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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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Four Top Photographers Share Insight on Processing Images with Nik Software

You all know I’m a huge fan of Nik Software plug-ins for Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop.  I’ve written often about my affection for Silver Efex Pro 2 and it’s powerful but intuitive controls for converting color images to black and white, and how Viveza 2 makes it effortless to to make local and global adjustments to light and color, and don’t get me started on all the amazing filters in Color Efex Pro 4 that allow me to make creative edits without logging endless hours at my desk.  Now throw in Dfine 2 for noise reduction that doesn’t sacrifice detail, Sharpener Pro 3 for painless sharpening of images for web and print and HDR Efex Pro 2 for creating stunning images with expanded dynamic range and you’ve got an unparalleled collection of imaging software.  But you expect to hear that from me.  So instead of writing another blog post about how I use the Nik Software Complete Collection, I thought I’d ask a few of the most talented photographers on the planet to share some insight on how they use these tools in their workflow.  Read on to learn how Laurie Rubin, Mike Moats, John Batdorff and Peter Tellone take control of their images with the Nik Software Complete Collection.

Nik Software Laurie Rubin – Laurie is a well-traveled nature and wildlife photographer with an impressive portfolio of stunning imagery.  I found her “Animals of East Africa” web gallery to be especially impressive.  Laurie’s been using Nik Software plug-ins for about 8 years.  I asked Laurie why she prefers to use Nik plug-ins instead of a more traditional approach like Photoshop.  Her response? “The Nik Software products make it so easy to make adjustments without having to make layers and masks. Using Dfine 2.0 to remove noise from images that are shot at high ISO is a simple click of a button and having the ability to use Control Points within any of the Nik products allows for quick and easy selective adjustments. Whether you are trying to bring up details in shadowed areas with Viveza 2 or creating global enhancements throughout your image by adding a soft, moody effect, with Color Efex Pro 4 and the Midnight filter for example, you have total control how you want your image to look.”  Laurie’s two favorite plug-ins are Color Efex Pro 4 and Sharpener Pro 3, which she uses on wildlife images to selectively sharpen the eyes because she believes “an animal’s eyes can speak volumes in an image.”  Some of Laurie’s favorite Color Efex Pro 4 filters include Tonal Contrast, Midnight, Vignette Lens, Darken/Lighten Center, Image Borders and Detail Extractor, which she enjoys because it makes it easy to bring out details in feathers on a bird or within a lion’s mane.  Laurie also likes the Glamour Glow filter – even for animals!  To see more of Laurie’s fantastic work, please visit her website at

Mike Moats – Simply stated, Mike Moats has mastered macro photography.  His website, Tiny Landscapes, showcases what I consider to be the most inspired collection of macro images you’ll ever see.  Mike learned of Nik Software’s Complete Collection nearly two years ago from a student at one of his wildly popular (and usually sold out) “Macro Photography Boot Camps”.  Mike watched as the student used a Control Point in Viveza to selectively adjust exposure and color without having to resort to complicated layers and masks.  He was intrigued and downloaded the software as soon as he got home.  Mike’s workflow usually begins with Color Efex Pro 4 to achieve “the look he wants using one or more of the filters”.  Then he fine tunes the image using Control Points in Viveza 2.  I asked Mike to name a few of his favorite Color Efex Pro 4 filters and he rattled off several that he uses on a regular basis, often with four or more used on one image.  His favorite filters include Detail Extractor, which he likes because it “pulls out the details in the textures, and also enhances the colors” and the Midnight filter, which he finds “slightly softens the details and adds a nice dark moody look to an image”. He also uses the Dark Contrast or Low Key filter on images that are a bit too bright, the High Key or Skylight filter on photos that are a bit dark and the Brilliance/Warmth filter to enhance colors (I also use this one often).  Other favorite Color Efex Pro 4 filters include Solarization, Polaroid Transfer and Glamour Glow.  Be sure to check out Mike’s blog at for inspiration in the form of beautiful macro images and frequent tips on how he makes these stunning images.

