Alaska, Land Of The Ggagga

This is the incredible backdrop while on location photographing Alaskan Brown Bears in Lake Clark National Park. The top of Iliamna Volcano, shrouded in clouds here in this photo, towers 10,016 feet above the park and is covered by snow year round.

Lake Clark National Park and Preserve protects more than 4 million acres of diverse habitats ranging in elevation from sea level to over 10,000 feet. The first record of the native people building permanent settlements on the shores of Lake Clark are estimated to have arrived around 1000AD. Known as Dena’ina Athabascans, these people came to this land for the fishing opportunities. Lake Clark (known to the Dena’ina as Qizhjeh Vena – or ‘The lake where people gathered ‘) was named after John W. Clark of Nushagak, Alaska in 1891. Long before the Dena’ina came to this place or John W. Clark discovered it, this region belonged to the bears. The Dena’ina word for Bear is Ggagga… Welcome to the Land of the Ggagga!

ALASKA’S BEST KEPT SECRET

A few years ago I began to explore the possibility of leading a workshop in the wilds of Alaska to photograph the majestic Brown Bears. After a lot of research I determined the ideal location was at a remote Lodge along the shores of Cook Inlet in Lake Clark National Park. The Lodge is situated on 40 acres of private land in Lake Clark National Park. The owners have deep roots in Alaska combined with a sincere love for the land and its wildlife. This is an exceptionally unique location offers an unrivaled opportunity to photograph these incredible animals. Over the past 30 plus years the Lodge and its caretakers have carefully established their presence so as to limit the impact on the bears way of life. The Lodge requires compliance of their staff and guests to certain guidelines that ensure the bears and people continue to live together here in harmony. Since starting to lead groups to the area nearly half a century ago, the they have achieved an impeccable safety record with zero bear related injuries or attacks. The Lodge has been named “One of the 10 great places for a North American Safari” and boasts a 50% guest return rate.  Their experienced, professional staff attended to all the needs of their guests with the greatest enthusiasm and care. Due to the immense popularity of this destination there was a multiple year wait to even be able to book space for my workshop participants. Finally after a lot of planning the day of our departure finally arrived.

The view from the skies approaching Seattle.

THEN AND NOW…

Before you even reach Alaska the anticipation begins to build. My flight routed through Seattle and then continued on to Anchorage. As our plane dropped below the clouds the view of the lush rainforest below was overwhelming. Stands of deep green forests covered the mountain range as far as the eye could see, dotted by vast, blue lakes. After a brief transfer we took off for Alaska! Upon arrival we checked into the historic Hotel Captain Cook to rest and relax before our charter flight the next day. The hotel offers views of neighboring Cook Inlet and the Chugach Mountains from any one of their 546 rooms and suites. The Hotel Captain Cook is Alaska’s only member of Preferred Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, making it far beyond the ordinary. It was the perfect resting place for the group on our first night together. The hotel was recently inducted into Historic Hotels of America by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This organization founded Historic Hotels of America in 1989 with 32 charter members for historic preservation. Since that time, only 275 hotels and resorts across America have been awarded this prestigious honor for preserving and maintaining their historic integrity, architecture and ambiance. The Hotel Captain Cook being one of those recognized. The hotel offers four distinctive restaurants within the building as well as gifts and unique souvenirs for sale in their 12 shops. After a pleasant evening meal together we all turned in for the night.

The stunning view from one of the hotel’s impressive ‘Crow’s Nest’ suites.

A BIRDS EYE VIEW

The following morning we enjoyed a pleasant breakfast before heading to the airport for our charter flight that transferred us to Lake Clark National Park. We were fortunate to have clear skies, but high winds delayed our departure for a couple hours. While we waited for the winds to subside we spent time chatting about the upcoming adventure, sharing our mutual excitement. Finally the call came through from the Lodge and we were cleared for takeoff. The plane was loaded quickly and we climbed in, eager to reach our intended destination. We took to the skies and headed towards Lake Clark National Park. I have flown over many beautiful landscapes, including Iceland and Africa, but this flight was exceptional! Despite the light mist that we flew through, the views were incredible. A myriad of patterns played out on the forest floor below us. Rivers and streams made fascinating shapes as they chased out to the wide open ocean. Intricate, abstract patterns in the sand could be seen along the shoreline, left behind by the changing tides. As we drew closer to our destination massive waterfalls could be seen flowing off the cliff faces and plugging to the ground beneath… It was magical! Our pilot welcomed us to talk to one another through the headsets during the flight to the Lodge, but it seemed we were all lost in our own thoughts as we passed over this breathtaking landscape. As a result, most of the trip was completed in silence with us staring out in awe at the Alaskan wilderness.

Our chariot awaiting to take us to the remote Alaskan wilderness!

The view from the skies just outside of Anchorage.

Amazing patterns in the sand where large rivers flow into the open ocean.

Fascinating shapes in the tidal rivers below us.

One of the guides from the Lodge greets the incoming plane and the new guests as they arrive on the beach against the backdrop of a dramatic sunrise.

WALKING IN THEIR FOOTSTEPS

We were greeted by the friendly faces of the Lodge staff as we touched down on the beach. Landing on a sand beach is one of the most incredible experiences and only added to the amazing journey we were on. Stepping out of the charter plane signs of the bears were evident if you looked closely. Scanning the sand you could see their gigantic footprints along the shore. The smell of the salt air mixed with the strong aroma of the conifer forest surrounding us was a welcome greeting. We were quickly shuttled up to our accommodations and given an opportunity to settle in before meeting at the Lodge for a warm mid-day meal.

