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Archive for November, 2013

BEHIND THE LENS – Art of Desertification

Aerial photography allows us to present a totally different perspective of nature to the viewer. Complicated habitats and ecosystems are simplified into patterns, and the world looks to be a series of graphic designs. Some are well-done, and some are not, and finding scenes that combine light and composition is the challenge of the aerial photographer.

I’ve had the chance to photograph from a helicopter, from an ultralight, and from a gyro plane. Each has its pros and cons, but all will get you up above your scene and offer the chance to capture stunning images. For the image featured here, I was shooting from a Gyro. The freedom of shooting is great since there are no struts, and it’s easy to shoot out either side. But, these things bounce around like a rubber ducky in a bathtub! I shot the whole first session while fighting back nausea. Of course, the motion sickness is made even worse when one is looking through the camera viewfinder than fixing on the horizon. The second day I took a dramamine, and that was much better!


During these sessions, I was photographing the tropical dry forests of Costa Rica’s Guanacaste province. In addition to some wider scenics, I wanted to produce an image or two that had really strong light and would make the viewer think twice about whether they were actually looking at a picture from Costa Rica. If the image could also tell a story, that would be the icing on the cake. The image below, which depicts a scrubby patch of ground at last light, looks like it might be from another planet or maybe another continent to me. But desertification is exactly what happens over time when tropical dry forests are cut down for cattle and then overgrazed, an all too common story in northwest Costa Rica.



TECH NOTES: Canon 5DII, Canon 70-300 mm f/4-5.6 L IS zoom lens, polarizer, f/5.6, 1/640, ISO 1000, handheld (duh!)

PROCESSING NOTES: Full-frame/no cropping, standard tweaks and a bit of vignette in Lightroom, cloned out one small bush at the top right of the frame. I couldn’t avoid this bush in-camera so, unfortunately, this makes this image a no-go for contests but I think it’s still a success for my coffee table book.


For aerial shooting, it’s good to have two camera bodies with different lenses. Generally, you’ll want to have coverage from about 30 mm to 300 mm (in full-frame sensor terms) in my experience. Going much wider than 30 mm often means including aircraft parts in the frame, and going longer than 300 mm just has never seemed necessary. For this reason, I chose to pair my Canon 70-300 mm f/4-5.6 L IS zoom lens with my full-frame Canon 5DII body. I then used my 17-40 mm L wide angle zoom with either my Canon 1D Mark IV or my son Chris’ Canon 60D, giving me the equivalent of 22 to 52 mm and 27 to 64 mm coverage, respectively.


Image stabilization (or VR or OS, depending on your lens brand) is helpful, particularly at longer focal lengths. At wider focal lengths (where subject magnification is less), I don’t think it’s as important. I’ve found that keeping my shutter speed above 1/500 or so was fine for most situations. If zooming in tight, however, I tried to keep the speed a little faster because any shake/vibration would be more visible at higher magnifications, though I still was taking advantage of the very good IS on my 70-300 mm zoom.

A controversial issue surrounds the use of polarizing filters for aerial photography. Some argue that the loss of light (2 stops with most polarizers) and/or the potentially uneven polarization effects across wide areas of skies makes use of polarizers problematic. Nonetheless, I’ve found that the benefits in removing reflections, cutting atmospheric haze, and saturating colors outweigh the aforementioned drawbacks.

I choose to shoot in manual mode when doing aerial photography for two reasons. First, it’s what I shoot most of the time, so it’s the most automatic for me in terms of manipulating the dials and buttons. Second, though aperture priority or shutter priority could have merit in maintaining basic parameters even while light changes, I liked the consistency of manual mode. In most cases the light falling on my scenes was constant. Once I had set my exposure via partial metering (partial seemed best to me to meter off larger tonal areas than spot would allow) off of some reference point (forest, ocean, etc.) I would not have to change my settings except in a gradual fashion as the sun rose in the sky (for morning shoots) or began to set (for the afternoon shoots). The exposure situation did change radically, however, depending on whether I was shooting into the sun or with the sun behind me. To deal with this issue, I simply knew that I could dial in a set number of clicks on shutter speed when shooting into the light. Once I resumed shooting on the other side of the craft, I would dial the shutter speed back down. Of course, in some instances I would work ISO or aperture as needed for different framing situation (e.g., due to changing magnification when zooming in or out) but in general, I was pretty well set with my configuration for the two basic scenarios of sun in my face or sun at my back.

Another consideration with aerial photography surrounds focus. I actually like the old AI focus mode for aerial shooting as it’s somewhere in between servo and static shot modes. But, many camera bodies these days don’t have this choice. As a result, I tend to use servo focus mode, particularly when zooming in for tighter shots as movement is magnified. I used expanded points around the center point, and this has always worked out fine. I shoot in continuous low burst mode and fire off a controlled burst with each shot I’ve lined up as I’ve found that at least one out of three is likely to be tack sharp.

