The More Things Change

Go With The Flow • Flash In The Foreground • Focusing On Retirement • View From 30,000 Feet • For  The Birds

Nice And Slow. George Lepp’s rendition of White Branch Falls in the Oregon Cascades shows milky, flowing water where, in fact, the falls rush, sparkle and spray everywhere. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 24-105mm ƒ/4L at 47mm, 3 sec. at ƒ/16, with Singh-Ray ND filter.

Classic Tech Tips
Those of us who have reached a “mature” age often gather at the Old Photographers’ Home and talk about how dramatically the field has changed in the last two decades. While some might say it all began with digital imaging, I’d place the pivotal moment earlier, at the time auto exposure and autofocus were introduced in the mid-’80s.

Just for fun, we recently spent some time leafing through Volume I of Outdoor Photographer, which premiered with the May/June issue in 1985. Yes, “Tech Tips” was there from the very first, and we found it interesting that the questions you asked then are very similar to the questions you ask now. But the answers are so, so different. Here’s a sampling:

Go With The Flow

Q I’ve admired the photographs of streams and waves in which the water’s movement is streaked instead of frozen. What shutter speed is necessary to accomplish this technique?
N. Boisvert
Bozeman, Montana

This flashy picture of Lepp appeared in 1985 with his first column in Outdoor Photographer.

A The answer to this question is still to lengthen the exposure. But back in the film days of 1985, long exposures came with a host of problems to solve. Calculating accurate exposure was hit or miss, and the longer the exposure, the more color changes showed up on the film (reciprocity failure). Early digital sensors were also fraught with problems; color changes and inconsistency were exacerbated in long exposures.

With today’s digital capture, long exposures are much more controllable. On a regular basis, we use them to smooth water, shoot in low light, capture the Milky Way in 30-second exposures and follow star trails for hours, as they slowly render their paths on the sensor.

But specific to this question, my ideal exposure for flowing water is only ¼ sec., and this can be achieved by reducing the ISO to 50 (try to find some Kodachrome 25!) to decrease the sensitivity of the sensor, thus increasing the capture time necessary to achieve the desired exposure. In bright conditions, a polarizer or two- or three-stop neutral-density filter will aid in slowing the recording time. I’ve been experimenting with the Singh-Ray ( 15-stop neutral-density filter to render the ocean waves into a misty fog in the middle of the day.

Flash In The Foreground

Q I’ve tried unsuccessfully to fill foregrounds with my own camera flash. Often, the results indicate that the foreground area to be filled was just too large to be lit with a small flash unit or the foreground became too overexposed in comparison to the intermediate foreground.
G. Elliot
Livermore, California

A In 1985, the only answer we had was a split neutral-density filter, and it still can be a useful tool in some situations. But with the vastly improved dynamic range of today’s digital cameras and the aid of post-capture software such as Lightroom and Photoshop, we not only can capture a much wider tonal range, but also open shadows and hold back highlights to generate extraordinary detail in our images, even when working in very high-contrast conditions. These options that we now take for granted offer us more freedom and access to images 24 hours a day, from night sky to high noon. And if the subject isn’t moving, we can access even greater tonal detail by capturing multiple images at different exposures, later compositing them into a single image with very high dynamic range (HDR)—an option we could only dream about 30 years ago. This capability is actually built into some DSLRs, not to mention my iPhone, today.

Focusing On Retirement

Q Since retiring from my practice, I’ve begun to concentrate intensely on my photo hobby and am spending time in the woods near my home. However, my eyesight isn’t what it used to be, and I find it difficult to focus on macro subjects, especially in low-light situations.
H. Festa
Charleston, S.C

A As of the August 1985 issue, autofocus capabilities were just being introduced in cameras such as the Minolta Maxxum and some lenses. It’s interesting that my first discussion of autofocus was in the context of answering this photographer’s question about vision problems, not yet recognizing the power autofocus brought to consistent sharp capture of moving subjects and working in low light. You might think that the ubiquity of autofocus and image stabilization have addressed the two common disabilities that plague many photographers, often, unfairly, just as we reach retirement: loss of vision and steadiness.

