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Photography Tips: Bug’s View

Skill Level: Intermediate

I think flowers are probably one of the most photographed subjects on this planet. They're beautiful, they're interesting, they're colorful and, most importantly, they are cooperative - they never get bored of posing and they never complain that you made them look fat.

But because these beautiful plants are so often photographed, it can be really difficult to get an original shot. Most flower photos end up looking about the same when you really break them down. That's why when I go to shoot flowers, I try to do everything but my first approach. Whatever my first inclination is in framing, composition or angle, I try to do something else. That's what led me to today's tip.

Next time you're out shooting some flowers, leave your macro lens in the bag and strap on your wide angle. With a wide angle lens and a really low point of view, you can get this really great effect of looking up towards the sky from beneath the flowers that makes you feel as if you are viewing the world through a bug's eye. Here's an example demonstrating this technique:

Not your average flower shot, eh?

It's quite simple to get this effect, but there are a few things you need to pay attention to in order to get the best shots possible. First off, as I mentioned, put on your wide angle lens. This gives that distorted, wide view that really makes the final viewer feel like they are in the picture.

Next, you have to make sure your exposure is going to come out right. You'll be shooting up into backlit flowers with the bright sky behind it. This lighting scenario is going to trick your camera into making the picture too dark if you don't do something about it. If you know how to manually meter, just lock in your exposure before you start snapping away and you'll be good to go. If you're going to shoot in Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority or Program, push the exposure compensation up to something like +1.3 to +2.0 in order to make the picture brighter. Take a couple test shots to nail down the right compensation value.

Your camera's autofocus system is going to drive you nuts in this scenario. The AF can't focus on clear blue sky and it doesn't do well with backlighting, so chances are it's just going to be searching for focus nonstop and really slowing you down. So, just switch it to manual focus and pre-focus to the closest possible distance.

You'll want a pretty decent depth of field, but your wide angle lens has a big DOF as it is, so I'd recommend shooting somewhere around f/8-f/16.

Lastly is composition and how to actually take the shot. You're going to need such a low point of view that your camera will literally need to be on the ground. This won't allow you any room to look through the viewfinder, so you'll have to use the "shoot and pray" technique. Basically you will hold your camera down into the flowers, pointing upwards toward some flowers you think will make a good composition, and then just fire away. You won't see what your camera is seeing, so you'll just have to sort of guess what it's looking at and "pray" you got a good angle on it. Change your camera angle slightly between shots to cover a wider range and snap 5-10 pictures, then review on your screen to see how you're doing. After that, try an entirely new angle and composition and repeat. Shoot until you're sick of it or until the light's gone - whatever comes first.

Depending on how wide angle your lens is, you may find yourself getting some accidental self-portraits. Try to stretch away from your camera as best you can to avoid getting in the shot while you have it pushed down into the flowers.

This technique can be a little trickier than it sounds, but if you keep all the above tips in mind (especially on the exposure and auto focus), you'll do fine. It can be addictive, so go nuts! Now go out and get some new points of view on those flowers!

New Work & Video: Alabama Hills, Day 3

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My third and final day in the Alabama Hills Recreation Area was my last chance to create the composition I'd originally set out to make. When I pre-visualize a composition like I did for this trip, it can be anything from a definite, perfect imagination of what I want, to a vague concept with only the major components laid out - a "rough draft" of sorts composed in my head. I was somewhere in between for this trip. 

I knew I wanted a wide shot with the reddish-pink glow of early sunrise painting the mountains in the background with an interesting arrangement of boulders in the foreground. I envisioned what I would call an "organized mess" of boulders for the foreground. Something that communicated the disorder of this aeolian landscape but without over-complicating the composition with too much clutter. I wanted to bring attention to the interesting juxtaposition of smooth, rounded off granite in the Alabama Hills with the sharp, jagged granite of the Sierras.

Sunrise on the Sierra Nevada Mountains from the Alabama Hills Recreation Area

Sunrise over the Sierra Nevada Mountains
Fuji Velvia 50 film, 6x17 Format
Click Image for Larger View

When viewing this terrain, you can almost imagine that big chunks of granite broke off the Sierras as they rose higher and higher from the force of tectonic plates. With a deafening crash, these chunks tumbled to the desert below, their edges rounding off in the commotion, before settling at the foot of these majestic peaks. Of course, that's not really how this landscape was formed. The boulders are smoothed out by wind, and although these boulders undoubtedly originate from the same gigantic slab of granite that is the Sierra Nevadas, they didn't come "tumbling" off them like the epic scene in my head. But regardless, that's the story I wanted to paint with my images.

