In the shadow of a global pandemic, there are many things we can’t do. Always the optimist, I ask: what’s still possible?
With my camera equipment staring me down and another gorgeous North Carolina spring pouring through my window, an idea sparked: what about using this time to capture nature next door? Everything here has been shot since the US pandemic measures began in late March, which in local terms, is week 5 of the lockdown.
Here are my ideas for building your nature portfolio in a way that’s socially-aware, in keeping with current COVID-19 guidance to stay safe and away from others:
- Take inventory; when it comes to nature, what are your nearby options and preferences?
- Think flowers;
- Thinks leaves in sunlight;
- Think birds;
- Think rain (especially after it rains, if the sun emerges);
- Think combinations of the above (extra credit);
- Grab a long lens, I like to say 100mm or longer, for the best bokeh;
- Consider a tripod, especially for isolated but highly mobile subjects like birds; personally I find tripods a burden, but the difference in sharpness is visible;
- Set aside a full 60 minutes; my days are blurring together so waiting for free time may defer your creative pursuits;
- Be opportunistic – the best shot may not be the one you’d planned;
- Go more than once – 2-3x per week? – using takeaways from the prior shoot on the next one;
- Stay in public spaces – street, curb or sidewalk – and be sure to choose subjects and views that stay within public space; legal guides for photographers say as soon as you point your camera toward somebodies yard or house, they could claim privacy issues – and nobody wants negative energy;
- If you’re determined to take a picture of a beautiful dogwood or azalea in someone’s front yard, just ask them – they’ll probably say yes, especially if you offer to send them the JPG
- Get your images clean in camera, fewer edits saves time and brings peace of mind
And of course, the COVID-19 overlay:
- Travel alone
- Honor 6-ft social distancing at all costs; there are lots of joggers and dog-walkers out there!
- Mask-up, it’s the right thing to do (but the colorful biker or ski versions are more fun)
- Say hello, and ask folks how they are – it goes a long way
Most people reach for their smart phone or camera when the sun starts to throw off colors.
Few photographers are immune.
But what makes a great sunrise or sunset shot is more than just lucking out, randomly stumbling on a sky full of color. Planning is important, and being prepared to move quickly.
Here are a few of the things I keep in mind when taking a great shot of the sun.
- Don’t assume you need a wide angle lens to catch more sky; my best sun shots are almost always taken with a telephoto; it givies me some bokeh in the foreground, and a larger sun
- Know where the sun is going to rise or set, and position yourself accordingly. The last few minutes of opportunity go quickly.
- Sunrise is clearly harder than sunset. To make matters worse, the sun’s trajectory moves a little each day. An app like SkyView can be a trusted ally in the hunt.
- Beach orientation to a pending sunrise is a huge factor; with the varied coastlines of North Carolina, it pays to know your bearings. The ocean – and that amazing sunrise – aren’t always where you’d expect
- Timing is everything; I’m always most successful when I research local sunrise and sunset times, adjust for hills or mountains, and position myself 30 minutes prior. The shot from Roan Mountain below was only 15 miles away from me as the crow flies when I set out with my camera, but it was 45 minutes to get there, due to routes and switchbacks. I had to plan ahead. Once at Carver’s Gap, I had less than 15 minutes to find a spot and start shooting
- On the other end, there can be lots of waiting for sunset chasers; grab a latte to pass the time
On the Scene
- Don’t look at the sun directly, even through your view finder! Wait until the clouds or thickened atmosphere near the horizon come to your aid
- Watch for scattered clouds near the horizon, these signal opportunity
- Try to find something in the foreground to frame the view; it can be a nicely shaped tree, the edge of a roof or wall, anything that can place the sun in context; this also helps remind me where I was when the shot was taken
- Look for ways to diffuse the sun’s colors, like fog over water; the pond in my neighborhood rewarded me with the shot above; it was late March in Raleigh and about 32 degrees; I was VERY glad for that latte
When It’s Over
- Sadly, many sunrises or sunsets don’t afford an exciting view
- Be prepared to leave empty-handed
- More “at bats” (chances) will lead to more success; rise early and tarry late, and keep your DSLR and telephoto nearby – you’ll up your success rate
- Avoid the temptation to amp-up or add your own colors in post-production edits. Sure, we all tap the contrast and saturation a tad. But let nature cover the hues.
Do any of these shots resonate with you more than others? The shots here are my favorites over the last 15 years. I’d love your thoughts and comments. And ket me know if you have other tips or stories to share. War stories help us all connect the dots.
Meantime, recharge those batteries – and I’ll see you on the ridge, at sundown.
It’s hard not to love those high-end photographs where the subject is set against a blured background. The technique is called bokeh (BO’-keh), derived from a japanese word for ‘blur’ or ‘haze’.
Portrait and macro pro photographers use bokeh all the time to enhance their images, but others can stumble on it unawares, as I did with my first DSLR, a Nikon D70 and the stock 70-200MM telephoto it came with.
With some planning and insight, you can take steps to bring bokeh into your photography.
Here are some things to try:
- Use a telephoto lens, and use the fastest lens you can get – a wide maximum aperature (aka a small “f-stop”, like f/2 or f/2.8)
- Keep your lens open wide (e.g. f/2, or f/2.8) when shooting, to let lots of light in; do this using “Manual” (M) or using “Aperature Priority” (A) setting
- Choose a background that is as far away from your subject as possible; often we ignore our background choices, but for good bokeh, it’s critical
- Choose a breakgroun that’s mostly solid, and that contrasts with your subject
- Get reasonably close to your subject, but far enough away that you can still zoom in
- If you can’t move the subject, move yourself (e.g., the angle that you’re shooting, relative to the subject)
- Zoom in as much as possible (e.g., focal length > 100mm)
- Don’t mind that all these adjustments have you moving in zig-zags; with practice, you’ll know where you, the subject and the background need to be relative to each other
- Beware of ‘noisy’ or ‘bad’ bokeh – if your blurred background remains cluttered, it can fight with your subject rather than framing it; with nature’s leaves and branches, we face this challenge all the time
- For added interest, try to get points of light or ‘specular’ reflections in your background; these will become soft, pleasing “bokeh balls” that can make your bokeh even more eye-catching
That’s a lot of factors, for certain. You don’t need to use every tip every time. But the more factors in play, the more bokeh you’ll see in your images.
What you are doing with the above steps is making your depth of field more shallow – literally, limiting what will be in focus – which is ideally just your subject.
This is the opposite of what smartphones and wide-angle lenses typically do, which puts as much into focus as possible.
You can use “Portrait” (P) mode if you have it to de-focus around your subject in real-time. Sure it’s a short-cut, but it’s a way to get there, especially if your lens choices and setup time are limiting.
My bokeh is often set in nature, so my subjects might be grass, leaves, flowers or birds. Ideal backgrounds for me? Generally it would be woods, fields, or mountains. Open water, beaches and flowing streams always afford some interesting options. I like to explore layers in my nature shots, experimenting with what’s in focus. Bokeh helps me separate those layers, when I’m able to keep the background simple.
In short, seek to isolate your subject as much as possible.
Of course, beautiful bokeh is in the eye of the beholder. Try different permutations based on the steps above, to see what you come up with. Find the steps that work best for you. Great photography is a journey. I’d love to hear where you are taking your bokeh.
I’ve been shooting in North Carolina for over 20 years, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned .. there’s never a shortage of photo opportunities. Here’s a sampling from some of my favorite destinations statewide .. and there are many ..
Sugar Mountain, after a dusting of snow (c) 2020 Amberwood Media