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1 Castle Geyser at night, Yellowstone National Park
In the age of inexpensive, high-quality digital cameras, suddenly everyone is a photographer. The digital revolution has unleashed a horde of shooters, all vying to become the next Ansel Adams. As a result, it gets tougher and tougher to stand out from the crowd. How can you break free from the pack with truly unique images?
Easy—become a photography rebel! Rebels break the rules, challenge perceptions and shatter expectations. Only by being a rebel will you truly explore the limits of your creativity. You might make a lot of bad images along the way (I know I have), but by experimenting and learning from your mistakes, you’ll start to make more and more great ones. Play it safe, and you’ll end up with the same shots as everyone else. Shoot on the edge, however, and you can make history. Here are 10 tips to help you unlock your creative potential, so you can start making cutting-edge photographs.
Shoot At Night
1 The dark of night is the closest thing to a blank canvas we as photographers will ever encounter. Take advantage! It’s your time to literally paint with light. Use flash to light portions of the landscape while stars wheel in the sky above—or try flashlights, car lights or your camp fire. Light from the moon or even distant city lights can illuminate a scene during long exposures.
Take a 30-second “test shot” at your camera’s highest ISO setting to see what your image will look like, then calculate your exposure time accordingly. For example, if your 30-second test shot is properly exposed at ISO 3200, an exposure time of eight minutes at ISO 200 is needed; add or subtract time or adjust the aperture if the scene was under- or overexposed in the test shot. Night exposures can last anywhere from several minutes to several hours, so bring your cable release (and a good book), make sure your batteries are fully charged, and turn on your camera’s noise-reduction feature.
Photography of wildlife at night can lead to some interesting images—if you can find any critters in the dark! Night photography may be difficult, but not being able to see anything is surprisingly conducive to creative image making.
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2 Blowing ferns, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Go With The Flow
2 Rebels always are cool as cucumbers, no matter what’s happening, so even when the world is spinning out of control, they just shrug their shoulders and go with the flow. Try the same with your photography! Don’t always create a static representation of the world around you.
Instead, “go with the flow” by experimenting with long shutter speeds. Motion blur can create a sense of action and power, and add a dynamic quality—crashing waves on the shore or birds exploding into flight from the water all become abstract studies in motion and time when you slow things down a bit. Use low ISO settings, small apertures and polarizing and neutral-density filters to achieve the longer exposure times necessary for this effect. When shooting motion-blurred subjects, it’s often best to have some critical element of the scene “grounded in reality” by being in sharp focus, such as stationary tree trunks in a forest of swaying foliage.
Remember that when using long exposures, you usually won’t be able to predict what’s going to happen. Luckily, the ability to instantly review images on a digital camera can tell you right away whether your experiment worked or whether you need to try again.
3 Coots at night, Potomac River, Virginia
Embrace The Surreal
3 Sometimes the only way to capture the essence of your subject is to move beyond a mere literal representation. Challenge people’s perceptions and force them to view subjects in a new light by making images that are abstract studies of shape, color, contrast or motion.
4 Swirling water, Difficult Run, Virginia
Experiment with the techniques discussed above, such as use of motion blur or flash, to transform familiar subjects into something surreal. Try taking your camera off the tripod and pan or zoom during a long exposure, or play with selective focus or purposeful defocus. Intentionally overexpose images every now and then—you may find the high-key results to your liking. With wildlife, study distinctive behaviors and seek to create an image that captures the essence of that behavior in a way that goes beyond a mere snapshot. For example, a long exposure of a restless flock of birds will render many of the birds blurred as they move, directing the viewer to the activity rather than to the birds themselves.
Look For Extreme Angles
4 Get a fresh perspective by taking a rebellious “in-your-face” approach with your subjects. Stick a wide-angle lens close to a foreground element to create a dynamic image. Get creative with your lens choices and your angles; just for kicks, use a wide-angle when you’d otherwise use a telephoto, and vice versa. Try a fish-eye lens for creative effect. Instead of composing everything using the rule of thirds, experiment with unbalanced compositions by pushing elements of your image into the extreme edges. Challenge yourself to avoid shooting everything at eye level; get low to the ground or find ways to (safely) get higher than normal.
I’ve tried just about everything to find unique perspectives, including chimney-climbing up narrow slot canyon walls, wading chest-deep into slimy ponds and even slithering into a pelican colony to get an up-close view of chicks on the nest. Quite often, you end up merely filthy or embarrassed—or harassed by hungry pelican chicks who think you’re dad with a fish in his bill—but sometimes your fortitude pays off.
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5 Rialto Beach sunset, Olympic National Park, Washington
Shoot Into The Sun
5 Shooting toward the sun is a great way to make stunning photos, especially when the sun is rising or setting. Backlit subjects take on a halo of golden light and are especially effective when set against a dark background. If near water, face the sun to get colorful reflections. Make an even more dramatic statement by incorporating the sun itself into your compositions.
