Black and White in the Outdoors: Learning to see in Monochrome

The post Black and White in the Outdoors: Learning to see in Monochrome appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by David Shaw.

1 - Black and White in the Outdoors

To determine when black and white is the best option in nature photography, you need to learn to see your scene in black and white. Most beginner photographers arrive at their monochrome images by experimenting with post-processing. While this occasionally works, shooting with black and white in mind results in far better images.

In other words, you need to SEE in black and white.

Look for Contrast


In color photography, there are almost unlimited options to juxtapose contrasting and complementary colors or to provide an attention-getting subject in a flashy tone. But in black and white, you lose the ability to use color in the traditional way and are instead left with shades of gray. Contrast, rather than color, is our compositional tool.

Most of us see the world in rich color and there is no saturation slider in our eyes or brains with which we can switch color on and off. But we can train ourselves to see contrasts.

As I’m writing this, I’m looking out my window onto the spruce trees in my front yard. The sun is shining on a layer of fresh snow which fell over the past few days. The limbs of the spruces are draped in white. Looking south, toward the low sun, I can see flashes of perfect white where the sunlight is illuminating fresh snow. Those bright highlights contrast sharply with the dark, shaded trunks and exposed branches of the trees. In fact, even in the shaded areas, the difference between the snow and the dark needles is remarkable. With little color in the scene to begin with, it doesn’t take much to “see” this scene in black and white.

Because I can “see” this scene clearly in black and white, I can recognize that images like this will translate well from color. Here, let me step outside for a few minutes and make a few photos, to show you what I mean.

(A few minutes later…)

I’m back. I’ve pulled a few images and did a quick black and white conversion in Lightroom. Here are a couple of shots; first color, and then black and white.

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This is a straightforward example. As most people can see, lacking many colors, the snowy trees were a likely subject for black and white. However, the next step is harder.

Color Contrast

I had another black and white shooting session a few months back when “seeing” in black and white was much more difficult.

Each fall, I make a pilgrimage from my home in Alaska’s interior to the Kenai Peninsula. This year, I spent a day exploring the forest and mountains of Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park, across the bay from the town of Homer. I hiked for several miles through the wet forest making images of the rising autumn colors, and the fog-draped mountains. It was a sea of greens and yellows, red highlights, grays, and browns. Some images were perfect for color, others not so much. Telling the difference in the field was a game I played as I walked.

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Some black and white images were clear in the gloomy forest. The dull yellow, jagged leaves of Devil’s Club against the muted greens and browns of the forest floor were an obvious contrast that I knew would translate well into black and white.

Others, like the pale green of fern fronds, were less contrasty in the field, and yet translated beautifully into shades of gray.

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These ferns were dying back at the end of the season and were largely a dull brown. Kind of ugly really. However, the color doesn’t matter in black and white, and the contrast between the pale brown fronds, and the deeply shaded background worked.

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This patch of ferns was pale green and popped against the darker green background. This is my favorite image of the series. It was a shot that took me a moment to “see” in black and white.

Another shot of an autumn stalk of bright red fireweed, I thought would look good in black and white when I first made the image, but upon examination of the back of my camera in the field. There was actually little contrast in brightness between the greens and red. That image didn’t work quite as well.

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Lighting Contrast

Later that same afternoon, bright sunlight started to filter through increasingly thin clouds. It wasn’t yet hard light, but it was bright enough to be directional. The sun came through the forest canopy in patches, illuminating and shading different areas.

And this brought about a third option for black and white: lighting contrast. In the differing light, even similar colors will contrast in black and white.

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Beyond Details

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Seeing a large scene in black and white is the next step. I was photographing by a lake this fall. It was early in the day, the sun not yet far above the horizon, but any lingering sunrise color had faded. Most of the lake, some rising fog, and the surrounding mountains were in shadow. Aside from the sky, there wasn’t a lot of contrast. I was about to pack it in for the morning when the sun got high enough to illuminate a patch of fog, which flashed white in this scene of muted blues. Not much for color, I thought, but in black and white? That, I realized, would work.

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Terrible Light

At times, when photographing in harsh light, black and white can also salvage an otherwise impossible situation. A number of years ago, I was shooting in the altiplano of Bolivia. I arrived at mid-day at the spectacular and weird Laguna Colorado. It was savagely bright; cloudless skies, high elevation, middle of the day, and within a few degrees of the equator. Lighting conditions couldn’t have been worse.

While the landscape was uniformly drenched in harsh, ugly light, there was contrast in the colors of the desert. A polarizer darkened the sky and removed the worst of the glare. The resulting black and white conversion, was if not perfect, at least the best of a very bad situation.

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Frequently traveling photographers find themselves in beautiful locations at bad times, and we don’t always have the freedom to return when the light is better. In such situations, consider black and white. It’s not a cure-all, by any means, but nasty light will often translate better into monochrome than full color.

The situation I described above was not unique on my trip through Bolivia. The sweet light of morning and evening lasted only minutes in the high desert, quickly replaced by glaring light. And yet contrasts in the landscape salvaged many a scene for me.

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If you can recognize a black and white subject in the field, it will open up your eyes to new compositions you may have previously ignored. Black and white photography is not simply the removal of color, it is a way of seeing.

When next you venture outdoors with your camera, look at the way colors and even shades contrast with one another. Look for lighting conditions that cause contrast to appear and embrace those situations in the form of black and white photography. Even on those days with rotten, bright light, consider how removing those washed out colors might help your final image, sometimes black and white can salvage an otherwise desperate moment.

Give it a try and then share your results in the comments below.

The post Black and White in the Outdoors: Learning to see in Monochrome appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by David Shaw.

Gear Review: The Lumix G9 Mirrorless Camera

The post Gear Review: The Lumix G9 Mirrorless Camera appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by David Shaw.

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The Lumix G9 – a 20.3mp, micro 4/3rds, mirrorless camera.

When I bought my first full-frame DSLR many years ago (an original Canon 5D), I thought I’d discovered the pinnacle of camera technology. Because a bigger sensor is better right?

Well, not necessarily.

Sensor sizes are like film sizes- they are different formats, not different quality. Each has advantages and disadvantages, and some will fit your needs while some won’t.

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Flying in small planes is how I reach many of my photo locations. A light camera system is vital.

The Lumix G9 Mirrorless Camera

Bigger sensors, for all their benefits, also mean bulkier and heavier lenses. A smaller sensor, such as the micro 4/3rds system, is compact, and light. That’s why, as an outdoor pro who specializes in shooting in remote areas, I’ve recently begun shooting the Lumix m4/3rds system. Specifically, my primary camera is now the Lumix G9 mirrorless camera, the flagship of Lumix still cameras.

Body Quality

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The Lumix G9 Mirrorless Camera from the top.

The Lumix G9 Mirrorless Camera is of a similar size to other pro-level mirrorless camera bodies. For me, this is the appropriate size. If the body were much smaller the controls would become too small and cumbersome for rapid use in the field, and impossible while wearing gloves. The G9, in my opinion, is a good compromise between size and functionality.

The build is sturdy with a die-cast magnesium chassis and is environmentally sealed. A textured rubber coating covers most of the body providing a confident grip, even when wet. The body weighs in 658g, more or less typical of this size mirrorless camera. I’ve used mine in temperatures varying from -25F, to +100F in the snow, rain, and salt spray. I’ve banged it around inside bush planes, safari vehicles, rafts, and canoes, and have yet to have an issue with durability.

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Bush planes. I’ve gotten used to flying in them, but I never get tired of photographing them. (De Havilland Otter reflected in an Alaskan lake).


The 20.3mp micro four-thirds sensor has an excellent dynamic range for a sensor of this size and extremely low noise below about 1600 ISO. At higher ISOs, the noise does increase noticeably, which is a drawback for night photography. However, the files can handle substantial pushes in post-processing. Adding two or even three stops of light seems to have little impact on image quality.


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Handheld, at 1/15th second. Easy.

Lumix advertises a whopping 6.5 stops of stabilization built into the camera; a system that works seamlessly with lens-integrated stabilization. This impressive number isn’t just marketing hyperbole. I’ve found I can handhold images, even while using a long lens, to speeds as low as 1/8th of a second. Blurred water shots no longer require a tripod and video capture is smooth and almost vibration free. This is unquestionably the best camera I’ve ever used when it comes to image stabilization.

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Still Photography Performance

Frame Rate

Mirrorless cameras are not subject to the same limitations of shutter speeds as their DSLR counterparts. The electronic shutter of the Lumix G9 reaches a whopping 20 frames per second, far more than is needed except in all but the most extreme, fast-paced shooting situations. Even when using the standard frame rate, it still manages 9 frames per second, which is competitive with just about any camera on the market.

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At 20fps in the high burst mode, or 9fps in regular, the G9 makes quick work of moving subjects.


The autofocus is perhaps the one point, where the G9 does fall a bit short of high-end DSLRs. Lumix has applied a contrast detection system combined with Panasonic’s Depth from Defocus technology (DFD). In bright conditions with few obstacles, I found the autofocus to be exceptionally fast with a high hit rate. However, in tangled environments, or in low light, it occasionally struggles to grab my subject.

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The DFD system is an active autofocus that perpetually pushes and pulls the focus just a hair back and forth as it determines the focus point. It’s fast, but slightly distracting and often lead me to think that the camera hadn’t settled on my subject. It had, and the resulting images show a high hit rate, but the constant push-pull is a bit distracting.

Image Quality

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While overall image quality is excellent, night photography is the one place where the G9 falls short. This image, captured at ISO 3200, required substantial noise reduction.

In most lighting situations, the 20.3mp images are excellent. RAW format files have a competitive dynamic range which allows substantial pushing of exposure in post-processing. If you are jpeg shooter, the camera exports colorful, but not unnatural files ready for sharing on social media. I like the jpeg outputs so much that I’ve set the camera to write both small jpegs and RAW files which allows for quick shares without post-processing.

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Contrasting the previous image, this image captured at 800 ISO is nearly clean and required no noise reduction, despite the dim conditions. There seems to be a big reduction in image quality between ISO1600 and ISO 3200.

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High contrast scenes like this, the G9 handles admirably well.

High-Resolution Images

One of my favorite features of the Lumix G9 Mirrorless Camera is the high-resolution setting. The 20.3mp sensor is plenty for general use, however, as a landscape photographer, I often desire files that can be printed very large. The high-resolution image setting on the G9 takes 8 images in a row, each offset by 1/2 pixel. This produces a final file that is over 80 megapixels! For best results, a tripod is required, but for landscape work, I’m almost always using one anyway. The quality of the final image is, quite frankly, amazing.

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This image was captured using the high-resolution setting on the Lumix G9. The original file is a whopping 10368x7776px.

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The above image, cropped nearly in half, is still enormous by almost any standard.



Wifi connectivity when combined with Lumix’s intuitive app for phone or tablet, allows quick exporting of files for sharing from the field. Additionally, the app allows full remote operation of the camera. Once your image is composed, you can use the app to adjust exposure, aperture, shutter speed or ISO, then click the shutter from a 100m away.


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With a wide variety of lenses in the Lumix (and Olympus) lines. There is no shortage of options for all kinds of photography from wildlife to portraits and landscapes.

Advanced shooters will appreciate the extensive customization options on the G9. You can program in multiple preset modes, accessible from the main function dial atop the camera. But I’ve come to like even more, a separate switch on the front of the camera at the lower left, which allows you to switch between two types of shooting modes. I have one set for my standard landscape settings, and one to my favorites for wildlife. With a quick flick of a finger, I can move back and forth between the two as my shooting situation changes. Nifty.