John Batdorff – John is a talented landscape and travel photographer, author of several books including the fantastic “Plug In with Nik“, an in-demand workshop leader and all-around great guy.  John has been using Nik Software for six years and though he still uses Lightroom and Photoshop to some degree, he finds that Nik’s plug-ins are “very intuitive and the tools are so powerful that it allows me to focus on my creative vision without the technical “how to” distractions”.  As a nationally recognized authority on black and white photography, it should come as no surprise that one of John’s favorite Nik tools is Silver Efex Pro 2.  He says, “Nothing gives you as much control over your black and white images”.  He’s also a “big fan” of HDR Efex Pro 2 because of the ease with which it allows you to create natural looking high dynamic range landscapes and Color Efex Pro 4, which he describes as the “Swiss Army Knife of plugins that can be used to deal with a flat sky or add a cool border around an image and many other important edits”.  I’ve never heard it put that way but I wholeheartedly agree!  Stay in touch with John on Facebooktwitter and Google Plus.

Peter Tellone – There aren’t a whole lot of photographers who produce truly spectacular HDR landscapes but Peter Tellone is one of them.  Peter’s images are masterfully composed and expertly processed, resulting in stunning HDR photographs based in realism.  He’s been using Nik Software’s plug-ins for about two years.  I asked Peter if he had any tips to share with photographers about using HDR Efex Pro 2 that would help them avoid “overcooking” their HDR images.  He said that the most common problem he sees is that “with all of HDR Efex Pro 2’s controls in front of them they think they have to use them all” when in fact, doing less often results in a much more natural image.  Peter typically adjusts only the overall exposure, saturation, compression and structure.  The HDR process can often add noise to an image, which Peter deals with by using Nik’s Dfine plug-in.  He likes using Dfine because it allows him to easily eliminate noise while maintaining important detail.  He also uses Nik Sharpener Pro 3 to sharpen his images for web and print.  I asked Peter why he prefers to use Nik Software’s plug-ins instead of Photoshop.  He said that he’s been using Photoshop for a very long time and “knows his way around it very well, so when he reaches for other software he needs to do it better and faster than Photoshop can.”  That’s a sentiment I echo.  Be sure to check out Peter’s excellent blog, “The HDR Image“, for great tutorials, tips and more.

There you have it, folks.  Insight from four top photographers about how they use Nik Software’s Complete Collection of Lightroom and Photoshop plug-ins to take control of and streamline their digital darkroom workflow.  For even more in-depth training and tutorials, I can’t recommend enough the great videos and webinars on the Nik website.  I owe a huge thanks to Laurie, Mike, John and Peter for taking time out of their busy schedules to share their thoughts and advice with me.  Please take a moment to check out their websites and get inspired by their photography!

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bret edge

 Bret Edge is a nature and adventure photographer in Moab, Utah. His interest in photography evolved as an extension of his life long passion for the outdoors. He is an avid hiker, backpacker, mountain biker and canyoneer. A visit in 1999 to an exhibit featuring photographs by Ansel Adams, Jack Dykinga and David Muench stoked Bret’s creative fire such that he immediately purchased his first SLR camera, a Canon Rebel. In the years since, he has traveled extensively throughout the American West creating a diverse portfolio of dynamic images.

Bret’s work has appeared in magazines, calendars, travel guides and advertising campaigns. His clients include Backpacker magazine, Popular Photography, the Utah Office of Tourism, Charles Schwab & Co. and Jackson Hole Mountain Guides.

While Bret enjoys seeing his work in print, he receives the most satisfaction by helping others realize their potential as photographers. He accomplishes this by leading several group workshops each year and guiding photographers on private photo excursions. For information about his workshops and guided excursions, visit To view a collection of Bret’s images, visit  Bret lives in Moab with his wife, Melissa, their son Jackson, and two All-Terrain Pugs named Bierstadt and Petunia.

