Category Archives: Field Techniques

Photographing from a Plane & the Dog Cloud

The Elusive Dog Cloud

The Elusive Dog Cloud

While I end up flying fairly often for work, I usually choose an aisle seat. They don’t seem as confining, and allow me to get up and move around if I choose. This is especially important on cross-country flights. But on a recent return flight to Atlanta from Los Angeles, I was able to get a window seat in first class on a new Delta Boeing 777-200LR. On this plane, there was only one lay-flat seat on each window side. It was the best of both worlds: window and aisle access all in one.

You can adjust your lay-flat seat into all kinds of positions. Since it moves and takes up so much room, each seat is in its own “pod”, surrounded by walls except for the opening to access it. While this is nice and private, the walls impede your direct access to most of the windows. (I found that only Row 5 had direct window access. I was in Row 4.)

Wanting to take advantage of window access to shoot with my new Nikon D850, I made sure to sit on the left side of the plane so it would be in shade most of the eastbound trip. I planned to use both my ZEISS 135mm f/2 Apo Sonnar T* and ZEISS Milvus 50mm f/2 macro lenses.

Right after takeoff from LAX, I noticed the pod wall made getting a DSLR and lens perpendicular to the window nearly impossible. Since this plane was meant for long flights at high altitudes (the flight preceding mine came in from Sydney, Australia), the multi-layered windows seemed particularly thick.

I had started with the 135mm lens, which was physically long enough to force me to hold the camera at an angle to the window. Even though the ZEISS 135mm lens is one of the sharpest ever made, I could never make a sharp image with it on the plane. I reluctantly abandoned it.

When I got home, I looked at the images on my desktop monitor, and saw just a narrow band of focus on each image I made with that lens. Focus rapidly dropped off in either direction from that narrow band. All those window layers had increasingly distorted the image the further away from the focus plane you looked.

Fortunately, I was just able to fit the D850 with the 50mm macro lens perpendicular to the window. Of course, if the lens was against the window, vibrations from the plane would have made every image blurry. So I had to hold it back just a little, while making sure to keep the window frame out of the photo. It was a tight fit, but I was able to get sharp images with this combination.

As we were approaching Atlanta, thunderstorms began to form. Our pilots zigzagged around them, which gave plenty of opportunities to photograph their incredible shapes. During one of our pivots, I saw and photographed the elusive Dog Cloud! Granted, it’s not quite as famous as Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, or Elvis sightings. But being a dog lover, I was glad to prove it exists.

Shooting from commercial airliners has plenty of challenges, but is fun and can be rewarding.

Thom Hogan’s Nikon Complete Guides

Late summer 2001, I swapped my beloved Nikon F5 film camera for a Nikon D1x. While I had been dabbling in digital using a Nikon Coolpix 990 compact digital camera, the D1x was my first digital SLR. I had been keeping up with the Nikon DSLR developments through Thom Hogan’s website, and decided it was time to make the switch.

Of course, the fundamentals of using a camera (aperture, shutter speed, focusing, etc.) were the same between film and digital. But digital brought so many other tools and techniques to learn (white balance, instant review, histograms, blinking highlight warnings, etc.), I decided to take a workshop with Thom so I could start to master using a DSLR. It was a wise choice, as I came away from that workshop with a good working knowledge of my new camera.

Well, Thom didn’t stop with workshops. Since the earliest days of Nikon DSLRs, Thom has written a series of incomparable users manuals, which he justly calls ”Complete Guides”. I download the fully searchable PDF e-books, then read them (and refer to them) on my iPad. They thoroughly explain every button, switch, wheel, and menu item in unsurpassed detail. If that’s all they did, they would be worth the read.

But they do much more. Thom suggests specific settings, and recommends against others, based on his long-time real-world use of the cameras. But, again, he does even more than that. For each recommendation, Thom discusses how and why those settings will affect your photography. These discussions allow you to understand what each function or setting does, why it does it, and how you can best use it. If you own a Nikon DSLR, whether FX or DX, I cannot recommend Thom’s guides highly enough.

  • Even though I’ve been shooting with a pair of Nikon D810′s for over a year (and with a fairly similar D800E before that), I’ve been looking forward to his D810 book all along. Well, it’s now here. Even if you’re an experienced Nikon owner, if you own a D810 (or any other Nikon DSLR), you owe it to yourself to buy and read Thom’s Guides.

    ThomHoganNikonD810ManualCover

    Here’s a link to his D810/D810A Guide: http://www.dslrbodies.com/books/bythom-complete-guides-/nikon-d810-guide.html. Any of his guides can be accessed with the link to his home page: http://www.bythom.com/.