Lumix has always been associated with video capture, even more than still photography. And while the G9 was definitely designed with still images in mind, it has inherited many video features of the other Lumix cameras. 4k video capture up to 60fps is possible with the G9, something few other still cameras can achieve. With the excellent integrated stabilization, high-quality video is a breeze. As many of my clients are now requesting video clips in addition to stills, the excellent moving image capture of the G9 means I no longer have to carry a second, video-specific camera when I’m shooting on assignment. For a still shooter who likes to capture some video or a film-maker who also wants high-quality stills, the G9 may be the perfect compromise.

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From the back, the camera’s controls are straight forward.

But What’s it Like to Use?

All the tech specs in the world won’t tell you what it actually feels like to use the camera. And in that case, I think the Lumix has really won the race. The controls are intuitive, with buttons conveniently located and ergonomics that allow you to determine buttons easily by feel, and without searching around. I moved from Canon to Lumix and found it didn’t take long to feel at home from the new system. I also shoot a Sony mirrorless, and moving back and forth between the two is not challenging.

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It was intermittently snowing hard and blowing cold wind when I made this image in Alaska’s western Arctic. The G9 handled the conditions without issue.

But it’s in the field that I really love the Lumix G9. The m4/3rd system means that not only the sensor is smaller, but the lenses too. Everything is much smaller and compact, even with fast, high-end lenses. My kit has shrunk substantially with my switch to Lumix. While full-frame mirrorless cameras are smaller and lighter than pro-level DSLRs, the lenses are not, which puts a limiter on how much weight and space you can really save by switching to full-frame mirrorless. With micro 4/3rds however, everything is smaller.

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As a wilderness photographer, this is a HUGE advantage for me. I can carry a body and multiple lenses for the same weight and size as a single DSLR and mid-range zoom lens. I can’t tell you how much this has meant to me on the many occasions I’ve had to weigh out every ounce to make my kit fit in a bush plane. Size matters to a backcountry photographer, and when it comes to cameras, smaller is better.

A Note on Lenses

While this isn’t a review of the Lumix lenses, I do want to offer a quick hat-tip to the Lumix-Leica lens systems. The glass is compact, light, and extremely sharp. The Leica glass elements are impeccable, and while not cheap, the sharpness is in every way comparable to the best Nikon, Canon, and Sony lenses. Secondarily, the m4/3rds lenses are compatible across brands meaning that Olympus equipment works seamlessly on Lumix bodies. (My current long lens is the Olympus 300mm f4 PRO, and it works perfectly on the G9).

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Final Thoughts

Lumix has been a go-to manufacturer for videographers and film-makers looking for a compact, high-quality system for many years, while Olympus has led the m4/3rds still photography market. That has all changed with the Lumix G9. While I look forward to a few improvements in the next generation, the G9 has almost everything a serious photographer could want: great image quality, excellent choices in lenses, ability to shoot 4k video, abundant customization options, and intuitive controls.

It looks like the Lumix system has found a permanent place in my camera bag.

Have you used the Lumix G9 Mirrorless Camera? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

The post Gear Review: The Lumix G9 Mirrorless Camera appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by David Shaw.

Review of the Olympus 300mm F4 PRO Lens

Review of the Olympus 300mm F4 PRO Lens

About six months ago, I made a heart-wrenching, painful, and difficult decision: I switched from Canon to Olympus.

Now, I’m not some crazy, brand-loyal photographer. I think the Canon versus Nikon argument is ridiculous. But I had invested thousands of dollars, tens of thousands really, in my Canon gear.

However, my photographic priorities have been changing. I’ve established something of a niche in Alaska wilderness photography and the size and weight of my Canon kit was becoming a hindrance.

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I’ve been extremely impressed by the sharpness and clean bokeh of this lens. Swainson’s Thrush, Alaska. Lumix G9 with Olympus 300mm F4 PRO.

Size and weight were a factor

Access to many of the places I work on assignment or lead photo workshops and tours is via small plane or on foot. In other words, the weight of my gear is a major consideration.

More and more often, I was forced to pass over my beloved Canon 500mm f4L, because it was just too darn heavy and bulky. Rather, I’d pack something more compact, even if it wasn’t as good. Leaving that big lens behind was painful, but necessary, and I constantly wished for something comparable that wasn’t so darn big.

As a result of leaving the big glass behind, my wildlife work suffered. So I started experimenting with a variety of alternative lenses for the Canon system: Tamron’s and Sigma’s 150-600mm lenses, and Canon’s 100-400mm and the 70-200mm f/2.8 with a 2x teleconverter.

All were decent, but none matched the quality and dreamy bokeh of the 500mm f4.

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Spruce Grouse, Denali National Park, Alaska. Lumix GX85 and Olympus 300mm F4 PRO.

Some smaller options

Unrelated to this search, I purchased a little Lumix GX85 as a backup camera for wilderness trips. Surprised by the quality of the micro 4/3rds system, I rented a couple of long lenses for it. First the Lumix/Leica 100-400, (which I’ve previously reviewed here on DPS), and then the Olympus 300mm f4 PRO.

While the Lumix/Leica 100-400mm combo gave me a staggering reach (200-800mm equivalent on the 4/3rds system), the sharpness at the long end was imperfect, and the bokeh was lacking. It’s a great lens, but just doesn’t quite compare to the 500mm f/4.

The Olympus 300mm F4 on the other hand… that one took me completely by surprise.

Review of the Olympus 300mm F4 PRO Lens

A tough, all-metal housing and full weather sealing mean the durability of the Olympus 300mm F4 PRO easily compares to the best lenses by Canon and Nikon.

Six months after first renting the Olympus, I sold all of my Canon gear and purchased a Lumix G9 body, a variety of Lumix/Leica lenses and the Olympus 300mm f4 PRO lens.

Here is what I think of it.

Price – Olympus 300mm F4 PRO

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Bull moose. Denali National Park, Alaska. Made with the Olympus 300mm F4 PRO on a Lumix GX85 body.

A new Canon 600mm F4L currently sells for $11,500. The Olympus 300mm F4 PRO is about $2,500.

Yeah, no contest there. You could buy the Olympus and still have enough left over for a trip to Alaska to photograph brown bears AND a trip to Africa to see lions and elephants (travel is always money well spent).

Size and Weight

Review of the Olympus 300mm F4 PRO Lens

At 9 inches long (with the hood retracted) and 3.25lbs, the Olympus 300mm F4 PRO is a third the weight and half the length of the Canon 600mm F4L.

Thanks to the smaller sensor of the 4/3rds system, you can fit equivalent or greater magnification into a lens while retaining the same maximum aperture in a MUCH smaller package. Canon’s 600mm F4 lens weighs in at a whopping 8.6lbs (3.9kg) while the Olympus with the same equivalent magnification and maximum aperture is a comparably dainty 3.25 (1.47kg).

Physically, it is also much more compact. At about 9 inches (22.9 cm) long it is roughly half the length of the Canon lens. When it comes to size, the Olympus is a clear winner for a wilderness photographer like myself.

But how is the quality?


Review of the Olympus 300mm F4 PRO Lens - bird in the grass

I made this image of a Smith’s Longspur in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with a Canon 5D Mark III and 500mm F4L. It’s sharp and crisp, as you would expect.

When I first considered replacing my Canon gear with Olympus I took both systems out in the field for a week-long photo workshop I was leading. On the trip, I was able to shoot both under similar conditions. Later, when I examined the images at 100%, I felt the sharpness was more or less equivalent even when they were shot wide open at F4.

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Just as sharp as the Canon 500mm. Fox. Umnak Island, Aleutian Islands, Alaska. Lumix G9 and Olympus 300mm F4 PRO.

With a sigh of relief, I moved on to . . .


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Few lenses can compare to the dreamy bokeh of the Canon 500mm F4 L. (Canyon Wren, Joshua Tree National Park, CA.)

The bokeh of a lens is one of the most important aspects of image quality. In wildlife photography, the ability to separate your subject from the background is a huge asset, meaning you need a shallow depth of field. The big Canon can achieve this with aplomb. Its bokeh is smooth and creamy and creates a perfect background for your subject. This, I knew, would be the greatest challenge for the Olympus 300mm F4 PRO.

And it is the one place the Olympus fell short… but only just (and I mean by the narrowest of margins). Since a 4/3rds sensor crops rather than physically magnifies an image, the depth of field is the same as you would achieve with 300mm f4 on the full-frame Canon camera if you cropped the image by 50%.

Which is to say, it still has a great, shallow depth of field, but the bokeh retains more form than it does with the 500mm or 600mm.

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Though not quite the amazing bokeh of the Canon 500mm, the Olympus 300mm f4 PRO attains something VERY close and just look at that sharpness! (Common Raven. Juneau, Alaska. Lumix G9 and Olympus 300mm F4 PRO.)

When it comes to bokeh, the Canon had the edge, but not by much.



The Canon 500mm F4 has lightning-fast autofocus. That is not up for debate and is one of the reasons that so many pro wildlife and sports photographers select that lens.

So how does the Olympus compare?

Review of the Olympus 300mm F4 PRO Lens - crane in flight

This image made with the Canon 500mm F4L was easy to grab with the lightning fast autofocus system.

This was a harder comparison to make because autofocus ability is a combination of camera body and lens and how the two communicate. When I use the Olympus, my choice of a camera body is the Lumix G9. At first, I expected that this mixing of manufacturers would hinder the performance, but I’ve been relieved to find that is not the case. Lumix bodies are fully compatible with all features of Olympus lenses with no apparent loss in performance.

I’ve found the autofocus of the Lumix/Olympus combination to be precise and extremely fast, attaining focus as quickly as the Canon.

Review of the Olympus 300mm F4 PRO Lens - birds in flight and snowy mountain

Birds in flight, particularly against a background like this are hard for any autofocus system to handle. But the Olympus 300mm F4 PRO was able to make it happen and fast.

Another nifty feature of the Olympus 300mm F4 PRO is you can switch between auto and manual focus simply by giving a little tug on the focus ring. It snaps down, and suddenly you are in manual focus, click it back, and autofocus returns. There is no fumbling around for switches.

Stabilization and Handhold-ability

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Waterfall, Umnak Island, Alaska. Made at 1/15th of second handheld (!!!) with the Olympus 300mm F4 PRO on a Lumix G9 body.

Canon’s image stabilization is extremely good, but they’ve stubbornly refused to integrate stabilization into their camera bodies. Lumix, however, has stabilization built into the body which communicates with simultaneous stabilization in the lens!

Here, the Lumix/Olympus combo is a clear winner. I’ve found I can hand hold the Olympus 300mm f4 PRO on the Lumix G9 as low as 1/15th of a second and still get acceptably sharp images. The small, easily handled size certainly helps with this, but I would NEVER be able to hand hold the Canon 500mm at 1/15th.

The overall performance winner? The Olympus 300mm f4 PRO.


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Bald Eagle, Unalaska Island, Alaska. Lumix G9 body with the Olympus 300mm F4 PRO.

I’ll be honest here, from time to time I miss the big Canon 500mm f4L. But not for reasons of image quality or field performance. Rather, I miss the snob appeal of that big glass. It’s the stupidest of stupid reasons, but it’s a real one.

As a pro photographer, the big lens was a badge of honor. Fortunately, I’ve (mostly) outgrown the need to be seen as a pro when I’m in the field shooting. Now, I try to concentrate on making images good enough that they speak for themselves, and leave the lens size contests to others.

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Caribou in Alaska’s Northwest Arctic. Lumix G9, Olympus 300mm F4 PRO.

When I put aside the size and snob appeal, I’m not at all sorry to have moved away from Canon. Now, my big lens is small enough that I carry it everywhere (even on my evening dog-walks). It’s light and unobtrusive and I can even carry it backpacking. The quality is so close to that of the bigger glass, that the differences are almost unimportant.