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An Image is Born: A Digital Darkroom Tour

I’m not much of a computer geek.  I don’t enjoy spending hours in front of a monitor manipulating my images.  I’d rather be outside hiking, mountain biking or making more photographs.  Sure, I enjoy the creative endeavor of post-processing my images but when that involves more than about five minutes of work I quickly start to lose interest.  But, every once in a while an image comes along that leaves me no choice but to get down and dirty in the digital darkroom.  The image you see above, of the Fisher Towers and La Sal Mountains reflecting in the Colorado River, is one such image.

Last night I saw clouds developing over the mountains with a reasonably clear western horizon.  Hoping for an epic sunset I threw all my camera gear into the FJ and headed east on the River Road after excusing myself early from a parent/teacher meeting at my son’s school.  Priorities, right?  I arrived on location thirty minutes before sunset and scrambled down the steep embankment still wearing chinos and a pair of casual boots whose soles offered little to no grip in the loose dirt.  I was pleasantly surprised to only land on my butt one time before arriving at the edge of the mighty Colorado River.  Naturally, just as I got my tripod and camera in position the sun moved behind a cloud that killed the warm, late afternoon light.  So, I did what nature photographers do – I waited.  Luck was with me as an unseen, narrow gap on the horizon allowed sunset light to squeak through at just the last moment.  The snowcapped La Sals lit up with alpenglow and clouds streaking overhead turned a rich reddish-pink.  The dynamic range was a bit too much for my Canon 5D Mark II to handle but was easily controlled with a Singh-Ray 3 stop soft-step graduated neutral density filter.  I also used a Singh-Ray Vari ND filter at about 1/2 power to extend the shutter speed to 8 seconds, thus smoothing out some small, wind driven ripples in the water.  An interesting side effect of the long exposure was more color in the clouds than could be seen with the naked eye and a bit of movement that is difficult to discern at this small size.

Back home, I eagerly imported the photos into Lightroom 3.  Of the series I found only one that was razor sharp.  The others were a bit soft, most likely due to movement introduced during the long exposures while handholding the GND filter in front of the lens.  I made my initial edits in Lightroom, very slightly decreasing the exposure and brightness, increasing clarity by 20 points and vibrance by 10, a slight curves adjustment and a few tweaks to the HSL (hue/saturation/luminance) panel.  Better, but not quite there.  The sky and foreground were both too bright but I couldn’t make a global adjustment as each required its own independent adjustment to maintain exposure consistency.  Enter Lightroom’s mega-awesome digital grad filter!  I used one on the sky and another on the foreground.  Much better!  With the base image looking pretty good it was time to do some more work using Nik Software Viveza 2 and Color Efex Pro 4.

First up, Viveza 2.  I made a few minor global adjustments by increasing the contrast and saturation by 4 points, and structure by 20 points.  I decreased the shadows slider by 6 points, which resulted in deeper, richer shadows.  One of the first issues that needed to be resolved was the color temperature of the sky.  The clouds were nice and red, just as I’d remembered from a couple hours earlier.  The area of open sky, however, was a dingy gray – not the soft blue it should have been.  In Lightroom, using a white balance of 3,600 produced the correct color in open sky but the rest of the landscape and sky was far too cool.  With a white balance of 5,500, everything else looked good except the open sky.  I’d opted for a white balance of 5,500 since the majority of the scene looked good at this temperature.  In Viveza 2 I dropped a couple control points on the open sky, linked the points, and then made a few adjustments to bring back the soft blue sky.  Notably, I reduced the brightness, added saturation and, this is the main adjustment, decreased the warmth by about 20 points.  Voila – the blue sky triumphantly returns!  Since the blue sky was also reflecting in the water at the bottom of the image I copied a control point from the sky and dropped it on the area of water that reflected the sky.

