Finding Originality In Arches National Park

An old log twists around a fall bloom, Arches National Park
An old log twists around a fall bloom, Arches National Park

Like many of the most visited national parks, Arches in Moab, Utah offers the visitor many spectacular natural wonders. But for the photographer, these more popular parks can be a real challenge – how do you find originality in a place that has been covered with a camera so thoroughly? I found this especially true when I visited Arches this past September. It was true that everywhere I turned I saw famous arches, but that was just the problem – they were all famous. Sure, I still set about capturing them for myself, but looking back, are any of these photos of which I’m really proud? How does this differentiate my portfolio from any of the thousands of talented photographers that visit every year?

Another challenge of this park is that in many areas, visitors are restricted to established trails. While I can certainly appreciate the reasons (the main one being the fragile biological soil crust supporting life throughout the desert), it is not my idea of freedom of exploration with a camera!

I thought about these challenges as I explored the park in 90+ degree heat. The last time I was here there was a fresh blanket of snow on the ground, so the dry desert look was bumming me out a little. I had already taken a midday hike out to Delicate Arch (purposefully leaving all my heavy camera gear back at the car), and I was getting impatient for sunset, even though I had not yet scouted an acceptable location. Finally, I saw something of interest just off trail, and it wasn’t surrounded by twenty photographers! An old twisted log created some interested shapes, and had the bonus of wildflowers growing at its base. And you know what? Not a single arch in sight! Oh well, just because I’m in a place famous for arches doesn’t mean all my shot HAVE to include arches.

I set about creating a composition that I liked. This process is usually a mixture of pre-visualization and experimentation. I knew I wanted to get in relatively close to the flowers and the log, and I wanted something fairly wide to include the cliff beyond. Probably no wider than 24mm, so I attached my 24-70 and got my tripod legs low and splayed out. Slowly I worked the camera and tripod in and out of the scene, watching the edges of my composition, and adjusting the tripod legs as necessary. When working in this way in a busy location, don’t worry about others stopping behind you to watch what you’re doing, and sometimes wondering what it is you are taking a picture of (rest assured, this WILL happen).

After about 10 minutes, I had my shot in the bag and was ready to move on. While certainly not a portfolio quality shot, I was happy to have found something that allowed me to express my creativity, and come away with something that wasn’t also on hundreds of other photographers’ memory cards that day.

Right Tool For The Job – Full Frame Vs Cropped Sensor

Recently I was asked by a prospective digital camera buyer about my opinion on full frame verses cropped sensors. The answer is actually not very simple, so I thought I’d expand on my thoughts in this post.

For those who aren’t familiar with these terms, full frame refers to a digital camera that has the same sensor size as 35mm film. This became the prevailing film standard, and most of today’s digital SLR lenses use this size to calculate their relative lens magnification factor. A cropped sensor camera is a digital SLR that has a sensor smaller than 35mm film. These cameras use the same lens focal length scale, but apply an additional “magnification factor” to the 35mm numbers. For example, Canon’s cropped sensors apply a 1.6X magnification factor to lenses as compared to 35mm-sized sensors. If a full frame camera used a 50mm lens, the perceived magnification factor using the same lens of a cropped sensor camera is 50mm X 1.6 = 80mm. In other words, in the resulting photos, it appears as if the camera was zoomed into 80mm when using a 50mm lens on a cropped sensor camera.

So which is better? As with any tool, it depends on the job. I use both full frame and cropped sensor cameras regularly in my photography. When I’m shooting landscape, architecture, or macro, I typically use a full frame camera. My current workhorse is the Canon 5D MkII (now practically a dinosaur of a camera!), which allows me to use a full range of lens focal lengths, including my widest. In these shooting conditions, camera features such as auto focus and frame rate are not as important to me as pixel count and low digital noise. With this camera, I shoot from a tripod most of the time and work slowly and methodically through the scene, getting as much right in camera as possible.

Barrel cactus is just starting to bloom in the Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, CA
Barrel cactus is just starting to bloom in the Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, CA

The photo above is an example of using a full frame camera with a wide angle lens. Here my 17mm lens truly gave me the wide angle using my full frame sensor, instead of the appearance of a 27 mm lens (17 X 1.6) if I used a cropped sensor. I worked from a tripod, manually focused, and shot at ISO 100.

When I’m shooting bird and wildlife photos, I always use a cropped sensor. This gives my long lenses that extra reach, and cropped sensor cameras tend to have slightly lower pixel count, which allows for faster frame rate. My cropped sensor workhorse is the Canon 7D, which has my most important traits for these shooting conditions – fast auto focus and high frame rate. While low noise is always desired, here the highest pixel count is not as important, as wildlife and bird photos typically don’t end up in huge prints. Pairing this camera with a 400 mm lens allows me to handhold while photographing giving me lots of mobility. When I use it with my 800 mm lens, I get the equivalent of 1280mm due to the lens multiplication factor. This gets me in close to my subjects without needing tele-extenders, which reduce auto focus performance.