    ©2015 Tom Vadnais Photography

  • NANPA Field Event in the Smokies

    From April 30 through May 3, 2015, NANPA (North American Nature Photography Association) hosted a Regional Field Event in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Smokies). I helped lead the event with my great friends Willard Clay and Bill Lea. Together, we have led many Smokies workshops over many years, and had a lot of fun with a most wonderful group.

    Jakes Creek in Elkmont in the Smokies.

    Jakes Creek in Elkmont in the Smokies.

    We were based in Townsend, TN, known as The Quiet Side of the Smokies. Townsend is a wonderful little town just a 20 mile, half hour drive from the Knoxville airport. Our base, Talley Ho Inn is only about a mile from the Park entrance.

    Spring Tree in Fog in Cades Cove in the Smokies.

    Spring Tree in Fog in Cades Cove in the Smokies.

    This Field Event went from 5:00 PM Thursday evening at Talley Ho Inn and ran until the end of the optional critique session at 4:00 PM Sunday the 3rd. For more information on NANPA, including their Regional Field Events, check out this link: www.nanpa.org.

    Spring Tree in Cades Cove in the Smokies.

    Spring Tree in Cades Cove in the Smokies.

    This was a wonderful opportunity for participants to experience the most visited National Park in the country with three experienced nature photographers and teachers who have cumulatively led countless photo workshops in the Smokies over many years. All participants got to experience areas of the Park many of them had not even heard of.

    Dogwood along the Middle Prong of Little River in the Smokies.

    Dogwood along the Middle Prong of Little River in the Smokies.

    Spring is a luscious time to photograph the Smokies. Photographic opportunities include all kinds of amazing wildflowers, plenty of waterfalls and cascades, and the classic receding mountain views. Among my favorites are the vivid and varying Spring greens that are everywhere. Deer, birds, wild turkeys, and even a couple black bears were there for the wildlife and bird photographers. And while not strictly nature, the fascinating historic buildings in Cades Cove and Elkmont were outdoor photography favorites.

    Trillium and cascade along Tremont Road in the Smokies.

    Trillium and cascade along Tremont Road in the Smokies.

    Of course, Nature determined what we shot. Fortunately, She cooperated with us quite well. Areas we visited included Cades Cove, Elkmont, Tremont, and the Foothills Parkway overlooks.

    Deteriorating Elkmont Cabin in the Smokies

    Deteriorating Elkmont Cabin in the Smokies

    Throughout the Field Event, the instructors gave an overview of every place we visited, along with specific suggestions of what to shoot there. We then worked with participants in the field, assisting wherever we could.

    Spring Colors from Foothills Parkway overlook near the Smokies.

    Spring Colors from Foothills Parkway overlook near the Smokies.

    If you missed it, you really should watch the NANPA website for future events. www.nanpa.org

    ©2015 Tom Vadnais Photography. All Rights Reserved.

    Go Back

    In recent posts, I have stressed the importance of making a photograph when you first encounter an interesting scene or subject. If you don’t shoot it right then, you may never have another opportunity. You might not ever make it back there, or the scene might change significantly. Of course, if you do go back, conditions will inevitably be different. You just hope they’ll be even better.

    Trying to get a better version of the photograph you first envisioned is a good reason to go back. But further exploration of the area is an even better reason.

    Many photographers seem to have a mental checklist of locations, or even of specific shots, that they want to capture. Once they go to that place or get that photo, they can check it off their list, then go on to the next scene, never to return. Continue reading

    Shoot It Now, Revisited

    In the first Shoot It Now post, I described how a scene can unexpectedly change at almost any time when part of the subject is removed. Scenes can also be irrevocably altered when potential subjects are torn down, uprooted, broken, burned, or collapse.

    Even though I am primarily a landscape photographer, I also love shooting dilapidated buildings, cars, machines, etc. There’s just something about the textures and patina of those fading relics I enjoy capturing.

    During the Spring and Fall workshops at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont (www.gsmit.org/photo.html), we always take participants to photograph details of the old, deteriorating homes in Elkmont. It’s one of our most popular shooting locations. A few of those homes are being saved and renovated by the National Park Service, but most are collapsing, and will eventually be torn down and removed.

