Category Archives: Techniques

Review: Michael Frye’s “Landscapes in Lightroom 5: A Step-by-Step Guide”



California landscape photographer Michael Frye recently published his latest ebook, “Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide“, and it’s a good one.  I mean, really good.  I’ve been using Lightroom for seven years and I’ve read countless books and online tutorials, all of which have contributed significantly to my proficiency with the software.  Michael’s ebook is as good as they come.  In a nutshell, here’s why I think it’s well worth the $15 investment:

An ebook is no good if it isn’t easy to buy, download and use.   ”Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide” was easy to purchase on Michael’s website and is delivered as a PDF that downloaded to my iPad without any hiccups.  Most importantly, it is laid out in a logical, easy to use and attractive format.

There’s a lot of content here, folks.  Really, really  good content.  Some “how-to” books are too basic while others cater to those who are experienced users of the software.  Michael strikes a good balance of both and as a result, you’ll find value in the ebook regardless of your proficiency with Lightroom.

To many, myself included, the tools in Lightroom’s “Develop” module are a bit of a mystery.  Sure, we may have a pretty good idea of what they are and how to use them, but each new version of Lightroom brings new tools and updates to old ones, some of which are significant.  Michael did his research and is able to explain each tool in depth, but in a way that the average person can easily understand.  I learned things about several of the tools that I use daily, and I think having that knowledge will make me more adept at using each tool.

We’re all unique and we each learn best in different ways.  For some of us, just reading about a new technique is sufficient while others may pick it up quicker by watching a video.  Michael recognizes this and has included several video tutorials that cover some of the more complex topics.  I found the video tutorials to be very helpful.

Yet another way people learn is by doing.  Michael has included sample workflows wherein he walks you through step-by-step as he processes six unique images, each with different challenges.  He even provides a link to the actual DNG files for each image so you can download the unprocessed RAW files and import them into Lightroom so you can edit them yourself.  This is huge.  It’s almost like getting a one-on-one Lightroom workshop with Michael.  This alone would make the ebook worth $15 (or more, actually).

Landscapes in Lightroom 5: A Step-by-Step Guide” is an excellent ebook for all photographers.  If you’ve never used Lightroom I recommend you start with another book, Nat Coalson’s excellent “Photoshop Lightroom 5: Streamlining Your Digital Photography Process“.  Nat’s book begins at the ground level with importing and organizing your images in Lightroom and then delves into the editing and other features of the software.  Once you’re comfortable with the basics, “Landscapes in Lightroom 5: A Step-by-Step Guide” will be a great supplement to your library that will help you fine tune your processing skills.

Five Things Every New Adobe Lightroom User Should Know

I’ve been using Adobe Lightroom as my RAW converter and photo editor of choice since version 1 launched a few years ago.  Until last year I still relied on Photoshop to complete the bulk of my editing work.  Why?  Because I was stubborn – an old curmudgeon who didn’t want to change.  Looking back, I wish I’d taken the advice of my friend and Lightroom guru Nat Coalson, who for years has been extolling the virtues of completing as much work as possible within Lightroom.

Finally I got smart and listened to Nat’s advice.  I now do about 90% of my processing within Lightroom, only using Photoshop to blend multiple exposures or for complicated cloning – both of which just can’t be done in Lightroom’s current version.  Even then, I import the finished product back into Lightroom so my entire image collection is in one place and easily searchable.

Lately I’ve noticed that many of my landscape and nature photography workshop clients are just now diving into Lightroom.  Many of them are doing so with trepidation.  Some of them are taking the plunge because I’ve badgered them into it.  Regardless, if you’re new to Lightroom I’ve got a few tips to share that are guaranteed to save you time and effort down the road.  These tips come from my own hard won experience.  I hope they help you find Lightroom bliss.

Keyword From the Start

You may not be a professional photographer or even have any aspirations to become one.  It doesn’t matter.  Metadata is king and you should keyword your images from the very beginning.  I also recommend that you enter a title and description for each photo.  Why?  If you ever plan to upload your images to flickr, your own website or any other photo sharing sites, the title, description and all of your keywords will automatically carry over.  I didn’t keyword from the start and as my stock photography business grows, I’m really wishing I had.

