Only so much about photography can be learned from classes, books or even magazines like this one. I’ve had workshop participants tell me that they learn more by simply watching me in the field for five minutes, despite my best attempts to communicate what I know in carefully prepared lectures and these monthly columns.
“Why are you taking so many pictures of the same flowers without changing the composition?” I’m asked.
“Because the wind is blowing.”
“But won’t all your pictures be blurry?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. One or two could be sharp enough if I catch a moment between gusts. I’ll never know unless I try.”
During the next day’s critique session, I’m the only one who has a sharp flower picture. Of course it’s not 100-percent sharp everywhere, but it was composed to have the flowers with the shortest stems that move less in the wind in the foreground, so that the ones most apt to blur would be less obvious.
“What lens are you using with that graduated filter?”
“My 17-35mm at 17mm,” I reply.
“How can that be? All my wide angles below 24mm vignette the corners with grad filters.”
“Not if you buy an extra Cokin filter holder and trim it down to have one slot instead of three and all four corners cut back so they won’t get in your picture.”
“But of course you aren’t using a polarizer!”
“I am, but it’s not an off-the-shelf one. I had it custom-fitted into a 77mm Cokin adapter ring. That way it works on my 17mm lens with a graduated filter, too.”
“But if it’s glued solid to the holder, it can’t spin in its mount like a polarizer is supposed to.”
“That’s right, but a mount that rotates internally is a luxury. The first polarizers didn’t. Like this one, you adjusted them by turning them in your lens threads and being careful that they didn’t fall off. It’s a trade-off, but it’s sure worth it.”
For more decades than I’d like to admit, the lowest joint of my Gitzo tripod legs kept jamming up with dirt and sand. It seemed to be an inevitable consequence of shooting in wet or dirty places where that last joint sat on the ground whenever the smallest legs weren’t extended, which was most of the time, since using your tripod at the lowest possible setting is always the most sturdy. Then one day I needed to set my tripod into a few inches of the extremely alkaline waters of Mono Lake to frame just the right reflection. I extended the bottom legs just enough to keep the joints above the corrosive waters. When I went to put my tripod away, I decided not to close up all that sticky stuff into the joints but to wait until I could wash it off at home. As I congratulated myself for not messing up the joints, I thought, why not leave those lower legs extended a few inches as standard practice. Virtually nothing from the ground would ever be able to get into those joints again, and the tripod wouldn’t lose much stability. Now I only close my tripod fully when I pack it in my luggage.
Last winter, however, I did get those lower joints fully wet on a 15 ¡F evening in the Owens Valley of Eastern California as Sierra Wave clouds were turning crimson in the setting sun. I’d just been out for a run, staying barely warm wearing running shorts over thermal underwear. After driving to a nearby pond to catch a reflection, I stood on the shore with my 18mm lens searching for the perfect composition to encompass the broad cloud display. With the wind blowing, moving tree limbs along the shoreline showed on both sides of my picture, no matter where I stood.
As the light peaked, I had to make a fast decision. I could use a more conventional 28mm lens that would crop out the trees but lose the drama of the cloud display. I could shoot the wider scene with blurred limbs. I could give up. Or… you guessed it: I waded into the pond, shoes and all, and dunked my tripod long enough to make an image that later became a prized exhibit print. Shivering for a few minutes was worth it, and my tripod dried off like new.
That same 18mm fixed lens is my choice whenever I need a very sharp and extremely wide-angle image. In big enlargements, I can see the difference between using a fixed lens and a wide-angle zoom of the same focal length, even though it might not show on a full page in this magazine.
When I have a clear picture in mind and know what lens I need to use, I often take that and no more. Not far from my home in Bishop is a huge boulder covered with ancient petroglyphs. It remains pristine for several reasons: it’s not mentioned in any guide books; the trail is unsigned; but most of all, it’s at the top of a 300-foot bluff that limits both the casual visitor and the outdoor photographer who carries all his equipment in a photo backpack. If he or she does reach the petroglyphs, chances are it’s not before dawn or near sunset, when climbing or descending the bluff could be in darkness. Add to this the basic gumption factor of carrying a lot of gear on rough terrain, and it’s little wonder why I had yet to see a picture of these petroglyphs beneath magic hour lighting in the clouds when I moved to the area last year.
I, too, was daunted by the situation. I’d known about the petroglyphs for 30 years and photographed them, but not in great light. Now I’ve returned several times with just my light Nikon N80, that 18mm lens, some graduated filters, and a mini-tripod to prop on a higher rock. When I’ve failed to get fantastic light, it doesn’t seem like a failure. A wilderness hike with less than four pounds of gear is what outdoor photography should be all about, whether or not the resulting images are winners.
When a situation has the potential to be fast-breaking, the most important technical tip I can give is to begin with a “preflight.” That’s what I call the process of ordering everything in your camera bag exactly where you always keep it, as well as checking every setting on your camera in advance. If I fail to go through this process, I inevitably grab a camera body that I’ve forgotten to reset to the right film speed, forgotten to turn off the spot meter setting, or, worse yet, forgotten to reload with film. That’s when being in the right place at the right time doesn’t make any difference.
How did I learn my bag of tricks? Many came from observing other photographers at work. Back in the ’60s when I started out, there weren’t color nature photography workshops, and I never took a photography class. I made it a point to go out into the field with people more experienced than I was, watch closely, and ask the right questions.