When shooting from the air, your space is often limited. In addition, anything that is not strapped down can fly out of the craft, meaning you will lose it but more importantly, creating a possible safety issue. Take only what you need (no lens hoods!) and make sure everything is easily accessible but secure. Here’s me below looking like a dork but actually quite well-prepared for my aerial photography session over the tropical dry forest. In my little hip pack I also had rain covers for my cameras and a rain jacket for me.



When doing aerial photography, you’ll have a nice headset communication with the pilot. The pilots with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work have all been great at getting me into the position I want and super patient when I’ve asked them to go around and around again when I see something I really like. For the image featured here, I wanted be absolutely straight above my scene to avoid depth of field issues (light was fading fast as you can see from the long shadows) but also to keep a flat perspective for this graphic shot. Great positioning and a quick tilt by my pilot allowed me to get the shot.


With my exposure dialed in and with the Gyro positioned to taste, it was now time to think about composition. I knew I wanted a pleasing arrangement of scrubby bushes and shadows and after a bit of zooming in and out, I was able to find a patch of ground where these elements conformed loosely to an S-curve. I think this really helps the viewer’s eye to move through the frame from bottom right to left middle and then up again to the top right.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this post and the thought process behind the image. Successful nature photography is all about previsualizing an image (even when shooting action or capturing a fleeting moment), analyzing the technical tradeoffs that your previsualized image entails, and then making choices. Hopefully this little article will give you some ideas for the next time that you’re out in the field (or up in the air!).


EJ Peiker wrote a great article a few years ago on photographing from a helicopter. The suggestions are great for any type of aerial photography. I suggest youcheck it out at NatureScapes.

Vincent Laforet’s awesome aerial work is always an inspiration. I just love his eye for design from the air. For some examples, check out this gallery.

You can see more of my own aerial work here on this website.


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Greg Basco

Like many nature photographers, I started my career doing something else. A political scientist by training, my research focused on the politics of the environment in Latin America. I researched environmental politics and ecotourism in Costa Rica and worked here for a number of years as a conservation professional, having first come to the country in 1992 as a Peace Corps volunteer. I now dedicate myself full-time to my own photography and my Costa Rica photo tour company. I work out of my home office in Costa Rica’s central highlands, where I live with my wife, twin boys, our dogs and cats, and various hummingbirds and songbirds that visit our backyard feeders.  

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Seeing in the Field, Part II

The introduction to this series of collaborative entries was posted in mid-August; the initial series post, where Tom’s image was dissected for it’s in-the-field cues, can be viewed here.

This time around, it’s my image that we’re working with; Tom will be asking the questions that form the skeleton of the dialogue that succeeds the scene setting aspect of the post.  The goal, again, is to try to determine what it was about the scene that caught the photographer’s attention and encouraged him to photograph the subject in the presented manner.

As always, we encourage remarks and questions.  Please post them in the comments section below.

Setting the Scene

Kerry:  When I was in the Smokies this past April I decided to explore a trail that I’d never hiked previously.  The Middle Prong Trail emanates from the end of the road at Tremont and extends for miles into the back country.  I wandered along it, ultimately, for a couple of miles before finally turning around and heading back.  I knew that the trail paralleled a tributary of the Little River, but that’s about all I knew about it.

For about half a mile the trail runs along a bluff, well above creek level.  You can see the rushing water below you and to the left (as you hike up-trail), but there’s a tremendous amount of scattered foliage and snags that eliminates most clear views.  Eventually, I heard what sounded like a waterfall and came upon what I later determined was Lynn Camp Prong Falls.  The waterfall is visible from the trail, but I didn’t much care for the composition from bluff level, so I decided to investigate more closely.  I had to do some scrambling down a hillside and over some boulders to get down to creek level, and I found myself at the base of a gusher of a waterfall with a gradual drop of about 35 feet.  The power of the falls was impressive, but from the bottom I couldn’t find anything in the way of a composition that I found appealing, so I decided to climb up the rather steep rock facing on the right-hand side of the waterfall to see if I could find a workable comp.  (I should note that it was a partly to mostly cloudy day, with the sun disappearing from view for occasional lengthy stretches of time).

The position was a bit precarious, but I found a spot with a much more compelling–to me–perspective.

Lynn Camp Prong Falls, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee Image Copyright Kerry Mark Leibowitz, All Rights Reserved

From this spot, the water had split into several discrete flows that ultimately rejoined in the crescendo that poured into the creek that is Lynn Camp Prong.  This amounted to looking downstream, which is a perspective I usually eschew when photographing moving water, but there was something particularly evocative about it, I thought, in this instance.  In addition to maintaining a discernible contiguous line through the frame–which was very much on my mind as I positioned myself–I felt this view demonstrated the power of the cataract–perhaps not as emphatically as a spot at the bottom or the side might have done–without losing the sense of depth that was only available from atop the falls.