Crouching down and ready to strike, a juvenile green heron watches the surface of the water for movement
Crouching down and ready to strike, a juvenile green heron watches the surface of the water for movement

The photo above is an example of using a cropped sensor camera with a long lens. Using the equivalent of 1280 mm (800 X 1.6) allowed me to be far enough from my subject to not disturb it from its normal behavior. I was also able to shoot many frames per second to capture the perfect body and head position while the green heron was fishing.

Just as a carpenter wouldn’t just use one type of hammer, a photographer won’t resort to just one type of camera. If you are just dipping your toes into the world of digital SLRs, think first about what type of photography you’d like to explore first. That will likely help you list your desired features and point you to the right tool for the job.

Try, try, and try again

Waddell Creek flows through a green forest along the Berry Creek Falls trail, Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Waddell Creek flows through a green forest along the Berry Creek Falls trail, Big Basin Redwoods State Park

One of the keys for any budding photographer is to shoot often, and stay well organized. You never know when photos you have taken in the past might some day become marketable. Several years ago, I shot a series of photographs on spec for a national magazine, including the photo you see here. Shooting on spec means that the magazine is requesting a photo with particular specifications, but has not given you an assignment and guaranteed publication. This is something I wouldn’t recommend unless it is almost no cost to you (including time spent!). My brother graciously volunteered to come along an be my model for the day.

Unfortunately, the magazine didn’t use my photographs for the intended article (in fact, I don’t know if they ended up running that article at all). This happens all too often with editorial publishing, which is why shooting on spec is almost never a good idea, especially if photography is your primary source of income. However, a couple of years later, that same national magazine did print one photo from this outing for a different article, and just recently another magazine is looking at these photos for publication as well.

The only way this was possible was for my photos to be well organized so they were easy to submit for other uses over the years. This means they were well captioned, titled, and tagged with keywords. Even though the original intent for the photos fell through, they were still very usable and have become part of my photo archive. Who knows when one of these photos will be used again in the future?

Birds of Kauai – In Defense of the Canon EF100-400L

A common myna perches on a branch loaded with berries. This rapidly expanding invasive species adapts extremely well to urban environments.
A common myna perches on a branch loaded with berries. This rapidly expanding invasive species adapts extremely well to urban environments.

Over the years, I have read many negative reviews and comments about the Canon EF 100-400mm zoom lens, ranging from softness in the resolution capability to a useless “toy” lens. Many of those I have asked follow up questions to about their views reveal themselves to have never used the lens themselves (they have just “heard” bad things). Others seem to spend more time deriding the lens than going out and improving their photography skills.

A male northern cardinal stands under the shade of a bush
A male northern cardinal stands under the shade of a bush. Although most commonly seen throughout the eastern US and Mexico, this species was introduced many years ago to the Hawaiian islands.

This lens was in fact my first “bird” lens, and I used it extensively until I could prove to myself that I was passionate about wildlife photography enough to justify spending more on a more specialized lens. I have found the lens to be sharp and reliable. While it doesn’t provide the extreme sharpness or reach of my 800mm, it is smaller, lighter, and I typically hand hold it, giving me ultimate mobility. It was for these reasons that I opted to take it on my recent trip to Hawaii, in lieu of my bigger lens.

A cattle egret is reflected in a pool of water as it searches for food amongst the grass
A cattle egret is reflected in a pool of water as it searches for food amongst the grass. This one is in full breeding plumage, with long reddish-orange feathers on the top of the head, back and breast. Also, the skin behind the eye has turned a brilliant purple.

Rather than a traditional zoom, this lens utilizes a push/pull style of zoom, which will take some getting used to. Once you master this style of zoom, however, you’ll be making sharp photographs in no time. For bird photography, I usually just lock out the barrel in the “long” position, giving me the 400mm reach.

A common myna perches on the branch of a tree
A common myna perches on the branch of a tree

If you are just starting out in bird or wildlife photography and don’t want to make a huge investment, this is a great lens with which to get your feet wet. Starting out with a lens like this will force you to improve your non-camera skills, such as stalking and waiting. The limited reach will force you to get closer to your subjects, often requiring patience and creativity to get the desired shot.

The Scaly-breasted Munia or Spotted Munia is known in the pet trade as Nutmeg Mannikin or Spice Finch. Its name is based on the distinct scale-like feather markings on the breast and belly.
The Scaly-breasted Munia or Spotted Munia is known in the pet trade as Nutmeg Mannikin or Spice Finch. Its name is based on the distinct scale-like feather markings on the breast and belly.

On this latest trip, I found that by watching the birds more to understand their patterns, I was able to predict their directionality, and situate myself in a position they would move toward. Then it was just a matter of staying low, being patient, and remaining as still as possible as they came to me. Other times, I would find a tree or bush with lots of activity, move toward it and wait. Even if I scared off the birds on my approach, by remaining still and quiet, many times they eventually returned, sometimes very close to me.

A spotted dove stands in short grass
A spotted dove stands in short grass

Take a look through these photos and my recent Hawaii posts to judge for yourself. The fact that it is still a regular part of my arsenal shows that I certainly don’t consider it a toy, but a valuable tool that has its place in my toolbox.

A zebra dove stands in short grass
A zebra dove stands in short grass