In Sickness and in Health

dandelionI often push the limits of acceptable shooting conditions in this blog to demonstrate the versatile nature of photography as both a fun pastime and a window to the woods. For me these are the primary functions of this beloved activity, so I don’t wait around for the “stars to align” before venturing out for a shoot. Outdoor photographers are often lumped into the categories of “farmers” and “hunters”. The farmers tout their careful planning and precision in cultivating the epic cover shot, while the hunters are portrayed as aimless trigger-happy tourists wandering around with their camera’s in burst mode. I contend that exploration is an essential part of the creative process and I’d proudly don the badge of “hunter” in reference to my photographic modus operandi. While “hunting” isn’t the best way to furnish your portfolio, it’s a necessary part of the process of uncovering original compositions. Shooting through the sub-prime also sharpens your skills, preparing you for that trophy-shot when optimum conditions arise. Sure, there must be a breaking point to this no-holds-barred photographic pursuit. Well, last weekend’s onslaught of obstacles had me ready to finally throw in the towel….but I’m sure glad I didn’t.

With the remnants of a tropical storm approaching, a backlog of work to complete, and a missed Fed-ex lens delivery, I had plenty of excuses to cancel last weeks four-day photography outing. The forecast was colored with unsavory descriptors including “soggy”, “raw”, and “unseasonably cold”. Let’s just say the beaver ponds weren’t exactly calling my name. Just when I was ready to scrap the whole trip my trusty Fed-ex driver spotted my truck in the yard on his way back home. The after hours drop-off was much appreciated, and a 300mm telephoto lens was now waiting to be unpacked and taken for a test drive. With renewed enthusiasm, I loaded up the kayak and headed north.

bull browsingThe sun was setting as I passed the 45th parallel, and I had just enough time to scout out an old clear-cut for moose before completely running out of daylight. Just as soon as I hopped out of the truck I spotted a nice looking bull browsing on saplings about fifty yards through the clearing. He detected me right away, but showed little interest and continued his eating routine in the light rain. I enjoyed the view from a distance snapping shots with the 300mm f4 telephoto. The lens had nice reach for handheld glass, but the low-light conditions left much to be desired cranking out shots at 4000 ISO to get an acceptable exposure. With all of my attention on the browsing bull, I completely overlooked his companion who was slowly approaching me from the opposite direction. It was a yearling bull who appeared to be joining dad for dinner while reminding me to pay attention to my surroundings. I said goodnight, and headed back to the truck.

mom and daughterThe next morning I was back in the woods at 5 AM accompanied by yet another pair of moose. This time it was mom and daughter, and the two were less carefree than the guys from the night before. They spotted me right away, and suggested that they’d rather have a private breakfast by trotting off deeper into the woods. The rain was really coming down now, but somehow the mosquitos didn’t seem to mind at all. It felt like a good opportunity to go for a drive so I cruised over to Maine for some backroad sight seeing.

In between the passing wiper blades I saw a variety of wildlife as I headed deeper into the woods and closer to the Canadian border. An otter scurried across the battered road in front of me, but the downpour was not inviting photo-ops. Nonetheless, the forest was bristling with activity including fox, porcupine, baby woodchucks, and an adorable family of woodcocks taking their time crossing the road as I waited. In the mix were a couple more cow moose and of course, plenty of deer. I drove for hours hoping to prove the forecasters wrong, patiently waiting for a chance to take the kayak out for a paddle. My wishes were denied and the day passed without a spell of dry weather. My spirits were deflated by the time I arrived at my room that night, but this was only the beginning of my troubles. young doeIn my hurried decision to depart on this trip I had made a big mistake. I packed my truck to full capacity with camera gear, rain coats, kayaking equipment and dry changes of clothes but overlooked an essential component—food. No, I wasn’t going to starve, but I was subject to four days of rural gas station cuisine. By the second night my stomach erupted into full-blown rebellion and my lonely motel room would serve as my hospital bed for the next 24 hours. Granted, I was not exactly roughing it with basic cable and a bathroom, but this is certainly not where I wanted to be spending my weekend.

I suffered through the night hoping for a triple recovery of health, weather, and spirits. But, the morning came, and my condition only seemed to worsen. My bed-ridden day was spent careening through bouts of sweat, chills, nausea, and stomach pain. My stubborn approach to recovery consisted of just a few simple remedies: sleep, hydration, and denial.

