Let The Games Begin

I’ve known photographers who were totally oblivious of this fact, and I’ve lost sight of it myself from time to time. It can be a difficult thing to keep in mind, and it was another photographer--thank you Valerie Millett--who reminded me. Nature photography is not a contest. It is not a game in which the person who visits the most locations or the most exotic sites wins. I have fleeting moments when I think it might be nice if it was a game, at least for a little while, but those thoughts are generated by a desire for financial security. Speaking as a photo tour leader, it would great if everyone was competing to see all the places we want to take them. However, for good or bad, it is not a contest, and it makes no difference if you’re photographing in Alaska or your own backyard, as long as you’re out there shooting.

The miracle that compels us to push the shutter button is not something that is only present in far away climes. The beauty, the life and death struggles we want so desperately to capture happen in our own gardens just as they do in the rainforest. This orb weaver spider laid her trap right beside our front door, and the fact that we didn’t need to travel to the far corners of the globe did not detract from the engineering marvel that was her web, the evolutionary miracle the stronger-than-steel gossamer strands represented or the deadliness of her attack.

Orb weaver spider and web

The poetic naturalist, Annie Dillard, once wrote, “Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another. I never ask why of a vulture or a shark, but I ask why of almost every insect I see.” And the same applies to spiders. Not only do they have way too many legs, too many eyes, fangs and impressive chelicerae, but their mobility on sticky strands of silk borders on the supernatural. It’s no wonder they feature prominently in many horror movies. For me, it is their method of eating that is most distressing. You see, spiders do not simply eat their victims. They inject a witches brew of poison and enzymes that paralyzes the prey and then reduces its muscles and organs to a protein shake that can be sucked out. Makes you hungry just thinking about it.

Orb weaver spider and prey

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to photograph exotic locations and the magnificent scenery, charismatic megafauna, colorful birds or whatever that make them a Shangri-La for nature photographers. In fact, our business depends upon it, and even though Cathy and I have been lucky enough to visit a good number of these places, there are many more that are still on our wish list. As you dream of far away destinations though, keep in mind the distance to the location often has little to do with the quality of the photos you may come home with. A photo of an iceberg from Antarctica or Iceland is not inherently better than one of a flower from a local garden. A photo of a grizzly bear is not necessarily stronger than one of a spider. Some of our strongest images were taken within an hour’s drive of our home. When we judge photography competitions, we’ve found that quite often the most ordinary and pedestrian images are the ones with the most exciting subjects. It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking the image is exciting just because the subject is. On the other hand, some of the most extraordinary images are composed of ordinary subjects. I’m not sure if the ones I’ve included with this blog illustrate this fact adequately, but you get the idea.

Orb weaver spider and prey

If nature photography is a contest, the winner is the one who gets to spend the most time immersed in the mystery and majesty that we are a part of, wherever that may be.

Photographing The Aurora

Photographing the aurora is actually quite easy once you get over the fact that you’re working in the dark. The only specialized equipment you need is a camera with adjustable settings and a decent tripod. A cable release can also be helpful. Since you’re often shooting a wide expanse of sky, a wide angle lens is usually preferred, and the faster the lens, the faster the shutter speed you can get away with.

Aurora borealis, northern lights
20mm, f1.8, 6 seconds, ISO 1600

To begin with:

Set your camera on manual mode.

Start with an ISO of at least 400, and go higher if you need to. Obviously, a camera that can handle high ISOs without much noise is a huge advantage. We often shoot with an ISO of 1600 or even higher.

Open the lens to its widest aperture, or close to it--4.5 or under should work fine. Faster lenses give you much more leeway. Our favorite lenses have maximum apertures of 1.8 and 2.8.

Set the shutter speed for around 15 seconds to start with. Make it longer if the aurora is not noticeable, or shorter if the aurora is over exposed. With an ISO of 1600 and a lens at f1.8 we can often use shutter speeds in the 4 to 6 second range. Sometimes the aurora moves a great deal, and a fast shutter speed helps capture the patterns. With a fairly wide lens, the stars will begin to streak if the shutter is open for longer than 25 seconds. And the longer your focal length, the less time before the stars begin to streak.

Pre-focus the lens to almost infinity--don’t go all the way to the infinity mark. After pre-focusing, switch the lens to manual focus so you don’t accidentally re-focus after you have your shot composed.

Use a cable release or self-timer to trip the shutter.

Aurora borealis, northern lights
17-35 @ 19mm, f2.8, 6 seconds, ISO 1600

Things to keep in mind:

In most instances, a wide angle lens will give you the best results. If the aurora is wide enough, a fisheye can be fun to try, although it does make the stars even smaller.

Usually you can see well enough by the light of the aurora to compose your images.

Bring a small flashlight, and be sure not to point it at, or in front of your lens (or anyone else’s) while your shutter is open (unless you are painting some of the foreground elements).

If you use mirror lock-up, hesitate a second or two between raising the mirror and tripping the shutter or the camera movement will blur the photo.

The foreground is often what makes or breaks a night photo, although with the aurora, the patterns of light can overwhelm the rest of the composition. Still, if you include elements that are closer than 10 feet, they may be out of focus, and if you focus on them, the stars may be objectionably blurry. You just don’t have much depth of field to work with. Luckily, wide angle lenses offer more depth of field automatically, and the entire scene is usually in focus from 10 or 12 feet to infinity.

The more you know about operating your camera without having to look at all the buttons and dials, the easier it will be to work in the dark. Be sure you know where the button is that lights up the LCD panel, at least.

You probably won’t know exactly what you’ve gotten until you can look at the images more closely on your computer.

Aurora borealis, northern lights
17-35 @ 19mm, f2.8, 13 seconds, ISO 1600, taillights used to paint trees in foreground.