So yeah, I like the Olympus 300mm f4 PRO. A lot.

The post Review of the Olympus 300mm F4 PRO Lens appeared first on Digital Photography School.

Five (More) Uncomfortable Truths About Photography

One of my first articles here at DPS was entitled 5 Uncomfortable Truths About Photography. I wrote it as a reality check to myself, and for you, the readers of DPS. Our beloved art of photography has a dark side, and it’s important to recognize this. In the couple of years since I penned that piece, a few more negatives about our art have occurred to me, so I figured it was time for Part II.

#1 – Bad Weather is Good Weather

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I’ve recently returned from leading a wilderness trip in Alaska’s Northwest Arctic. My group and I spent 11 days canoeing on a very remote and wild river. For the first three days, the weather absolutely sucked and it was glorious. But then the sun came out and it all went downhill from there.

When it comes to outdoor photography, the bluebird days we hope for as hikers, paddlers, cyclists, and explorers, are not ideal. Bright blue skies do not create drama. They don’t catch the evening light, and they don’t roil and boil in textures of deep blues and grays.

Now a good storm, that’s dramatic!

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Without the moody skies here, the warm tones in the rock would be either absent or much less compelling.

Our small bush plane slipped in beneath low clouds, barely clearing the pass over the mountains. We landed in a mix of blowing snow, sun patches, and a cold north wind. Photographically speaking it was perfect weather; a constantly shifting drama unfolding across the landscape.

For a few cold and blustery days it was perfect, and my best images of the trip were made during that time. But, on the fourth day, the wind shifted and blew out the clouds and snow, leaving behind a bluebird sky, warm temps, and sunshine. It definitely could have been better for photography.

Five (More) Uncomfortable Truths About Photography - blustery day

This image and the one below were made 24 hours apart but from very nearly the same location. This brooding, moody, stormy weather is far superior to the more generic, nice-day image below.

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The moral of the story is that the best weather for being outdoors is often boring when it comes to photography. So be brave, and step outside even when it’s snowing sideways.

#2 – Lens Snobbery is Real

Five (More) Uncomfortable Truths About Photography - bird in a tree singing

A Swainson’s Thrush singing in my yard in Fairbanks, Alaska. This image is one I could never have captured with my old 500mm f/4 simply because I simply would not have been carrying it while walking my dog.

A few months ago I made the heart-wrenching decision to sell off my beloved Canon 500mm f4L IS lens. It was a hard decision. That big hunk of glass and metal had been with me a for a few years, traveled around the world with me, and made some of my best images. But, its size, heft, and cumbersome, tripod-requiring handling was getting in the way.

I’ve replaced it with a much smaller Olympus 300mm f4 PRO for the micro 4/3rds system (giving me a 600mm f4 equivalent at a third of the size). And here is the uncomfortable part – the quality of the Olympus lens is equal to that of the Canon and I don’t miss the bigger, more expensive Canon lens at all. Not one little bit.

Except (and to be honest I have a hard time admitting this) when I’m around other photographers. As a bonafide professional shooter, the big lens felt like a badge of honor. It’s a bogus badge for sure because the size of your lens has nothing to do with performance or image quality. Yet I felt like I needed that big glass to be taken seriously as a pro.

Five (More) Uncomfortable Truths About Photography - portrait shot of a raven

I don’t think the bokeh or sharpness of my Olympus 300mm f4 falls short in any way when I compare it to larger, far more expensive lenses like my old 500mm f4.

The compact mirrorless 4/3rds system does not stand out the way the big gear did, and in groups of photographers, I noticed my gear (and me) being brushed over.

The great irony is that my long lens work has improved dramatically with the purchase of the new gear. Its small size is easy to transport, so it is always with me when it matters. I now walk the dog with a 600mm f4 equivalent for heaven’s sake! It’s there when I need it and the results have been excellent.

Time to put the snobbery aside and let the images speak for themselves.

#3 – Your big DSLR is Unnecessary

Five (More) Uncomfortable Truths About Photography - animals running on a ridge

Yesterday, while wandering around my local farmer’s market, I saw a photographer shooting with the exact same Canon professional level DSLR I owned until a few months ago. My god, it looked huge!

You see, I’ve recently switched from Canon to Lumix (for general shooting and wildlife) and Sony for night work and high-resolution landscape imagery. Both of these two mirrorless systems cast a tiny shadow compared to the hulking DSLRs of my past life.

In this day and age, the difference in quality and performance between a big DSLR and a light and compact mirrorless is precisely zilch. The big camera may make you stand out in a crowd (see #2 above), but it won’t make better images.

#4 – Creativity is More Important Than You Think

northern lights over a mountain - Five (More) Uncomfortable Truths About Photography

Part of creativity is knowing when to grab a shot. Rather than pausing when the headlights of a big truck fell across this mountainside, I experimented with an exposure.

Look across the pages of any photo website or magazine and you’ll see gobs of articles and tutorials about camera settings, focus techniques, equipment, exposure, and post-processing. But likely you’ll find very few about the creative process of image making.

I know why. These types of articles are popular because they offer simple, actionable things to learn that can improve your images quickly. Don’t get me wrong, these things are super important to know. But all the settings, equipment, and post-processing tips are merely tools in your toolbox, not the final product.

sunset over a forest and hills - Five (More) Uncomfortable Truths About Photography

Eventually, every serious photographer reaches a point where they know all they really need to know about their camera and computer programs, and then what…? They either realize that that photography is more than a technical craft and they begin looking at it from a creative perspective, or they don’t, and they stall out.

Learning the technical details is easy compared to actually finding and composing images in the field. Good photography is not formulaic, and how do you learn something that doesn’t use a formula for success? You work at it, a lot. It’s hard and uncomfortable. That’s how.

#5 – Money is Better Spent on Travel than Gear

northern lights over a mountain scene - Five (More) Uncomfortable Truths About Photography

For much less than the price of a new pro-level camera body, you could go photograph something like this.

Got a few hundred bucks to blow on gear? Don’t. Take that few hundred bucks and take a few days and go somewhere awesome instead. Unless you really need it, your extra money is better spent on going somewhere really cool to make images, and not on cameras, lenses, bags, filters, and flashes.

I can just about promise you that you’ll get more and better images by a few days of travel to photograph wildlife, or landscapes, or the northern lights, or some new city than you will by spending the same amount on a new piece of kit.

sun burst over trees in Africa - Five (More) Uncomfortable Truths About Photography

A trip to Africa last year re-inspired me in a way a bunch of new gear never could.

A new telephoto lens or camera could cost you thousands of dollars. If you have functional camera gear, and you are looking at something new just because it’s all bright and shiny, take a moment to reconsider. Could those thousands be spent traveling somewhere new and unique? Some place to photograph a landscape or phenomenon you’ve always dreamed of shooting?

We make images by exploring our world. Without that exploration, all the fancy new gear in the world is worthless. Just as importantly, you’ll get the experience and joy of travel, and that is truly priceless.


night campfire scene - Five (More) Uncomfortable Truths About Photography

Look, photography is messy and expensive. I suggest you embrace the mess and reassess the expense. Go outside when the weather sucks and see what you find. Remember that the performance of your gear is what matters not the brand or the size, and know that creativity is hard but it’s the only way to advance your photography. Photography takes work.

Lastly, think about how you spend your money. Old glass and old cameras often work just fine, and are capable of producing excellent images. Maybe you should hold onto that gear for a while longer and spend some of that extra money to go somewhere new. Travel, you’ll find, is an excellent strategy for making great photos.

It’s an uncomfortable photographic world out there. So it’s time to accept it, and go make something beautiful.

The post Five (More) Uncomfortable Truths About Photography appeared first on Digital Photography School.

A Guide to Photographing Birds and Wildlife in a Wetland Area

A short drive from my home north of Fairbanks, Alaska lies a small wetland. It’s a bog-like mosaic of ponds and water-filled inlets lined with cattails and thickly growing willows. Though much of the year, here in the sub-arctic, the ponds are frozen with a thick layer of ice, during our brief summers the wetland comes alive with birds.

From mid-May until late June, I try to stop by for an hour or so each morning, camera in hand. In reality, an hour is not enough for photographing birds and wildlife, but I know the place well, and can quickly move into the most promising locations. Knowing a place is actually one of the best tools a wildlife photographer can have at their disposal. But there is more to it.

A Guide to Photographing Birds and Wildlife in a Wetland Area - bird photo

This is one of my most-published bird photos. Rusty Blackbirds are a species of conservation concern, and they are common breeders at my local wetland. Images of them in their breeding plumage are relatively rare, so this photo has been in demand. Know your area and the species that live there!

Photographing birds and wildlife

Bird photography has exploded in popularity in recent years. As high-quality, super telephoto lenses have become more affordable, wildlife photography has grown approachable. No longer is it limited to pros or wealthy amateurs who could afford the $10,000 USD price tag on the big lenses by Canon and Nikon.

Whether you are shooting with an f/4 bazooka, or a more manageable, compact telephoto lens, field technique, and composition will play the most important role in your success. Here are a few tips for your next visit to your local lake, pond or wetland for photographing birds and wildlife.


A Guide to Photographing Birds and Wildlife in a Wetland Area - sandpiper in the water

Pectoral Sandpiper on its way to the Arctic to breed.

First, the most important rule of wildlife photography is – don’t harm your subject! If you are approaching a duck on a pond, and the duck moves away from you, you’ve come too close, too quickly. Back up and try again, this time approaching more slowly.

If the bird flushes, you’ve screwed up badly. You’ve wrecked any opportunity for photos and stressed the bird unnecessarily. Don’t approach birds on nests, they are particularly vulnerable.

In short, be aware of the impact of your actions, and remember that the well-being of the animals you are photographing is more important than the images.


A Guide to Photographing Birds and Wildlife in a Wetland Area - 2 photographers with big lenses in the water


While a monster 500mm or 600mm f/4 lens is not a necessary piece of equipment for quality bird and wildlife photography, a decent telephoto is definitely an important part of any wildlife photographer’s kit.

There are advantages and disadvantages to different types of telephotos. Big, fast lenses like the aforementioned 500-600mm f/4 options, allow faster shutter speeds at lower ISOs, have exquisite sharpness, and a wonderful, shallow depth of field for isolating your subject. But they are large, cumbersome, heavy, hard to use hand-held, and cost more than a good used automobile.

Smaller lenses, like the increasingly popular telephoto zooms, are more compact, easier to carry and have optics that are improving with every generation. Canon’s 100-400mm and Nikon’s 80-400mm and 200-500mm, are good options. Third party manufacturers have also joined this race in a big way with high-quality 150-600mm lenses coming from both Sigma and Tamron. These lenses still aren’t cheap, but you probably won’t have to take out a second mortgage to afford one.

My choice: For years, I used and relished in using a big Canon 500mm F4. This big white lens was sharp with a beautiful, dreamy bokeh, and its enormous size had great snob-appeal. But as I have begun focusing my efforts on remote areas, the size and weight became a serious hindrance, and more often than not, I found I was leaving it behind in exchange for something smaller.

This winter, even though it broke my heart a little bit, I sold it and the rest of my Canon gear. I now shoot two systems, Sony mirrorless for landscape and night photography, and the Panasonic Lumix system for wildlife and most travel photography.

The micro four-thirds sensor on the Lumix buys me a built-in 2x crop factor. I’m using the Lumix G9 with an Olympus 300mm f4 (600mm equivalent) which, in my opinion, is easily comparable in sharpness to the big Canon lens. So far, I don’t miss the bazooka even a little bit.

bird in the grass

Camera Settings for Wetland Wildlife

Fast shutter speeds are very important for creating sharp images of wildlife with long telephotos. In bird and wildlife photography, particularly in wetland environments, the subjects are in constant motion. I am almost always shooting above 1/1000th of a second, and often much faster.

