The Traveling Photographer: A Guide to Great Travel Photography (2014)
17. The Small Traps
A Plea for Concentration
“And that little dark spot in the background of the photo, that’s an extremely rare bird; there are only a few of them left in the world.” Unfortunately, the animal that seemed so large and detailed to the excited photographer while looking through the viewfinder is the size of a pinhead in the actual picture. It’s nothing but a splotch in the landscape. The picture still has value as a memento, but it’s disappointing as a stand-alone photograph. What happened?
The more intently you focus on your main subject, the more likely you are to overlook other aspects of the scene (and not just parts of what is visible in your viewfinder). We often don’t see what’s there; we see what we’re concentrating on. The more we concentrate on a single object, the easier it is to allow other objects and details to slip through the cracks.
A full-format shot of these flamingos wasn’t possible so I opted for a more graphical composition instead. Below: Nikon D700 • 500 mm • 1/1000 s • f/10 • ISO 1600. Opposite: Nikon D300 • 285 mm • 1/400 s • f/10 • ISO 200
Luckson, our friendly guide in Zambia, really deserved a better positioning within the image area. But my zoom lens didn’t have a shorter focal length, and I would have had to sacrifice the moment to change the lens. The solution would have been to use portrait format. | Nikon D300 • 300 mm • 1/800 s • f/4 • ISO 800
We may not be aware of the actual size of our subject relative to its surroundings, or we may fail to notice distracting elements that appear at the border (especially if they’re not visible in the viewfinder) or in the foreground of our images (e.g., grass, straw, or poles). We are oblivious to these distracting elements because we’re focusing – literally and figuratively – on another subject, one that’s far away.
The small traps that pop up in photography when we aren’t paying attention include the infamous clipping off of a person or animal’s body part. They include capturing a well-known attraction in the best lighting only to discover that a corner of it is missing in the final image. They include camera shake and times when the subject’s movement leads to unwanted blur – in the latter case, the chosen shutter speed wasn’t fast enough for the subject’s movement.
Crossing the minimum focusing distance is also treacherous – for example, when you want to bring that beautiful rose in a regal garden as close as possible to your camera’s sensor. The autofocus churns and churns with no success while the eager photographer gets even closer to the rose while failing to pick up that they’re moving in the wrong direction (even though the camera usually indicates this). The list of pitfalls goes on.
I overlooked the distracting elements along the upper edge of this photo from the dunes of Coro in Venezuela. This oversight is frustrating, but in this case, it can be quickly corrected afterwards with a crop. Nikon D700 • 35 mm • 1/320 s • f/9 • ISO 200
The bad news is that there are small traps that can cause significant problems at almost every step of the picture-taking process. The good news, however, is that you can prevent most of these problems by taking the proverbial step back to give yourself some distance from your work. This is true in an emotional sense, too, since every photographer at some point or another loses his or her head in the excitement of working with a particular subject and light.
The critical control of your image content, image composition, and technology is ultimately a matter of concentration. Concentrate not only on your main subject, but also on the entire composition of your image and its technical parameters. Before you release the shutter, check again to make sure that your composition actually delivers what it promises.
Is the main subject large enough with respect to the rest of the image area, or does it appear large only because it’s at the center of your attention at the moment? Are there any distracting elements between you and your subject that you haven’t consciously processed? Is there a dramatic brightness contrast that the camera will accentuate much more than the human eye? This list could go on, but with time and practice many of these checks will become second nature.
Down the drain: To this day, I’m frustrated that I didn’t have a tripod when I took this photo after a thunderstorm in Botswana. Setting the lens on a guard railing wasn’t enough to produce a sharp image. Nikon D300 • 450 mm • 1/15 s • f/5.6 • ISO 800
To return to the rare bird mentioned in the beginning, there are ways of dealing with the situation when you still wish to photograph a subject even though it’s exceptionally far away. Since many camera models have such a high resolution nowadays, one option is to make use of a detail enlargement. This allows the subject to appear larger than it actually was. Another option is to make a virtue of photographic necessity: A small red bird in a sea of green grass can make for an interesting subject if the composition works and the focus is well executed.
That’s also more or less how I proceeded when photographing flamingos in Peru (images on pages 146/147), when I wouldn’t have been able to take a full-format picture even with a 500 mm lens. The images I produced emphasize the graphic quality of the scene and reveal the animals’ habitat.
There was no getting close to this Carmine Bee-eater in Botswana, so I opted for a composition that emphasized the contrast of colors and the animal’s habitat. Nikon D300 • 300 mm • 1/2500 s • f/3.2 • ISO 400
Very curious: This Puffin came closer than the lens could focus. Nikon D300 • 300 mm • 1/500 s • f/4.5 • ISO 400
Halfway between skepticism and curiosity: An encounter in Peru. Nikon D700 • 190 mm • 1/200 s • f/4 • ISO 1600