    As an aside, because many of those houses are crumbling, the National Park Service prohibits anyone from going in them. They will ticket you if they catch you inside. This makes a lot of sense, since the floors, walls, and roofs could (and do) give way without warning. If you’re planning to photograph old structures anywhere, please be very careful about exploring inside them. Continue reading

    Shoot It Now

    Old Chevrolet at Wil's Garage, Chama, NM

    Old Chevrolet at Wil’s Garage, Chama, NM

    Have you ever been out shooting and, for some reason or other, decide that even though the scene is worth working, you’ll just come back and do it later? I’ve found that rarely works out as hoped.

    In September 2014, I saw this old Chevrolet parked in front of this old garage in northern New Mexico. It looked like a scene that had been frozen in time—possibly for decades. What an opportunity!

    But…it was raining fairly hard on and off. And even during the rain, the overcast sky was pretty bright. Then every once in a while, the sun would peak through the broken clouds for a minute or so. This would cause the scene to be strongly backlit, losing all detail. But the image didn’t work from any other angle. Maybe I should just come back in better conditions.

    To add to my hesitations, I was supposed to be meeting my buddy Wes from Mesa, AZ, who was driving over for a week of photographing Fall color.

    It sure was tempting to just try to shoot it later. Continue reading

    Fall Colors in the Smokies Workshop with Willard Clay (and Me) – Oct. 18-21, 2013

    What could be better than being in the right place at the right time to capture the incredible Autumn colors in the Smokies, except to be there with enthusiastic fellow photographers, plus the expertise of four experienced photography teachers?

    Smokies Fall Color Over River

    Workshops through the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont are unique because they feature four instructors and lots of field work, plus practical classroom and post-processing time—all topped off with a fun critique of images made during the weekend. In addition to truly useful discussions and feedback about the images, the critique session features wine and cheese. And lots of laughs.

    Having four instructors guarantees you different points of view, and as much or as little individual assistance as you’d like throughout the entire weekend.

    Yours truly starts the weekend at 2:00 pm on Friday, October 18, with a discussion of field equipment and techniques to ensure that you can capture the images you intend.

    I also end the long weekend with a couple hours of post-processing instruction from 10:00 through noon on Monday, October 21. Using images made during the weekend, we discuss and demonstrate techniques you can use to get the most out of your images—not that yours need much at all, of course!

    As a special attraction this Fall, we’re going to have a raptor shoot at the Tremont campus for anyone who wants to participate.

    The entire weekend, including field and classroom instruction, dorm room, and all food is only $611! Even transportation to the field locations is included, if you’d like. That’s quite a bargain.

    There is a limit on the number of participants so we can keep the student/instructor ratio small, so reserve your place today. You’ll soon see why so many people come back each year.

    For more information, and to register, please check out this site: http://www.gsmit.org/fallphoto.html.

    ©2013 Tom Vadnais Photography. All Rights Reserved.

    Comfort Zones & Proper Equipment – Part Two

    (Note: Part One is just below this post.)

    When we left off, I discovered I didn’t have the right lenses nor the right techniques for capturing birds and critters. But that’s not the end of the story. Hence, Part Two.

    As I briefly mentioned in Part One, I also quickly discovered a geared tripod head can be next to worthless for moving subjects. My usual head is an Arca-Swiss C1 Cube, which I absolutely love. Its extreme precision results from its fine-tooth gears that separately control up-and-down (pitch) and side-to-side (roll) motions.

    Here’s the beauty of a geared head. Let’s say something’s perfectly aligned from edge to edge in the viewfinder, but is a tad low. Rotating the proper knob will raise the front of the lens without affecting the side to side tilt at all.

    Sunrise at Anhinga Trail

    By contrast, loosening the tension on a ball head allows it to move freely in any direction, and may reposition the camera in a way you don’t want. To add insult to injury, many ball heads shift by even the tiniest amount when they are locked back down. You finally get the image perfectly aligned in the viewfinder, but then it moves when you lock the ball head down. Frustrating.

    What makes the geared head so perfect for stationary subjects makes it completely worthless for moving subjects (glaciers excluded). By the time you crank the adjustment knobs to capture that bird taking off, it has migrated to another state. But you can precisely frame where it was! Continue reading

    Comfort Zones & Proper Equipment – Part One

    Thanks to Bill Lea, in February I visited Everglades National Park for the first time as one of the co-leaders of the NANPA Regional Event there. This is the first of two posts about what I learned during that trip.

    Before I saw Bill’s photographs for his forthcoming book, I hadn’t thought too seriously about shooting in the Everglades, despite how relatively close the Park is to Atlanta. It seemed like a flat, grassy, swampy area, where the big attractions are birds and critters. I don’t typically shoot birds and critters, nor flat, grassy, swampy areas. It didn’t sound like much of a destination for a landscape and travel photographer. Boy, was I ever wrong.