The aperture serves two purposes, allowing in more light (and thus faster shutter speeds), and controlling the depth of field. Very often in bird photography, you want to isolate your subject from a cluttered backdrop. So shooting wide open, or nearly wide open is important.

Some lenses have a notable loss of sharpness with a wide aperture, so be aware of your own equipment and its limitations. With my own gear, whether it was the Canon 500mm F4 of my previous life or my current Olympus 300mm F4, I find I’m comfortable shooting wide open, or nearly so. Play with your own equipment and see what works for you.

A Guide to Photographing Birds and Wildlife in a Wetland Area - bird in a spruce tree

An f/4 aperture on my Olympus 300mm allowed me to isolate this singing Swainson’s Thrush from its forest environment.

Use the ISO to balance your previous settings. As most cameras on the market these days can easily handle ISO settings of 800, 1600 or above, feel free to crank it up a bit.

Focus settings are also important. When shooting wildlife I almost always use single point focus (so I can grab the subject’s eye), and AI Servo, continuous or tracking focus mode. If the animal moves, I want my camera to automatically stay focused where I want, and not have to constantly be pressing and re-pressing my focus button.

Use a high frames per second shooting rate, and set your camera for burst mode. While my Lumix G9 is capable of nearly 30 fps with the electronic shutter, I rarely go that high. Instead, I opt for a standard high-speed shutter of about 9 frames per second. That is more than enough to assure a fast burst, without cluttering up my memory cards with hundreds of unnecessary shots. A frame rate of anywhere from 5-12 frames per second is sufficient.

Field Techniques

A Guide to Photographing Birds and Wildlife in a Wetland Area - white egret

Getting Close

The first, and most important, skill for getting close to wild birds is really a non-technique, technique. It’s called “patience”. When I have the time to dedicate to a shoot, I will frequently take a small waterproof pad, plop it down on the waterline of my local pond, spritz myself with a generous dose of insect repellent, put the camera on a tripod, and sit down. There, I will remain, sometimes for hours.

In time, the local birds relax after my initial appearance and go back to doing what they do. Often, they will paddle close, forgetting (or not caring) that I’m sitting there, clicking away. Wearing neutral colors will help you blend in. Or if you are really into it (or your subject is very skittish), you can make a “blanket blind” by taking a piece of camouflage cloth, cutting lens holes into it, and throwing it over yourself after you sit down. This simple type of blind will help mask your fidgety movements and obscure your human-outline.

A Guide to Photographing Birds and Wildlife in a Wetland Area - ducks in the water

The other even simpler technique for getting close is to go shoot somewhere the wildlife is accustomed to people. At popular birding areas, wildlife refuges, and national parks, wildlife is frequently used to people being around. The animals will be much less shy, allowing a closer approach.

Regardless of where you shoot, move in slowly, a few steps at a time, pause for a minute, and then move in a bit further. When you see the animal show signs of stress, stop and wait for them relax before approaching again.

Your goal as a bird and wildlife photographer should always be to photograph animals exhibiting their natural behavior. A stressed-out bird, flying or swimming away, will be inherently less interesting than one that is relaxed, or interacting with other animals.

Get Low

A Guide to Photographing Birds and Wildlife in a Wetland Area - bird with long beak

I was laying on my stomach for this shot, my lens just inches from the ground.

The biggest mistake I see wildlife photographers make is shooting from too high a perspective. When standing upright, you will be aiming down on wetland birds that are sitting on the water. This is never the best angle.

Instead, kneel, crouch, sit or even lay down on the ground. The low angle will provide a better separation between your subject and its surroundings, and can create a pleasing blur of foreground and background.

Focus Carefully

Always focus on the eye. While it’s a general rule, with plenty of exceptions, when your subject’s eye is not in focus, you’ve missed the shot. Using a single focus point, select the animal’s eye, focus, and then click the shutter.

Find a Good Background

A Guide to Photographing Birds and Wildlife in a Wetland Area - bird in the water swimming

In the cluttered habitat of a local wetland, it can be hard to find a place where you can isolate the subject from the background. Distance helps. When the bird is well away from its background (this is where getting down low comes in) the backdrop will fade to a nice blur, which is frequently exactly what you will want.

A Guide to Photographing Birds and Wildlife in a Wetland Area - bird in a tree

There was no cropping out this tangle of branches surrounding this White-crowned Sparrow, so I just used them to emphasize the new, green buds and tell a little story about the time of year I made the shot.

Sometimes, particularly when photographing songbirds in the pond-side brush, there is a chaos of branches that disrupt the scene. Shooting with a wide open aperture helps narrow the depth of the field providing some separation. But sometimes showing the habitat becomes a necessary part of the shot. Compose carefully, don’t center the bird, and let it blend in with the scene.

A Guide to Photographing Birds and Wildlife in a Wetland Area - duck swimming

You Don’t Have to Be Close

Sometimes a full-frame portrait isn’t what you want. Some of my favorite wildlife shots show some context and tell a bigger story about the place where the animal lives. In this type of shot, good compositions are vital. You need to show the scene in a pleasing way, and avoid distractions.

A Guide to Photographing Birds and Wildlife in a Wetland Area

I wasn’t particularly close to this Horned Grebe when I made this photo, but the nice reflections and good light provided an interesting setting.

When your subject is too far away for a portrait, think about how it is interacting with its surroundings, and find a way to place it in the broader scene. Think of these as landscape shots that include a wildlife element.

A Guide to Photographing Birds and Wildlife in a Wetland Area


Wildlife photography can try one’s patience. I’ve spent many hours, sitting still, being devoured by mosquitoes, watching, waiting, and taking zero pictures. On such days, I can leave utterly dejected and frustrated. On other days, that patience pays off, with a wild animal in beautiful light, or with some fascinating or humorous behavior.

Wildlife photography is a lot more than just using a long lens. It’s about understanding the animals and the place. It’s about knowing how to compose, to get low, to hide, and being patient. And your local wetland, like mine, is the best place to practice, and maybe the best place to get something remarkable.

Sometimes, you’ll just get something meme-worthy! The two images below, of a beaver at my local wetland, I made within seconds of one another. In the first, he’s blowing a raspberry at me, in the second, he’s laughing at me. What a jerk! (Never underestimate the power of humor in your images).

A Guide to Photographing Birds and Wildlife in a Wetland Area - beaver sticking his tongue out

A Guide to Photographing Birds and Wildlife in a Wetland Area - beaver laughing

The post A Guide to Photographing Birds and Wildlife in a Wetland Area appeared first on Digital Photography School.

Tips for Shooting Landscapes With a Telephoto Lens

Landscape photography is the realm of the wide-angle lens. Right? Isn’t it? I’m sure I read that somewhere. “When photographing the landscape, use a wide0angle lens.” I know I’ve heard that. We probably all have. But it’s just not true. So in this article, I’ll give you some tips for shooting landscapes with a telephoto or long lens.

Tips for Shooting Landscapes With a Telephoto Lens - sunset over the mountains

At 100mm, I was able to bring in the details of Denali, and the nearby Alaska Range as seen from Talkeetna, Alaska.

Think beyond the wide view

Sure, wide-angle lenses are great for the landscape, I use them frequently. But they shouldn’t be the only tool in your box when you are photographing the landscape. In fact, as I was browsing through my image catalog looking for images for this article, I found that many of my favorite landscape shots were made with a lens other than a wide-angle. Many were in the 70-200mm range, and a few were even made with super telephotos at 500mm or 600mm.

If you spend much time photographing landscapes, then you’ll know that there are situations where a wide-angle falls short. Here are some thoughts, and examples of when to apply telephoto lenses of different lengths to your landscape photography.

black and white landscape scene - Tips for Shooting Landscapes With a Telephoto Lens

An otherwise non-descript mountain becomes an interesting subject when the dappled sunlight plays over the tundra.

50-100mm Short Telephoto

Just a step above the “normal” lens lies the short telephoto. Many frequently used zooms, such as the popular 24-70mm and 24-105mm lengths fall into this category. Since images made in this range are not much above a standard lens, they share many of the same characteristics.

A substantial depth of field remains, even at fairly wide apertures, and the field of view is wide enough to include large features of the landscape, such as entire mountains, or broad bends of a river.

mountains in warm light - Tips for Shooting Landscapes With a Telephoto Lens

While holding on to some of the advantages of a wide-angle or standard lens, short telephotos also retain some of the challenges. This range is not for landscape details alone, rather, substantial elements of sky or foreground are often included, reminiscent of classic landscape composition.

As in a wide-angle landscape, you must consider the many different layers of an image (foreground, mid-ground, background, subject, etc.). Unlike a wide shot, however, depth of field is compressed, so when possible, use a high f-stop (like f/11 or f/16).

man on a hilltop - Tips for Shooting Landscapes With a Telephoto Lens

Think of this range (50-100mm) as a tool to simplify your composition, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to make an image work.

100-200mm Range

storm on the horizon and mountains - Tips for Shooting Landscapes With a Telephoto Lens

The storm described below rolls over the Kelly River in the Noatak National Preserve of Northwest Alaska.

As I was paging through my Lightroom catalog looking for images, I was surprised to find that this range of focal lengths (100-200mm) is actually one of my most-used. I expected to find a lot of portraits and action shots but was surprised to see how many landscapes appeared.

A couple of years ago, I was hiking with a group of clients on a remote mountainside in far northwestern Alaska. It was late autumn, my last trip of the season. The tundra below was a mosaic of red, yellow, and orange. We’d summited a small peak and were on our way down when ominous clouds appeared on the far side of the valley. From the way the precipitation blew, I could tell that those clouds held not rain, but snow, and a lot of it.

My mind went two directions at once. The guide in me, safety oriented and risk-averse, told me I needed to get down the mountain with my clients, and fast. We still had a couple thousand feet of descending, plus three or four miles to walk to reach the safety of camp.

The photographer in me, however, wanted to drop my pack, pull out the camera and go to work. I compromised, pausing regularly to shoot as we made our way down carefully. I relied heavily on a mid-range telephoto, reaching out with my lens to find the patterns in the tundra, the rolling storm, and the sweep of the river.

hillside in red and orange - Tips for Shooting Landscapes With a Telephoto Lens

Telephoto lenses allow you to play with patterns. Here I worked with a creek flowing through the autumn tundra in Denali National Park, Alaska.

As that focal length was too long to show a broad field of view, I isolated the components that told the story. I ignored the foreground, cropping it (in the camera) completely out of the composition. From my perch high above the river, everything in the frame was far away, maximizing depth of field and relieving any necessity to choose a focal point. A

That is where this range of telephotos thrive: distant landscape elements can be shown in context, sharp from front to back.

200-400mm Long Telephoto

sunrise reflection - Tips for Shooting Landscapes With a Telephoto Lens

At 300mm, a detail can become a subject, or something entirely abstract, like these distant mountains reflected at dawn in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.

High in the Himalayas of Bhutan, I rose before daybreak and walked a quarter mile to a mid-valley hillock. At 15,000 feet even that small exertion winded me. I recovered, gasping, and watched a dense bank of fog roll past in the gray light.

As morning dawned, the fog began to break, alternately revealing and hiding narrow views of the surrounding peaks. The rocks and glaciers of the mountains high above the fog layer were lit by the bright morning sun, while I shivered in damp mist.