The Lodge here in Lake Clark National Park affords photographers a completely unique experience with bears, allowing us to photograph them free of viewing platforms and crowds of noisy tourists. All the guests visiting this Lodge are there to view the bears and they do so in a respectful, considerate manner. As the bears walked we would stay back, always giving them their space. The guides from the Lodge do an amazing job ensuring that the guests never restrict the bear’s movements or encroach on them. Our first session shooting the bears was very memorable and set high expectations for the group! We started off photographing a couple of bear cubs with their mother on the beach. Eventually we followed them back into one of the expansive meadows for more photo opportunities of them grazing. The bears, though certainly aware of our presence, behaved as though we didn’t exist and passed by our group as we hunkered down behind our lenses. Listening to their grunts as they communicated with one another was unforgettable. At times we were close enough to hear them munching on the grass. One of the local raptors perched in a nearby tree repeatedly put on a show for us, flying out over the field and hovering in place as it hunted for its next meal. A light rain was falling on and off, giving the bears great texture in their fur. Every so often one of the bear cubs would shake, sending a shower of spray everywhere. The expression on their faces are priceless as their bodies wiggle in three different directions!

A first year cub shaking the water from its fur after a rain shower.

A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A BEAR CUB

Over the next five days my workshop group would experience and photograph incredible scenes and unforgettable moments beyond their greatest expectations. The Lodge is situated along a river that flows into the ocean and provides the perfect feeding opportunity for the bears and their cubs. They fish for salmon in the river mouth, dig for clams at low tide on the mud flats and graze in the meadows on the grasses. During the workshop there were about half a dozen mother bears with cubs. Watching the young cubs interacting with their mother and each other is very entertaining! The cubs would often try to hunt for fish in the river without success. However, when one of them was lucky enough to catch a salmon that was spawned out or a morsel of one left behind by their mother they would become rabidly aggressive in protecting the fish from towards their sibling and mother. This was when you’d really see the personality differences between the cubs, it was fascinating to watch. When a cub did manage to catch a fish or secure a stray piece you almost wanted to stand up and cheer for them!

An experienced mother bear showing her two small cubs how to hunt for salmon at the river mouth.

A yearling cub races off frantically from its mother and sibling with a chunk of salmon in order to eat it without sharing. These moments were hilarious!

The smaller of the two siblings sits dejected in the surf after missing out on the last fish caught. Its larger counterpart affectionately approaches and comforts junior bear.

Apparently forgiven, the junior bear cub returns the affection of its larger sibling with kisses on the end of the nose.

One of the favorite places for the mother bears to feed their young cubs was on the tender clover blossoms that grew thick on the mowed lawns of the Lodge. Getting down low offered an excellent perspective to capture these images.

About half way through the workshop we got to witness and photograph a mother bear nursing her two cubs. This was one of the many highlights on the trip and a memory that we all will treasure. There were a few times when we were photographing the mother with her cubs that we anticipated this happening, but it never did. When we finally got to witness this behavior it made it extra special for my group. The mother bear purrs to her cubs as they nurse, sounding like an overgrown cat!

After fishing all their bellies were full and they would settle down into a giant heap of bears and dose off in the warm sunlight.

Photographing the sleeping bears from the shoreline of Cook Inlet.

The weather wasn’t sunny all of the time, but the mists and rain provided whole different look and feel to the surrounding landscape. I loved these days.

FISHING LESSONS

Perhaps the most exciting part of the workshop is witnessing the bears hunting for salmon in the river. This is an adrenalin filled experience as these apex predators charge through the surf at top speed, tracking a fish as it swims. You realize the incredible strength and power of these animals and it leaves you in awe. The bear’s sense of smell is exceptionally keen, aiding them in locating and capturing the fish. The average dog is said to have a sense of smell 100 times better than humans. The bloodhound is in exclusive company with a sensitivity 300 times better than that of humans. Estimates of the sensitivity of a bear’s nose vary widely, but many say bears beat all the competition boasting the ability to smell 7 times better than a bloodhound. I’ll do the math for you, if true, that means a bear can smell 2,100 times better than you and I can! When you watch them fishing you easily accept that as fact, despite how crazy it sounds.

Sometimes while the bears were fishing they would chase a salmon in the general direction of where our group was set up. Watching this drama unfold through the viewfinder on your camera makes these moments all the more intense, as it can appear that the bear has nearly reached you when looking through a 600mm lens! However their sole focus is on catching as many fish as possible and they rarely even afford us a passing glance while we are out photographing them. The Lodge has been established here so long the bears simply treat the people as part of the landscape.

Full Tilt | Alaskan Brown Bear

Chasing Fish Tails | Alaskan Brown Bear

Missed Opportunities | Alaskan Brown Bear

The Pursuit | Alaskan Brown Bears

The River Of Life | Alaskan Brown Bear

Catch Of The Day | Alaskan Brown Bear

The Plunge | Alaskan Brown Bear

The Trophy | Alaskan Brown Bear

An Alaskan Brown Bear casually strolls past a group of bear watchers as it heads into the river to hunt for salmon.

LAKE CLARK, A HAVEN FOR WILDLIFE

Though the bears in Alaska are one of the biggest attractions, my workshop participants were treated to a wide variety of other subjects. For the past couple seasons a few Wolves have been frequenting the region and they were hanging around while we were there. Regrettably we didn’t get any pictures of the wolves, but we did find some of their giant tracks in the sand on the beach. The presence of these wolves just further lends to the attractiveness of this Lodge for nature photographers. We also spent time photographing Trumpeter Swans, Red Foxes, Sandhill Cranes, Bald Eagles and other Birds of Prey. All of the other subjects were a nice bonus and provided diversity to the images the workshop participants captured for their portfolios. It was an incredibly rewarding trip and my guests all produced exceptional images. We watched the forecast for the aurora borealis each night, but unfortunately it didn’t peak while we were there.

Massive Wolf Tracks In The Sand

The Long Road Home | Sandhill Cranes

Newton’s Law | Gull and Sea Shell

Potential For Mischief | Red Fox

The snow capped top of Iliamna Volcano is an impressive sight on a clear day when you can see the steam rising up from the volcano’s mouth.