    Fortunately, for several days before the Event, Bill gave us an extensive (and photographically rewarding) tour of the Park, based on his five years of photographing there. I would never have figured out nor enjoyed the Everglades as quickly without Bill’s expert guidance. I found birds and critters fun and challenging to shoot (especially with my equipment), and found the landscape remarkably variable and beautifully photogenic. Now I can’t wait to go back.

    As an aside, living with Atlanta traffic, I misunderstood the concept of traveling to a park to shoot birds. During any given rush hour here, you could see so many birds shot within such a short time that it gets old pretty quick. But I get it now.

    Believe it or not, just like in many other parks, there are signs denoting elevations in the Everglades. Unlike my experiences in some of the Western parks, however, it wasn’t any harder to breathe even at the highest elevations. I felt pretty much the same at the Elevation 4 Feet sign as I had earlier at the Elevation 3 Feet sign. Guess I’ve stayed in pretty good shape.

    My first morning in the Park started with a sunrise shoot over Florida Bay at Flamingo. So far so good. I’m in my comfort zone with my lenses, geared tripod head, focusing cloth, remote release, and the rest of my usual landscape kit.

    Sunrise at Flamingo

    Sun’s fully up now, so landscape photography is done. It’s off to nearby Eco Pond to shoot birds. Hey, these bloody things move! What’s up with that? And they’re relatively small. And relatively far away. And just as soon as I compose my shot, it’s either changed or gone. There goes my comfort zone. Continue reading

    Using a Focusing Cloth

    At a workshop in Redwood National and State Parks back in 2003, Jack Dykinga gave me one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received for getting better images in the field: Use a focusing cloth. It was simple, had been around just about as long as photography itself, yet was rarely used by anyone but large format shooters. I adopted it back then for use with my DSLR, and have been using it ever since. For me, it has become as essential as my tripod and cable release.

    It helps me compose and focus, both physically and mentally. With it, I can easily see anything on my LCD, regardless of the ambient light. It helps keep wind, sprinkles, and even flying bugs out of my eyes while I’m shooting, helping me concentrate on my subject. With it, it’s much easier for me to check the corners and edges of my frame, and to look for merges throughout the image. It even allows me to use the Depth of Field preview function, regardless of how dark the image becomes when I push the button!

    It’s become so important to me, that I bring a spare when I travel in case something happens to the first one in the field. And as a final bonus, many of my shooting buddies have encouraged me to use it all the time—even when I’m not shooting. They say it’s a fantastic fashion accessory that looks great over me.

    My original focusing cloth, also known as a dark cloth, was a 36″x48″ Toyo-View focusing cloth that I got from B&H. After using it for a few years, I wanted something waterproof, breathable, darker, and more versatile. Besides, B&H no longer carried the Toyo-View cloth. After six months of testing various combinations of fabrics and Velcro placements, I now use my own Tom Vadnais Photography 36″x48″ waterproof focusing cloth. It’s an improved design that’s handmade right here in the USA, and is available only from me. Please e-mail me at tom@tomvadnais.com if you’re interested in ordering one directly (US$84 + US$5 shipping and handling to a US address). It’s black on the inside, to give you a dark area to shoot from, and white on the outside to reflect heat. There are strips of Velcro on both sides of one end that cinch the cloth around your lens, making it fast and easy to attach and remove when changing lenses in the field.

    Focusing Cloth in the Field

    After wrapping one end around your lens, the rest of the cloth simply drapes over your camera, your head and shoulders, and partially down your back. This eliminates most of the stray light around you, allowing you to see much better through your viewfinder. You can’t believe how much easier it is to concentrate on your composition and focusing when surrounded by relative darkness. It also allows you to see everything on your LCD, even in the brightest sunlight.

    As you can see from the photograph below, it can also help you blend in with any ghosts you may encounter when out shooting.

    Focusing Cloth and Ghost

    Now, do you have to spend US$84 on a commercially available waterproof dark cloth with Velcro. Of course you do—-if it’s one from me! Not really. A US$5 black bath towel from a discount store works just fine. You can drape the towel over your lens, camera, and head, as my friend Sue is doing during a workshop in the Smokies. (Her towel is dark blue, but is still effective. In general, though, you want a black cloth or towel, so you don’t have any visual color contamination while you’re shooting under it.)

    Sue with Dark Towel

    Like any other new tool in photography, using a dark cloth takes a little getting used to at first. Think back to when you first used a tripod, remote release, or any filters. But almost right away, you’ll likely find the benefits so outweigh any learning curve that you’ll adopt it full time. I did.