Through the 24mm lens on my camera, I saw little but gray. Frustrated, I pulled the lens off and replaced it with a long telephoto zoom. When a window opened in the fog, I followed it with my camera waiting for something to appear. Letting the clouds do my composition for me, I snapped images: a glacier, a jagged ridge, a spear-headed peak.

sunlight on part of a rocky mountain cliff - Tips for Shooting Landscapes With a Telephoto Lens

A flank of Jhomolhari, a Himalayan peak, appears through a hole in the clouds. With a wide-angle, this would have been a small sliver of a gray image.

When the circumstances are right, a long telephoto can be a trip-salvaging tool for a landscape photographer. The morning described above was the one chance I had to make images from that camp high in the mountains. Without a long lens, that sweet light touching the mountains above would have appeared as a tiny speck in a sea of gray.

Rarely is there much depth in images made in this focal range. The depth of field is shallow at most apertures, and it can be difficult or impossible to retain focus in all of the image’s layers. So select your focal point carefully, and then compose your image to suit the story you want to tell. The focal length may cut the landscape down to smaller parts, but that doesn’t make your composition any less important.

400mm and Above Super-Telephotos

There aren’t many photographers who spend thousands of dollars on a 500mm or 600mm f/4 lens to shoot the scenery. And yet super-telephotos are capable of capturing surprising and unique landscapes.

I’ll be honest. My big glass stays at home unless I expect to see wildlife. In the backcountry, where I shoot a lot, my 500mm f/4 is just too big to lug around. However, on a number of occasions, it’s proved useful for making some atypical images of the landscape.

A 600mm equivalent allowed me to bring in a ridge of Denali in Denali National Park, Alaska, and show close detail.

Several years ago I was leading some bird photographers on a trip to the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We were camped near the coast, on a river delta just spitting distance from the Arctic Ocean. We had been happily exploring the tundra, photographing the abundant birds and rarely paying attention to the landscape.

But one evening (late-night really), the never-setting sun was at its lowest and shed golden light across the expanse of tundra between us and the mountains. It was crystal clear, every detail visible in the distant peaks. The tripod-mounted 500mm leaning atop my bruised shoulder was the perfect tool.

The great distance to the mountains allowed large swaths of the coastal plain and foothills to maintain focus. Everything was compressed, making elements that were miles apart appear close to one another. I played with the light on the mountains, exploring the Brooks Range with my camera from 50 miles away.

caribou on the tundra - Tips for Shooting Landscapes With a Telephoto Lens

The distant Brooks Range loom over the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a place, where for now at least, caribou still roam wild.

The next morning, it was still clear when a herd of caribou (above) some ten thousand strong, passed by a few hundred yards from our camp. The long glass combined with the animals were the perfect combination for showing what a dramatic and wild place is the Arctic Refuge. The compressed field made the distant mountains loom close providing more context for the caribou in the foreground.

Super telephotos are all about compression and isolation. The landscape through long glass looks nothing like it does to the human eye. Distant elements grow close, and unless your focal point is in the distance, depth of field is compressed to a few feet. These lenses are a tool for isolating patterns, compressing distances, and exaggerating sizes.


At 500mm lens with a 1.4x teleconverter allowed me to provide a close-up image of the full moon rising over the Andes of Bolivia, just as the last alpenglow touched the volcano.

Long lenses allow you to play with details. Here, sun falling through the clouds in Southeast Alaska makes a simple composition.

When it comes to landscape photography, telephoto lenses are often forgotten. They slip to the bottom of packs or are simply left at home.

Your bag or closet are bad places for telephoto lenses. They should be accessible, ready to help you see your landscape in a new, and creativity-inspiring way. So pull your long lens out, click it onto your camera, and explore the way the lens changes your perspective of the landscape.

The post Tips for Shooting Landscapes With a Telephoto Lens appeared first on Digital Photography School.

Understanding Aperture and Landscape Photography – Why F16 Isn’t the Only Choice

Landscape photography is, in my opinion, one of the most difficult disciplines of outdoor photography, and perhaps one of the most challenging genres of photography in general. At first glance, the art seems straightforward. You find yourself a pretty piece of scenery, wait for some good light, and click the shutter. Easy, right?

Understanding Aperture and Landscape Photography - Why F16 Isn't the Only Choice

And yet that’s not the end of the story. I have screwed up endless opportunities by making errors in composition, focus mistakes, unwanted motion blur, over and underexposures, and of course, by messing up the settings of my camera. I suspect anyone who has dedicated much time to the art of landscape photography can say the same.

Let’s Talk About Aperture

While entire articles, even books, have been written about each of those errors and frequent mistakes, there is only one I’m going to discuss here – aperture.

What aperture should you use in landscape photography, f/16 right? That’s what I’ve always heard. It’s the perfect combination of sharpness and depth of field. So set your aperture to f/16 and shoot away.

That’s it, article finished. I hope you enjoyed it. No, of course, that isn’t all. But I am surprised how many photographers assume that is the end of the story.

The real answer to the question of which aperture to us is – all of them – depending on the situation.

First, landscape photography is much more than just the classic composition that includes a foreground element in front of lovely background scenery. Rather there are detail shots, aerials, night photography, telephoto landscapes, and god knows how many other sub-genres within the category. For each of these, and for each situation within, a different aperture may be appropriate.

Understanding Aperture and Landscape Photography - Why F16 Isn't the Only Choice

Before we get into that – first a warning.

Sharpness Issues

Wide Open

There are costs to different apertures. Wide open, most lenses will be soft because every part of each glass element in the lens is being put to work. Imperfection in the lenses, dirt, scratches, and the physics of light all combine to mess with your image sharpness. This is part of the reason that sharp, fast lenses cost so much. The glass has to be excellent to retain sharpness wide open.


Diffraction happens at the opposite end of the f-stop range. When the aperture is closed way down, images also show a reduction in sharpness, but not for the same reason. Rather, something called diffraction occurs. Diffraction is actually a term derived from physics of waves.

Take a look at the terrible hand-drawn illustrations I made below and you can see why I’m a photographer, not a painter. Hopefully, however, you’ll also learn something about diffraction. The lines on the left show waves moving across space. Think of them as light waves or ocean waves, it makes no difference.

Understanding Aperture and Landscape Photography - Why F16 Isn't the Only Choice

As they approach a wall with a large opening, the gap allows the waves though largely intact causing only a slight dispersion and curving of the incoming wave.

But apply a smaller opening (below), and suddenly those waves are quickly curved and dispersed.

Understanding Aperture and Landscape Photography - Why F16 Isn't the Only Choice

In photography, a large aperture will cause relatively little change in the light waves entering your camera, but a small aperture will force a small amount of light to spread, disperse, and curve before hitting the sensor unequally, and with less intensity. This results in a loss of sharpness.

While the physics of it all is interesting, when it comes to photography, what you really need to know is that very small apertures will be less sharp than mid-range apertures.

Attaining Sharpness

Understanding Aperture and Landscape Photography - Why F16 Isn't the Only Choice

It’s probably clear to you by now that if you wish to achieve maximum sharpness then neither fully wide open nor closed down apertures are the best. Rather, sharpness can be found somewhere in between. For most lenses, 2-stops down from wide open is the sharpness sweet-spot.

Perhaps that is why f/16 is so popular in landscape photography, it’s a good compromise between sharpness and depth of field.

So What Now?

We are back where we started, right? Just shoot at f/16.

Understanding Aperture and Landscape Photography - Why F16 Isn't the Only Choice

Well if tack-sharpness were the end all and be all of landscape photography, that would probably be the case.

However, sometimes you may wish to sacrifice some lens sharpness for shallow depth of field or suffer some diffraction blur for the sake of attaining a long shutter speed.

Detail Shots

Landscape details are those small parts of a landscape that catch your photographic interest. This may be a cluster of autumn leaves, a stone in a tundra meadow, or light upon snow-covered trees, among many other possibilities.

In such situations, you may want to isolate that interesting subject from a cluttered background.  You can do that by embracing the shallow depth of field, through the use of a fast (large) aperture.

Understanding Aperture and Landscape Photography - Why F16 Isn't the Only Choice

I was photographing a couple of years back on a crisp autumn day. Frost covered the meadow I was walking around, and each stem of grass glittered in the early morning sun. Spotting one particular stem, rising from the rest, I paused. I wanted to isolate that single piece of grass.

So, using a 70-200mm f2.8 lens, I opened the aperture wide to create a shallow depth of field, composed, and shot.

Understanding Aperture and Landscape Photography - Why F16 Isn't the Only Choice

I’ve used this strategy, again and again, with my landscape photography. Shooting autumn colors, I frequently wish to isolate a single leaf, or patch of foliage from a distracting backdrop. Fast apertures and shallow depth of field are the only way to do this.

Understanding Aperture and Landscape Photography - Why F16 Isn't the Only Choice

In such cases, I’m happy to sacrifice a bit of sharpness.

Aerial shots

Understanding Aperture and Landscape Photography - Why F16 Isn't the Only Choice

In aerial photography, you are always well separated from the landscape you are photographing (if you aren’t, you’d have much greater concerns than making photos). Thus, depth of field is not your top concern.

Meanwhile, the vibration of the airplane or helicopter’s engine is a much greater risk for lack of sharpness than setting your aperture too open.

Understanding Aperture and Landscape Photography - Why F16 Isn't the Only Choice

When I’m shooting aerials, I open my aperture wide open to maximize shutter speed. When you need a shutter speed of around 1/1000th of a second, minimum, a wide open aperture is the only practical way to go.

Long Exposures

Purposefully dragging your shutter for multi-second (or even multi-minute) exposures requires you to greatly reduce the light hitting your sensor. Even with a low ISO and a neutral density filter, trying to get a long exposure on a bright day is impossible without stopping down your aperture.

I was shooting along a river in Alaska a couple of years back, on assignment for a conservation organization. It was a bright afternoon, but some clouds were breaking up the sky making for decent photography conditions.

Understanding Aperture and Landscape Photography - Why F16 Isn't the Only Choice

I knew I would be unable to return there in the evening, so I needed to make the most of the situation. Despite the bright afternoon light, I still wanted a long exposure of the flowing water.

I lowered my ISO to its minimum setting (50), put on a 4-stop neutral density filter, and sacrificing a bit of sharpness, stopped my aperture down to f/22.

With that combination, I was able to get an 8-second exposure of the flowing river. The rippled water blurred pleasingly to a ghostly reflective surface, and I got the image I wanted.

Understanding Aperture and Landscape Photography - Why F16 Isn't the Only Choice

Night Photography

Here in Alaska, I spend a lot of time shooting the Northern Lights and taking out visiting photographers to do the same. There is a myth about Aurora photography that you need a long exposure – you don’t. In fact, you really don’t want one.

One of the things that make the Aurora Borealis so spectacular is the details in the curtains, the shifting colors, and the near-constant motion. A long exposure, anything more than a few seconds, will cause all those details to blur away. Fast shutter speeds (or as fast as you can manage) are far, far better.

Understanding Aperture and Landscape Photography - Why F16 Isn't the Only Choice

Understanding Aperture and Landscape Photography - Why F16 Isn't the Only Choice - night sky aurora

To get a fast shutter speed at night, you have to be willing to open your aperture all the way up, sharpness loss, be damned. High ISOs and fast lenses set wide open will allow shutter speeds fast enough to capture the details of a fast-moving aurora display.


So sure, in classic landscape photography, with a foreground element, and background scenery, you’ll want a deep depth of field and maximum sharpness. In those conditions, by all means, set your aperture to f/16 and forget about it. But such situations are not all there is to landscape photography.

Your cameras and lenses are equipped with many tools. To say there is only one that is “right” is like saying that the only tool a carpenter needs is a hammer. Sure a hammer is the perfect tool for a carpenter when he needs to bang in a nail, but it’s really lousy at cutting boards.