Buy A Lightroom Reference Book

The Adobe engineers did a remarkable job of designing Lightroom to be extremely powerful while remaining user friendly.  Nearly every adjustment in Lightroom can be accomplished through the use of sliders.  However, some of the terms may be confusing to those who are new to Lightroom.  Clarity, vibrance, black point – huh?  Additionally, there are keyboard shortcuts, presets, camera and lens profiles, catalogs, collections, ratings and more that aren’t exactly intuitive.  A good reference book, like Nat Coalson’s “Lightroom 5: Streamlining Your Digital Photography Process” will save you get you up and running with a minimum of time and frustration.  There are also several fantastic websites with tons of useful information.  One I visit regularly is The Lightroom Queen.

Keep It in Lightroom

This one took me a while to adopt.  I really wish it hadn’t.  I use Lightroom for 90% of my processing, switching over to Photoshop only to do exposure blends, complicated cloning and image prep for print.  Until Lightroom offers layers and a better cloning tool I’m forced to use Photoshop for these techniques.  However, Lightroom does have a powerful printing module that I simply haven’t yet explored.  I will soon.

Why keep everything in Lightroom?  Lightroom’s database capabilities are second to none.  By cataloging all of your images inside Lightroom you’re ensuring that they’re always easy to reference.  You can search for images using a number of variables, including keywords.  If you’re a stock photographer this is especially important as it eliminates the hassle in trying to find images for photo submissions.  All of your images under one roof?  Nice!

Back-up Your Lightroom Catalog Early and Often

This is probably the single most important advice I can offer.  We all know the value of backing up our data yet not all of us do it as often as we should.  I’m guilty of it in some regards but not when it comes to my Lightroom catalog.  Luckily, Lightroom makes it stupidly simple to ensure you never forget this critical step.  Lightroom can be set up to prompt you about a back-up every time you quit the program.  At that point you have the option to back-up the catalog or just close the program.  Take it from someone who learned this lesson the hard way: back up your catalog every time you close Lightroom. In my early days of using Lightroom I was far too lax about this.  My catalog became corrupted and, because I’d never backed it up, I lost all the work I’d done on every single image in the catalog.  All of it.  Hundreds of hours worth.  Don’t let this happen to you.

Presets Speed Up Your Workflow

Lightroom allows you to create presets for certain functions, such as exports and keywords.  Generally speaking, you’ll save quite a bit of time and effort if you set up presets for commonly used actions.  For example, if you spend a lot of time photographing in Arches NP you can create a preset containing keywords that apply to all images from Arches.  One click and the keywords are automatically populated.

I also frequently use export presets.  A recent photo submission consisted of almost 200 images that needed to be at a specific size and in jpeg format.  First I added all the images for the submission to a “collection”, then I created an export preset, selected the entire collection and started the export.  A few minutes later the entire submission was ready to be burned to a CD and shipped off to the client.

Bonus Tip: Plug-ins Are Your Friend

No, you don’t have to use plug-ins to really benefit from Lightroom.  But, I find that they make my life much easier.  Unless you’re new here, you already know I’ve got a love affair with Google’s Nik Collection.  There are dozens of other plug-ins that allow you to work faster and smarter, some of which are even free.  This link to the Adobe Lightroom website will give you an idea of what types of plug-ins are available.  If you find a few that work for you, you’ll soon realize just how much of a timesaver they are.

So, there you have it.  My five – okay, six - tips for new Lightroom users.  If you’ve got a tip to share I hope you’ll do so in the comments section below.  I’m certainly not a Lightroom expert and would love to hear how you’re using it to speed up your workflow!

The Best Photography Advice I’ve Ever Received

Sunset on Sandstone Fins, Utah

Over the years I’ve received much great advice that has contributed significantly to my growth as a photographer.  While guiding a photographer last week who was only bitten by the photo bug a few months ago, I offered a simple piece of advice: “Sweep the edges of your viewfinder before making an exposure.”  It was something I learned ten years ago while reading a “how-to” book published by Arizona Highways.  At the end of the day I was happy to hear her say that she learned more during our few hours together than she had in several months on her own.  I always find it rewarding to help other photographers learn and grow as artists.

On the drive home I began to reminisce about all the little nuggets of wisdom I’ve learned in the past eleven years.  Some came from books, others from magazines and even more from other photographers.  Regardless of their origin, each one has benefitted me in some way.  Like many of you, I never want to stop learning.  No doubt, the advice below is only the beginning of what will surely be an even longer list in another eleven years.

