Michael's Rediscovery of Nature

Ramblings and observations of a former biologist and a lifelong naturalist, who has recently returned to his roots in east Texas. After a many years of working from coast to coast in an industry far removed from biology, it has been a pleasant change of geography, activity, and attitude. No stressful job decked out in a three piece suit. No city living. Instead there is a rediscovery of the woods, of something scurrying through the leaves, of the clear notes of a bird call, and of reliving the joy that I had when nature was a playground and a classroom.

Going From "Nice picture" to OH! My gosh! That's beautiful!"

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For most of us self-taught photographers, there is a considerable learning curve as we begin to learn how to take "good" pictures. We normally progress a little at a time as we learn about exposure, light, composition, and increase our knowledge of behavior whether that be of people or animals, depending on our favored subject.  We progress to taking "good" pictures that others do occasionally admire. This often leads to a  plateau of competence. We continue taking "good" pictures and there is gradual, slight improvement as we learn more. But then, for some, there is a giant leap. All at once the pictures go for "good" to soaring to a whole new level. 

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How fast we go through the process is highly variable with each individual and their circumstances. There are some who progress in a matter of a year or two; others take many years; and, of course, some never make the transition. 

Now, I do want to make something clear here. I am talking about self-taught photographers. Whether that means reading photography how-to books, watching YouTube videos, or just shooting and shooting pictures. There is a different curve for those who have more formal training. With formal photography education, there are certain steps that are taken and it naturally includes the factor that allows photographers to go to the next level of success.  Success being defined as taking exceptional photos. 

Recently we (my friend and fellow photographer, Kristi Thomas) created another Facebook group page for posting nature photos taken on and around Lake O' the Pines. Actually, it was initially created for birds of that area, but after about two days, we expanded it to anything to do with nature. 

The group, Birds of Lake O' the Pines, immediately attracted a lot of people who not only enjoy seeing the photos but also post their own. We have a lot of good nature photographers in the area and I hoped they would join in with us posting their work. That happened almost immediately. I also hoped that everyone of all photo skills would also post but was afraid that some people might be a little intimidated but the more experienced photographer's work and not post theirs.  While that may be happening, we have had a lot of posts from people with all level of photographic skills, which is great. That is what the group is supposed to be. 

We also had the goal of making the group mildly educational. You will see that in many of the posts, we have information about the subject. There isn't just the name of the bird or dragonfly, but there is often a bit of detail about them. Sometimes, people post photos of birds, insects or flowers and ask for an ID. Wow!  That is great, too. It is exactly what we wanted this group to be: a place where you can see nice photos of nature in this area along with educational information to help others learn more about nature and to increase their enjoyment. 

With that thought in mind (of education), I noticed that we have several people posting pictures who obviously have some skills and are contributing their work for us to enjoy. A few really seem close to making that jump that I was speaking of earlier -  ready to progress into a new level of photography.  Some of them, I know, will eventually make the leap but having been involved in training/education for most of my life, it is really hard for me not to jump in and make suggestions to a couple of them who seem read for the next step. However, I know how that might not come across the way I intend it. It could be seen as being rather egotistical in a way. Others might find it insulting. In truth, I mean it in a very positive helpful manner. I obviously like what they are doing and care enough that I would like to share a bit of information. Goodness knows I would love to have just about anyone do that for me. It could have helped me make a much quicker transition to the leap I am speaking of in this blog. I hope I have another leap coming for while my skills are advanced, I know I can be so much better, have so much more to learn, and would welcome someone who has made the next transition point out the path to me. 

Rather than contact anyone directly, I am going to explain the simplicity of the "leap" here. 

Let me start by saying this big progression is not from buying a better camera or high dollar lens. Your photographic tools are definitely a factor in the quality of your photos but a minor factor compared to learning about light, focus, composition, and other photography basics. If you are using a point and shoot camera, then move to a DSLR of reasonable quality, you are going to have at least somewhat better results, but that is not going to make the big leap that I am talking about. 

So, let me go back to the old days for just a second. You know the ones - where I was taking photos with a film camera of animals of that time period, a feeding brontosaurus in the swamp, Trynasaurus rex stalking nearby, etc. 

With film, you shot and shot and shot - hoping that your settings were correct. Then you turned the film in at the drugstore and a week later got your pictures back. Then you could evaluate your skills. With time, you got at least fairly good at your camera settings or failure drove you to leave your camera on the shelf.  

Problems were rampant. Since it took so long to get your photos back, your feedback to yourself on settings was delayed and sometimes you couldn't really remember if you were shooting at 1/250 f/8 or was it f/4? Then, too, there really was a lot of variety with your processor. Some of the places who developed your film were competent and produced good work. Others were rather haphazard and the results could really vary. 