Exposure can be tricky when shooting toward or into the sun. Check your histogram to make sure that you’re not overexposing or underexposing important elements of the scene. It’s best to shoot when the sun is relatively low in the sky; otherwise, extreme contrast might prevent you from getting a balanced exposure. When the sun is low on the horizon and heavily filtered by atmospheric particles, its light is much less intense and much more colorful. Flare also is less of a problem when the sun is low (although shading your lens is always a good idea). Use graduated ND filters or fill-flash to further reduce contrast. Even using all of these techniques, you may find it impossible to simultaneously hold detail in both shadow and highlight areas. Don’t despair—just use your best judgment to achieve an appropriate balance, and remember that silhouettes often are very compelling.
6 White-tailed deer and setting sun, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Light Up The World
6 Flash is one of the most important—and too often the least used—nature photography camera accessories. Learning how to use flash opens up a whole world of creative possibilities for outdoor photographers. Subtle use of flash at low power settings can help fill in shadows while shooting landscapes or create catchlights in the eyes of wildlife subjects.
But don’t stop there! Use flash boldly at full power to transform an ordinary scene into something edgy and intense: Make the eyes of your wildlife subjects glow with an unearthly light or selectively light a portion of your scene while underexposing everything else to give it emphasis. Flash also works great with longer exposures, allowing you to freeze action while simultaneously capturing motion blur. Used at night with colored gels, the creative potential of flash is unlimited. An off-camera strobe comes in handy when you’re doing a lot of flash work, as well as an external battery pack to ensure quick recycling times.
Go Beyond The Trophy Shot
7 Do you really want your images to stand out? Then don’t spend all of your time trying to photograph places like Half Dome, Antelope Canyon, Delicate Arch or the Wave. Photography icons such as these are indeed very beautiful, but therein lies the problem—their beauty draws thousands of photographers every year. Such popularity makes it difficult to walk more than a few feet without tripping over a fellow photographer. Trying to find unique images in these locations can be an even more daunting task.
Rebels are loners and trailblazers by nature, and they search for hidden places that haven’t been extensively photographed. Believe me, they exist—you just need to get off the beaten path to find them. Even the most popular parks have backcountry areas that rarely are photographed (most shooters don’t ever leave the road). And there are plenty of other beautiful places that for some reason or another aren’t besieged by clicking cameras; sometimes they’re deep in the wilderness, sometimes they’re not. So lace up your hiking boots, take the kayak out of your garage or hitch up the dogsled—find some way to get out there! Remember that many icons got that way because some photographer took a great picture and made the location famous. The next icons are waiting for you to discover them.
8 Rebels revel in conflict, and their photos show it. When composing images, make a powerful statement by using contrasting elements. For example, a starkly lit subject set against a dark background (or vice versa) can be eye-popping, such as ominous storm clouds towering over a sunlit landscape. Color really comes alive when placed next to a contrasting shade—yellows and reds seem to be much more vibrant when opposite blue, and when purples and greens collide, watch out!
Juxtapose elements of your scene in a way that creates visual interest, using contrasting shapes or divergent lines to build compositional tension. Even subtle scenes can benefit from a dose of contrast, such as mixed shade and sunlight on a mountain stream or mingled stationary and motion-blurred objects. If people can’t tear their eyes away from your images, you know you’re doing something right.
Learn To Love Adversity
9 When the going gets tough, many photographers get going—home, that is! It’s often too tempting to pack up and leave when weather, biting flies or other adverse conditions make shooting uncomfortable. Not rebels, though—when things get tough, they get tougher, often out of pure spite. And for good reason—rebels know that suffering is the foundation of all great art.
Even though bad weather may bring rain and cold, it also can bring storm clouds that add drama to the sky, as well as lightning, mist and rainbows. Some special wildlife events only occur when biting insects are at their most ravenous. And for some shots, you might have to wait in the field for days before conditions are right. The best thing you can bring is a good attitude, however—knowing that you’re suffering for a reason can be the morale boost you need, and never forget that while other people are loafing, you’re out making great images.
Go Your Own Way!
10 Of course, by now you’ve figured out the irony of this article—rebels aren’t exactly the kind of people who follow 10-step programs. So find your own path to rebellion! There are plenty of photography “rules” out there just waiting for you to break them. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not advocating becoming a rebel without a cause. Your goal is to produce great photographs, so it’s important to learn when to break the rules to your advantage. Experimentation and not being afraid to take risks are the keys to developing a cutting-edge style that’s both unique and effective. Your images may be controversial and sometimes will incite negative responses from those with a more “traditional” perspective, but rebels aren’t afraid of a little controversy—in fact, they thrive on it!
To see more of Ian Plant’s work, visit www.ipphotography.com or the Mountain Trail Photo website, www.mountaintrailphoto.com. The Mountain Trail Photo team’s mission is to educate and inspire others in the art of nature photography.