Sweep the Edges - Since I mentioned this one in the introduction to the article I thought I’d start off with it.  It’s also one of my favorites and something I do every time I compose an image without even thinking about it.  Very simply, once you have composed a scene in your viewfinder do one final visual sweep of the edges of the frame before depressing the shutter button.  You’re looking for little distractions.  It might be a branch intruding into the frame, a bright spot in a corner or even the foot of your tripod creeping into the bottom of your composition.  This will also force you to slow down and spend more time crafting a deliberate composition.

Don’t Forget to Turn Around - I read this very early in my career in a “how-to” book published by Arizona Highways that seems to have been discontinued.  The author’s point is simple: no matter how awesome the scene before you is, always remember to glance over your shoulder because it just might be even better behind you.  I follow this advice on nearly every photography outing and it has netted me some of my favorite images.

Don’t Forget to Look Down - I learned this lesson while viewing Tom Till’s image of colorful desert wildflowers pushing through cracks in mud.  The placard next to it explained that while Tom was photographing a grand landscape he happened to look down and found a scene far more original and interesting than the one he had intended to photograph.  You just never know what you’ll find if you keep an open mind!

Include People in Your Photos - This one certainly won’t apply to everyone.  However, it’s a valuable tidbit of advice that has certainly been favorable to my bank account.  My good friend Todd Caudle, who has been one of the most generous and inspirational pro’s for the entire length of my career, is responsible for this one.  While photographing wildflowers at Lost Dutchman State Park about ten years ago, Todd suggested that I consider including people in my photos.  Todd suggested that photographing my girlfriend at the time while hiking, climbing, canyoneering and mountain biking would open doors to some of the outdoor magazines.  I didn’t take his advice seriously until I met my wife, Melissa, a few years later.  It’s a shame I waited.  Had I immediately began following Todd’s advice I surely would have been published much sooner.

Look For and Exploit Reflected Light - We’ve all seen photos of Antelope Canyon’s sculpted walls glowing neon with reflected light.  Until I gathered this piece of advice from uber-talented photographer and friend Guy Tal, I wasn’t aware that reflected light was so prevalent in nature.  And, it even happens on a grand scale.  Clouds reflect light back down on to the landscape and massive cliffs bounce light all the way across the Colorado River canyon near Moab.  Snow reflects light into shadows.  Once you learn to identify reflected light you can easily use it to your advantage – even when photographing in mid-day.

Don’t Immediately Set Up Your Tripod - I can’t remember where I learned this but it’s made a huge difference in the quality of my compositions.  Upon arriving at a location spend some time exploring the area before you plant your tripod.  Experiment with different vantage points.  Try getting low to the ground or finding an elevated perch.  Maybe you’d originally intended to go wide angle but a more interesting scene in the distance demands a telephoto?  Even a few steps to the left or right of you’re standing could make a dramatic difference.

Bad Weather = Good Photography - Another great piece of advice whose origin escapes me.  Bad weather often creates the most dynamic conditions for photography.  Menacing clouds, storm light, fog, rain and snow can all contribute to amazing photography.  Or they can flat out suck.  That’s the chance you take when you wander out on a stormy day to make photographs.  But instead of bemoaning the fact that rain is in the forecast, get excited by it.  Overcast?  You couldn’t ask for better light for intimate landscapes.  Fog?  If it’s winter you might find hoar frost.  Summer?  Look for features in the landscape playing hide and seek behind a veil of fog.

Adapt to the Conditions - This one ties in nicely with the one above.  Most of us have probably taken a trip to a far off location with the intent of photographing our hearts out only to find lousy weather upon our arrival.  There is alwayssomething to photograph.  It may not be what you came for, but if you stay positive and learn to adapt you will be able to make images.  I don’t remember where this one came from but it’s advice I’ve learned to follow.  Bonus: Not only do I get to make photos regardless of the conditions, but I’m much happier and less stressed out, too.

