Nature Photography: Introduction

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Read: Photography 101 Part One: Equipment | Part Two: Basic Composition | Part Three: Content


Hybrid Tea Rose at Toledo Botanical Gardens
above: Hybrid Tea Rose at Toledo Botanical Gardens
Hibiscus in our garden
above: Hibiscus in our garden
More Hibiscus at Toledo Botanical Gardens. Notice oversaturated reds. This is the result of the film and/or laboratory processing
above: More Hibiscus at Toledo Botanical Gardens. Notice over-saturated, "bleeding" reds. This is the partly the result of the film and/or laboratory processing. This image was scanned in in mid 2000 and then resized for Internet use using Adobe Photoshop (a version from 2000).

larger data size and software evolution improve image fidelity
above: The same image as above, but resized from the originally scanned (raw file) using a 2003 version of Adobe Photoshop Elements. Elements saved the image as a much bigger; hence, note the improvement in red saturation and overall image smoothness. Software manipulation and evolution is an important factor in image-quality improvements.

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Photography 101 Part One: Equipment: camera, meter, flash, tripod

by Kelly Paal

This article is a simplified photography course directed at new photographers out there who want to know where to start.

If you really want to learn photography the first thing you need is a good affordable and reliable camera. It must, and I repeat must, be able to shoot in fully manual and fully auto focus modes. (This leaves out any digital cameras on the market right now, sorry.) To really learn photography you must understand the equipment. You'll need to learn how manipulating the shutter speed, aperture, and focus will have a dramatic effect on your photos. Meters, if you have a camera that can work in a fully manual mode it should have an internal meter suitable for what you will be doing. Tripod, you're going to need one whether it's portrait work or landscapes you'll need one eventually. Luckily you don't have to spend a lot here. Just something lightweight and durable. Flash, you can buy a separate camera mounted flash, which is great if you can afford it. Consider what kind of photography that you will be doing though. If you're going to do mostly nature and landscape, you may only need the fill flash that comes with most cameras today. If you plan on doing portraiture alone you will want to consider a camera mounted flash that has an adjustable angle. Film, film speed to be exact. Slower speeds (25 to 400) are intended for portraiture and landscape photography. Faster speeds (600 and above) are intended for actions shots and photojournalism. So first you need to know what you going out to photograph and make sure that you have the appropriate film for the job. Now that you have the camera loaded with film consider shutter speed. Do you want to blur motion, or freeze it? If there is no motion at all what shutter speed do you need to expose the scene with natural light. From 1/60th and down to the bulb setting will blur most motion. For example if you want to blur the water in a waterfall, a setting of 1/30th should work. (You'll need a tripod though.) 1/125th is a normal setting for most shots. On many cameras the 125th setting is marked in a different color to make it obvious. If you want to freeze action you'll need to start with 1/500th and work up from there. The faster the motion the faster the shutter speed needed to stop motion. Many cameras go up to 1/2000th of a second. If you're trying to use natural light alone in a scene you will want to determine the aperture first and then see what shutter speed you need to properly expose the scene for available light. (Keep in mind sometimes there isn't enough light.)

Aperture, these are the set of numbers on your lens closest to the body of the camera. They can go from 1.8 to 22, and they are referred to as F-stops. These numbers determine how much light reaches the film inside of your camera. Most internal meters will blink on the appropriate aperture for the shutter speed that you've set, or the speed you've set will blink if your F-stop is correct for the speed. Both the F-stop and shutter speed can be changed to expose the scene correctly. Consider that the faster the shutter speed the more light will be needed to expose the scene correctly. This makes logical sense if you think about it. If the shutter isn't open as long, fast shutter speed, then there is less light able to make it to the film and so the scene must be brighter to expose correctly. To learn, bracket your shots. Take the first shot at the aperture suggested by your meter, move one stop up, take a photo, one down, take another photo.

Flash, I personally like shooting with natural light whenever possible and at most I use a fill flash. But if you're going to do portrait work then most of the time you may be indoors and you will need a flash sometimes. For the amateur the fill flash units that are on the top of most of today's cameras are wonderful for basic work. You will have to read your manual on your particular flash unit to learn what it can and can't do. This is where the camera that is fully manual and fully auto is great for the amateur. You can usually set it so that the camera will meter and set the flash output accordingly and then you still can control the shutter speed and aperture.

This week's assignment: Have several rolls of 400 speed film, find a subject that you can work with preferably something that won't move, and shoot one roll of film. Shoot some of the roll in the morning, afternoon, and evening. Bracket every shot, take notes on time of day and light conditions, and what your settings (aperture) were for each frame, keep the film speed the same for the entire roll. Have the film developed and examine the photos. You should be able to see a difference in each frame. You'll need to repeat this procedure until you feel that you understand the relationship between shutter speed and aperture, and every camera and meter has it's own quirks and differences, you're camera will act differently than someone else's. This way you will learn you own particular camera as well. Once you have a sense of how aperture works you won't need to bracket every shot you take, you may only need to do it in cases where you want to be extra safe on exposing the subject correctly. (top of page)

Part 2: Basic Composition

Now that you are beginning to understand how your camera works you can begin to understand basic composition. I know that many people that I’ve talked to think that photography is just pointing your camera and taking a photo but it’s more than that. After you understand how your equipment works you can begin to get into the real art of photography and that art is called composition.