If you were really serious about photography in the film days, you either found a professional photo lab to process your film, which cost big bucks, or you got a darkroom.

My pictures were often admired by friends and acquaintances and I really was mostly pleased with them. However, I know they were certainly not up to the standards that I wanted to reach. My photos of dragonflies got "oohs" and "ahs" from my friends, but when I looked at the ones in John Shaw's Guide to Nature Photography, I knew mine were just "good" and not where I wanted. 

I put together a black and white darkroom. Of course, I really didn't care about black and white in the long run. So, I upgraded that to a color darkroom. There was a bit of a learning curve and a bit of expense, but wow, was there ever a difference. All at once I could take a negative and instead of getting a good photo from the drugstore processor, I could make a really nice photo where I controlled the color values, the density, the saturation, and so many other factors. I could burn in light areas and lighten the dark spots. I could also crop it for a better composition. It was such an incredible change. My photography took a giant leap. 

Well, obviously, you can see where I am going. Digital cameras give one a lot of settings to help us take better photos. Some of those include adding warmth and other color filters to the images. Many of our digital cameras came with software that also allows one to make some pretty nice adjustments. You can darken, lighten, change color values, and density. These are good tools to have but in most cases, they are toys compared to the better software. 

So, here we are in a nutshell. To take that giant leap to better photos, invest in photo processing software. I will go further than that and say to invest in good photo processing software. 

So many of the pictures that are posted to Birds of Lake O' the Pines (and other photo groups) are nice photos that just need a bit of tweaking. Now, I am not talking about going in and adding and distorting the original to make a completely different picture. I mean making the normal adjustments to bring out the best of the photo that you took.  There is a place for the more advanced changes and in some cases, manipulation, but that is not at all what I am talking about. 

You really need to think of your original digital photo as being film, in a way. Your camera, depending on its settings has already modified the image slightly - usually adding a bit of sharpening, balancing the color, enhancing the color a bit, and other small filtering actions before it saves the image to your memory card usually as a jpg file. (Advanced users usually shoot in RAW). What you are doing with the software is further controlling those factors - just like I used to do in the darkroom. Now you do it with photo processing software. It will take your photography to a whole new level. You will be amazed. And, on top of that, it is relatively easy. As a matter of fact, some of the software has an AUTO feature where they will analyze your photo and make changes automatically. Sometimes that is good; sometimes it is not, but it does often get close enough that you can make minor adjustments to get where you want it to be. At least, until you learn how to use all the tools yourself. 

Here is just a very simple example:

Nice shot just as it came out of the camera: 
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Lightly processed with Lightroom (2 minutes at the most):
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The difference is dramatic. I will likely post more examples in a followup post.

It seems that there is a new photo processing software out every month. It can get a bit confusing. Some of them are free but any of them that are worth using are going to have some costs in money as well as time. That won't be a fortune or, usually, all that much of a time investment to at least get competent. 

So, what do I suggest that you use? Well, start off with the software that came with your camera. That will give you a starting point and allow you to get some experience with the tools and controls. But if you want to really make a difference then you should look at the better software. 

Here are some suggestions: 

  • Adobe Elements - nice basic controls with a fair number of automatic features. Cost: $79.  I started with this software.
  • Adobe Lightroom - hands down the best editing software for photographers and the number one choice of most professionals. I use it 90% of the time, going to Photoshop when I need a few advanced features. Cost: $9.99 a month subscription with Adobe that includes Photoshop. This is a bargain. The learning curve is not that bad for there are a lot of YouTube videos that explain every section. I can show someone how to use its basic features, that you would use most of the time, in an hour or so. 
  • Adobe Photoshop - incredible software but a steep learning curve. Not really recommended but it comes with the Lightroom subscription and does have some features that really assist with Lightroom at times. Cost: $9.99 a month subscription that includes Lightroom.
  • GMP - a little clutzy but it has some decent tools. The best thing about it is that is free. No comparison to the first on this list. 
  • Paintshop Pro - decent but a little clutzy and not always easy to use. Some decent tools but no comparison to the first three on this list. 
  • Phase One Capture One - good alternative to Lightroom/Photoshop, but has a way to go to have as many tools or to work as well. Cost: $299

There are tons of others but if you are serious about photography, you really should consider Lightroom. 

I will do a followup blog post later with more dramatic examples.

It is possible that we (our site members) may offer a quick start course to photo editing if there is enough interest. 

 

 

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