A Bad Day in the Mountains is Better Than a Good Day in the Office - This one comes to us from Todd Caudle.  And you know what?  He’s right.  Wouldn’t you rather hike ten miles into the mountains to photograph sunrise at an alpine lake only to be defeated by a dull gray overcast than spend one stinkin’ minute staring at your computer monitor?  I would.  I will add one small caveat: A bad day in the mountains is better than a good day in the office – so long as you don’t have to cut off your own arm!

Certainly you’ve all received some sage advice over the years.  Why not share it with us in the comments section below?  I, for one, am always open to good advice!

Six Mistakes I Still Make and How You Can Avoid Them

Last week I wrote about the best advice I’ve received from other photographers during the last 12 years of my career.  This week I thought I’d go the opposite direction and share a few mistakes that, after all that time in the field and great advice, I still can’t seem to avoid.  Some are humorous and others are just downright annoying.  What mistakes do you find yourself making over and over again?

That Pesky Damn Lens Cap - I can’t tell you how many times I’ll put the viewfinder to my eye only to see…nothing.  Yeah, I forget to take the lens cap off all the time.  Fortunately, I realize the error before pressing the shutter button.  I don’t feel too bad about this as years ago I read that Ansel Adams once forgot to put film in his camera during a workshop he was teaching.  Okay, so the great one only made such a silly mistake once.

Invincible Tripod Syndrome (ITS) - We’ve all done this.  Some of us learned from our mistakes while others (me) still haven’t.  We set up our tripod, mount our camera and expensive lenses to it and then walk away.  Do this enough times and eventually gravity will rear it’s ugly head.  I’ve had cameras blown over in the wind, knocked over in the water and I’ve even tripped over my own tripod leg.  I saved that one from near death.  I know the consequences and yet I continue to roll the very expensive dice.  That qualifies for stupid, right?

Image Stabilization Times Two - What is a tripod?  It’s image stabilization.  There’s no such thing as too much image stabilization, right?  Wrong.  Most lenses that feature built-in image stabilization/vibration reduction are likely to produce blurry images if you leave the IS/VR turned on while your camera is locked tight on a tripod.  You see, when your camera is secure in a ballhead and IS/VR kicks on, the movement of the gyro inside the lens is enough to introduce vibrations that may result in blurry images.  I’ve blown more images than I care to remember because of this bonehead move.  Whether or not the IS/VR will cause blurry images is a function of luck, shutter speed and the lens you’re using.  Why chance it?  Make it a habit to turn off IS/VR before using a tripod.

The Dust Magnet - Sensor dust is the bane of every digital photographer.  Most modern DSLR’s have some kind of ultrasonic cleaning mechanism that does a remarkable job of keeping sensors virtually dust free.  Still, it’s never wise to leave your camera turned on when changing lenses – especially in the field.  Doing so exposes what is esentially a magnetically charged sensor to the environment, thus inviting dust to take up residence inside the camera.  I don’t do this often but every once in a while, when I’m rushing, it’ll happen.  It’s usually followed by a string of self-deprecating expletives.

Lens Envy - An illness I’ve never been able to overcome is gear envy.  If only I had that new lens/camera/computer/software/backpack/filter/truck my images would be soooooooooooo much better.  In fact, I’ve pretty much given up on even trying to beat this one.  I’m a gearhead.  Always have been, always will be.  I just need to realize that I don’t need to justify a purchase by pretending to believe it’s going to make me a better photographer.

More is Better - In compositional terms, more is rarely better.  And yet, I find myself cramming more and more into a composition until it loses cohesiveness.  I’m usually able to realize this in the field and make adjustments on the fly to resolve the issue.  Occasionally, I don’t discover the error until I see the images on my computer monitor.  The best compositions and thus, photographs, are not usually those which contain everything.  Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Now that I’ve bared my soul it’s your turn.  Share some of the mistakes you still make.  I bet you’re not alone and perhaps we can all learn from them.

Rediscover Your Creativity with a Self-Assignment

Pink Sky Above Three Sisters, Utah

Last week I read a great article on friend and photographer Gary Crabbe’s blog about the reality of working a photo assignment.  Gary’s article, and my own experience last year on assignment in Goblin Valley State Park, inspired me to write about a technique you might try next time your creative fire needs a little stoking.