At this point the image was coming along quite nicely but it still needed a little “ooomph”, which is a technical term I learned years ago.  I opened the photo in Nik Software Color Efex Pro 4 and used one of my favorite filters, Tonal Contrast, to independently increase contrast in the highlights, mid-tones and shadows.  The highlights already looked pretty good so I only gave them a boost of about 10.  Mid-tones and shadows were a little flat, though.  I increased each about 15 points, which gave them the “zing” (another very tehcnical term) I wanted.  The shadows, especially, came alive.  Muddy shadows are those that have detail but lack contrast.  The Tonal Contrast filter makes it super easy to clean them up.  I also used the Brilliance/Warmth filter in Color Efex Pro 4 to give the colors a little bit more “pop” (yep, you guessed it – yet another techno term).  I increased global saturation and perceptual saturation by 5 points each.

Back in Lightroom 3 I again applied two digital GND filters to reduce the exposure of the sky by about 1/2 stop and the foreground reflection by about 1/3 stop as I still thought they were each a bit brighter than I liked.  I guess I was going for a “dark and moody” look.  With those final touches in place I sat back, blinked for the first time in fifteen minutes, and took a big swig of iced tea.  There on the monitor before me was an image I was satisfied to have created in the field and perfected at my desk.

It took about fifteen minutes to completely process the image from start to finish, which is about three times as long as I typically spend post-processing a photo.  But, when an image has potential I just don’t have the heart to give up on it.  I can’t really call this a tutorial but I do hope you found the breakdown of my workflow somewhat beneficial.  I’m happy to answer any questions you might have.  Just leave a comment and I’ll respond as quickly as I can.

Also, if you’re convinced that you need Nik Software’s Viveza 2 or Color Efex Pro 4, I encourage you to visit their website and download a trial of the software.  If you like it and want to invest in it, use coupon code “BEDGE” at checkout for a 15% discount.

Bret Edge is a nature and adventure photographer in Moab, Utah. His interest in photography evolved as an extension of his life long passion for the outdoors. He is an avid hiker, backpacker, mountain biker and canyoneer. A visit in 1999 to an exhibit featuring photographs by Ansel Adams, Jack Dykinga and David Muench stoked Bret’s creative fire such that he immediately purchased his first SLR camera, a Canon Rebel. In the years since, he has traveled extensively throughout the American West creating a diverse portfolio of dynamic images.

Bret’s work has appeared in magazines, calendars, travel guides and advertising campaigns. His clients include Backpacker magazine, Popular Photography, the Utah Office of Tourism, Charles Schwab & Co. and Jackson Hole Mountain Guides.

While Bret enjoys seeing his work in print, he receives the most satisfaction by helping others realize their potential as photographers. He accomplishes this by leading several group workshops each year and guiding photographers on private photo excursions. For information about his workshops and guided excursions, visit To view a collection of Bret’s images, visit

Bret lives in Moab with his wife, Melissa, their son Jackson, and two All-Terrain Pugs named Bierstadt and Petunia.

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Using Focus-Stacking To Avoid Diffraction by Kyle McDougall

One of the most important parts of a successful landscape image is sharpness. This is one of those things that you HAVE to get right in camera…. there’s no fixing an image that is lacking sharpness in Photoshop. A lot of factors are at play when it comes to controlling the depth of field in an image… anywhere from the focal length of the lens being used, chosen f/stop, distance to subject and so on.

My first image I shot at f/8 which is lacking sharpness because of the close f/g subject and not a large enough depth of field.

Many people believe that by shooting with the smallest f/stop possible they will have a pretty good chance of everything being sharp from foreground to background. While sometimes this is true there are negatives to this approach, the most important one being lens diffraction. Every lens has a certain f/stop that it resolves detail best at, after you stop down past that point you start to lose sharpness. I recommend setting up your camera on a tripod and taking some test shots at different apertures so that you can see the effect in person. While the difference might not seem extreme, it’s the small details that count and when you’re printing your images every bit of detail helps. In the meantime check out this article at Luminous Landscape on lens diffraction for some examples.