Heading South | Trumpeter Swans

A Jellyfish stranded on the sand, waiting for the incoming tide to wash it back out to sea.

Lord Of The Skies | Bald Eagle

Nathaniel offering instruction to the workshop participants in the field.

Paradise Found | Alaskan Brown Bear

FIRST CLASS STAFF AND GOURMET MEALS

My workshop participants enjoy the relaxed atmosphere of life in the wilderness, detached from their own daily schedules and demands. You may not travel to a remote region of Alaska expecting to experience culinary delights, but we looked forward to our meals in the Lodge as much as we did photographing the wildlife each day! The Lodge is world renowned for the delicious food that they serve. The daily, personalized touches by the staff were greatly appreciated. Fern was our own dedicated server at meals, by the completion of the first day at the Lodge she had memorized all of our dietary preferences and ensured everything we desired at our place setting before we walked into the dining room!

The Lodge chef, in his element.

My workshop group posing with Fern, our incredibly competent server. This photo shows the incredible view from the second floor deck outside the dining area.

My workshop group posing with our knowledgeable and friendly guide under the Lodge’s giant bear sculpture.

The best Alaskan Brown Bear photography location in Alaska… Lake Clark National Park.

Our group had a fantastic time sharing this amazing trip together and collectively built memories that we will treasure forever. The fun didn’t stop with the photography either, we spent our spare time relaxing around the outdoor fire pit or editing our images together in the lounge. The time we spent eating meals together were just as special, and the view from the second floor dining room is epic! We often watched bears stroll by while we were up eating our meals and a Red Fox also paid us a visit. There simply is no substitute for this unique location. If you want to truly experience photographing Alaskan Brown Bears the only place to do it is in the Land of the Ggagga!

I’ll be returning to Alaska again this year in September to lead my Wonders Of Alaska Photo Workshop. There are currently only two spots left, you can find more information about the workshop here at this link.

If you’d like to see a collection of images from our recent trip please visit my Alaska Portfolio.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. ~ Nathaniel

Until we meet again…

 

The Cycle Of Life

A  GLIMPSE  INTO  THE  AFRICAN  MIGRATION  SEASON

I recently returned to Africa in August to lead my second safari of 2016. This trip was for the incredible migration season, arguably the greatest annual event in the animal kingdom. No matter how many times one has witnessed the migration it fills you with awe. Each day brings with it new adventures and a glimpse into the real life behavior and challenges of animals that call the Masai Mara their home. Despite the greatest efforts of directors, I have never seen a TV program or movie that comes close to duplicating the experience of witnessing this adrenaline filled action first hand. A poet writes a verse, but the reader does not see the mind of the author, they only catch a glimpse. So too it is with any attempt to convey the true African experience in a video production, no matter how well it is executed it still falls short. Certainly one can get a sense of it, but it just simply cannot do it justice. Knowing this and in full disclosure of the same, I will share with you in brief some snapshots from my experience of life in the Mara. Though it is certainly not sufficient, one cannot help but try to convey the marvel of this exceptional event.

Here in the African grasslands great misconceptions are proved false, Lions once thought to be the king of the jungle are shown subject to the gentle giants that we call Elephants.

 

Scale becomes relative to your perception when a towering Masai Giraffe walks into the scene, dwarfing the Zebras that just a moment before seemed so large.

 

The most unlikely of characters become the hero of the hour as a wiry, brave mother Warthog accomplishes the impossible in warding off the attack of four Cheetahs attempting to capture one of her three small piglets.

The most unlikely of characters become the hero of the hour as a wiry, brave mother Warthog accomplishes the impossible in warding off the attack of four Cheetahs attempting to capture one of her three small piglets.

 

The struggle between life and death, grim though it may be, is revealed as the harmonious circle of life. The animals that make this place their home maintain the perfect balance here in the African wilds. Without the Wildebeest the population of Crocodiles would surely drop off drastically and without the Crocodiles the plains of the Mara would be over-run with Wildebeest to the point that mass numbers would starve.

The struggle between life and death, grim though it may be, is revealed as the harmonious circle of life. The animals that make this place their home maintain the perfect balance here in the African wilds. Without the Wildebeest the population of Crocodiles would surely drop off drastically and the absence of Crocodiles would lead to the plains of the Mara being over-run with Wildebeest to the point that mass numbers would assuredly starve.

 

The incredibly well camouflaged Leopard is a challenge to locate due to a stunning vanishing act, it merely walks into the tall grass and disappears into its surroundings, lost from sight.

 

Despite their drab colors and simplistic behavior one finds a new found respect for the Gnu after watching a Wildebeest dance in the late afternoon rain showers. They quickly shed their perceived lazy demeanor and race about the pains in celebration of the fresh rain that has fallen.

Despite their drab colors and simplistic behavior, one finds a new found respect for the Gnu after watching a Wildebeest dance in the late afternoon rain showers. They quickly shed their perceived lazy demeanor and race about the pains in celebration of the fresh rains that have fallen.

 

Expressions of friendship and affection are displayed here between wild beasts in ways that would put to shame many of our own race. Despite their identity as an apex predator, there is no question about the love and harmony between two Cheetah siblings.

Expressions of friendship and affection are displayed here between wild beasts in ways that would put to shame many of our own race. Despite their identity as an apex predator, there is no question about the love and harmony between two Cheetah siblings.

Should you have the chance I cannot encourage you enough to embrace the opportunity and go experience this incredible event. You will see the cycle of life as it unfolds and write your own story to share once you depart. I’ll be returning there again next year to lead my Premium African Migration Safari, if you’d like more information you’ll find it here at this link.