If you’re lucky enough to land a photo assignment, it means that someone thought enough of your work to pay you to create photos of a specific subject for them.  The key word at work in that sentence is photos – as in more than one.  Perhaps there are exceptions but every assignment I’ve ever worked required that I provide a healthy collection of images to the client upon completion of the job.  Adding to the pressure to deliver is the fact that you are likely given a short time in which to make the images.  You’re probably charging a day rate.  Unless you’re a brilliant negotiator your client probably didn’t tell you to take as many days as needed and to send a bill when you’re done.  No, it is more likely that you’re told that there’s only enough money in the budget for a couple of days.  This means that during the “couple of days” you’d better be able to fill some memory cards with enough images to satisfy your client’s needs.

If your natural style of photography contradicts the “spray and pray” method, filling memory cards can be quite challenging.  Although I use a D-SLR I feel my style is more contemplative, not unlike large format photography.  I make far fewer images in a typical day of photography than most, but for the Goblin Valley assignment I had to maximize my time in the area to ensure I delivered enough images to my client.

In the field I discovered that I was taking more chances than usual.  I was staying out past sunrise, photographing all day long and not heading back to the truck until well after sunset.  Knowing that I had to produce forced me to look at the world around me through a different set of eyes.  And, I had to find ways to make compelling images in the middle of the day.  Fortunately, some nearby slot canyons solved that problem.  I found other things to photograph, too.  Grand landscapes, macros, abstracts, intimate landscapes – I found myself burning through memory cards creating all sorts of images.  If there is such a thing as forced creativity, this was it.

Consider this: Your creativity is in the trash and you’re stuck in a rut.  Your mojo is on hiatus.  Why not give yourself an assignment?  Find a local park or nature preserve, or even do something totally different and try your hand at photojournalism.  Pretend that you’re on assignment for a prestigious magazine and you’ve got to deliver images to your client or you’ll risk losing out on future business.  Find ways to photograph mid-day.  Shoot a variety of compositions – some grand, some intimate, some abstract.  Change hats and imagine you’re the client.  What types of images are needed for the project?  Do you need to tell a story about the place?  If so, how are you going to create a visually compelling story with your photographs?  Immerse yourself in your environment and you’ll begin to see differently, with increased sensitivity and regard for your subject.

Give yourself an assignment some time.  I think you’ll find the challenge to be fun and rewarding, and it may just help you claw your way out of the creative doldrums.

Have you ever tried a self-assignment?  Do you have any tricks to share that have helped you find your creative spark?  Please leave a comment!

Give the Bird to the Rule of Thirds

If you’ve ever read a photography “how to” book you are no doubt familiar with the rule of thirds.  If not, here’s a brief explanation.  Imagine two horizontal and two vertical lines running through your viewfinder, dividing it into equal sections.  Where those lines intersect are the sacred “sweet spots”.  If you were to compose an image using the rule of thirds you would place your main subject at one of those intersections.  Simple enough, right?

Back when I was a newbie photographer I obsessed over the rule of thirds.  Never would I compose an image with the main subject smack dab in the middle of the frame.  Blasphemy!  But here’s the thing: the rule of thirds is a guideline, a suggestion.  It is not an absolute. 

I’ll be the first to admit that more often than not using the rule of thirds as a compositional aid will result in the most dynamic photo.  I no longer obsess over it but I’ve been at this photography thing for 11 years now and building compositions is a lot like breathing – it’s just automatic.  I arrange the elements within my images such that main subjects are right there in the “sweet spot”, even though I didn’t make a conscious decision to put them there.  Every once in a while though, I get a little rebellious.  Every now and then, I’ll center my main subject.

When is the right time to give the rule of thirds the bird and create a centered composition?  I don’t really know.  The best answer I can offer is to say, “When it just feels right.”  Yeah, I know – how very new age of me.  The reality is that photography is not a science.  It is an art.  Even in today’s high tech digital world, where cameras are nothing more than small handheld computers, what comes out of them is art.  By it’s very nature, art is subjective.  We all see the world through different eyes and what I think is a masterpiece, you may consider a master piece of crap.

I think the best way to learn when the time is right for a little breaking of the rules is to experiment.  When you’re working a composition try using the rule of thirds.  Then break the rules and place your subject in the center.  Most of us use digital cameras and it doesn’t cost a single penny to click the shutter.  Be liberal with that sucker!  The more you photograph, and the more you experiment, the more adept you will become at recognizing when a centered composition is the right choice.