What is the lesson here? Set your aperture for what is needed for the scene, not how you’ve been told it should be by someone else. “They” say a lot of things. You don’t always have to listen to them. 

The post Understanding Aperture and Landscape Photography – Why F16 Isn’t the Only Choice appeared first on Digital Photography School.

The Myth and Reality of Shooting in Manual Mode

I’ve heard it. You’ve heard it. And it’s a great big steaming pile of…baloney.

Myth – Professionals Only Shoot in Manual Mode

I recently read an account of a new photographer who heard that “expert” photographers only shoot in manual mode, so he headed out to shoot. Camera firmly set to M, he shot away, happy as could be. However, the results from that first exploration were, needless to say, disappointing; overexposures, under-exposures, and a lot of crappy, blurred photos.

Professionals Shoot in Manual Mode

I had about 10 seconds to make this image of a grove of Baobabs in Botswana. Had I been fiddling with finding the right manual settings, I likely would have missed the shot.

Here is the reality: Professionals and other experienced photographers use just about every shooting mode on their camera.

Those modes are there for a reason. Settings provide simplicity, speed, flexibility, or full control. Depending on the conditions in which you are shooting, any one of these may be appropriate. While other articles here at dPS discuss how to use each of the settings on your camera, I want to talk about the myth of Manual Mode, but also why it’s important to use it

Professionals Shoot in Manual Mode

Moving subjects and quickly shifting scenes are not conducive to manual mode.

The Professional Reality

Try shooting on full manual control while making images of birds in flight. Go on, try it. I’ll wait.

Professionals Shoot in Manual Mode

On the off chance that you actually went out and tried that exercise, I suspect you ended up with a lot of really bad photos. As birds passed quickly in front of different backdrops, as the sun darted in and out from behind clouds, the lighting conditions were undoubtedly in constant change. To adapt to those changes on the fly would be a nearly impossible task.

Professionals Shoot in Manual Mode

Rather, any professional would use one of the other settings. I, for example, would probably choose Shutter Priority mode under those conditions. That would assure I could maintain sharp (or artfully blurred) images as I shot, and leave the decision on aperture up to the camera. If I wanted a brighter or darker exposure I’d adjust the exposure compensation.

Now, if I was carefully shooting a landscape and had a particular vision for the final image, that’s when I’d make the switch to Manual Mode. In manual, I can take full control of the scene. I can adjust the depth of field, the exposure, incorporate blurs, or selective focus. In Manual Mode, I own all aspects of the final image, for better or worse.

Professionals Shoot in Manual Mode

My point here is simply this – professionals use all the tools at their disposal. If it were true that pros only use Manual Mode, then pro-level cameras would only have one setting. Quite obviously, that is not the case.

You Still Need to Shoot in Manual

Shoot in Manual Mode, but not all the time. But understanding exposure, focus, shutter speed, and aperture and their effect on the final image is the heart of photography. To master the technical aspects of image-creation, you need to be able to put all these together without the help of your camera.

Professionals Shoot in Manual Mode

Manual Mode is perfect for landscape photography because you have the time to dedicate to creating the image you envision.

Manual means full control

I regularly practice the art of manual settings. When a scene is in front of me, I’ll imagine a particular way to portray it. I’ll envision how bright I want the image to appear. I select the focal point, whether motion blur is incorporated or eliminated, and how deep the depth of field should be.

Once I’ve got the image in my mind. I’ll select the ISO, shutter speed, and aperture without using the camera’s light meter to help me. Then I click the shutter and have a look.

Professionals Shoot in Manual ModeThis exercise reminds me of light and settings and how the camera works, sure. But more so, it turns every aspect of the image into a purposeful decision. There is no “spray and pray” photography when you are shooting in Manual Mode. Setting your camera to that scary “M” means you grant yourself full control and full responsibility for whatever emerges.

Professionals Shoot in Manual Mode

Aurora borealis and most other night photography require the use of Manual Mode.

There is no better way to learn about your camera, light, and about thoughtful photography than to set your camera to Manual Mode, turn off the autofocus, and go make images.


It’s absolute nonsense that pros only shoot in manual. Utter garbage. Your camera has a bunch of settings for a reason. Shooting in just one would be like only eating one type of food. Each has a purpose, and each has their place in the art of photography.

Professionals Shoot in Manual Mode

Purposefully underexposed images are also well-suited to Manual Mode, particularly when you want to retain a shallow depth of field, as I did with this flower image.

However, and this is a big HOWEVER, shooting in Manual Mode may be the best tool at our disposal for turning our photography into a purposeful exercise. Using manual will force you to understand depth, light, exposure, blur, and focus.

So yes, you should shoot in manual mode. Just not all the time.

The post The Myth and Reality of Shooting in Manual Mode by David Shaw appeared first on Digital Photography School.

Tips for Aerial Photography from Small Planes and Drones

At its heart, good photography is about showing people views of the world they would not otherwise see. That might be; places your viewers have not visited, impossible ways of seeing to the human eye such as long exposures and night photography, but most often this novelty comes in the form of a different perspective. Even familiar scenes and objects can make compelling photographic subjects if we are willing to explore them from new angles.

Tips for Aerial Photography from Small Planes and Drones

Aerial photography is one of my favorite ways to provide that novel perspective. I’m fortunate to spend a lot of time in small planes. My life in Alaska is full of flights in bush planes to remote places in the state. While only occasionally do I fly specifically to make aerial images, I find simply going to and from different locations provides ample opportunity.

The second way I frequently use to access an aerial perspective is by flying drones. While both techniques get me the elevation I want, the photographic experience is very, very different. The two methods, planes and drones, require very different ways of thinking about image-making.

Tips for Aerial Photography from Small Planes and Drones

Here are a few tips to improve your aerial photography images, whether you are shooting from a plane or using a remote drone.


While big passenger jets are great for getting us from one place to another quickly, they are lousy photography platforms. Sure, I’ve made some images from jet windows, but they inevitably follow the same formula. There’s an airplane wing in the foreground with some sunset or mountain beyond. It gets old. Plus the perpetually fogged or scratched windows will destroy your image quality. Except for the occasional phone snap, I rarely bother with it anymore.

Small, single-engine planes, however, are a different story and can be an amazing platform for creative aerial photography.

Tips for Aerial Photography from Small Planes and Drones


Attaining a sharp image is a major challenge because airplanes are vibration-filled nightmares. Here are four things to help you improve sharpness:

  1. Use a fast shutter speed. I like anything over 1/1000th of a second.
  2. Don’t brace your lens or arms on the plane. Hold your camera and elbows free of the window. If you touch the plane, the vibrations will be transmitted straight into your camera. I tuck my arms against my sides and hold the lens an inch or so away from the window glass.
  3. Focus at infinity. I often shoot manual focus from the air and pre-set my focus point to infinity. Everything you are seeing from the air will be in focus when the lens is set to infinity, so don’t even bother with autofocus.
  4. Shoot wide open. The depth of field is not a problem from a 1000 or meters from your subject. So a take advantage of the extra shutter speed provided by your fastest f-stop.

Lens Choices

Tips for Aerial Photography from Small Planes and Drones

When flying 100+ mph at low altitude, the landscape passes very quickly. If you don’t act quickly, you’ll miss the shot. That’s why I like zoom lenses for aerial photography. I can quickly compose with different focal lengths, without having to change lenses or cameras. I favor a wide to moderate zoom. A 24-105mm or similar lens is about right.


Usually, in a small plane, you’ll be in direct communication with your pilot, who might be willing to help you out with your photography. When I’m flying over something interesting, but a wing or strut is in the way, I’ll often simply ask the pilot to tip a wing one way or another. Pilots are often happy to accommodate you.

Tips for Aerial Photography from Small Planes and Drones

You can also ask them to make slight turns, or even circle if there is something particularly compelling. If you’ve chartered a flight for photographic purposes, feel free to ask for what you want.

I recommend talking to your pilot ahead of your trip to discuss what kind of images you want, and how he or she might be able to help you. If it is a photography-specific flight, you may even be able to remove windows or doors from the plane.

Tips for Aerial Photography from Small Planes and Drones

Remember your pilot is the final judge of what is acceptable in terms of safety and time. If they say they can’t do something, they can’t. Don’t push them into something with which they aren’t comfortable.


There are almost as many ways to shoot from an airplane as there are from the ground so any discussion of composition runs the risk of leading us deep into the photographic weeds. However, the general rules of landscape photography still apply. Remember depth, foregrounds, and the way lines connect the image.

Tips for Aerial Photography from Small Planes and Drones

Some shots from the air could be details of the landscape below, but more often they will be sweeping landscapes. I like to place elements in the frame that guide the eye through; a river, a mountain valley, or a highlight like a lake or patch of colorful ground.

The altitude at which you are flying will also dictate your options. When making aerial images of mountain environments (my usual subject) I prefer the plane to be below the level of the surrounding peaks. This perspective still provides a sense of grandeur, while maintaining the unique aerial perspective. Ask your pilot if you can fly lower or higher, and they may be able to help you out if conditions are safe.

Tips for Aerial Photography from Small Planes and Drones


Flying a remote copter or drone is a very different experience from being up high yourself. There are advantages, but also some drawbacks.

First the drawbacks. Most consumer grade drones limit you to one focal length. Without the ability to zoom or change lenses, most drone shots tend to have the same wide-angle look. To change the scene, you’ve got to move the drone. Drones also have limited ranges, elevation capabilities, and at times, limiting regulations.

Tips for Aerial Photography from Small Planes and Drones

Some locations, like national parks in the United States (and many other countries) are off-limits for drones. Range limitations also mean that you have to get yourself close to your desired subject. So if you want to make images of some remote, or difficult to access location, you’ll still have to do it on the ground.

The advantages, however, are many. Cost is a big one. For the price of a couple hours charter of a small plane, you can buy a decent drone, literally. Flexibility is another. If you want to go make some aerial photos, you simply do it, no waiting around for a pilot or plane charter. If the light is right, you just go fly.

The biggest advantage for me, though, is composition flexibility. You can create an image from a few meters off the ground, to a couple hundred. You can also spend the time necessary to get the composition right. The drone sits still when you want it to, or you can adjust to your heart’s desire.


I like to fly my drone fairly low. I find the combination of altitude and wide angle lenses make everything look less dramatic and smaller if I’m flying too high. 20-30 meters off the ground is probably my favorite height, but of course, it varies on where I’m flying and the image I’m creating.

Remember to take advantage of the many camera angles drones allow. Shooting straight down is almost impossible from a plane. But with a drone, it’s as easy as angling your camera.

Playing with lines and patterns is a drone specialty, so take advantage of the way the world looks from above. Play with dividing your images into parts using the natural variations in the landscape. Trees from above, for example, create a starburst pattern, not a typical way humans see a forest!

Tips for Aerial Photography from Small Planes and Drones

The flexibility provided by drones is extraordinary. Don’t be afraid to experiment with aerial images of places a plane could never fly.

Drone Warning

Follow the rules! Flying a drone in a dangerous area like around airports, or at the scene of an emergency is not only irresponsible it can be life-threatening. Be aware of the laws surrounding drones, and fly only in areas where it is allowed, and at permitted elevations.

Lastly, be respectful of others. Don’t fly over private property if you don’t have permission, and be aware of how your flight is impacting the experience of others. Simply put, don’t be a jerk.

Tips for Aerial Photography from Small Planes and Drones


Aerial photography is a gateway to new ways of seeing. Whether you are shooting from the passenger seat of a Cessna or from your phone screen using a drone, there are abundant opportunities to make new and exciting images. Explore it and share with me what you make!

