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Quick Tip: Explore Your Options

May 26, 2010

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!

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Ask An Expert: Death and Your Intellectual Property

May 25, 2010

I received a question for the experts that I’m handling a little bit differently.  Instead of posing the question to them, I’m throwing it out to all of you.  Maybe there’s an attorney amongst my readership who can offer some solid advice?  If not, I think it would be interesting and useful to hear from a few of you how your intellectual property will be handled when you are no longer around to manage it.

The Question:

I have a question for your experts.  I think inevitably the answer will be “Consult an attorney.”  Nevertheless, there may be things we should be aware of or consider when consulting an attorney.  I was just wondering what some of these experts have done for use of their intellectual property once they die.  I believe it’s something important thing to consider.

The Answer:

Leave a comment!  If you’re an attorney who deals with intellectual property regularly, PLEASE leave a comment.  I and my readers sincerely appreciate all responses.

Safety Tips for Outdoor Photographers

May 24, 2010

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!

Grand Opening: Guy Tal’s New Gallery in Torrey, Utah

May 23, 2010

It isn’t often you’ll find me using my blog to pimp and promote other photographers.  However, I just can’t *not* share this little nugget.  My good friend and fellow nature photographer Guy Tal is opening the doors to his new gallery at 135 E. Center St. in Torrey, Utah this Friday, May 28!   If I were you, here’s what I would do: I’d call in sick to work on Friday, pack up my truck with camping and photography gear, then head out to Torrey for the gallery grand opening.  After wandering through the gallery in awe of Guy’s gorgeous prints you will be filled with inspiration.  I’d probably buy a print or two to hang in my home or offer as gifts to good friends.  After that, I’d head on into Capitol Reef NP to make images all weekend before driving home on Sunday.

I’ve known Guy for nearly 10 years.  We first met online at the Nature Photographer’s Network, where he was a forum moderator.  I was an eager new photographer, posting my images alongside those of much more accomplished artists and asking for honest critique.  I am eternally grateful to Guy and former moderator Michael Gordon, as well as hundreds of forum participants, for helping me to become the photographer I am today.  So, you can blame all of them.  Since then I’ve spent some time exploring the desert with Guy and even had a random encounter at a trailhead in the Uinta Mountains back in 2006.  Guy’s passion for the natural world and his amazing body of work is a constant source of inspiration for me.  I really hope you’ll visit his gallery the next time you’re in Torrey.  When you do, tell him Bret sent you.  He’ll either smack you or offer you an ice cold beer.  Take your chances. 🙂

Best of luck, Guy.  I know you and your gallery will be wildly successful!

Should You Hire A Photography Guide?

May 19, 2010

There are two types of outdoor photographers: those who need help getting to the right place at the right time and those who don’t.  If you are of the latter persuasion, you can stop reading now.  Really, I mean it…stop reading.  Okay, that’s better.  For the rest of you, let’s spend some time discussing just what to expect when you hire a photography guide.

The business of guiding outdoor photographers isn’t new.  However, in the past few years guiding has experienced significant growth.  I blame it on the digital revolution – everyone has a camera and almost everyone is a photographer.  I have seen guides advertised in Outdoor Photographer and all over the internet who are available to lead you on a private photo tour in just about every state.  But what can they do for you?

What Do Photo Guides Do and How Much Do They Charge?

What a guide does and how much they charge for their services varies tremendously.  One thing almost all of them have in common is that you can usually depend on them to lead you to the right place at the right time.  Some guides service only iconic locations while others will spend several days backpacking with you in remote and forbidding territory.  Some guides offer personal instruction, image critiques, portfolio reviews, digital darkroom tutorials, and more.  Guide fees are all over the board and may range from $150/day to more than $2,500/day with a prominent photographer.  Surely the more you pay the better the guide, right?  Nope.  Not even close.  In my research it seems that $300 to $500/day is the average going rate.  Generally speaking, paying more than that buys you the opportunity to rub shoulders with a heavy hitter.

How Do I Know What I’m Getting For My Money?