As the evening approached, I’d exhausted my ability to let this ailment consume any more of my weekend trip. In complete rejection of my symptoms I took a quick shower and hopped in the truck. I was going to kayak regardless of how miserable I felt. I had spotted a small beaver pond the day before and decided to pursue it. It was in the middle of nowhere, and required a little bit of hiking to get to, but looked like perfect moose habitat. I made it about halfway there before all bodily systems started shutting down. My nausea forced me to pull the truck over, and I was back asleep, this time in the middle of the woods. I was parked and sleeping for a little over an hour when a humming bird flew into my driver side window bringing an abrupt and startling end to my nap. Back to reality, I started up the truck and continued on my mission. I spotted the pond, and pulled off the road trying to get in as close as possible. There were still a couple hundred yards to hike, so I loaded up the kayak and pulled it like a sled down to the water. Once I was in the water my spirits were back. Right away, I was greeted by a beaver leading the way towards a larger opening in the pond. I paddled across and ventured on through a small stream, pulling my way forward one handful of grass at a time, as it was too tight to paddle. The stream opened up to yet another open body of water. The scene was idyllic. The overcast sky made the lush June vegetation burst with color. The rain had stopped, and the marsh was singing with life accompanied by the percussion of slapping beaver tails. I now knew I’d made the right decision in venturing out, and my greatest reward was yet to come. As I paddled onward I heard a rustling in the brush that was making its way closer. Watching the saplings bend over as it drew nearer, I was clearly in for a formidable visitor. Suddenly, an enormous bull moose appeared in front of me a mere fifteen or twenty feet away!

bull I literally had to start back paddling to avoid running right into him. As he swiftly waded into the water I was made aware of how vulnerable I was in the knee-deep pond. Once I’d backed up to a comfortable distance, my heart rate slowed down, and the camera came out. He spent the next twenty minutes dunking his head into the marsh for a bite to eat, coming up for air every ten seconds or so. It was an unforgettable encounter, and worth every last ounce of effort to see!

Shooting Through the Rain

soaked artichoke

The Northeast is soaking up a heavy helping of rainfall just as photographers are primed to get outside and capture the burgeoning spring flora greening up our landscape. While the wet weather can be a hindrance, it also provides new photographic opportunities. The overcast sky acts as a giant soft-box creating gorgeous even lighting and brilliant colors perfect for photographing fall foliage, or a budding spring forest.

While the rain tends to keep us cooped up indoors, sometimes it can have the opposite affect on a wildlife subject. I stumbled across this cow moose in the middle of the afternoon enjoying a nice sun shower and a bite to eat. With a little bit of preparation, I was able to capture the shot while keeping my gear dry. cow in the rainI usually use cheap plastic rain sleeves which easily cover up my 5D Mark iii, a 70-200mm f2.8 lens and hood. You can also spend a few extra bucks on a heavy-duty rainguard, but I like how the lighter plastic versions easily fit into my pocket on days when the rain is intermittent. When shooting in the rain, I try to pack light, and always leave any gear that isn’t weather sealed behind. I suggest sticking to one lens with internal zoom, and be sure to keep the hood on. You’ll want to save any lens changes for a dry environment, so a versatile lens like the Canon 70-200mm,  or something wider like a 24-105mm f4 are good choices.

A Silver Lining

Understandably, many people are not going to risk taking their valuable gear out on a rainy day. I’ve never come across a warranty that covers water damage, and insurance plans are often the same way. If you’re not up for the gamble, keep your gear safe indoors, but be ready for a break in the weather.  It’s also nice to get outside right after the rain lets up. The cloud cover is still offering great light, and the rain sleeve can come off giving you better access to the camera’s LCD display and custom functions. The dry sky allows for vertical camera angles giving you an ants-eye-view of your subject, literally dripping with added interest.

tulip in the rain


Sailor's Sky EgretSticking it out during inclement weather always seems to pay off for me in one way or another. If I haven’t taken a photo that peaked my interest, its a pretty good indication that my work isn’t done yet. I can’t tell you how many times I find the shot I’m after in the final moments of daylight, putting my camera’s ISO capabilities to the test as the sun has sunk out of sight. With a little bit of diligence you can get that silver lining shot, even on those rainy days.