Take a look at the two images in this post.  What do you think of the compositions?  Was centering them the right choice?  If so, why?  If not, why?  What would you have done different?  Let’s get a lively discussion going.  Maybe it’ll give a newbie the inspiration to offer a middle finger salute to “the rules” and start experimenting with centered compositions?

Quick Tip: Explore Your Options

As nature photographers, we need tripods.  Shutter speeds during those few minutes of sweet light at sunrise and sunset are just too long to hand hold a bulky D-SLR camera and expect sharp results.  So, we’ve become accustomed to arriving at a location, setting up our tripod, mounting the camera to it and then getting to work.  But why must we be so confined?

When I arrive at a new location I’ll leave the tripod packed away and walk around for a few minutes exploring all the compositional opportunities through my camera’s viewfinder.  I’ll get down low to the ground, stand tall, move two steps to the right and one step back.  Maybe I’ll try using a foreground element or maybe I won’t.  Perhaps a vertical works better than a horizontal?  I find that leaving the camera off the tripod for a spell is very freeing.  I can wander around unencumbered.  Locking my camera on to the tripod feels sort of permanent.  Once I find the composition that best fits my vision for the scene I’ll bust out the tripod, secure my camera to my Acratech Ultimate Ballhead and get to work fine tuning a composition.

I made the image above earlier this week.  I liked the cracked rocks and knew I wanted to use them in the foreground but it wasn’t immediately apparent how best to place them.  I removed my camera from it’s home in my chest pack and walked around exploring my options before I finally settled on this.  I had to perch somewhat precariously on a rock just above and behind the foreground to achieve this composition.  Once I found what I wanted, I went to work figuring out how to best set up the tripod on the small pedestal.  Had I not wandered around without the tripod I likely wouldn’t have given this composition a chance due to the difficulty involved in setting up the tripod here.  Good thing I took my own advice!

Give it a try next time you head out for some photography.  I think you’ll like being free!

What do you think of this tip?  How do you go about finding the ultimate composition when you arrive at a location?  Let’s hear your routine!

Safety Tips for Outdoor Photographers

Most nature photographers enjoy escaping the hustle and bustle of city life by wandering through the wilderness with camera in hand. We peer through viewfinders, absorbed in perfecting a composition and often unaware of what is happening around us. We haul around hundreds or even thousands of dollars of valuable photography equipment. Our vehicles sit unattended at remote trailheads for hours on end.  We are, unfortunately, prime targets for opportunistic criminals.  In this article I’ll share several tips to help you stay safe while enjoying your photographic exploits in the great outdoors.

The first step to a safe wilderness experience is an easy, but often overlooked one.  Always tell someone where you are going and when you will return. Do a little research to determine what law enforcement agency has jurisdiction in the area you will be exploring and provide their contact information to friends, family or your significant other.  Fairly new on the scene are personal locator beacons (PLB) and SPOT personal satellite messengers.  These devices use satellite GPS signals to pinpoint your exact location and when triggered, automatically notify rescue authorities.

Statistics have shown that criminals more often prey upon people who are traveling alone. Though we often go alone into the wilderness to escape being surrounded by people, it also makes us more vulnerable. Take a friend into the backcountry and your odds for survival in the event of an accident increase dramatically.  And, by traveling with a friend, criminals automatically rank you a lower priority target.

Trailheads are notorious for vehicle burglaries due to their often remote location and the lengthy period of time your car sits unattended while you’re off hiking. Though there is no way to prevent a break-in there are things you can do to lessen the odds of it happening to you. Never leave valuables in plain sight. Stow your iPod in the glove box, carry your camera gear with you or leave what you don’t need at home, and hide cd’s, GPS devices and other valuable items out of sight. Even pocket change visible in a cupholder is enough to entice a hard-up criminal. Another option is to consider installing a lockable system like those produced by Truck Vault.

A popular ploy used by thieves is to hang out at the trailhead, act like another hiker and chat with you about your itinerary for the hike. In telling them your plans you are also disclosing how long you will be away from your vehicle. Watch for anything out of the ordinary as you pull into the trailhead, be it a suspicious person or a window that has been smashed out of another vehicle. Always lock your car, regardless of whether you will be photographing a few feet or a few miles from the parking lot.