If you’d like to see a collection of images from my recent trip please visit my Africa – Masai Mara Portfolio.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. – Nathaniel

Dawn of the Lion | Africa

Dawn of the Lion | Africa

Scars of Life | Lion

Scars of Life | Lion

Whispers In The Grass | Leopard

Lofty Ambitions | Giraffe

Lofty Ambitions | Giraffe

Seduction Of The Savana | Africa

Seduction Of The Savana | Africa

 

Award Winning Bird Photography

Chronicles of Nature

Nathaniel Smalley speaking at Audubon Arizona in Phoenix on the topic of Award Winning Bird Photography.

Recently I was requested as the guest speaker at Audubon Arizona’s showcase event in November, featuring award winning images from the 2015 National Audubon Photography Competition. The event was very well attended and I enjoyed an engaged audience as I discussed the topic of award winning bird photography. Due to the popularity of the topic, I chose to compile some of my notes into a blog post here.

Though I haven’t personally invested a lot of time entering my work, I have been asked to be a judge for a number of different nature photography competitions including the distinguished Natures Best Photography – Africa (a division of Nature’s Best Photography), Viewbug.com and others.

Birds were my door into photography way back in high school. These days I rarely go anywhere for the sole purpose of watching birds, but that hobby helped shape my career as a professional nature photographer, and as a result birds will always hold a special place in my heart. I now carry a camera in place of my binoculars when out looking for avian subjects. So you might ask, what am I looking for when I photograph birds? Creating successful bird photographs requires one or more different elements in our composition. Obviously there are many that could be listed, but for the sake of simplicity I’ve limited it to 10 elements. In the caption of each photo in this article I have detailed the main elements from this list have been utilized in my photographs. They are as follows:

– Action | Behavior | Humor | Personality | Friendship | Light | Perspective | Habitat | Depth of Field | Nostalgia –

Despite popular opinion, bird photography isn’t all about having a big lens. While it can certainly help achieve certain images, there are many creative ways to photograph birds that certainly require more effort, but produce great results. This image of a Great Blue Heron in flight was taken with my 70-200mm zoom lens and a teleconverter making it effectively a 400mm lens. Capturing this image came down to being prepared for the bird as it flew in front of me, as opposed to having a piece of high powered glass.

Great Blue Heron – This bird in flight image utilizes action. Camera: Nikon D700 & Nikon 70-200mm Lens w/ 2x Teleconverter – Iso 1,000 | f-5.6 | 1/1600 sec. @ 400mm

To further illustrate my point I want to show you the image below. This is perhaps the most popular photo I’ve ever taken. What camera was it taken with? My Sony Cybershot Point & Shoot, 8 megapixel camera! Sure, it’s not a bird photo, but it proves a point; Creativity and being passionate about your subject trumps expensive equipment every time.

  •  -This image was licensed by Nikon for a corporate presentation.
  •  -It has been shared to every corner of the world.
  •  -Published in international magazines and used in multiple articles.
  •  -Occupied 1st place on 500px ahead of over-saturated landscapes and photos of half-naked models.

Nathaniel’s infant son Dimitri at one week old – Iso 400 | f-2.8 | 1/25 sec. @ 6mm

So the next logical question then is how does one get close enough to these subjects without spooking them. Birds tend to be very skittish of humans, and for good reason, in fact I’m wary of humans at times myself! When we photograph birds and wildlife we want them to be relaxed and in their natural state. I’m strongly opposed to using bait to lure in wild subjects, but that’s a whole topic in and of itself. (If you would like to read more on the topic of baiting birds and wildlife click on this link)I also refrain from using calls and recordings. As much as possible I want my wild subjects to be acting out their normal behavior patterns as though I was not present. This is when I capture my best images. The longer we sit still and the more we blend into our surroundings the more comfortable birds become with our presence and the closer they will come to us. The clothing colors that we wear can effect how birds react to our presence. Stay away from whites, reds, yellows and other brightly colored clothing, these colors are often associated with danger in the natural world. Instead choose earth tones or even camouflage. Bird blinds are another option allowing us to photograph birds without being detected. Many species are much easier to photograph in the spring when they spend a majority of their time singing, displaying their bright breeding plumage and engaged in territorial disputes. Sometimes a bird will be all but oblivious to human presence during this time of the year as they’re so preoccupied with finding a mate and defending their turf. Below is an American Redstart singing his heart out at Magee Marsh, along the shores of Lake Erie in Ohio. Magee Marsh is a bird photographer’s paradise!

Songs Of Spring | American Redstart

American Redstart – This image illustrates behavior & action. Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 600mm Lens w/ 1.4x Teleconverter – Iso 1,250 | f-7.1 | 1/250 sec. @ 850mm

  Conversely, nesting season can be one of the most difficult times to photograph birds, as they are trying to be secretive and all their attention is consumed with feeding their young. While nest sites can be intriguing to photograph, one should take extreme caution to do so at a safe distance so as not to stress or make the birds feel threatened. No photograph is worth rising the welfare of the nestlings, regardless of how cute they are.

Even the most common species are popular as babies, like this pair of Herring Gull chicks (above right) navigating through a large patch of ice plant on the California coastline. For this image I climbed on top of a railing along the ocean cliff to get even higher perspective (see below). This allowed me to shoot down on my subjects and isolate them in the frame from one another. If I’d shot them straight on then they would have blended together into a fluffy blob with two heads.

Nathaniel on location at La Jolla Cove in San Diego, California © Laurie Rubin

Capturing fledglings in their natural element in great light can produce some really magical results. Below a baby Canada Goose is struggling to put down a large dandelion blossom. The early morning sun on the dew covered grass creates the perfect shooting conditions for an image like this. I got low to the ground on eye level with my subject to help put the size of the surroundings in perspective. Using a shallow depth of field helps to isolate the gosling from the habitat and draws the viewers attention directly to the subject.