The post Tips for Aerial Photography from Small Planes and Drones by David Shaw appeared first on Digital Photography School.

dPS Ultimate Guide to Nature and Outdoor Photography


High on a ridge in the Brooks Range of Northern Alaska, I had an epiphany. It had to do with photography, sort of. Really, it had to do with the world in which we live. You see, I was climbing this steep slope on a little-forgotten drainage in the western portion Gates of the Arctic National Park. There was no sign that anyone had been this way before, and really, there was no reason that anyone would have.

When I eventually topped out on the ridge, late on an August evening, the sun still shining from the northern sky, I found a pillar of stone.
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The rock stood 15 or 20 feet high, a narrow obelisk that looked as though it had been planted, or perhaps grown from the earth itself. It hadn’t of course. The stone had been pushed into its delicate position by the constant slow shift of the thawing and freezing ground below.

It struck me, in that moment next to the standing stone, that I was about to be the first person to photograph these rocks. Ever.

In one fell swoop; I realized exactly what it is about photography that I love. It’s seeing things in a way that others have not. Seeing things for the first time. Not just stones on a wild mountaintop, but viewing frequently photographed scenes in a new way. The most photographed landscapes still hold potential for novelty. And creating that novelty in images is one of the great pleasures of the art of outdoor photography.

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And here is the rub; good outdoor photography is about creating new images, not just copying what has already been done. If there is one message in this article to remember, that’s it.

A Note on Ethics

Below, you’ll find many of the tips I’ve learned over the years as an outdoor pro; landscape techniques, macro tips, and an introduction to wildlife photography. From exposure to composition, I’ll cover a lot. But one thing I want to note first, and it’s probably the most important thing I’ll mention is this:

Do No Harm!

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Outdoor photography is extremely popular. We landscape and wildlife photographers travel across the planet to make images, and our presence is having an impact on the places we visit. It’s our job to ensure that our actions do not damage the resources we photograph.

Here are some guidelines:

Respect other users: What we are doing is no more important than the activities of others. Be respectful of other photographers and non-photographers alike. In some parts of the world, photographers are becoming disliked because of our actions. We cannot allow this to happen. Be kind to others. Your long lens does not give you the right to be a jerk.

Don’t harass wildlife: I once watched a pair of photographers, quite literally, chase a herd of caribou around the edge of a lake in the Alaska Range. The best images of wildlife are natural images, not shots of caribou fleeing across the landscape. If your presence or actions are impacting the behavior of the animals, it’s time to back off.

Note: it may also be dangerous! Animals like elk and moose may look harmless but can do a lot of damage. Likewise, too many tourists have gotten too close to bears (with no barrier) and then if the bear attacks a human it could be put down. Don’t endanger yourself or the animals – keep a safe distance.

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Follow the rules: Most of the refuges, parks, and other lands we photograph have rules in place for a reason. As photographers break those for the sake of an image, it hurts the reputation and possible future access for all of us. Know the regulations and follow them.

Leave no trace: The next visitor to your location should have no idea you were they before them.
Landscape Photography

Above, I related the story of finding the bizarre standing stone in Alaska’s Brooks Range. Those kinds of photography opportunities are by far my favorite. I love shooting someplace where few if any others have been or photographed.

But mostly, I like the way a piece of dramatic topography under beautiful light looks. I like how it appears to my eye, and I like how it looks through the viewfinder of a camera. When I manage to make an image that brings back all those feelings of the experience, and when I can relive those moments of outdoor beauty over and over again, then I feel very successful indeed.

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Landscape photography does not need to be equipment heavy. On many excursions, I may carry only a single camera equipped with a wide-angle zoom lens. But when I really want to work a scene, or my sole mission is to make images, then I’ll carry a few more things. Here is my camera equipment list, and some notes on each item:

  • Full frame DSLR: Though not vital, the full frame sensor is useful for taking advantage of wide-angle opportunities.
  • Wide-Angle Zoom: The 17-40mm f/4 and 16-35mm f/2.8 are probably my most-used lenses for landscape photography.
  • Mid-Range Telephoto Zoom: Like the 70-200mm f/2.8. I like the way this lens and those of similar focal length can isolate parts of the landscape.
  • A Compact or Mirrorless Camera: In my case, this is a Panasonic Lumix GX85. This is a great second camera and when I’m traveling light, it’s my only camera.
  • Wide-Angle, and Mid-Range Zoom Lenses for the Mirrorless Camera: To cover similar focal lengths as my full-frame DSLR (minus the extremely wide, sadly).
  • Tripod: Rarely do I leave this behind.
  • Polarizing Filter: Great for removing glare and reflections.
  • Variable Neutral Density Filter: For long exposure work, a neutral density filter is great. The variable filters allow you to adjust the amount of light coming through into the camera.

Throw in a bag or backpack to carry it all, and this kit will cover about every landscape opportunity you might encounter. While I’m sure each landscape photographer has their own suggestions, additions, or subtractions, these are my necessities.

See an article I wrote recently for another approach to taking less: How to Find More Creativity Through Using Less Gear. Also read: How to Decide What Gear to Pack for a Wilderness Trip.

Composition and Exposure

I always have a difficult time writing about composition and exposure because this is where art becomes a part of the photographic process. Sure, there is a “proper” exposure, in which the highlights aren’t blown out and the shadows retain detail, but a world in which every image was “properly” exposed would be a very boring place.

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Instead of what is right, it’s better to understand how your settings will impact your image. Then you can decide for yourself what is best for your situation.

Shutter Speed

The speed of your shutter indicates how long your sensor is exposed to the light coming from your scene. A fast shutter speed will halt motion, while a long one will blur moving objects.

In landscape photography, you may want to freeze the motion of a splashing river or leaves blowing in the wind. Or you may prefer them to blur, providing a sense of that motion. The important thing is to understand how your shutter speed choice will either blur or freeze the subject, so you don’t end up in that dreaded (but all too frequent) in-between.

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Your aperture plays two roles. It controls how much light is allowed into the camera, and it controls the depth of field.

At a wide aperture, say f/2.8, your lens will allow a lot of light to enter the camera, meaning you can use a faster shutter speed (see above), but it also means you have less depth of field (DOF). Which is to say, that only a narrow portion of your image, from front to back, will be in focus.

A small aperture like f/16 will mean that a longer shutter speed is required to attain the exposure you want, but more of your image will be in focus.

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If you want to isolate your subject from your background or foreground then a wide aperture will help you achieve that. However, if you want your image sharp from the foreground to the background, then you need to select a narrow aperture.

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Most lenses are sharpest a stop or two down from wide open, so for maximum overall sharpness, consider an aperture around f/8 to f/11.


The ISO controls the apparent sensitivity of your sensor to light (I say “apparent” because for a bunch of technical reasons that I really don’t care about, raising the ISO doesn’t actually increase the actual sensitivity, just how the camera’s algorithms report the light in the final image – blah, blah, blah). So, in practice, increasing your ISO will allow you to use shorter shutter speeds at higher apertures. Got that?

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The drawback is that using a high ISO also tends to create digital noise. However, cameras are getting exceedingly good at controlling noise. With my current equipment, I regularly shoot at ISO 3200, 6400, and occasionally higher without a second thought.

Coming Together – The Exposure Triangle

Those three factors (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO) control the brightness, depth of field, and sharpness of your image. They interact with one another, and you can’t change one without adjusting at least one of the others. If you aren’t familiar with how each of these settings impacts the final shot, then go out and spend a few hours experimenting so you understand the exposure triangle.


Spend an hour shooting in Manual Mode. Adjust the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. Assess how each change impacts the final image. Did it get brighter? Darker? Sharper? Did moving subjects blur or freeze?


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The Classic

The classic landscape shot entails an interesting foreground object that leads your eye back to a dramatic background. It’s classic because it works. But it’s also a formula that is very easy to get wrong.

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In a simplistic form, a landscape image is composed of a combination of lines, layers, and planes. A line can be a visual element, like the trunk of a tree or a winding stream, or it can be implied, in a way that two interrelated elements cause your eye to move back and forth. Either way, lines are the viewer’s path through the frame.

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Layers are elements that occur through the depth of the image. These can be any element in the image, grass stems, trees, rocks, rivers, mountains, etc. But they stand alone in successive layers, each a bit further back in the image.

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Finally, planes are elements that provide a clear sense of depth. Say, a road disappearing into the horizon, or a river winding away up a mountain valley.

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The ways these things interact are what cause an image to be pleasing to the eye, or to fail. In a classic composition, the foreground element and the dramatic background are tied together through these elements and interact in some way. Perhaps this is color, form, juxtaposition, or some other aspect of interest to the viewer.

All these aspects of an image become a pleasurable maze for photographers. With practice, you will begin to understand how to make them relate to one another in a pleasing way.

Landscape Details

Any natural view will have a number of interesting elements held within such as; a flower, a stone, a shadow, splashing water, or distant peaks. A long lens will allow you isolate those details from the surrounding clutter.

I use this technique often with mid-range telephoto lenses. Think of this technique as simplifying an image down to its most fascinating component.

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A Note on Focal Length

The focal length of your lens will impact the depth of field of your image. The longer your lens, the shallower your depth of field will be. This makes it very difficult, if not impossible to keep an image sharp from foreground through the background when using a long lens.

That’s why isolating distant details is a great use of a telephoto lens. Compositions with no foreground generally won’t suffer from the compressed depth of field.

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With the use of a wide-angle lens, on the other hand, it is much easier to attain a deep depth of field. An aperture that is a stop or two lower will often bring an entire image from foreground to background into focus.

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Starting with a mid-range telephoto like a 70-200mm or similar lens, focus on the details of a landscape. Make some photos of these details, moving around to see how the light changes with your angle. Experiment with each.

Once you are comfortable with the details before you, change to a wide-angle and see if you can find pleasing compositions that incorporate the details you just photographed, but also include the surroundings. As you back up to a wide-angle view, think about the lines, planes, and layers within the image and how they interact. Is the result pleasing or chaotic? What can you do to improve it?

Macro Photography: The World Up Close

Through the 100mm f/2.8 macro lens this bright green beetle looked monstrous and surprisingly beautiful. The iridescent carapace practically glittered in the soft light of the overcast day, while the purple highlights of the antennae and around the eyes stood out from the leaf background.

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It was a rainy day in the rainforest of southeast Mexico, and my fieldwork had been called off due to the weather. I spent my rare morning off gathering some of the many insects that had congregated overnight on the porch, and a menagerie of beetles, spiders, and katydids now sat beneath upturned jars on the windowsill next to me. One by one, I placed them on a clean green background of a Heliconia leaf and made images.

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Close-up and macro photography is a specialized discipline, requiring a suite of its own equipment including lenses, flashes, tripod heads, and more. For photographers that specialize in this type of photography, it is a serious investment.
Fortunately, there are a few shortcuts, which can save you from investing hundreds or thousands in macro-specific equipment.


Macro lenses allow for a very close focusing distance and are usually equipped with some moderate magnification. 50mm, 100mm, 150mm, and even 200mm are common focal lengths of macro lenses. They tend to be fast, usually around f/2.8 and are pricey pieces of glass.

If you have the budget for it, by all means, invest in a high-end macro lens, but for those of us with more limited funds here are two alternatives:

Extension Tubes

These are exactly what they sound like, simple tubes that go between your camera and the lens. Extension tubes increase the distance between the lens and your sensor allowing a closer minimum focus (but preventing the lens from focusing on distant objects). When applied to a good quality lens, some amazing images are possible.

Lens Reversal

Have you ever turned a pair of binoculars around backward and used them as a magnifying glass? If so, this is the exact same principle.