This is easy – just ask ’em.  It’s your money and you deserve to know what you’re paying for.  Check out their websites for details about their services.  If you don’t find what you’re looking for there don’t hesitate to send an email or give them a call.  Ask questions.  What does the guide fee cover?  Park entry fees, transportation, meals/snacks?  Will they be available to answer your questions or will they show you where to set up your tripod and then disappear to make their own images?  It isn’t necessarily a bad thing if they plan to break out their camera.  I’ve often had clients tell me that they learned a lot watching me work.  But, I think it’s important for you, the client, to know what to expect on your guided tour.  Perhaps even more important, if you expect your guide to never leave your side you should tell them so.  Successful guides have mastered the art of managing expectations.

How Do I Know If The Guide I’d Like To Hire Is Any Good?

Check their website for testimonials.  Sure, they could be faked but at least it’s a good start.  If you’re still not convinced, ask the guide if you can contact a prior customer or two.  If he balks at that idea I’d have to wonder why.  Perhaps a phone conversation with the guide may help to ease your mind.  Spending all day with someone with whom you have a major personality clash pretty much sucks.  It sucks even more when you’re paying them.

What Will The Schedule Be Like?

Excellent question!  Most guides offer full or half day tours.  Find out what that means.  Does a full day tour mean you’re in the field from sunrise to sunset?  Will there be a break during mid-day?  I always build in a break to allow us both to recharge batteries (both literally and metaphorically), download images, eat and relax.  Not all guides do this.  If you need or want a break, be sure to relay that information to your guide.  On the other hand, if you expect to be in the field the entire day, be sure to tell your guide that, too.

Does “Private” Mean It’s Just Me?

Don’t automatically assume it’ll just be you and your guide.  Some guides only do small group tours.  It would suck to show up thinking you will have the guide’s undivided attention only to discover there are 2 or 3 strangers tagging along.  Often this information can be obtained on their website.  When it isn’t spelled out there, call or email them.

Is My Guide Legit?

This is a big one, in my opinion.  The Feds require that anyone operating commercially on their property do so with a permit in hand.  National parks, BLM, Forest Service or national monument – they are all regulated to some degree.  Find out if your guide has the proper permits.  Being permitted also means that he will be carrying liability insurance and most likely, a first aid and CPR certification.

While we’re on the topic, help your guide plan a productive and fun trip by telling him if you have any medical issues or physical limitations.  You don’t want your guide planning a lengthy hike if you aren’t capable of completing it.  A good guide can and will customize the tour to your interests and abilities.

Why Should I Hire A Guide?

I’m a pretty independent dude.  When I’m traveling somewhere new I research the living daylights out of the place until I have a pretty firm grasp on how to photograph the area.  It’s a time intensive process and I’m not always successful.  Usually, but not always.  I’ll be posting an article soon on what I do to prepare for a trip, so check back often so you don’t miss that post.

But, what if you don’t have the time or interest in doing all that research?  Hiring a guide can be a great way to ensure that you are maximizing your time on the ground at a new location.  Guides should be intimately familiar with the areas in which they operate.  This is important because as the seasons change, so do the photo opportunities.  For example, if you come to Arches in April to photograph the Three Gossips you might be really disappointed to find them completely in the shadow of The Organ until well after sunrise.  A knowledgeable guide would know this and be able to steer you in the right direction.

Although not a critical point, it’s always nice to work with a guide who is, on some level, a naturalist.  If he knows a little bit about the flora, fauna, history and geology of the area it will certainly make your trip more enjoyable.

A guided photo tour can be an excellent way to best experience a new area through your camera’s viewfinder.  With these tips in mind I’m confident you’re fully prepared to make the most of your private guided photo tour.  If you’re interested in learning more about my services, I invite you to visit the Moab Photo Workshops website.  Here you will also find a directory of reputable guides throughout North America.  Please note that I have not updated the directory recently and rates as quoted may have changed.

I love reading your comments!  If you’ve got something to add please take a moment to leave a comment.

Moab Wildflowers, Part Two

May 17, 2010

Here’s a quick follow-up to my last post about the wildflower conditions around Moab.  No iPhone pics this time, though.  These images were all made within the last 3 days on my Canon 5D2 and are representative of the current conditions.  In short, lots of rough mules ear, paintbrush, lupine, sego lillies, daisies (both yellow and purple), penstemon, prince’s plume, desert primrose, globemallow and more.  Now is a very good time to visit the Moab area if wildflowers are your thing.

Here’s some motivation, if you need it:

Tripods – Should You Spend More?

