildlife photographs, whether the subject matter is manipulated before or after the photograph is taken. Whilst I realise that some particular subjects or images may be virtually impossible to obtain except under controlled or manipulated conditions, whenever possible I prefer to photograph wildlife that is wild and free, looking for truly natural situations and images with poetic qualities in terms of subject, lighting, and composition, making the best of the circumstances at the time and accepting the many failures and 'if-onlys' that are a fact of photographing wildlife in the wild."
Q: Which other nature photographers do you most admire?

A: "Of contemporary nature and landscape photographers - in the UK there is Heather Angel, Stephen Dalton and Laurie Campbell - in the rest of the world there is Franz Lanting of course, Art Wolfe (with reservations... I'm talking digital manipulation here...), Tom Mangelsen, Jim Brandenburg, Jeff Foott, Konrad Wothe, to name just a few. Of past nature and landscape photographers - Ansel Adams, and I must mention Richard and Cherry Kearton, two brothers who were pioneers in nature photography around 1890(!) - in an old book shop I found this wonderful book entitled "With Nature and a Camera" and subtitled "Being the Adventures and Observations of a Field Naturalist and an Animal Photographer" first published in 1897 and which was about the exploits of this intrepid pair as they travelled around some remote (and not so remote) corners of Britain (transport by bicycle, train and boat only - no cars or aeroplanes in those days!), observing and photographing the wildlife and people they came across - some of the old photographs (taken with a large plate camera, remember) are frighteningly good for their time (and some of their field techniques are just plain frightening!)."

The Kearton brothers in action c.1890
(photographing crow's nest using ladders)

Q: Which other nature photographers have had the greatest influence on your photography?
A: "In my photographic 'early learning' days, Heather Angel's books opened my eyes to alternative ways of seeing and photographing the natural world. In my 'mid-term' years Franz Lanting's photography showed the use of some novel techniques and also that the final image didn't necessarily have to be pin-sharp or fine-grained to make a great nature image. Latterly, the superb (and consistent) work of Art Wolfe and Tom Mangelsen."

Q: What is the motivation behind your photography?
A: "First and foremost, a fascination and love of nature in all its amazing variety, its forms, patterns and colours, and the quest to capture on film the evocative and poetic images that my eyes and emotions have already been captured by - coupled with the need, almost, to share these images with others. Secondly, the love of photography and the still image. Lastly (and leastly) is to pay the rent(!)."
"Good luck with your own photography and may you have few frame 38's!"

If you have any other photography questions not covered here
then feel free to e-mail Geoff at:

- but please don't expect an immediate response!.
New questions may be incorporated into this FAQ.


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