Statistically speaking, cops who are fit, maintain a neat uniform and project confidence are less likely to be assaulted in the line of duty. The same theory applies to you.  In law enforcement it’s called “officer presence”.  In civilian terms, it’s “I’m not a target so don’t even think about it, punk.”

Police officers are trained to be hyper aware of their surroundings at all times. Doing so helps prevent them from being surprised by an attack and allows them to provide detailed descriptions of suspects. Make a mental note of people you pass on the trail. What are they wearing? What color and length is their hair? How tall are they? Do they appear unusually nervous, fidgety or interested in you or your gear? Do they have anything on or around them that could be used as a weapon? Notice and remember these details in the unlikely event that you might need to act defensively.

While it is normal for non-photographers to be interested in your gear and ask questions about it, you should be cautious about discussing the monetary value of your equipment with strangers. Someone asking odd questions or who appears to be sizing up you and the environment might only be interested in making your camera, their camera. I was photographing mountain goats on Colorado’s Mt. Evans with a 100-400mm lens when a vehicle stopped on the road below me. The driver exited and slowly moved toward me. I assumed he was interested in seeing the goats from my vantage point until he reached my position and immediately began to ask questions about my gear. He said, “I bet that’s an expensive lens.” I shrugged it off, saying “not really, there are lenses that cost 20 times as much!” Something about the guy didn’t sit right with me. I packed up my equipment and walked back to my truck, all the while looking over my shoulder and listening for hurried footsteps behind me.  Was he viewing the goats and simply making small talk with me, or did he have other dubious intentions?  Who knows, but when your sixth sense kicks in and something doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t.  Listen to your inner ninja!

As photographers we often find ourselves peering through viewfinders or with our heads under a dark cloth, completely oblivious to that which is happening around us. To a lion we would surely appear to be the weakest gazelle. Much of the joy I derive from photography comes from working compositions and losing myself in the moment. One need not forego this pleasure by constantly worrying about being attacked. Let your other senses pick up the slack while your eyes are busy. Listen for footsteps, be aware of changing odors and periodically lift your eye from the viewfinder to have a look around. You can quickly get back to the fun stuff once you determine there are no immediate threats.

For example, on a trip to photograph ice in the Colorado River north of Moab I stumbled upon a homeless camp tucked into a thick stand of tamarisk. The camp appeared to be unoccupied but signs of recent activity were present. Patterns along the riverbank and towering cliffs reflecting in a thin layer of ice caught my attention. I set up my tripod and explored the photographic possibilities, all the while listening for any sounds of movement and occasionally lifting my eye from the viewfinder to ensure the safety of my surroundings.  Other situations that demand an increased level of awareness include wandering into an area frequented by drug users or prostitutes.  If you find discarded syringes littering the ground it’s highly likely that you’re right in the middle of a “safe haven” for dopers.  Get out.  As you wander farther into the wilderness your concerns may change from nefarious people to marauding wildlife.  Educate yourself about local wildlife.  Know how to avoid them and what to do if involved in a confrontation with an aggressive animal.

It is doubtful that you will ever find yourself in a situation that calls for physical retaliation against an attacker. However, you should be mentally and physically prepared to defend yourself should such a situation arise. Police academies around the world stress the importance of a “survival attitude” to their recruits.  This consists of “when/then thinking”, or playing through hypothetical situations in your mind and deciding how you will react to them. In every situation it is critical that YOU come out the winner.

Most of us carry a dynamite weapon every time we go out – our tripod! Even a lightweight carbon fiber tripod is capable of inflicting serious injury upon an attacker. Other weapons are readily available in the wilderness, i.e. large stones and fallen tree branches. Be aware of what you have at your disposal so that you are prepared and can act swiftly to combat an attack, regardless of whether the aggressor is a human or an animal. However, you should only resort to physical force to defend yourself or another person from serious bodily harm. Should someone attempt to rob you of property or money your safest course of action is to simply hand it over to them. Gear can be replaced. Photography and outdoor gear is usually covered under renter’s or homeowner’s insurance. Lastly, using physical force to defend property may not be justified in your state.  Any use of force that results in injury to your attacker could result in you being sued civilly and/or criminally charged.  Learn your state law.