Although a couple of my compositions up until this point on the trip were pretty close to what I wanted, they still weren't quite "there". But on the final morning, I found a perfect location with just the vantage point and arrangement of rocks I wanted.

I started with an exposure in the very first minutes of sunrise (image shown above) with the light in that deep reddish-pink hue I envisioned. Using a couple of Lee split ND filters, I held back the exposure in the mountains and sky to capture detail throughout the scene.

Since my large-format field camera is so slow to set up and change compositions, I decided to remain in my current spot with my current composition, but try it with the morning light hitting the entire landscape. The light was much more golden than red at this late in the sunrise, but I think it brought out some great details and textures in the rocks. I like both compositions in their own right, but I have a special place in my heart for the first one (shown above). The way Fuji Velvia 50 film renders reds, magentas, and blues is just gorgeous.

Please click any of the images in this post for a larger view.

Sierra Nevada Mountains over the Alabama Hills Recreation Area

Morning on the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Alabama Hills
Fuji Velvia 50 film, 6x17 Format
Click Image for Larger View

So that concludes my recent trip to the Alabama Hills Recreation Area. I hope you've enjoyed the videos, photos, and descriptions. I plan to do many more of these on-location video series, so stay tuned and be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel!

New Work: Laguna Beach Sunset

Sunset in Laguna Beach, CAMamiya RZ67 with 50mm f/4.5 on Fuji Velvia 100 film
1/2 at f/22 - Lee 2-stop split ND filter

- Please click images for larger versions to really enjoy the detail -

Believe it or not, the best sunsets here in Orange County don't coincide with peak tourism season. I always feel bad seeing the beaches packed in June and July under overcast skies. Visitors from the other side of the country aren't aware of our "May Gray", "June Gloom", and "July Ugly Sky" (okay, maybe that last one isn't a common phrase). They have dreams of a sunny Southern California, but instead get something more akin to London.

Our best skies really come in early fall and late winter. I think it must have something to do with the seasons changing - it just brings good clouds for colorful sunsets. Not good sunbathing weather, but boy is it good for photography. Plus, the beaches are usually empty at this time, so you know, double bonus!

This last February brought some beautiful clouds that resulted in some very photogenic sunsets. Luckily, I was able to get out and shoot one of them. I opted to use my Mamiya RZ67 medium format camera as opposed to my large format 4x5. I love the process and incredible detail of 4x5, but it's just hard to run away from waves when the camera is that big and slow. The Mamiya gives me a little more room to book it when a wave comes in hot. And while I was out shooting, I was happy to show some curious teenagers how my strange "box camera" works. A lot of people might feel old using a camera that a seventeen-year-old has never even seen before, but I love it.

I used a 50mm lens for this shoot (which is considered wide-angle in the medium format world) along with my favorite high-saturation film - Fuji Velvia 100. In hindsight, I wish I'd used Velvia 50 for a warmer color palette, but the cooler color palette of my chosen Velvia 100 worked just fine.

Sunset in Laguna Beach, CA

Mamiya RZ67 with 50mm f/4.5 on Fuji Velvia 100 film
1 second at f/16 - Lee 3-stop split ND filter

Sunset in Laguna Beach, CA

Mamiya RZ67 with 50mm f/4.5 on Fuji Velvia 100 film
2 second at f/16 - Lee 1-stop & 3-stop split ND filters

Sunset in Laguna Beach, CA

Mamiya RZ67 with 50mm f/4.5 on Fuji Velvia 100 film
1 second at f/16 - Lee 1-stop & 2-stop split ND filters

Sunset in Laguna Beach, CA

Mamiya RZ67 with 50mm f/4.5 on Fuji Velvia 100 film
1 second at f/16 - Lee 1-stop & 2-stop split ND filters

Sunset in Laguna Beach, CAMamiya RZ67 with 50mm f/4.5 on Fuji Velvia 100 film
2 seconds at f/11 - Lee 1-stop & 2-stop split ND filters