Canada Goose – This image utilizes light (dramatic), perspective & depth of field. Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 1,000 | f-6.3 | 1/2000 sec. @ 600mm

By getting very low to the ground when shooting this Golden Plover chick, the subject appears much smaller and more vulnerable in the overall scene, which is what I was going for. This impression is enhanced by the fact that I centered the subject and composed the bird low in the frame with lots of negative space above it. This image breaks one of the main rules of composition, known as ‘The Rule of Thirds.’ The rule of thirds states that: An image is most pleasing when its subjects or regions are composed along imaginary lines which divide the image into thirds – both vertically and horizontally . This just goes to show that all the ‘rules ‘ of photography are made to be broken.

Golden Plover chick – This image utilizes perspective & depth of field. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 1,000 | f-6.3 | 1/320 sec. @ 600mm

Unlike the previous example, this image below was composed following ‘The Rule of Thirds’. You can see the owl’s eyes, as the primary point of interest, are located right where the top left intersecting lines meet. This photo has nice balance to it with the double Aspens on the right offsetting the ‘weight ’ of the owl on the left. I’ve used depth of field to manage how much of the surrounding habitat is in focus.

Great Gray Owl – This image utilizes habitat, depth of field & perspective. Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 600mm Lens w/ 1.4x Teleconverter – Iso 400 | f-8 | 1/320 sec. @ 850mm

With bird photography almost every image will have more impact if you can get on eye level with your subject. Sometimes photographers don’t put a lot of thought into the angle at which an image is taken, but considering the role it plays in creating a successful image it aught to get far more attention. People are instinctively drawn to an photo taken from an unusual angle. For the image below I had my tripod in the water and was laying down with the upper half of my body stretched out over the edge of the bank to operate the camera and capture this shot. Needless to say that is not a comfortable position to be in, but often capturing the best shot requires a bit of physical discomfort to achieve the desired results.

Brown Pelican - This image utilizes fine art & behavior. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens - Iso 1,250 | f-7.1 | 1/100 sec. @ 600mm

Brown Pelican – This image utilizes fine art & behavior. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 1,250 | f-7.1 | 1/100 sec. @ 600mm

A fine art photograph is taken with the goal of creating a work of art. It goes beyond the literal aspect of the scene or the subject photographed and creates an image that shares the photographer’s personal vision, a metaphorical aspect or message. This type of photography is more about making a photograph, not just taking a photograph. Documentation is great for certain types of photography, such as forensics where the purpose is to record the scene in the most literal and factual manner possible, but fine art photography is is about more than just creating a documentary image. While defining exactly what constitutes fine art photography may be impossible, here are a few points to consider in describing it:

  • 1). What a fine art photograph illustrates must be different from what is observed when the shot is taken.
  • 2). The purpose of a fine art photograph is to share the photographer’s personal vision of the scene or subject.
  • 3). When looking at a fine art photograph it’s clear that the photograph was created by an artist and not just by a camera.

Sunset Salute | Great Blue Heron

Green Heron – This image utilizes action & behavior. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens w/ 1.4x Teleconverter – Iso 640 | f-7.1 | 1/800 sec. @ 850mm

Often after catching and swallowing a large fish a heron will open and close its beak activating its throat muscles and helping it to fully swallow its meal. Knowing of this behavior and watching for it allows you to capture a shot like this one of the Great Blue Heron on the right and gives the impression of a loud audible call from your subject.

That is exactly what I was going for when I took the image below of this Green Heron. It looks as though the heron is screaming at the top of its lungs, when in reality it was simply trying to work down its morning meal.

Sunset Magic | Arctic Terns

Arctic Terns – This image utilizes action & light (dramatic). Camera: Nikon D700 & Nikon 70-200mm Lens w/ 1.4x Teleconverter – Iso 500 | f-14 | 1/200 sec. @ 220mm

Shooting into a glowing sunset certainly has its challenges as images can easily end up over-exposed. Be sure to take care not to look through the viewfinder when shooting directly towards the sun, use the live view function on your camera if possible. You’ll notice that I’ve composed this image with the sun just to the left of the frame to allow me to shoot while looking through the viewfinder. When the sun is still above the horizon, sunrise and sunset can provide photographers lots of light to work with, and as a result you are able to shoot at faster shutter speeds and freeze motion or smaller apertures for greater depth of field. That is exactly what I’ve done here with this flock of Arctic Terns over the coast of Iceland. In the image below I have taken advantage of the extra light to shoot at f-14 giving me more depth of field in the image and showing more of the layers in the distant hills.

Back light can give an photo a very special effect and enhance shapes and forms. Back lighting works best when the details on the edges are more important than the colors of the subject. Here a Snowy Egret is beautifully illuminated by an early morning beam of light that perfectly highlights a stray feather on its chest. In a shot like this I’m adjusting my camera settings based on the reading from my camera’s light meter is giving me for the brightest parts in the image. By doing this most (if not all) of the distracting back ground elements fall off into the shadows and help to further isolate and emphasize the subject.

Snowy Egret – This image utilizes light (dramatic). Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 100 | f-8 | 1/1000 sec. @ 600mm

When seeking bird subjects to photograph there are a few questions we can ask ourselves  that will aid us in finding them in the best conditions. What is the dominant habitat for the location you are photographing? Researching the region and knowing the geography will aid you in being better prepared for the type of vegetation and/or terrain you’ll be working in. For most bird species the year is divided into different activities (migration, nesting etc.). Understanding what birds are doing at different times of the year will help you learn when is the best time to photograph them. Where do the birds in your part of the world like to nest and feed? Discovering where their food sources are will lead you to the birds. In the image below a Northern Parula Warbler feeds on small insects inside the seed heads of an Alder Tree, knowing this information makes locating my subject more predictable.