Basic principles:
1. Use all of your available space. Fill the image with the image. If the reason that your taking the photo is your daughter’s beautiful face then get closer. If you’re taking an image of the breathtaking valley before you. Fill the frame with the valley. Keep distractions out of the frame. They’re called distractions for a reason.
2. Look at the forms in your image. You almost have to look at the people or the landscape before you in their simplistic geographic forms. A good way to learn form is to practice taking photos of still life objects, that you can arrange into pleasing forms. A good photo is always a beautiful arrangement of form. Whether it’s the beauty of a woman’s face, her features being forms, or a wonderful landscape, trees, rocks, and hills being forms.
3. Line or direction, motion. The direction of the forms in your photos is very important. Never have action or motion moving outside of your image. It will direct the eye away from your image. Diagonal motion lines are good, curves and “s” curves are better. The last two is probably way landscape photography is so popular nature is full of curves. Also never put a horizon line in the center of your frame.
4. Contrast, the difference between black and white. Now it is possible to have a beautiful photo with little contrast if that is your intention, this works best with color. But a lot of shots, some really beautiful shots have a nice balance of black, white, and grays. This can be manipulated for artistic purpose of course, but in the beginning you want to focus on trying to take shots with equal amounts of black, white, and shades of gray. (Shoot a roll of B&W film to really learn this principle.)
5. Color, you may have to familiarize yourself with the color wheel. (See my article Graphic Design Using Color for more information it’s for graphic design but the first couple of paragraphs talk about basic color theory) Whether you’re shooting nature or setting up your own shots in a studio you need to know what colors go together and why. Many of us have an instinct as to what looks good. When in doubt follow your instincts. Start out by taking shots of things that you think have pretty or beautiful colors. Show the photos to others and see if they agree. Photographers learn not only what they think is beautiful but what is universally beautiful as well.

Now the hard part practice all these principles at the same time. It’s not easy! Now you really know why photographers take years to really learn their craft.

This week’s assignment: Let’s break this down into four assignments. You’ll need four rolls of film. Roll one, fill your available space. Shoot pictures of whatever you like, but get closer. Eliminate distractions from your image. Keep the focus of your image on whatever it was that made you want to take that photo. Roll two, forms. Here’s an old stand by that I did in college. Get out an assortment of vegtables and fruit from your kitchen. Put a sheet down on your table, no distractions, shoot an entire roll of the veggies and fruit making sure that your rearrange with each shot. Make sure you study your results and see which forms looked best. Roll three, Contrast, you can do this in B&W film if you want to. Take a shot of the flower in your garden in the early morning, afternoon, and sunset. Shoot some portraits at the same times, by candlelight too. When you see the results you will be surprised. Roll four, color. Use the vegtables again, this time paying attention to the colors. If you can tell me why a red tomato looks best on a green bed of lettuce or the orange sunset with the purple clouds is so captivating then you’ve figured out some of color theory. (top of page)

Part 3: Content

Even if you feel that you already know what kind of photography you like to do, it’s always a good idea to try your talent at different aspects of photography.

Pictorial, this is a general term but it applies to any photographer who’s goal is simply to create beautiful photos. This breaks down into smaller subsets but the most popular form is landscape and nature photography. This is what I do and it’s tempting to go on and on but I will just say that this form of photography, to me, is a real art. At least that is goal to create art in photographic form. It is the goal of the photographer to use their abilities to capture an image in it’s moment of beauty and simplicity.
Portrait, this can be people and even animals. It also includes wedding photography as well. This is an aspect of photography that can be a lot harder than it seems. Not only do you have to know your basic photo composition but you need to understand what makes each person look their best. You must know how to bring out their personality and character in the shot. If you love working with people this may be your field. It’s fun and challenging.

Photojournalism, now this isn’t just press photography, though that is one aspect of it. It is also documentary photography as well, the latter doesn’t always need an event to occur right in front of you. Either way the purpose is to tell a story. Really good photojournalism shouldn’t need the text below it to tell you what is going on. It should be compelling and storytelling. Composition still plays a part, you can’t tell a story if the story can’t be seen. And while these photos can be beautiful in their technical aspects they aren’t necessarily beautiful images. The story telling is as important.

Abstract, probably not as common of a form of photography but I’m seeing it more and more. This is usually characterized by extreme close ups of detail of something, so much so that you can’t identify the original subject. But in this case that doesn’t matter since the abstract detail or pattern is the subject of the photo. (Color can also be the subject as well.) Basic composition still plays a part, maybe a bigger part in this form of photography.

This week’s assignment: Four rolls of film again. Roll one, pictorial, get outside and try your best using all your abilities to capture moments of beauty and simplicity. Composition is key here. Roll two, portrait, get somebody to volunteer for you. Remember composition but really focus on finding the shots that make that person look their best. Different light, background, camera angles, or even clothes. Roll three, photojournalism, outside or inside anywhere you see stories. This can be as simple as a child playing with their toys. Find the appropriate moment to take a shot that tells the story. Roll four, abstract, details, details, and more details. Get in close, make sure that you can’t identify the subject but find beauty in the color or details of the item. (top of page)