With my Zeiss 21mm ZE I tend to shoot at no smaller of an aperture then f/11. Most of the time this leaves me lacking the depth of field required to cover the image from front to back. This is where focus stacking comes into play. Focus stacking is the method of “stacking” and blending a series of images that are focused at different points through a scene. Most of the time I will take three shots… one for the background, one for the middle and one for the foreground. While the thought of blending detail throughout three images might seem like a labor-intensive process, Photoshop has an automated way of doing it that produces great results almost always.

The extreme right corner of the foreground for the image focused for the foreground.


The extreme right corner of the foreground for the background focused image.


The background at 100% of the image focused for the background.


The background at 100% of the image focused for the foreground.

The process goes like this:
1. Open all the images in a layer stack in Photoshop, one above the other.
2. Go to Edit>Auto Align Layers
3. Once the layers are aligned go to Edit>Auto Blend Layers
4. Photoshop will automatically create layers masks for each image allowing the detail to show through.
5. You will need to crop the edges of your image slightly as there will be a slight blur from the aligning/blending.

For this particular image I used a series of four shots focused throughout the scene from foreground to background.


Photoshop will automatically create a layer mask for each layer revealing only the sharp detail in each.


The final image tack sharp from foreground to background ready to be printed.

 You’re done! This is a fairly simple process that once you get the hang of will be extremely valuable for your processing workflow. Being able to squeeze the best detail out of our lenses and cameras is key!

Kyle McDougall is a landscape photographer/workshop leader based out of Ontario, Canada.  He specializes in creating fine art images that touch on both a visual and emotional level.  When not outside exploring the land you can find Kyle online sharing his images and helping others through his instructional articles.  In 2012 Kyle was chosen by Photolife Magazine as one of Canada’s Emerging Photographers.  To view more of his work please visit his website:


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Choosing the Right Digital SLR for Your Nature Photography

[Note: This article does not advocate Nikon equipment above other brands. It simply offers some advice to people who are already shooting with a Nikon system.]

It is very true that it doesn’t matter what equipment you use — it’s what you do with the camera that matters. However, there is no question that when you’re hiking through a thick jungle in the middle of central america you want to pack light. Even though the Nikon D2x has the prestige of being Nikon’s premier “PRO” camera, you may not find it’s the best fit for your nature work. 

One of the first things you need to consider is how you’re going to use the pictures. Look up the magazines you want to publish your work. Send in for “submission guidelines” and find out their minimum mega pixel count. The same is true for stock agencies — browse around and decide which place you’d ultimately like to sell your work. Many organizations have their submission guideliens published on their websites. If you’re more interested in learning and doing nature photography for your own pleasure then by all means buy the less expensive models. There’s nothing wrong with a camera that takes a 5 or 6 megapixel image. You’ll still be able to blow it up to poster size if you want a special print made.

Choosing the Right Lenses

Unfortunately, no one can tell you which lenses to buy or “how to build the perfect SLR system for nature photography. ” Again, it depends on the kinds of photos you like to take, your personal preference and the market where you want to sell your image.

The great advantage of Nikon cameras is that you can use older lenses on your body. This allows a lot more freedom of choice and means you can get really amazing older lenses at shockingly affordable prices.

I’ll give you an example. One of my favorite lenses is a 300mm f4 manual focus prime lens from the 1970s. It cost only $350 CAD (meaning it would be much less expensive in American dollars) and the glass is still ED! Nikon especially developed ED (Extra-low Dispersion) glass to provide pricise optical colour correction. This special glass (not available in all Nikon lenses) provides the sharp, clear resolution required for superb photographs. The other advantage (at least for me since I generally hike to find wildlife) is that it weighs less and packs small.

Another example — the 50mm 1.4 auto focus lens (that’s right f1.4!) sells for only $166 CAD (again, much less in American dollars). It’s actually an 80mm on your body. That means you have a prime lens at 80mm that can take pictures in the darkest settings. And, because Nikon has been perfecting its 50mm lenses since its inception as a company (Nikon used to include a 50mm on all its bodies until well into the late 1980s), it’s one of Nikon’s very best lenses. It’s cheap because 50mm on a 35mm camera is kind of pooey. But 80mm on a digial camera is marvelous.