Obviously the waterfall was the center of interest; that was revealed from up on the trail.  But the exercise ultimately became a quest to find a way to reveal the subject in a manner that I found at least somewhat aesthetically and compositionally pleasing while still revealing the true character of the place.  Whether I accomplished that goal is in the eye of the beholder.

The Dialogue

Tom:  The main element, to my eye anyway, is the sinuous stretch of running water at the center third of the frame. That flow makes an abrupt turn away from the viewer at the lower left. Water always follows its path, so this works as illustration of the topography of the rock. Did this apparent incongruity influence your composition?

Kerry:  I was definitely influenced by the path of the flow, though not necessarily by any incongruity caused by it.  I liked the way the path of the water helps to naturally encourage the eye to zigzag through the frame.

Tom:  A secondary element is the presence of what appears to be lichen on the rock. Quite a bit of it, in fact. Since it usually grows in dry places, its presence within the flow of water suggests that this falls is dry most of the time. Is this correct? If so, then the flow of water here is an unusual event.

Kerry:  The main part of the waterfall–the part that’s represented in the image by the particularly powerful area of flow toward the top-center of the frame–is never dry.  But the part in the foreground is only wet when the water level of Lynn Camp Prong is particularly high–as it was this spring (these were the highest water levels I’ve ever seen in the Smokies, a function of an especially wet winter and early spring).

By the way, lichen is ubiquitous in the Smokies; it’s all over rocks and trees throughout pretty much every section of the park.

Tom: I agree with you about downstream views of falls generally not working all that well. They tend to have a past tense “been there, done that” quality. However, would a wider downstream view have provided the viewer with a denouement to the drama of the cataract, or do you feel that all of the important elements available were included?

Kerry:  I don’t think a wider downriver view would have even been possible.  The creek bends roughly 90 degrees behind the large boulder you see in the upper left-hand quadrant of the frame.  To the extent this shot works, I think it’s a function of the rather unique perspective that’s afforded here; you’re perched nearly at the top of this particularly waterfall tier (there are several distinct tiers above this one).


Kerry:  Sometimes, some fairly prosaic matters can impact how something is shot.  It was the waterfall that initially attracted me to this scene, obviously.  But I found the initial, straight forward perspectives unappealing.  I might have shot a head-on, upstream shot of Lynn Camp Prong Falls, but I couldn’t find an appealing perspective from alongside the creek and, possibly critically, since I was on an extended hike, I didn’t have my knee-high waterproof boots with me, making the investigation of (possibly) intriguing spots in the water impossible.  You can’t tell by glancing at the above image, but the waterfall had kind of a right-to-left flow, when looking at it from below, so I would have to get quite wet to get most of the falls in a shot from below.  The inability to explore in-the-creek shots surely played a role in my decision to climb up to the top of the cataract.

Next in the series:  Attempts to Identify Common Themes

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 Hi, my name is Kerry Leibowitz.  I’m a Midwest-based (I split my time between the Chicago and Indianapolis areas) photographer with a particular propensity for the landscape.  

You can read my other blog posts at my website Lightscapes Nature Photography Blog and see my photo galleries at Lightscapes Nature Photography

The entire contents of my web site, images and text, are the copyrighted property of Kerry Leibowitz and may not be duplicated or reproduced in any form without express consent.  Image rights may be purchased; please contact me to make arrangements.  Images may not be hot linked.

copyright Kerry


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Seeing in the Field, Part I

In an entry, posted about two months ago, I provided an introduction to a series of collaborative exchanges planned between myself and my friend, photographer Tom Robbins.  For more information about what we hope to accomplish, broadly speaking, check the prior linked post.

Here’s the first installment of the series.  The basic exercise was to introduce a single image that was produced from an excursion to a place ostensibly unfamiliar to the photographer.  The notion was to flesh out the ideas behind recognizing a photo opportunity that wasn’t preceded by any obvious preconceptions.  In other words, the purpose of the excursion was to see what popped up–it wasn’t a case of going to a location to photograph something specific.

We started by having Tom present an image that resulted from one of these excursions, and he’ll set the scene.  We then engaged in a dialogue to hopefully expand up on and clarify aspects of the in-the-field thought process that followed.  The image itself will be included below, as will a link to a larger version that resides on his Website.

In the next installment in the series, we’ll switch roles; I’ll provide the image and set the scene and Tom will ask the questions.

We heartily encourage readers to post remarks and ask questions in the comment section below, and hope you get something out of this entry.