But my current students have the advantages of autofocus that works under incredibly low light, image stabilization that improves handholding from three to four stops and built-in diopters to compensate for near- and far-sightedness. Curiously, I find that many of the students in my field workshops haven’t taken the time to adjust the diopters on their cameras; they photograph with a fuzzy image in the viewfinder, but the autofocus often saves it. Once the diopters are set to correct their vision, they have much greater control over composition and capture.

To customize your viewfinder, follow these steps. Most cameras have a diopter adjustment, usually a small wheel, at the eyepiece. To optimize your sharpness, point the camera at a subject; use the camera’s autofocus so that the subject is technically sharp; then, while still looking through the viewfinder, adjust the diopter setting until the image becomes visually sharp to you.

If you’re able to work from a tripod, use Live View to achieve maximum sharpness by enlarging the image or using a handheld loupe like the Hoodman HoodLoupe ( to check the image on the camera’s large LCD.

View From 30,000 Feet

Q On more than one airliner flight, we’ve passed over the Grand Canyon and the tip of Greenland during clear weather; the view from that height was spectacular. Is there a way to get good pictures through the porthole window?
B. Burgess
San Francisco, California

A Now that we have jet airplanes, the answer to this question is different than it would have been in the prop days. Just kidding, but only a little. In 1985, I advised the reader to make every effort to secure a window seat in front of the wing on the side opposite the sun. That’s still a good strategy and more easily achieved now that your seat assignment isn’t controlled by a travel agent and seating maps are available when you book your flight. Another factor difficult to control in the film days was the slight color cast in the Plexiglas windows. Digital imaging eliminates that issue.

But there’s more you can do today to maximize your chances of good airliner photography. Lately, I find that the poor condition of airliner windows is the biggest problem; the planes are old and the maintenance seems to neglect window cleaning. A good clean window is hard to find, but if you’ve got it, use it! Air pollution can be mitigated by the use of a camera converted to infrared capture ( Phones, point-and-shoots and DSLRs with video capabilities can yield interesting images. I’ve used a GoPro clamped to the window or the armrest to hold it steady during extended capture of video or time-lapse; imagine Salt Lake City to Chicago, take-off to landing, in three minutes!

For The Birds

Q My interest is bird photography. In my quest for a larger image of the bird, I’ve gone to longer and longer lenses, but this has resulted in a loss of sharpness. How do you get sharp, full-frame shots of birds?
J. McDowell
Long Beach, California

A Back then, as a younger wiseacre than I am now, I responded: “Look for bigger birds.” Then I said, of course, “Be a basic biologist.” That’s still my last, best answer. Get closer to birds, or any wild subjects, without causing harm, by learning and understanding their habits, respecting their habitats, approaching cautiously and never pressing. Better yet, sit still, in the open or in a blind, and let them come to you.

But no “Tech Tips” answer is complete without a high dose of high Tech. Telephoto lenses have improved dramatically; sensor resolution has increased so that some image cropping is possible; tele-extenders have improved and, with proper technique, can extend your reach to fill the frame (see my article “Eagle Eyes” in the April 2014 issue of OP). Camera and lens stability are increased with tripods, ballheads and gimbals, along with vibration reduction within the camera and the lens. One of the most significant improvements to long-lens capture is the ability to frame, focus and capture without touching the camera by using remote wireless transmitters and tablets (see With a range of over 100 feet, this configuration goes a long way toward the very first consideration, working in ways that don’t disrupt your subjects. And, of course, if all else fails, you can fix it, at least a little bit, in Photoshop. I prefer to call that process “optimization.”

Follow George Lepp‘s exploits, see his latest photographs and be part of the discussion on his Facebook page:

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.