Q&A: Why is “knowing where to stand” so important to getting a sharp image?

“A good photograph is knowing where to stand.”– Ansel Adams

This is one of my favorite photography quotes by Ansel Adams, but you have to take into account that he was a master landscape photographer. One of my favorite images of him is the iconic image of him on top of his car to capture an image.   So when he said knowing where to stand, he was really talking about perspective.   Moving yourself and your camera to have a unique view or finding the most flattering angles for a flattering image of your subject with a visually appealing composition. But also about the phase angle of light to provide contrast and detail in your images.

For sharper or more detailed images, knowing the phase angle of light and when a polarizer would be beneficial will make your images sharper and contain micro shadows that provide detail.  Again, I’m not going to get technical about it, but learning how a polarizer works will help you know where to stand or when to put one on your lens.  When shooting a living moving subject, I usually choose to leave off the polarizer filter.  Reaching out towards the end of your lens to your subject might scare it off before being able to make the best use of it.

All of the images below were from an outing on Tuesday Nov. 24,  2015. I started out at the bridge and went to Magnolia Gardens.  Almost everyday I go out to shoot, I have a rough plan or idea of what I’m going to practice.  I know which lens I’m going to take with me when I leave the car and try to stay on task, but try to be flexible enough to see what is around and adapt also.  It was initially a very cold morning and frost was on the ground when I left the house and I didn’t think any birds would be out early.

My goal for the morning was “eyeballing creative and balanced exposures” for some landscape shots.    I was not going out to capture anything specific, but wanted to get some images without using the back of my screen or my histogram until I was done shooting at the location.  Before leaving a location, I will look at the images to see how I did on the exposures and see if need to try again.

Why do I do this?  If you “know” what the exposure should be approximately as you are walking up evaluate a shot,  getting the camera setup the way you want it is much faster with less trial and error.  So knowing where to stand becomes the hard part, and the exposure settings become second nature.

If you go out taking photos often, you will find that those special moments where the light, location and subjects are just right to create a unique and spectacular image are few and far between.  Anything you can do to practice or be ready for those moments helps.

Recognizing those moments is one challenge and then being ready to take advantage of those fleetingly changing elements as efficiently and effectively as possible is another challenge that practicing and pushing yourself helps accomplish.

After my 2nd location of getting some trees and moss “eyeballing” exposures, I walked up towards my third spot.  This thirds spot was a softball. I believe could almost shoot this location blindfolded I’ve been there so often, but as I was walking up I saw a immature  little blue heron(Bert) that had been there a few times the last few weeks.   If you follow me on facebook you would have seen some of the previous shots of Bert the last two weeks.  I spent so much time with him, I gave him a name.  lol  When I saw him, I turned around and “ran” back to the car, all the while thinking about what I wanted to capture when I returned.

I had my 17-40 L lens on which is my goto landscape lens and knew I wanted more length.  My previous visits with Bert, I had on my 300mm L IS f/4  lens, but a few times, I was able to get too close for the 300mm to have a DOF that I wanted.  At 10 feet from your subject at 300mm at F/8 that is just over one inch DOF.   (F/8 is where I start with my 300mm f/4 lens for the best quality image, corner to corner and I’ll blog about it later.)

I was planning to be closer  than 15 feet and wanted a deeper DOF,   so I grabbed my 70-200 f/2.8 L lens.  It does not have IS, but is one of my favorite lens when trying to be creative.  Also at 200mm at 10 feet, it has a 3 inch DOF at f/8 or  6 inches at 20 feet or at 100 mm 6 inches DOF at 10 feet.

As I headed back to Bert, I also knew that I wanted to get as low as possible  to smooth the background and get the light reflected from the water at the strongest point possible.  Also the lower you go as you get close the closer you can get before the bird feels threatened. Also you have to approach silently as possible.   Getting any animal at eye level or just below is a great angle for wildlife.  This is a wild bird, so it is going to go where the food is and it feels comfortable.

Since it was just above freezing, I was covered head to toe and I had on a black hoodie and gloves and the only skin exposed was behind my camera from the bird.  I was able to follow the bird for about 90 minutes total some of that time, standing in the swamp behind a tree and at another point I laided down where I expected the bird to feed as it made its way around the edge of the water.   I set up on where I expected the bird would feed and I would have an optimal view as long as nothing scared the bird away.  I also laid down where I could see into the water and not the reflected area behind it.  I did not need a polarizer in this case, to get the sharpest image.

This was one of those moments that I knew would not likely repeat itself with the same light angles and subject.  I took 600 photos during the 90 minutes following Bert.  500 of those shots were practice, anticipating the birds movements, catching the angles of the eyes, the subtle tilt of the head.  In this situation, I have a goal of 95% of the images to be in focus and on exactly on what I was aiming to be in focus, the eyes or the water droplets flying when eating.  (I’ll blog about my editing process later and my 95% goal.) When I done and I could not hold my arms up or still any longer, it was time for me to go home.

In this case, it was not about standing to get the best image, it was about laying down and getting dirty next to some cypress knees and letting Bert come to me.  I hope you have the chance to get to know your own “Bert”.

At 10 frames a second, there were only 10-20 seconds out of those 90 minutes that I was really looking to capture images of Bert that I thought were worth keeping. They are those moments that keep me going out to take photos every weekend.  But all of them are just as important to learn from.

Can you spot any of the images that I considered keepers?  I included only 4 shots of Bert that I would print.  Please, let me know which ones you think are my keepers are with comments on the images of Bert.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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