Seeds Of Spring | Northen Parula Warbler

Northern Parula Warbler – This image utilizes habitat & light (soft). Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 600mm Lens w/ 1.4x Teleconverter – Iso 800 | f-6.3 | 1/1250 sec. @ 850mm

Depending on what part of the world you grew up in, seeing a Robin in a blooming Crab Apple Tree can be synonymous with spring and feelings of happiness. Having grown up in New England shots like this one of an American Robin bring back great memories for me personally. Capturing a familiar subject in an identifiable scene often takes a bit of planning, but when it is done right you can create a heartwarming photo that has a lot of appeal in front of the right audience. Photos that resonate with a viewer often do so because there is some nostalgic connection that they have with the image. I can’t track how many times I’ve been told by clients purchasing a print that they were ‘buying a hummingbird photo because their mom loved hummingbirds and the photo reminds them of their mother’, or they simply ‘had to have that print of the ocean because they grew up on the coast and the photo reminded them of home’.

American Robin – This image utilizes nostalgia & habitat. Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 800 | f-8 | 1/200 sec. @ 600mm

This look of a Burrowing Owl in the image below is achieved by photographing it from just the right angle and produces the look of a stern school master (or perhaps your father when he’s angry at you). Capturing birds from the best angle and at the perfect moment can yield exceptional results that give your subject a personality all its own. Photos of birds and wildlife that show a recognizable personality immediately resonate with the viewer and tend to be very popular.

Burrowing Owl – This image utilizes personality & behavior. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 200 | f-6.3 | 1/3200 sec. @ 600mm

Images that illustrate friendship between two wild subjects (whether actual or perceived), always evoke positive responses. Places where birds and wildlife both find food sources together are great locations to look for this kind of interaction and capture these types of shots. I found this sea lion and cormorant sunning themselves together on a rock along the coastline of California.

Sea Lion & Cormorant – This image utilizes friendship & habitat. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 800 | f-8 | 1/320 sec. @ 600mm

The Height Of Audacity | Elk and Magpie

Elk & Magpie – This image utilizes friendship & humor. Camera: Nikon D700 & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 400 | f-4| 1/350 sec. @ 600mm

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of studying bird behavior in the field. That’s how I was able to be prepared for a shot like the one to the right of the elk and magpie. I watched this magpie that was hanging out with a herd of Elk, eating parasites out of their fur and foraging underneath their feet. I witnessed it fly up and land on this one elk’s back numerous times before I got the opportunity to capture this shot. Anticipating bird behavior is absolutely essential for capturing winning bird photographs. Also be sure to read up in your bird field guide. There have been numerous birds that seeing them for the first time I immediately knew what they were just from having looked at them in my bird field guides or having read about their behaviors so many times in the past.

The final image I’ll discuss is by far the most comical image I’ve ever captured. This photo below of a Sandhill Crane was taken before I’d really gone full time with my photography, but it is consistently one of my best selling photographs. This image is also one of the few images of mine that I’ve entered into a photography competition. However, when I did in 2012, it took home Honorable Mention from the National Wildlife Federation Nature Photography Competition. People love humorous images of birds and wildlife so I jump at the opportunity to capture a photograph like this. It’s also the only image from my bird portfolio that was taken in captivity. This photo was shot on an a family outing there with my children at the Sandhill Crane exhibit in the Phoenix Zoo. Since beginning to work as a professional photographer I no longer take photographs of captive subjects. All the photos that you’ll see on my website were taken in the wild.

Sandhill Crane -

Sandhill Crane – This image utilizes humor & personality. Camera: Nikon D700 & Nikon 70-200mm Lens w/ 2x Teleconverter – Iso 200 | f-5.6 | 1/640 sec. @ 400mm

In conclusion I’ll say that the absolute best way to produce award winning images is to get outdoors with your camera. The more you’re out in the wild looking for avian subjects and watching bird behavior, the greater your odds are of seeing and capturing an exceptional image.  After all, even if you don’t get the image you’re chasing after, I can’t think of a better way to spend the day than being outside surrounded by your feathered friends. So boost your award winning potential, and grab your camera… the birds are calling.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.

– Nathaniel

Nathaniel on location in the Himalayas photographing raptors. – India, 2015

Beyond The Waterfalls

Chronicles of Nature

Independence | Iceland – A lone volcanic boulder rests in a windswept landscape of volcanic stone pebbles and patterns.

Hills In The Mist | Iceland

 

The Great Wide Open – Golden Plover Chick

You may have dreamed of traveling to Iceland, as I did for years, longing to photograph its incredibly diverse landscape. A plethora of images had tempted me for a decade or longer, enticing with massive waterfalls, glowing sunsets and noble Icelandic horses. Admittedly the allure of this magical country is hard to resist. As recently as a few years ago I had a powerful ambition to capture all the ‘iconic’ shots so often published of Iceland, but over time something in me changed. I’m not sure exactly what it was that altered my perspective, perhaps it was a number of factors. I noticed that my interest had shifted towards photographers that were creating more subtle, unique compositions and capturing the hidden elements of a scene, as opposed to the more obvious, grand shots that have almost become common now. I also became weary of what I perceived to be a rabid pursuit of ‘epic’ light. I do not mean to imply that there is anything wrong with photographing ultra-dramatic light and conditions, we would be remiss as photographers if we did not. Unfortunately though, the message often conveyed is, “If there isn’t a flaming sky, stay home” or even worse, “If there isn’t a flaming sky, just paint one in later with Photoshop”. Despite the general popularity and initial impact of these ‘sensationalized’ images of nature, I felt there was something missing. That approach to landscape photography left me feeling jaded. It is to the point now when one posts a photograph depicting spectacular light that they run the risk of their audience automatically assuming that the saturation slider was pushed too far to the right, or some Photoshop processing trick was executed. The viewer usually doubts, even if only sub-consciously, that the conditions represented in the photo ever existed. Often in today’s culture of digital nature photography great liberties are taken when processing files, pushing them far beyond the realm of reality. We’ve labeled this ‘artistic expression’ and moved on. I became more certain with each passing day that there was something forgotten, something overlooked…

Waiting for our attention, beyond all the hype about towering waterfalls and blazing sunsets, there is a quite landscape.