P. Brian Machanic: Insights on a Career in Wildlife and Nature Photography

Brian Machanic LambsP. Brian Machanic’s wildlife photography has been published throughout the world, and we’re privileged to have had the chance to ask the native Vermonter a few questions about his career. He offers valuable insights to aspiring wildlife photographers, and reminisces about the film era, shooting wildlife around the globe, and his personal relationship with nature.

Forest Forward: 
You started Nature’s Eye Studio back in the film-era of photography. What are the challenges you’ve experienced shooting wildlife with film versus digital?
Brian Machanic: I began serious wildlife and scenic photography over 35 years ago, prior to the advent of digital photography. As the digital industry evolved, the advantages quickly became apparent. You were exonerated from the tedium of choosing the appropriate ASA film for the project at hand and hoping that you captured the quality image(s) that you sought before the interruption of having to put in a fresh 36 frame roll of film. I can’t tell you the number of times that I missed a great image while in a film-changing interlude. Then, too, there was the huge advantage of being able to see immediately on an LCD panel the image that you had captured, rather than having to wait until you received the developed slide film back from the lab. As a corollary, it was far less expensive to shoot digitally, where you could immediately delete unsatisfactory images and make adjustments in exposure and composition before tripping the shutter again. Also, as memory cards evolved from a few hundred MB to 16 or more GB, it became possible to shoot hundreds of images on the card before storing the pictures on a remote hard drive, reformatting the card, and starting all over again. Bonanza! Gone, too, was the need to scan the print or slide film before making computerized image adjustments.

Brian Machanic CardinalForest Forward:
Your wildlife photography includes subjects from all over the world. Do you have a favorite place to shoot nature photography, and how does the Northeast stack up against the other places you’ve traveled when it comes to shooting wildlife?

Brian Machanic: I’ve been privileged to be able to do nature photography on many continents, and have found myself totally captivated by the subjects at hand, whether  it’s a back yard hummer, a polar bear in the Arctic, or penguins in the Antarctic, etc.  Nature is so diverse and exciting! From a business standpoint, magazines and stock photo agencies will accept a diversity of subject matter, and web sites facilitate the sale of the same, but there’s no question that local retail sales are largely driven by the clients’ desire to acquire images of scenes and wildlife indigenous to the area. Also, we are blessed to have a diversity of wildlife and topography here in the Northeast, and one could easily spend many years photographing just in this area. Bottom line is that you’ve got to go where the desired birds and animals are, whether it’s finding a bog in Vermont that a big bull moose is frequenting, or a river in Alaska where brown bears are gorging on salmon.

Brian Machanic Moose

Forest Forward: Many of Forest Forward’s readers are amateur photographers and nature enthusiasts. What advice would you offer to young photographers in this field seeking a career in the profession today? How has the business changed since you established Nature’s Eye Studio in 1990?

Brian Machanic: To make a profitable business out of wildlife and scenic photography takes a great deal of devotion and willingness to cope with hardships and frustration. You have to capture top quality images and be able to merchandize them.  It’s all about establishing a name for yourself. There are millions of folks out there now who are eager to see their images in print, and are clicking away with everything from cell phones to sophisticated professional gear. I’d recommend getting the best camera bodies and lenses that you can afford, since that gives you a leg up technologically. Do as much internet research as possible, both on photographic technology and techniques, as well as on recommended sites for photographing your desired subject matter. Be prepared to spend hours and days waiting for that “magic moment” when you can capture just the right pose or just the right light, etc. The adage that “patience is a virtue” certainly applies to nature photography. Also, to minimize non-productivity, be sure to know the locales that your subject matter frequents. You won’t find a ruffed grouse in a cow pasture or a bobolink in deep woods!

Brian Machanic Katadhin FallsForest Forward
: Forest Forward’s primary goal is to share the beauty of our region’s natural landscapes and wildlife in an effort to advocate for conservation and stewardship. How has your photography career influenced your relationship and appreciation for the natural world?

Brian Machanic: Our ecology is fragile throughout the world,  During the years which I’ve spent photographing nature, I’ve witnessed a progressive usurpation of both woodlands and wetlands, as well as pollution of lakes and streams. The coexistence of man and wildlife is a delicate balance. There is no question that unfettered development of land is a serious threat to wildlife. Individually, we all can play a beneficial role in protecting wildlife by curtailing littering and polluting, and by encouraging conservation. From a photographic standpoint, be respective of your subject matter. Such activities as frightening birds off their nesting sites or pursuing animals throughout their natural habitat is both disruptive and counterproductive.

