Digital Improv

The most important part of your digital gear may be a willingness to experiment

Digital Improv  One thing certainly hasn’t changed since Outdoor Photographer got its start 20 years ago—no matter how well you prepare, no matter how much gear you take with you on a trip into the wilds, you can never be ready for everything. Sooner or later, you’ll run into a photo problem that demands to be solved, yet you don’t seem to have the gear to handle it. You then have three choices: forget the photo opportunity, take a photo anyway knowing it won’t succeed or do a little photographic improvisation. You may have to think like MacGyver, but if the subject demands attention now, you have little choice. I find photo improv to be fun and satisfying when it works.

Digital makes this work much better than when shooting film, as seen in the following example. This past winter, I was in Florida for the PMA photo trade show. While there, I spent time photographing some of the nature of the area, including wonderful spiders like the crab-like, spiny orb weaver. This little guy could fit completely on a dime, but makes large webs.

I found one of these creatures while walking along a landscaped area in Delray Beach (near the Palm Beach Photographic Centre). I returned to my room, grabbed a digital SLR and a macro lens, and hurried back. I thought about my favorite close-up setup—a compact digital camera with an achromatic close-up lens—but it was a little windy, and I felt I’d be able to photograph a moving subject more quickly with the digital SLR.

There had been some storms passing through the area, and I had promised to meet some friends in a short time, so I needed to photograph this critter now or never. I started shooting and quickly realized I had a problem. The clouds, time of day and macro lens extension had reduced my light substantially.

Even by increasing the camera’s ISO setting, I still was suffering from too slow of a shutter speed for any sharpness. I needed a little depth of field, so I couldn’t shoot wide open, and a faster shutter speed because of handholding the camera with a moving subject (from the wind). A tripod is hard to use in such close-up situations.

I tried taking the photo anyway—several, actually. With film, I might have just hoped for the best, but with a digital camera, I could see exactly what I captured. I enlarged the images and found that getting a sharp spider was hopeless. I also saw what I felt were rather standard, unexciting compositions—so I thought.

My flash was back in the room, but I had no time to go back for it. I had just grabbed the camera and macro lens, thinking this wasn’t going to be a problem, and why drag down a whole pack of gear for this little spider? Well, it was a problem and I wanted the photo. I had no idea if I’d find this spider again given the weather conditions; plus, I had a time constraint. While these spiders are fairly common, they’re small and can be hard to find without a bit of a search.

Time for some digital improv. My camera had a built-in pop-up flash. Talk about your lowly accessory—you won’t even find it on a high-end “pro” camera (because of camera body sealing issues). I suspected this wouldn’t give me the best light, but I tried it. It was okay, except the lens shade blocked some of the light on the subject. I removed the shade—much better, but still not right. The only way to know any of this was to shoot and check the LCD playback. I could see that the spider’s head details didn’t get enough light due to the height of the flash.

Think again. I thought of using a reflector, but I had none. Then I tried looking around for something white—a piece of blown trash, some white paper, perhaps, but to no avail. Then I thought of my hand. It was light in tone. It would probably add some warm colors to the light, but that might even help. I cupped my right hand to the right of the flash, positioning my palm to reflect as much light as possible from that side, above and below. It was awkward, but I could do it. I tried the shot and it worked! Again, the LCD was vital.

The point of this story is to show how you can integrate a digital way of shooting into a whole new approach to photography. You can work through problems with a subject at that moment, rather than being disappointed with the shot later or trying to fix it in Photoshop. Just experiment and check it on the LCD.

It’s interesting that some new-to-digital photographers want to keep an old film style of shooting. They turn the review off for the digital camera and discourage others from using the LCD. I don’t think it’s ever useful to say another photographer’s way of working is “wrong” if he or she shoots good photos. That’s the bottom line—the photograph. For some people, the LCD is a distraction, so it should be turned off. I do take exception when certain photographers tell everyone else they should work the same way. I’m all for trying anything to see how it fits my way of working, but such “shoulds” can be counterproductive.

The LCD is a tremendous resource. Here are some digital improv situations made better with the LCD:

•Your lens isn’t long enough to photograph a distant subject. Can you enlarge the image in Photoshop later? Only if the subject is sharp, so photograph it toward the center of the image area (the sharpest part of the lens), then check it in the LCD by enlarging the subject to see its sharpness:

•Your ideal camera position makes it impossible to see the viewfinder. Take the picture, remember how the camera was set (this works best with a tripod), check the shot and then try again until you get the shot you want. This can be an important technique when you’re backed up against a canyon wall, for example, with few places to set the tripod legs.
•A special wildlife shot appears before you, perfect for your lens’ focal length; however, the animal is backlit in such a way that you know its eyes will be dead-black caverns. The lowly pop-up flash to the rescue again! You’re not sure if it will work? So what—try it anyway!
•You find you could get an exciting shot of flowers at a cliff’s edge or a wide-angle shot of a snake that you don’t want to approach too closely. There’s no way to do that without putting yourself in harm’s way…or is there? Put your camera on a tripod, then stretch the tripod out to the subject by holding it at the bottom of the legs, after first setting the camera off using the self-timer. For a subject that might be spooked by this, you could pretest the shot on something nearby to test the angle of the camera, the lens choice, exposure, etc. Refine the shot by checking it on the LCD.
•You’re stuck—it’s a great subject, but maybe too great; the scene overwhelms your photographic senses. Start improvising, but do it rapidly.

Shoot overhead, down low, wide-angle, telephoto, more foreground, less foreground. Try a variety of compositions to see if anything jars loose some creativity. After looking at the LCD, you’ll usually find something does.

Additional ideas will come, not from thinking of every possibility, but by being open to the idea of digital improv. Whenever you find a shot that challenges you, that you can’t take with the usual techniques, try a little improv.

This isn’t about what equipment to use or what technique to try, since you can never know that until the situation arises. This is all about being open to experimenting and just trying something to see what happens. In film, that was difficult. Some pros even took Polaroid cameras into the field in order to do some of this, but that was never easy for nature photographers. If nothing else, what the heck did you do with the Polaroid “leftovers”—the sticky chemicals on the peeled paper, the extra paper and even the Polaroid shots themselves? With digital, you need none of that.

Editor Rob Sheppard’s latest book is the PCPhoto Digital Zoom Camera Handbook, a guide to advanced digital cameras. He’s leading a photo tour to Peru again this summer; visit the Palm Beach Photographic Centre website at