Setting the Scene

Tom:  The leaves have several weeks to go yet in the Midwest [this was originally written in late September — KL] before they reach peak color, so I spent this morning atWhite Pines State Park, in Ogle County, Illinois to explore the landscape possibilities. I remembered the general layout of the place from visits as a kid with family a few decades ago, so this was essentially an exploration of new territory. Tripod and camera with 45mm and 90mm tilt shift lenses were on hand—I’ve forgotten how to hike without that gear—but only for chance opportunities. The primary goal was to establish familiarity with the area.

Late Summer, Ogle County, Illinois Image Copyright 2013 Tom Robbins, All Rights Reserved

I chose a trail that ran along the eastern edge of the park. The choice was not random as the morning sun had cleared the horizon just a few minutes earlier. A forested area with direct sunlight, even early in the morning, will present dynamic range problems more often than not. The east edge of the park would hopefully allow an unobstructed wash of early sunlight over farm fields, and so reduce the likelihood of “hot spots.”

The strategy didn’t really work within the park itself, but things turned around when I hopped over a maintenance gate and found a gravel county road running north and south. The view southward was OK, but the northward view drew me in. A railroad crossing was off in the distance, and there was no particular subject beyond that. However, the disparate elements of the simple scene seemed to fit together like the tumblers of a lock. Such a gestalt may work as a photograph, or not, but it will certainly be a logical construct. Very often the appeal at first sight is subconscious, with analysis following later.

Link to larger image:

In this instance, the warm oak trees and grass alongside the road on the left are a starting point; a home base for the eye. The backlit scruffy woods on the right provide some late summer color, and the cool blue sky mirrors the path of the road. Aside from that, I just can’t seem to pass up young shadows crossing a road.

The Dialogue

Kerry:  For me–strictly as a viewer of the image, the first thing that catches my eye–and the “center of interest” (for lack of a better term)–is the road.  It’s lighter in tone than virtually all of the other elements, so it has a natural tendency to draw my attention first, but there’s more to it than that, in this case.  It’s providing a kind of entryway into the image, both literally and figuratively.

Tom:  You’re absolutely right. Oddly enough, I tend to take the existence of roads for granted these days. After the number of my farm and rural photographs grew into a sizable collection, I noticed that most of them included roads, lanes, and such. My first thought was that I’d fallen into a rut, but then realized that the Midwest is covered by a network of roads, most of them in quarter to half mile grids wherever the terrain allows. They were originally created in the early to mid 19th century, and are an essential and common part of the landscape.

Kerry:  Did this principle figure into your decision to make this image when you were in the field–either consciously or unconsciously?  Do you see the road as a crucial element (meaning, in your view, can you see having made an image here at all without its presence)?

Tom:  Yes, the road is a key element, but at this stage it’s an almost subconscious one. Good question about its being crucial. I’d say it is absolutely crucial. Not only is it a means of transportation, it also provides a lane for the utility poles. The open sky above the road would not exist but for the road.

Kerry:  I like what the light is doing here, but I can also imagine this shot working in, say, even light.  Would you agree with that assessment or do you feel that these lighting conditions were a necessary component to the shot?

Tom:  Ah, it may very well work in even light, especially with fog or mist. I doubt the scene would have captured my interest to the same degree without the direct early light, however. The light ran through a gauntlet of trees and brush at the right side of the frame and enough made it through to light up the road and the woods on the left side. The direct lighting was a necessary component for recognizing the composition at a glance. The composition in even light light would require a more subtle and contemplative eye to appreciate, and would have resulted in a completely different photograph, of course.

Kerry:  Finally, re your (in my opinion, entirely correct) assessment that “very often the appeal at first sight is subconscious, with analysis following later.”  Is that what happened here?  Was this just a case of your finding the scene inexplicably appealing at the time of capture or were you aware of the why(s) of that appeal when you saw it?

Tom:  Yes, I’d say so. I’m out with the camera just about every day now, and seem to hike around on auto pilot most of the time. Then, smack dab in the middle of thinking about my neighbor’s dog waking me up last night, a scene will stop me in my tracks. Without any apparent thought at all, the pieces of the jigsaw suddenly fit together and the tripod jumps off my shoulder for the shot. I can’t say how unusual this is, but it has evidently become my m.o. these last couple of years.

Next in the series:  Seeing in the Field, Part II:  My image and answers, Tom’s questions



 Hi, my name is Kerry Leibowitz.  I’m a Midwest-based (I split my time between the Chicago and Indianapolis areas) photographer with a particular propensity for the landscape.  

You can read my other blog posts at my website Lightscapes Nature Photography Blog and see my photo galleries at Lightscapes Nature Photography

The entire contents of my web site, images and text, are the copyrighted property of Kerry Leibowitz and may not be duplicated or reproduced in any form without express consent.  Image rights may be purchased; please contact me to make arrangements.  Images may not be hot linked.

copyright Kerry


Posted in: General

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