The photographer says it pays to be part naturalist when shooting animals in the wild.
From the lush greens of the rain forest to the blues and grays of the mighty Pacific to the many animals that share this part of the planet with us, the Twin Harbors and Olympic Peninsula abound in great opportunities for photography.
Digital photography has opened a brave new world of picture-taking, with amateur shutterbugs freed from the cost of film and processing. While our area doesn’t lack in photo opps, each of our three major attractions — rain forest, ocean and wildlife — pose their own unique challenges.
The Daily World asked four professional photographers who teach locally to share some of their insights into nature photograpy. Richard Cherry teaches photography at Grays Harbor College. Mel and Janell Huffman, a husband and wife team from Oregon, teach photo workshops throughout the Pacific Northwest, including an annual weekend workshop each fall at Lake Quinault Lodge. And Stuart May owns Fusions Gallery in Ocean Shores. He is planning two or three eight-hour workshops this coming summer with details still to be determined.
The rain forest is a sumptuous visual feast that can vex people trying to capture what they see with a camera.
Mel Huffman noted the difficulty. “The challenge is getting the greens properly rendered in an image. Of course our human eye can see the greens very well. They are stunning, but getting them captured in a camera and being displayed on a computer screen or printed on paper is quite a challenge.”
Huffman said his best tip for people to rise to the challenge is to learn how to control the camera in manual mode. He suggests students learn to understand the “exposure triangle” of aperture, shutter speed and ISO (the measure of a digital camera sensor’s sensitivity to light, which used to relate to film speed back in the day).
He also said students should learn the Zone System. This is a system by which the photographer understands and controls every level of light and dark to best advantage. “Learning how to put the exposure triangle and the Zone System together to properly expose the scene will allow the photographer to capture the dynamic tonalities of the image,” he said.
For those a little less technical, both Cherry and May had different suggestions.
Cherry talked about the high degree of contrast in the rain forest on a sunny day. “With the light coming through the trees, if you try to shoot it overall it becomes really contrasty, the lights are too light with no detail, as are the dark areas,” he explained.
How to compensate?
“My first tip is to get really, really close to something,” Cherry said. “Zoom in and go right up to a mushroom, or the berries on the trees. If you shoot really, really close you have a much better chance of getting a good exposure and shot.”
His second tip is to add an object to give a sense of scale to the enormous trees in a rain forest. Without a frame of reference to the size, the enormous giant trees look like just everyday trees in a picture.
May’s top tip for shooting the rain forest depends on the weather. “Go when it rains,” he said. “The rain forest is only alive when it’s wet and damp.” The soft light of a rainy or high overcast day makes the colors pop, he explained. “It’s a nicer experience, there are way fewer people,” May said.
Another attraction in the rainforest can be waterfalls. Cherry said most people like waterfall pictures where the water is a white blur while the surrounding scenery is sharp and focused. His tip is to use a tripod and set the shutter speed at 1/25 of a second. If it’s a bright day, that speed may require the photographer to drop the ISO as low as the camera will go. For some, Cherry said, that is 100; some go as low as 50.
Another scenic star is the ocean, which can be completely different from one day to the next or even from one minute to the next.
“I like to photograph the ocean after a storm,” May said. He explained his technique for shooting at the edge of the storm: “I like to shoot through the waves and see the color of the water with the blue skies behind them.”
Huffman had a few other tips. “I would say get down low. If possible, lay down on the sand and get a different perspective of the waves coming in,” he said. He also noted that it’s critical to protect your camera and keep it dry; rogue waves can catch an unwary photographer by surprise.
His other tip includes traveling up to Kalaloch Beach at low tide and exploring tide pools. “Find the lowest tides you can; the stunning sea life in those tide pools is phenomenal,” Huffman said.
From the ocean to the air to the land, lots of wild animals call this area home. One critical key is a long lens; a telephoto lens will bring the image up close while allowing plenty of distance so the animal and the photographer both feel more comfortable. “One of the more critical things for a person to understand is that those animals are in fact wild. They are not domesticated animals you can get close to with impunity,” he stressed.
Huffman’s tip: “The best thing is to give them room. I suggest getting a long lens, understanding their environment, then be patient. They are not going to hang around if you are doing a lot of moving and such,” he said.
May has captured incredible images of local wildlife. “The best tip is to study the animals. You have to be a good naturalist, you have to know their body language,” he said. “You are going into their world,” he said. “Let them be comfortable with you out in their world.”
He, too, recommends a long lens, and a tripod. “It’s all about respecting the animals. You don’t need camouflage, you need to learn the animals. It takes patience and it takes time. It takes years to build up that level of knowledge,” he noted.
Point and shoot
While many tips have been offered with a single-lens reflex camera in mind, there are many people who use the more compact cameras known popularly as “point and shoot.”
“You can do anything with a point and shoot,” said May. “It’s learning the limitation of your camera and working within that.”
Cherry, too, said the cameras can work for many. “You can get great photos with them, you just don’t have the control,” he said. “You don’t get features like shutter speed or f-stop (aperture), so all you have to worry about is composition.”
The smaller sensor means that photos perhaps can’t be blown up too big when making a print such as an 8-by-10, but that’s not an issue for many people.
May summed up his philosophy on smaller cameras: “It has more to do with the eyes behind them. A good photographer can take any camera and make good images.”
Janell Huffman’s quick tips for nature photography:
• Survey the scene and identify the story you are trying to tell. Identify what it is in that scene that excited you and made you want to capture the image.
• Tight is right. Get in close to the subject, either physically or with a zoom, so the subject is obvious to the viewer.
• Pay attention to the background. Look at 100 percent of the image. Once you take the picture, you may find something you didn’t see when you clicked the shutter.
• If it looks good, shoot it!