You take an old, manual lens (focus and aperture), standard or wide-angle lens (never a telephoto), buy a cheap adapter that allows you to attach the front of the lens to your camera, and you get an instant macro. For fifty bucks at a used camera store you can often find a suitable lens, and for another $10 or $15, you can buy an adapter from Amazon that fits the filter threads on the front of the lens and allows you to click it into your camera. Bingo! Reverse-lens macro created!

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Embrace natural light if you are just starting out in macro photography. Find a place with bright, diffused light, and start there. Once you have a strong grasp on working up close, you may choose to add artificial light.

From ring lights to external flashes, many macro photographers will use artificial light to cleanly illuminate their tiny subjects with studio-like lighting. If you have a flash, and either a remote cable or wireless triggers, you probably have what you need to get started.

Start off by attaching your flash near, or directly onto your lens, so the light falls just a few inches in front of the glass. Shadows are emphasized up close, so you want to minimize the distance between the flash and your lens.

Tripod Heads

A very useful accessory is the macro tripod head. These allow you to move your camera forward and backward very smoothly and precisely without having to adjust the tripod. With a simple twist of a knob, you can slide your camera forward or backward a couple of inches (or millimeters).

In the narrow depth of field world of macro photography, this allows you to focus by changing the camera position rather than the focus on the lens. If you get serious about this kind of photography, it is probably a worthwhile investment.

Read Equipment for Macro Photography – Video Tips.

Beginning Macro Field Techniques

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The easiest place to begin with macro photography is a subject that doesn’t move around much, like flowers. Starting with fast-moving insects will be a very frustrating way to learn the process.

Start out in soft, natural daylight, and forget the flashes for now. Choose a cloudy day, or pick a subject you can easily move into a shady spot. Direct sunlight, just as in human portraiture, is often too harsh and contrasty, resulting in burnt-out highlights or blacked out shadows. Once you’ve figured out the process under steady, natural light, you can integrate flash.


Macro lenses, reversed lenses, and extension tubes all share one common feature: an extremely narrow depth of field. Even with the aperture stopped down, the amount of the image in focus will be measured in millimeters. Because of this limitation, you need to choose your focal point very carefully, it will, after all, be the only thing in focus on your image.

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Many times I’ve made images of small subjects only to find out later find later that my focal point was off. By all means, compose creatively, but make sure the important part of your image is in focus. For insects or other small creatures, that almost always means the eye. For flowers, you’ll likely want to focus on the stamens and pistils. Be aware, and focus carefully.

Note on Post-Processing Macro Images

While a full post-processing tutorial of macro photography is outside the scope of this article, be aware there are focus-stacking techniques. Think of this like HDR for depth of field.

In essence, you create a series of images in which you steadily move the focus point through the scene so you end up with a series of photos, each with a different slice in focus. Focus stacking then brings those all together into a single image providing otherwise unattainable depth of field. There are more resources available online about this technique if you’d like to learn more.

Read A Beginner’s Guide to Focus Stacking.

Wildlife Photography

More than any other discipline of outdoor photography, wildlife is the place where we as photographers need to be responsible, cautious, and respectful. Earlier, I related the story of watching a group of photographers chase a herd of caribou.

I dearly wish that had been the only occasion I’ve had to see wildlife photographers acting stupidly, but sadly, my list goes on: a photographer purposely flushing flocks of Sandhill cranes at a wildlife refuge to get flight shots, the abuse of call-back recordings of song-birds which results in nest failures, dangerously close approaches to bears and moose, and on and on.

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I just can’t write about wildlife photography without saying this: Good wildlife photography is a game of patience. You cannot make shortcuts by chasing, flushing, baiting, or otherwise harassing your subject and expect to get decent images. So please, please, three times, please! Take the time required to make the image, it will be easier on the wildlife, and I promise your results will be far, far superior.


Though lovely images of animals can, and have been, made with every focal length (some of my favorite images are wide-angles), most wildlife photography involves long lenses. My most frequently used lenses for wildlife photography are Canon’s 500mm f4L (often with a 1.4x teleconverter), 100-400mm zoom, and the 70-200mm f/2.8. None of those are cheap, though.

Fortunately, there are a growing number of alternatives on the market. Brands like Tamron and Sigma have introduced big telephotos that, although still pricey, come in way under the prices offered by Canon and Nikon. A year or two ago, out of curiosity, I rented Sigma’s 150-600mm Sport lens and was extremely impressed.

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Come to think of it, I strongly recommend you try lenses out before you buy them. Renting is a great, and reasonably priced, option to try out a variety of lenses. Or, if you don’t shoot wildlife often, you can rent a high-end piece of glass for a single trip, without having to dole out thousands on your own lens.

Anyway, back to equipment, here is my wildlife kit:

  • DSLR (or 2)
  • 500mm f/4 lens
  • 100-400mm lens
  • 70-200mm lens
  • 1.4x teleconverter
  • A sturdy carbon-fiber tripod with a gimbal head

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There is a saying in photography: “If your image isn’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” This is nonsense. However, getting close to animals, either physically, or by using a long lens, is often the easiest way to create a compelling image. There are many exceptions (see composition below), but proximity does help.

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Getting close requires patience. If you approach an animal on foot, your subject will almost always feel threatened and move away. Humans, after all, are predators, and for most species, nothing good happens from getting close to a predator. That leaves a few options.

Go where the animals are accustomed to people

At many wildlife refuges, back gardens, national parks, etc., the animals are used to seeing people or vehicles and will allow you to get much closer (you still need to be cautious particularly around large, or dangerous animals). In such areas, cars can make a great mobile photography blind.

Animals are also often familiar with people around popular trail systems and will pay little attention to passing walkers. You can use these areas to your advantage.

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Use a blind

Many wildlife refuges are equipped with photography blinds where you are hidden from view of the wildlife. These are great, pre-established places to shoot. You may even consider building your own backyard blind for photographing your local birds and other wildlife.


I have a sheet of camo fabric that I’ve cut holes into for my camera lens. I sit on the ground, or a low stool, and throw this over my head and tripod. This portable blind serves well, as long as I have the patience to stay still for extended periods of time. It keeps my form obscured, and animals more willing to approach.


Most of the above techniques also require patience, but simply waiting for the right opportunity is the most straightforward approach to wildlife photography. Find a promising location with good light, and simply wait to see what happens. I bet most of my best images of wild animals have been made this way.

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I strive for the “proper” exposure in the field. Which, means (if I’m honest) that I leave it up to the camera. Capturing the action, the expression, posture, and the setting are the most important parts of wildlife photography.

I can fiddle with brightness later in the post-processing, but not if I didn’t capture the image from the start. So I recommend, particularly as a beginner, that you do what I do and let your camera do most of the work.

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My settings under most conditions with a long lens are something like this: Shutter priority (see below for more on this), ISO 800 (or so), and auto everything else. If for some reason the images aren’t coming out how I want them, I’ll adjust things around, but this is my standard starting point.

Shutter Speed

As with any moving subject, you may opt to strive for sharpness, freezing the motion of the animal, or you may be aiming for a more creative motion blur. I often mix it up, shifting from sharp to blur in just a few seconds. This is why I shoot wildlife primarily in Shutter Priority mode, so I can make that change easily on the fly.

During a recent shoot of a migrating caribou herd, my workshop participants and I had a couple of thousand animals pass by in a single file line. I was constantly changing the shutter speed to get different effects as the caribou trotted past 25 yards away.

I ended up with a huge variety of shots, from crazy blurs to tack-sharp detail. Variety is important.

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Get low! Next time you see a wildlife image that you like, take a look at the position from which it was made. I’ll bet you that the perspective is low, probably at eye level of the subject or below. When I’m photographing birds or small mammals, I’ll often lay flat out on my stomach.

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Humans see the world most often from a standing position; it’s how we are accustomed to viewing things. Photos from that perspective, looking down on our subject, aren’t any different than how we normally see the world. In other words, boring.

When you drop down, however, you are now seeing the world in an atypical, and therefore far more interesting way. So get low!

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The simplest of images is the portrait, with a clean background and a sharp subject. Often these will be under flattering front-light. Many wildlife photographers strive for this type of image, and this type of image alone.

The secret to success in wildlife portraiture is getting close to your subject, and having a setting where the animal can be cleanly separated from its background. A large aperture, like f/4, will help blur the background cleanly. Overcast, soft light or front light is ideal.

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Action and Motion

No doubt, a good, clean portrait of a wild animal is a lovely thing and a pleasure to make, but after a time, I find the formulaic view of wildlife rather boring. I like to see behavior, action, and motion in images. These tell a better story, and to me at least, are far more compelling. These kinds of images also require a lot more time in the field.

Let’s face it; wild animals spend a lot of time just chilling out. Birds perch for extended periods bears sleep or graze, and big cats climb trees and lounge. Action is uncommon, which means you have to spend a lot of time waiting for it.

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I was photographing at a famous bear-watching spot in Alaska a number of years ago. It was early in the season and the salmon had not yet arrived, but there were bears about, waiting for the fish. I was standing on a viewing platform, watching a single, young Brown Bear standing below a waterfall. There were no fish, and I got the impression he was as bored as I was.

Tourists and other photographers arrived around me, watched for a few moments, took a photo, and then ambled off after a few minutes with nothing happening. I waited.

After more than an hour, another bear appeared down the river and waded up toward the falls. It was of similar age, and size, they might have even been siblings that had been separated for a time. But when the second bear appeared, the bored demeanor of the first changed completely. He grew alert, staring at the intruding bear. Then, almost without warning, the first bear charged the second, throwing sprays of river water into the air as it splashed. The second stood its ground and for a few brief seconds, the two fought. They swatted each other with powerful blows and snapped jaws down on shoulders. It was over in 20 seconds, but I was breathless. No damage had been done to either bear and afterward, the two actually stood side by side, rather companionably, for a long while as they waited for salmon to arrive.

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In those 20 seconds, I captured a series of images missed by dozens of photographers who had come and gone, unwilling to be patient.

Wide Angles

When you have a cooperative or curious subject, few techniques will yield a more compelling result than getting close, and low, with a wide-angle lens. A few years ago, when I was guiding on an expedition cruise through the Southern Ocean and Antarctica, I had several such opportunities.

In the Falkland Islands, a curious Striated Caracara hopped up to have a look at me, while on South Georgia I had a great encounter with a South Polar Skua. The images I made of these two birds are some of my favorites of that journey and perhaps some of my favorite wildlife images.

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Wide angles show off not only your subject but also the surroundings and can be extremely effective story-telling images.

The drawback, of course, is that such opportunities are rare indeed. You’ve got to have your subject very close, and that takes time and effort while being prepared when the right opportunity arrives.

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To maximize your chances, keep a second camera with a wide-angle lens (heck, even your phone will work) available while out shooting. That way, when a critter draws close and the opportunity for these unique images arrives, you won’t have to fumble with swapping lenses.


As I wrote this lengthy piece on outdoor photography, I felt I could have gone on and on about every single aspect of this discipline. There is just so much to know, and to learn; so many subjects to study, understand, and practice.

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It is daunting, but outdoor photography is as much about the journey as anything else. I love making images that work, don’t get me wrong, but I love even more the process of being outside. I love the way a camera makes me more aware of the play of light, and the movement of animals across a landscape.

Photography can be a tool toward a better understanding of the world, but we have to use our cameras with respect and caution. Be mindful of your actions, be careful of our impact, and make beautiful photos. Along the way, you may find your experiences, rather than the final images, to be the most rewarding part. Now go explore.

The post dPS Ultimate Guide to Nature and Outdoor Photography by David Shaw appeared first on Digital Photography School.

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