Magnification – Use it to your Advantage

For wildlife photographers in particular, the one advantage of shooting with any Nikon digital camera these days is the magnification factor. Rather than create a sensor the same size as one frame of 35mm film, Nikon and most other digital SLR camera manufacturers decided to create a sensor that is smaller than the 24x36mm standard frame of the older film models. Having a smaller sensor means you aren’t going to capture all the information on the left and right and top and bottom of the frame. This may sound really bad… but there is no need to worry about what you haven’t captured because the viewfinder has been adjusted so that what you see optically is what is captured in the digital file.

The result is that the camera multiplies the magnification of all the lenses. Nikon’s magnification (depending on the camera you use) is around 1.5x. That means a 300mm lens is now magnified to 450mm. This is great news for wildlife photographers. The only drawback is that wider angle lenses (like a 17mm wide angle becomes a 25.5mm not-as-wide-angle lens. However, landscape photographers still have some options. I’ll get to those in a bit.

Lenses – Pros and Cons

While I can’t tell you the right lenses to buy for your particualr needs… I can give you some feedback/impressions about the particular lenses I am using or have used in the past.

Nikkor 10.5mm f2.8 Fisheye: I never thought such a specialized lens could provide me with so much use. For more information, I’ve written a short article about how to use a fisheye lens in your nature photography at

Nikkor 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G ED-IF AF-S DX Zoom – This lens is all right. I bought it as a kit lens a long time ago and it’s served well for the wider range. I wish I had saved pennies and purchased a 2.8 that offered a wider range (like a 12mm to 25mm).

Tamron 17-35mm f2.8: This is a great lens but, alas, I purchased it for a film camera and the magnification on my digital body means that it isn’t that useful in my photography right now. I’m planning on selling it (along with my other wide angle) and buying a 2.8 that has a wider range so I can do more with landscape photography.

Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D AF – This is the same lens I discussed earlier. It’s small, has a low price tag, allows you to shoot in really dark situations and it’s an 80mm on a digital camera. You really can’t go wrong.

Nikkor Nikon 80-200mm f2.8D ED AF Zoom – This is a fantastic lens that stays at 2.8 no matter if you are shooting at 80 or 200mm. Again, magnification means it’s actually a 300mm zoom. Zooms are great because you can adjust your focus distance depending on where your subject is located. Not so great with subjects that are always far away (like the macaws seen here), but really awesome for docile wildlife like deer. It also has a macro function that works beautifully.

Nikkor 105mm f/2.8D AF Micro, or 105 Micro for short – This is probably Nikon’s most used macro lens, probably because the lens can serve triple duty. First of all, it is a macro photography lens and it allows you to take photographs at a 1:1 reproduction ratio (on a 35mm body), which means that a 24 by 36 mm subject will fill the entire frame. Second, it makes a very good general purpose short telephoto lens. Third, it is also at least a very reasonable portrait lens (although, with magnification it may be too much of a telephoto on a digital SLR). I really love this lens for macro photography.

Nikkor 300mm f4 manual focus – While a “prime” lens doesn’t offer the flexibilty of a zoom… it’s still an ideal choice for getting the best results in your work. This is the same lens I discussed earlier and, considering it cost only $350, it’s light & the focusing is so smooth, it’s one of my favorite lenses. I never leave home without it.

Nikkor 600mm f5.6 manual focus ED Glass – Again, I paid a lot less for this lens (which is actually a hefty 900mm on a digital body and also has the famous Nikon ED glass!!) because it’s an older model and it’s manual focus. I spent $1,599 USD – but consider that a newer model would go for at least $5,000 to $25,000, depending on the f stop. Some may argue that 5.6 is a bit too narrow of an f stop but I find the compression with telephoto lenses means that I wouldn’t want to shoot a 900mm subject with anything wider than 5.6 (2.8 would make the focus far too shallow on such a far away subject). Although… for closer subjects 2.8 is magic!