The River Serpent | Iceland – This image was made from a cliff high above Háifoss Waterfall. I sought something other than the ordinary, and found a serpent.

It was with these thoughts on my mind that I arrived in Iceland and began my quest to capture the beauty of this land from a fresh perspective. My first impression was that none of the photos I’d seen could do this amazing country justice. The photographic potential of the landscape in Iceland is staggering, at nearly every turn I found inspiration and elements that caught my eye, begging to be photographed. Since this was our summer photography tour we had nearly 24 hours of light each day making for nearly endless opportunities.

Halo Of The Earth | Thingvellir, Iceland – One of three different rainbows that we photographed on our tour.

One of the great benefits of this ‘midnight sun’ is that the ‘golden hour’ stretches into multiple hours and the window for soft light during sunrise and sunset has a much longer duration. Due to its proximity to the polar circle and location in the center of the vast Atlantic Ocean the weather changes frequently. Some days we would awaken to bright sunshine and a soft breeze and another day troubled, stormy skies with 60 mile per hour wind gusts. Regardless of the weather, the landscape is enchanting, and from a photographer’s perspective it is paradise. Glaciers, icebergs, volcanoes, lava fields, geysers, waterfalls, rivers, mountains, meadows, flowers, birds, horses, beaches and the mighty ocean, what’s not to love?

Bend in the Meadow | Iceland – A simple stand of small, weathered trees are complimented by the gentle curve of a quiet stream.

We visited many of the iconic locations throughout Iceland, but you might not know it looking through my Iceland portfolio. I wanted to shoot what resonated with me personally, not what garnered recognition or would get lots of attention on social media platforms. Much of the time this approach worked well, other times it meant visiting an iconic location and finding nothing that caught my eye but the obvious composition. When this occurred I’d set my gear aside and drink in the beauty surrounding me, capturing mental memories of the scene to enjoy forever.

The Veil | Seljalandfoss, Iceland – The waterfalls that I did photograph I worked to find a fresh composition. This waterfall is repeatedly shot from the side looking back at the setting sun… Google ‘Seljalandfoss’ and you’ll see what I mean.

My one regret from our tour is that it did not last longer. Thankfully I’ll be back in 2016 to lead our Iceland Winter Photography Workshop in January and February where we’ll experience Iceland decorated in winter’s embrace. I can’t wait to return and hope that a journey to Iceland is in your future as well, it’s truly an unforgettable experience.

There are stunning waterfalls everywhere in Iceland… be sure to look beyond them and find all the other beauty this land holds for those who seek it out.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.

– Nathaniel

Feel free to email me directly for information on next year’s tours and please also check out: Iceland Photo Tours

Enjoy a hi-res gallery of the images from this article in my Iceland Portfolio.

A Gentle Awakening | Iceland – The incredible beauty of the sunrise over Iceland needs no enhancement, it is already perfect.

The Image Of Success

Chronicles of Nature

I frequently receive emails and messages asking for direction on how one becomes a successful nature photographer. There’s a lot of discussion between photographers on what makes a successful image. While there are many well tested practices for creating great photographs with which to build a beautiful portfolio, that is only half of the recipe to success. Successfulness in any field is defined by many other important factors. If these factors are ignored you may cripple your attempts to build a career; regardless of the quality of your images. In answer to those that have asked for my advice on the subject I’ve compiled my thoughts into the following ten points.

1). Life Isn’t Fair.  Successful photographers don’t waste time wallowing in self pity. Take responsibility for your actions and be thankful for life’s lessons. If something doesn’t work out as you’d hoped, just accept it. Perhaps the negotiations with a potential client that you were excited about fell through. Realize that life is full of mistakes and that this is how we learn. Success is about not being deterred when your plans don’t come to fruition. Evaluate what you could do differently the next time and move on.

2). Stay Focused. You will be challenged at every turn, so be ready for it. Always be in control of your emotions and actions, if you let others put you under their thumb you may never get up again. Don’t allow the rejection of a handful of envious, disgruntled peers send you into fits of depression. If you’ve been used by another photographer or client for their personal gain, remove yourself from the situation and never look back. Always keep your goal in your sights.

3). Change Is Inevitable. Nature photographers are constantly confronted with change, so embrace it. It could be a change in the weather when you’re all prepared for one type of shot, or something more technical like film cameras being replaced by digital. I remember hearing so many photographers say they’d never switch from their 35mm film cameras to digital when that transition began. They all shoot digital now. Our fear should not be of the unknown, but rather of getting stuck in the same routine. Force yourself outside your comfort zone; that is often when we accomplish our greatest work.

4). Don’t Fight It. The only thing you can control in life when faced with a difficult situation is how you respond to the problem. If you drop your lens and it breaks you can respond by getting really pissed off and say your whole trip is ruined, or you can be thankful for the images you were able to record prior to the accident; I’m speaking from personal experience here. If you were responsible and carried insurance on your multi-thousand dollar gear then you wouldn’t have to fret so much. (Now we’re getting back to point number one about taking responsibility for your actions). Points one and four are closely linked. When life hands you rain clouds instead of sunsets, take pictures of the rain clouds and hope for rainbows.

5). Embrace The Challenges. Every successful photographer has taken chances on something at some point in their career, some more than others. Running a profitable business requires you to. I am certainly not saying that you should just recklessly jump into anything, but even buying equipment is a risk. Do you have a business plan before you go and drop five, ten or even fifty thousand dollars on camera gear? If you’ve invested the time in creating a plan to determine the consequences of your decisions before you act, then they become a lot less fearful. A successful photographer is not afraid of uncharted waters.