Selective Focus: How to Take Interesting Nature Photos Under Lackluster Conditions

Harper HawkOne of the most common barriers to an aspiring nature photographer is their lack of  access to a photogenic wildlife habitat. I’m fortunate to live in the Northeast which is full of wildlife opportunities; however there’s always potential for a great shot regardless of your surroundings. Travel and wildlife photographer Chris McLennan, snapped one of his most publicized images, sitting in a cafe while a hummingbird was passing by. He happened to have his camera at the ready and captured a stunning image of the ruby-throated beauty.

The best way to work around an unattractive backdrop is using a very shallow depth of field. I captured this harper hawk image in a rather lackluster setting. By using a large aperture and focusing on the beak and eyes, I was able to “pull” the hawk out of the scene making the background obsolete.

HY2A8712Another important consideration is the angle of your shot. I snapped this crab photo at high noon on an empty beach. This is not exactly an ideal setting for an interesting photograph. By laying down on the wet sand I was able to get eye to eye with the crustacean, providing for a more stately portrait. This angle also created a reflection on the wet beach that I wouldn’t have captured had I shot this standing up. Using an aperture of f2.8 was helpful to this scene as well. The sharpness of your subject is more dramatic when juxtaposed with a blurred foreground.

Lastly, don’t wait for a trophy specimen to stumble by you before getting out the camera. I find that shooting everyday subjects can be just as rewarding. In fact, it offers a fun challenge and puts your photographic creativity to the test. I’ve spent hours photographing blue jays, robins, and other abundant species around the backyard. Doing so, forces you to be creative and will lead you to explore new functions on your camera that you didn’t dare experiment with before.

HY2A9509You’d be hard pressed to walk around my yard without hearing a chorus of tree fogs and peepers, but I don’t take for granted the photographic possibilities. The bottom line is, work with what you have at your disposal. Perhaps its just an iphone, and a butterfly on your porch. Does this mean you can’t make a great image? I think I know how Chase Jarvis would answer that question.

Getting Started in Wildlife Photography: The Latest Cameras, Lenses, and Marketing Advice from Jim Harmer

Jim HarmerForest Forward is excited to kick-off our spring interview series with a discussion with photographer Jim Harmer from Improve Photography. Jim’s site is very popular in the photog community, receiving 15,000+ visitors a day reading up on the latest gear, signing up for Jim’s online classes, and listening in on his popular photography podcast. Our discussion ranges from Jim’s camera and lens recommendations for nature and wildlife shooters, to advice on expanding your photography business and sharing your work with a wider audience. The interview is accompanied by some of Jim’s spectacular wildlife and nature images. Enjoy!

Chris Mazzarella For Forest Forward: We know that you came into this profession in a rather indirect way. Can you briefly tell our reader’s about your own path to discovering photography?

Jim Harmer: Only a few years ago, I was a law student. All day long during law school, I read cases where the litigants were willing to ruin one another’s lives for money, or I’d go to the courtroom when I worked at the prosecutor’s office and pour over the disgusting details of criminal prosecutions.  I found that the only things that helped me see the good things in life were (1) my wife and kids, and (2) going out at night to do landscape photography.

Jim Harmer Fox PhotoForest Forward: As avid listener’s to your podcast we know that you’ve done your homework when it comes to choosing photography gear. What advice would you give to an enytry level outdoor photographer when it comes to purchasing their first dSLR and lens kit? What should they be looking for, and how much should they expect to spend on gear they won’t outgrow right away?