In the past, I have also used the Sigma 70-300mm 3.5-5.6 and the Tamron 200-400mm 3.5-5.6 and both served well as affordable zooms while I was learning about photography. I have since sold them to pay for the lenses I currently use.

Why I LOVE and Highly Recommend Manual Focus

I used to be terrified of focusing manually. On most auto focus lenses, the focus ring is small and more difficult to use… also there’s something really easy about just allowing your camera to do the focusing work for you. I was afraid I couldn’t react quickly enough to moving subjects and that I wouldn’t be as good as my camera’s auto focus. Now I see the errors of my ways.

For wildlife (or people), you want to make sure the main subject’s eyes are in perfect focus. You won’t be able to sell any image if the eyes aren’t in focus. If you shoot a subject 10 feet away at 2.8 and use auto focus, the camera will choose the object closer to the camera (usually the nose, cheek, or eye brow… not the eye itself). A 2.8 aperture means that you will have such a soft depth of field that the eyes will appear out of focus. The older (and more affordable) manual focus lenses have the most beautiful focusing rings you’ve ever seen. I find it much easier to use manual focus on my 300mm f4 lens from the 1970s than my newer autofocus 80-200mm zoom (using the auto focus feature). Unfortuately, I find the focusing ring on the newer models a little bit pooey… but I did want to make the case for why I think manual focus lenses from the 1970s are the greatest things since sliced bread!

Rule of Thumb for Fast Subjects

You may already be aware that your shutter speed should be at least the same as the distance of your lens. For instance, you need to shoot at least 1/300th of a second if you are using a 300mm lens or hand shake will make your picture look really blurry. And anything larger than 300mm should be put on a tripod (preferably one with a ball head for wildlife work). With magnification, you may be able to get away with shooting a 300mm (a 450mm on your digital) hand-held… at 1/450th of a second or higher…)in a pinch… but investing in a good ball head tripod will really improve your results if your lens is higher than 300mm.

Author Bio

Christina Craft is an award-winning professional wildlife and nature photographer from Victoria B.C. She is the owner and principal photographer of the Nature Photography Stock Picture Library

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Mastering the Art of Sports Photography With your Digital Camera

BP2_sports_photography_lens_capFor sports enthusiasts, there’s nothing more exciting than sports people playing their favourite game. The sight of the field, rink or golf course initiates the thrill and anticipation. This, combined with digital photography, can provide some amazing photographic opportunities. However it’s not a matter of point the camera at the person diving for the ball or puck and snapping away. It’s a lot more complicated than that.

In digital photography sports can be quite challenging. The sports people do not present an easy task of being photographed because of the amount of high movement. However, you can indeed achieve great sports digital photography. Most excellent sports digital photography requires good planning and execution.

Here are some exclusive tips for gaining fantastic sports shots in your digital photography.

First things first; know your digital camera. I recommend taking note and practicing first all the settings that sports photography needed. You may find yourself going for the faster shutter speed, increased ISO and burst mode. Let’s take a look at all these things on your digital camera and see how they can be applied to give you sensational sports photos.

High shutter speeds:

As with all moving objects, in order to capture the “frozen in time” look in digital photography a fast shutter speed is required. The faster the movement the fast the shutter speed will need to be. In digital photography the general consensus is that the shutter speed needs to be faster than that of the subject. For example if you have a sliding puck across ice and there is a someone about to take a dive for it then its necessary to quickly mentally assess how fast that person might be traveling at. If they are traveling at approximately 50 kilometers (approx 32 miles) per hour then you may find a very fast shutter speed is needed for this digital photo.

A very fast shutter speed in digital photography may be anything from 500th of a second or higher. For high speed movement you may want to consider an even faster shutter speed of 1000th of a second or something in that range.

Keep in mind that in digital photography a fast shutter speed works to reduce some of the light which is why a higher ISO is often necessary. (I’ll talk about that in a minute.) Usually a if a ball, such as a baseball going at around 145 kilometers an hour (90.09 miles per hour) a shutter speed of around 1/4000 will get you that “suspended ball in mid air” type of photo. For physical movement, such as someone leaping to catch a football, a shutter speed of 1/500 or over is a good place to start.