Since you located the name and contact information of local law enforcement before beginning your adventure, reporting suspicious activity will be a snap! Cops can’t be everywhere at once. If you don’t bother to report a suspicious incident, they have no way of knowing that a situation exists that requires their attention. You aren’t bothering them and your report just might save someone else from becoming a victim.

Keep these tips in mind next time you head out to burn through some memory cards.  You can confidently wander into the wilderness and lose yourself in the experience knowing that your enhanced awareness makes you a safer and more secure explorer.

Got a safety tip to share?  Please leave a comment!

Painless Dust Spot Removal…Almost

Nobody enjoys cloning out dust bunnies from their digital images in Photoshop or Lightroom.  It pretty much just blows.  So if there’s a way to go about it more efficiently, you’d probably like to hear it, right?  This tip, from Scott Martin, will make your digital life a little less aggravating.  Thanks, Scott!       

“When I was a drum scan operator in the early 90′s I had to be systematic about cleaning dust on every single scan. In Photoshop, start by zooming to 100% (option command 0)and hit the home button to go to the upper right corner. Holding down the command key turns the page up and down buttons into page left and right buttons. That trick worked in Photoshop 2 and still works today. 

Lightroom improves upon this functionality nicely. Zoom to 1:1 and hit the home key to fill the screen with the upper left most corner of your image. Hold down the shift key while pressing the page down key. Not only will it act as a ”Page Right” key, it will take you to the next column once you’ve reached the right side, like an old typewriter would.  You can continue hitting Shift-Command-PageDown until you’ve spotted your entire image. It a systematic way of “combing over” your entire image without worrying about missing anything.”

Scott Martin is the founder of onsight, a capture-to-print training and consulting business that helps digital imaging professionals optimize their workflows for quality and efficiency.  I’ve worked with Scott at workshops in Moab and can attest to the fact that he knows his stuff, he’s a heck of a teacher and an all-around cool dude.

There’s No Such Thing As Bad Light

Bad light is a figment of your imagination.  Seriously.  It just doesn’t exist.  There is only light, and what we choose to do with it is what separates good photographers from grumpy photographers.

Here’s an example to illustrate my rather bold statement.  Let’s say you’re visiting Moab and you’re stoked to photograph Mesa Arch with the trademark neon red glow on the underside of the arch.  You awake on the morning of your shoot only to find the sky filled with dull, gray clouds.  Nevertheless, you’re an intrepid photographer with eternal optimism so you head out the door with camera and tripod in hand.  On the drive out of Moab it starts to rain.  As you climb the switchbacks that deliver you to the top of the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands the rain turns to snow.  It’s late April and it shouldn’t be snowing but there it is falling all around you.  It isn’t snowing hard enough to cover the ground but some of the vegetation is holding snow.  Arriving at the Mesa Arch trailhead you are thrilled to discover that yours is the only car in the parking lot.  With a headlamp strapped to your noggin you make the short hike to the arch.  There you set up your tripod and wait, confident that the clouds will part and warm light will erupt from the sky.  But it never does.  Minutes pass and soon the landscape around you is illuminated in low contrast, diffused light filtering through thick clouds.  It’s obvious that the only glow this morning will be from your red face as your temper flares.  Bad light?  Think again.

You obviously aren’t going home with the photo you intended to make.  No spectacular sunrise light, no red glow.  Switch gears and let the creative juices flow and you might just find a unique, intimate photo.  Overcast light eliminates harsh shadows and allows your sensor to capture every little detail in a scene.  Use that light to photograph patterns in the sandstone or, as in this photo, a beautiful juniper tree accented with a dusting of snow.  As you walk around with an open mind and a positive attitude you start to find all kinds of interesting scenes and your memory card is soon full.  After a fulfilling morning shoot you head back into town, eager to chow on some huevos rancheros and download images to your laptop.

Your success as a nature photographer is tied to your ability to improvise and adapt.  If you’re given a glorious sunset you’d better be there to photograph mountain peaks kissed with brilliant alpenglow.  When the clouds roll in turn your attention to intimate landscapes.  If a thunderstorm develops look forward to the drama that is sure to unfold when the clouds break.  Once you learn to use the light you’re offered you’ll never have another unsuccessful photo trip.

Got some experience overcoming “bad” conditions on a photo trip?  I’d love to hear your story!  Post it in the comments section and feel free to include a link to an image that illustrates your story.