6). Live In The Present. Living for yesterday is one of the greatest pitfalls for anyone trying to build a future of any kind. While there are certainly valuable lessons to be learned from our past life experiences, you should be careful not to waste too much time and energy in ‘times gone by’. If you want to be a successful photographer put your effort into what you are working on today and tomorrow, not in what you did yesterday.

7). Learn From Your Failures. Not much mystery here. Have you ever gone out and shot a few hundred frames only to realize you forgot to put a memory card in your camera? Don’t do it twice. Even the most successful photographers make mistakes; they also learn from them. You should view every failure as an opportunity to improve yourself. To be a successful photographer you must be willing to correct the future by what you’ve learned in the past.

8). Celebrate The Achievements Of Your Peers. Successful photographers are not afraid of another’s accomplishments. It takes a person with confidence in themselves to find happiness in another’s success. They are not envious or spiteful towards their peers and/or competitors. Congratulate your peers on their achievements, you will draw more people to yourself as a result. There is a vast difference between arrogance and confidence; you never need to apologize for confidence. I’ve seen too many talented, but insecure photographers out there. Don’t be one of them.

9). Be Prepared To Earn It. Don’t expect anything to come to you on a silver platter. Even if you have a beautiful portfolio and have invested thousands of dollars in gear, it doesn’t make you any different than the other millions of photographers out there that have done the same. I’ve heard photographers bitch and moan bitterly that essentially ‘one day the world will recognize them ’. They will be waiting for a long time. Those that are successful make themselves thus and don’t wait for society to realize what a gift they’ve been given by their existence. Do something noteworthy with your work, make your images uniquely your own. Successful photographers don’t wait for the world to recognize them, they are too busy living their dream.

10). It All Takes Time. It has been said that there is no shortcut to success; truer words were never spoken. If you’re expecting to ‘make it’ overnight you should consider a different career path, maybe fast food is more your speed. To be a successful nature photographer you must have commitment and dedication. Your dedication will be tested repeatedly along the way. Keep your head down and work hard. Learn from your mistakes and celebrate your achievements, but be humble about them. Realize that this is a journey, not a destination. Sit back and enjoy the ride.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.

 – Nathaniel Smalley

‘Photoshopped’ – The Great Misconception

Chronicles of Nature

No doubt most of you have heard it before and in all likelihood will hear it again, “Yeah, that’s a great shot, but you ‘Photoshopped’ the image to make it look like that”. In most cases, when ‘Photoshopped’ is used as a verb, the implicit accusation is that something unfair, devious or amiss is at play. These unsolicited accusations from the uninformed observer create a delicate situation. Acknowledging that you used image processing software in their mind only confirms their erroneous perception, but to deny the use of it is rarely accurate either. What they fail to understand is the difference between the JPEG files that their Point & Shoot camera records, and the RAW files captured by the vast majority of professional photographers today.

I’ve had multiple people accuse me of ‘Photoshopping’ the Blue/Green color into the wings of this Magpie. Under most light Magpies appear Black & White in color, however when lighting conditions are just right these iridescent feathers become washed with color. The wing colors you see represented in this JPEG file are just as vibrant in the RAW file from when I captured this image.

JPEG files were named after the committee that created them in the mid 1980’s, known as the ‘Joint Photographic Experts Group’ (JPEG). This group was given the task of creating standardized image coding that would allow photo quality graphics to be displayed on computer text terminals. When an image is captured in a JPEG file format the settings selected by the user on the camera (and/or those that the camera has selected in one of the ‘auto modes’) are in a sense processed and rendered, but defined by the restricted number of colors of an RGB color space. This color space is greatly limited when compared to the full spectrum of colors seen by the naked eye. With a RAW file there is minimal processing in camera. The camera simply stores the data allowing the photographer to process the image at a later time. This allows the photographers of today the same ability to develop their digital files as was possible when working with film negatives, but with even greater and more dynamic control as RAW is in a digital format. One could in essence think of RAW as the digital negative and JEPG’s as the print or ‘finished product’.  The only way to process the information captured when shooting images in RAW is to use image processing software such as Lightroom or Photoshop. Just because a photographer’s work stands out as spectacular certainly doesn’t mean that there is trickery being employed or that images are being altered with software. In understanding digital photography, one realizes that there is no camera or equipment that is capable of duplicating the myriad of colors, tones, hues and detail that the human eye can see. A photographer goes through all the post process work to bring out in their digital image files the elements that they saw when they clicked the shutter, elements that the camera cannot record. Granted, some photographers go way overboard in their post processing work, overusing color saturation and creating an image that does not accurately reflect the original scene. Sometimes this may be done as an artistic rendering of a shot they captured, however I’m pretty sure we’ve all seen an image before and thought to ourselves that the color intensity looked as though a bag of skittles and a box of popsicles had a baby! As a photographer I view it as my personal responsibility to process my RAW files as close as I can to represent what the scene looked like at the time I captured the image. Often the most beautiful spectrum of colors is able to be seen during the ‘The Golden Hour’. Sometimes when we see images with spectacular soft light and colors this was achieved by capturing the image in the proper lighting conditions. At the end of the day the decision is quite simple really, do you want a machine (the camera) responsible for rendering the scene as it was, or the photographer who was there and captured the image? This is typically (but not always) achieved by the photographer getting to their location before the sun comes up (or sets) or even sleeping at the shooting location the night before, both of which require a lot of work and planning. The next time someone criticizes your hard earned image by telling you it was faked with processing software, smile and remind yourself that unfortunately they’ve probably never been awake to witness that kind of light before.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.

Nathaniel Smalley

One of my images that I am repeatedly told “must have been Photoshopped”. I took this sunset image in the Lofoten Islands of Norway. This image accurately reflects the colors I witnessed that evening and captured in my RAW file.