Now this is all very well if your scene if well lit. But what if you are taking your digital photography shots indoors at night and the light is not quite enough to provide enough light? In most instances, an indoor stadium at night time will be well lit, but that doesn’t always ensure good digital photos. In sports photography we need to understand that we can only control the artistic value and input of our digital photo and the control of the camera. We can’t control the lighting on the scene being such a public event. In digital photography sports photos we must realize that it’s going to be a challenge to begin with. So here are something’s you can in your digital sports photography to increase the amount of light.

If you have a light tool on your digital camera such as a histogram you can get a good idea of what the light levels are like on your sensor. With this handy tool you can adjust the ISO at the time of your pictures taking.

Increase your ISO: A high ISO in digital photography simply means the sensitivity to light that your digital camera has. In a nutshell the more ISO you have increased the image to, the less light the sensor needs. In sports photography an ISO of 400 or higher can work really well. The downside to this is that it does increase noise. To combat this you can use noise reduction software in the post editing process such as Noise Ninja or increase the LAB mode in the post editing process. Don’t be afraid to try a few shots at 400, 800 and even as high as 1600.

Burst mode:

In most sports digital photography this will be one of the settings you will turn to. Burst mode is also known as ‘continuous shooting’. This ‘continuous’ shooting mode allows you to get a sequence of shoots in succession. You can increase your chances of getting that ideal “split second perfect shot” that you might not be able to get by pre-emption or in normal shooting. This also works so beautifully if your digital camera has a painfully long lag time. I’ve used this so many times to get around the high lag my Sony Cyber shot has got. Some cameras have 3 frames per second and some go up to 12 frames per second. You simply select this mode and hold your finger on the shutter button and it will fire off as many shots in 1 second as it can.

Okay so I’ve been talking about your digital camera and the setting’s used for ideal sports digital photography, so what about any external equipment? If you have been thinking about this you’re spot on. You can take as much time with your settings but there’s not much point if you can’t get close to the action. There’s no point having a picture with perfect lighting and perfect action if the players are like dots on a sheet of paper. You need a good telephoto lens if you can’t get close up. A telephoto lens brings you closer because of its long distance capability. It will get you closer to the action but will need a faster shutter speed.

Many fantastic sports digital photos are taken with an emphasis on a very fast shutter speed, an f stop of around the 2.8 mark to blur the background and focus in on the subject. You may find that if your sportsperson is visually separated from the background and you take the digital photograph with a telephoto lens you’ll have a more shallow depth of field which can give you a more powerful feeling in your digital photo. You can get away with a good optical zoom lens, but you’ll get far better digital sports shots with a proper telephoto.

So what about the artistic side of sports photography with your digital camera? Plenty!

Pre-emption and Emotion is the key to good art.

When taking sports photography you probably won’t find a more public display of human emotion. The emotions of a sports person range from intense anticipation to extreme disappointment or extreme exhilaration. Pre-empting when these emotions take place is they key to getting artistic and impressive sports photos. This comes with practicing your digital photography.

SO much pressure is placed on our athletes, expecting them to perform so we can enjoy the show and the investors can enjoy their returns. This is another reason why I say to get a telephoto lens so you can capture the emotions on their faces and their body language. It makes for superb photography. For ideas on ice hockey, have a look at some ice hockey images that are great study tools.

Don’t just look at these digital photos, you must study them. Take on the attitude that studying sports photography will improve your digital sports photos ten fold. You will have a style to emulate and copy to start with then eventually, when you become confident, you’ll start to adopt your own style.

Happy shooting,

Amy Renfrey

To study digital sports photography check these sites out: and and

About the Author:

Amy Renfrey is the author of two major successful ebooks “Digital Photography Success” and “Advanced Digital Photography”. She is a photographer and also teaches digital photography. She’s photographed many things from famous musicians to portraits of babies. Amy also teaches photography online to her students which can be found

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