Jim Harmer: Buying your first “serious” camera can be intimidating. Unfortunately, there is a lot of advertising behind camera models that can cloud your buying decision. Since readers of Forest Forward are mostly interested in landscape and wildlife, I need to break up my recommendation into the two categories.
For landscape photographers, a DSLR is the right choice.  DSLRs allow photographers to use much wider angle lenses than any compact camera, which is important for landscape photographers.  If you’re starting out in landscape photography today, I would recommend the Nikon D3200 or the Canon T4i as your first DSLR.  Sony is another option for DSLRs, but I still find that Canon and Nikon are leading the pack for landscape photography due to the low light performance and lens selection.
Jim Harmer YellowstoneAn entry-level DSLR costs approximately $650 and comes with a standard 18-55mm lens.  The lens that comes with your camera is called a “kit” lens.  Given its short focal length, it is a decently wide lens.  However, more serious landscape photographers will eventually want to purchase a true wide angle lens, as it captures more of the scene in the frame and gives the viewer of the photos a feeling of “being there.” A quality wide-angle lens for an entry-level DSLR costs approximately $700-$1000, however.
Wildlife photographers, on the other hand, may find that the best choice is to choose a different camera than a DSLR.  While DSLRs have many features and capture outstanding image quality, wildlife photographers need super telephoto lenses to capture wolves that are far away, or to capture small animals like birds on a nest.  The cheapest super-telephoto DSLR lens that captures acceptably sharp images costs well over $1,000, and professional super-telephoto lenses cost approximately $10,000.   However, camera manufacturers have released several ground-breaking cameras in the last year that may be better options for wildlife photographers. Micro Four-Thirds cameras are much smaller than DSLRs although the cost is about the same for the camera body.  The benefit of these cameras for amateur wildlife photographers is that they have a smaller image sensor, which gives them significantly more “zoom” due to the crop factor.  The leading Micro Four-Thirds camera today is the Olympus OM-D.  If you pair that with a 75-300mm Zuiko lens, you’ll have the same focal length as if you used a $10,000 600mm lens on a DSLR because of the crop factor.  While you can’t expect the exact same quality as an expensive system, a micro four-thirds camera and telephoto lens is a VERY powerful setup and I know some professional wildlife photographers who have switched to this system to save weight and money.
Jim Harmer Duck PhotoForest Forward: Many of us have tried to find cheap alternatives to professional gear when we’re first getting started only to find out that it quickly needs replacing. Do you think there are any good alternatives to buying the expensive name brand gear in our camera bags?
Jim Harmer: Generally, I recommend buying a new DSLR rather than purchasing a used camera. This is for two reasons: (1) The shutters on cameras tend to wear out after a few years, and shutters are expensive to replace.  (2) If you buy a DSLR today and then replace it as the model is replaced in a few years, you usually don’t lose much money.  This is because DSLRs are in such hot demand right now that some users are willing to buy used to save a few dollars.  I sold my first DSLR for only $150 less than I bought it for 2 years earlier.

Improve Photography Jim Harmer Photo

Forest Forward: Your website Improve Photography has grown at an impressive rate since its inception in 2011. How have you succeeded in making such a big splash in the online photog scene? What advice would you give to our readers who are trying to get their work seen online?

Jim Harmer: The key to getting your photography noticed is: (1) Be yourself, and (2) earn every single fan one at a time.  “Be yourself” is advice we all know, but very few people follow. Because there are so many photographers on the Internet, people feel like they need to prove themselves with expensive gear and condescending advice to new photographers.  I took the opposite approach.  I write on Improve Photography the tips I learn as I progress as a photographer.  Looking back at the photos I used in posts when the blog began makes me chuckle because I was really just a beginner. Now that I have been working on Improve Photography for a couple of years, I’ve had incredible opportunities to have my work published and sold to some of the biggest names in publishing, millions of people follow my photo tips, and I have a job I love.  I think a big part of that is because I was able to swallow my pride a bit in the beginning and just explain to people what I was learning–without pretending I was the expert that I wasn’t. The other thing that helps to get your work noticed is to earn every single fan.  When I started my site, I had a contact form where anyone could email me questions and see if I could help them with their photography.  I answered tens of thousands of emails without pay.  I earned the trust of those early visitors to the site.  Now that the site has grown to millions of visitors, I simply can’t answer all of the questions of each visitor, but now there is a large enough community that the photographers are answering each others questions on the Improve Photography facebook page.  However, I still offer advice one-on-one to photographers who take my online photography classes through the site.
Jim Harmer Ram Photo YellowstoneForest Forward: In addition to shooting landscapes, you also run a portrait studio and teach a popular online photography course. Your entrepreneurship is an inspiring example of how to succeed in this profession. How important do you think diversification is in today’s competitive photography environment? What advice would you give to photographers with a passion for landscape and/or wildlife photography, who are trying to make it their profession?

Jim Harmer: I think too many photographers “branch out” before even establishing a single “branch.” What I mean by that is that we all see the importance of diversification in our businesses, but if you spread yourself too thin in chasing different opportunities, you’ll likely fail in all of them.  Most people didn’t realize that my business started out as a portrait studio.  Then, I added teaching local classes, then I started a site, then I started selling stock photos of my landscapes, and then finally I’ve added online classes. Create one profitable venture at a time.

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