May 17, 2010

A few weeks ago I was guiding a client whose tripod was one of those flimsy plastic drugstore kind that you can usually pick up for about $30 bucks.  I offered to loan her my extra tripod, an aluminum Manfrotto with an inexpensive but effective ballhead.  She graciously accepted.  At the end of our two days together she confessed that she was surprised how much easier it was to work with my tripod than her own.  Eagle eyed as she was, she noticed that my tripod wasn’t aluminum and that my ballhead differed from hers.  She asked about the differences and why mine cost so much more, and her query put my mind in motion.  Below you will find a somewhat more detailed version of my response to her.

First let me explain why you need a good tripod for nature photography.  Photographing during the “magic hour” usually results in slow shutter speeds and long-ish exposures.  Unless you’re built like a statue you probably aren’t going to create razor sharp images while handholding your camera during an exposure lasting several seconds.  Image stabilization is great but even this cool technology has limits.  Enter the lowly tripod to save the day. 

Tripods serve one purpose: they’re a secure platform upon which to mount our cameras.  Sure, I’ve used mine to hold a lantern, maintain my balance while crossing a creek and, when I was single, it was abstract art in the living room.  But really, we buy tripods because we crave images that are crisp and sharp.  We also look really cool carrying them over our shoulder when silhouetted against a setting sun.  In theory, any tripod will serve this purpose.  In reality, those weak little tripods with plastic heads and one of those awkward cranks for moving the center column up and down just aren’t that stable.  Nor are they very durable.  I’ve had several clients break these tripods during a guided excursion.  A broken tripod serves no purpose but to frustrate the crap out of you.  It pays to spend a little extra cash and get a whole lot more stability and durability.  Here are some suggested options to start you down the right path in your quest for the perfect tripod.

For around $150 you can get a rock solid aluminum tripod like the Manfrotto 190XPROB.  Add a ballhead with quick release plate like the Manfrotto 494 Mini Ballhead for about $70 and you’ve got a stable, very workable tripod solution for under $225 weighing in at around 5 pounds.  Not too shabby!

Let’s say you’re of average height and need a taller tripod than the Manfrotto 190XPROB, which maxes out at 57.5″ with the center column fully extended.  The Manfrotto 055XPROB offers a maximum height of 70″.  Combine that with the more burly Giottos MH-1302 ballhead, which is capable of supporting up to 18 pounds, and you’re ready for almost anything.  This system will set you back about $300 and weighs in at nearly 6 pounds.

If you don’t often hike long distances with your gear or regularly operate in wet or dusty environments either of the aforementioned solutions should suit you well.  However, if you spend long hours on the trail or you’re like me and are downright abusive to your gear, an upgrade might be in order.

The Gitzo GT2531 Mountaineer carbon fiber tripod weighs in at a scant 3 pounds but extends to almost 64″ in height.  Slap on the Acratech Ultimate Ballhead, which weighs just 12 ounces but supports up to 25 pounds, for a go-anywhere in any conditions tripod package.  Total cost: about $950.  Yikes!  That’s a new lens, right?

What do you gain by spending an additional $650?  Really, it’s not so much a matter of what you gain.  It’s about what you lose – weight.  Generally speaking, the more money you spend the more weight you shave.  For $950 you get a complete package that weighs less than 4 pounds and will withstand some serious torture.  A similar set-up for $300 adds 2 pounds.  If you’ve a strong back and legs it may not be worth it to you to spend that extra $650 on the Gitzo/Acratech combo.

Yes, there are additional differences.  Carbon fiber doesn’t transfer cold to your hands as much aluminum.  The Acratech ballhead will never need to be cleaned and will never fail on you.  The Giottos ballhead; not so much.  The Manfrotto tripods allow you to place the center column horizontally for strange angle photography while the Gitzo does not.  Manfrotto utilizes leg clamps, which many consider easier to operate than the twist-lock legs on Gitzo tripods.  The downside: they’re bulkier and may not fit as nicely in your backpack.

In the end, any of these tripod/ballhead combinations will work for most nature photographers.  Consider too that these are but a tiny sampling of the options available to you.  Is one better than the other?  I guess that depends on how much cash you’re willing to shell out to lose a little weight.

What tripod/ballhead system do you use and why?  What issues have you encountered in the field with certain products?  Leave a comment so we can all benefit from your experience!