Stages of Adventure Travel Photography Insanity

September 2019

So you want to do adventure travel (or Expedition travel as defined by Lindblad/National Geographic) and you want to take good pictures. ☺

Stages of photographic development:

Stage 0: Use an Android or an iPhone. This will save you a lot of money and insanity. These cameras also make phone calls.

Stage 1: Buy a Nikon, Canon, or Sony, or other DSLR and use ‘P’ or professional mode. OK that’s a joke, P is fully programmable and you’re letting the camera make all the decisions. For making landscape photography or photographing people of scenes this makes reasonable decisions up to a point. Then you decide to buy the big lens and then a come upon an eagle in the early morning sitting on a branch that takes flight. You get a few reasonable pictures and a lot of bad pictures. Now you’re frustrated and ready for the next step.

Stage 2: You listen to the Photo expert on your expedition and he or she tells you to move from P mode to aperture priority. Photo experts love this mode of photography because it controls how much of the background of your picture is in focus. So you really don’t want a bird in flight to have a background completely in focus, because it would distract the viewer from the bird. There is a fatal flaw that the photo expert forgot to tell you: when you use a long telephoto lens and you’re shooting a bird in flight the picture will only be sharp if your subject is in focus (a challenge), and your shutter speed is fast enough to “freeze” the action in place. For a bird in flight with a 400mm lens this is usually about 1/2000 of a second. If your using a shorter lens like 70mm probably 1/800 of a second. To achieve speeds like this you need to have a very small aperture to maximize the light like f5.6, which is around the smallest aperture of a 100-400mm lens. The lesson of stage 2 is to shoot in Speed Priority and let the camera decide your aperture and ISO. Birds in flight with wing stop between 1/1000 to 1/2000 of a second. Moving bears about 1/500th of a second. At a minimum you’re speed should be 1 to 1.5 times the length of your lens, so at 400mm lens that means 1/400 to 1/600 of a second to avoid camera blur (that’s when you shake the camera when taking a picture). This took me a WHILE and some classes to figure out.

Stage 3:            Stop composing your wildlife shots in the viewfinder. LOL. Film photographers have always been taught to put the subject off to the side, etc., in today’s digital universe that can easily be done in postproduction. Get the damned bird in focus is the first problem, where the in focus bird will sit in the final photograph can only happen if you actually have the bird in focus. Start shooting wildlife with the animal dead center of your viewfinder, and put your camera in continuous autofocus (see stage 5). Wildlife is unpredictable so pulse the shutter in continuous shooting, or just hold the damned button down. So when you come to the scene with the adult eagle in the nest with two fledglings, yes you might shoot 500 images of those birds, but you might only have one where all three are looking at you. That might be the photo of the trip! This now leads to a new problem: How to quickly evaluate your images. For wildlife, when I’m reviewing my pictures I look for an eye: eyes are compelling. No one wants to see a bird butt, even a magnificent one. Also, when you shoot your subject in the center, you can later re-crop with Adobe lightroom and create art. Lightroom is for Art, done in postproduction, viewfinders are for getting the wildlife in focus.

Stage 4: If it’s small in the viewfinder, it’s not going to get magically larger.  This is the point at which you learn to not press the shutter, or at least not hold the shutter down.  It you can hardly see the bird in a viewfinder,it will make a crappy picture no matter how many pixels your mirrorless Sony camera is (I’m looking at you A7R IV and 62 Megapixels).  It’s taken me a while, but learning to not take bad pictures is easier than deleting tons of crufty pictures.

Stage 5: Want to take pictures of moving wildlife?  Set your camera’s auto focus to ‘continuous’ or in Canon parlance ‘AI Servo’ because of course Artificial Intelligence Servo just jumps out at the photographer and says the focusing will be refocused with every shot!  By default the focus is single shot which works well for landscapes and portraits but ensure that wildlife photos will be mostly out of focus.  There are two reasons why a photo is blurry or out of focus, motion blur and improper camera auto focus.  Usually motion blur happens when the speed is slower than optimal, the other issue is what did your camera select as the thing in focus.  You need to set the proper focus setting for the type of shooting your doing (see Stage 8).

Stage 6: Learn the difference between micro 4/3’s frame, APS, and full frame cameras. When we were shooting with film for the last many, many years’ cameras had a 36mm by 24mm size. When digital cameras were introduced the entry level and therefore cheapest bodies supported a sensor size of 22mm X 15mm. Think of that as your ‘negative’ size. The larger the camera’s frame (or digital sensor), the more light will reach the sensor and the lower the ISO and the better the picture in low light situations. Most people start with an APS camera, the next move after that should be well thought out.  The Micro 3/4 camera’s have a slightly smaller than APS sensor, the APS sensors vary by camera maker, the Canon has a 22X14mm sensor, has a  I decided to move to full frame as a primary and keep my APC as a secondary camera as my first upgrade, now when I’m on adventure travel I bring two full frame camera bodies with interchangeable lenses.  This is an expensive stage. 🙁

Stage 7: Learn to pulse the shutter.  Most DLSR’s have a memory component which is reserved for taking a batch of photos, after that memory is exhausted the photos are written (slowly) to the CD or CF Card.  The Sony has around 60 pictures in it’s memory buffer and the Canon has a similar strategy.  You can take 5-10 pictures a second until this buffer is full, the it feels like 1/3 of a picture a second: Very Slow.  The way to combat this is to pulse the shutter for 5-6 pictures then stop, then pulse again.  This gives the camera a chance to try to catch up with you.  If your shooting a large stationary bird, the bird tends to give a sign it’s about to fly, like rocking forwards, you can learn to hold off (after you’ve already taken lots of shots of a stationary bird), and then begin to shoot when it looks like it will take off.

Stage 8: Where are you keeping your photos when you shoot and what’s your backup strategy while on adventure travel?   First of all, let’s start out with some basics: your camera does not have a robust operating system so deleting photos on your camera can easily lead to losing all the pictures on the memory card while shooting. Don’t do it. On a typical morning or afternoon, I’ll shoot between 500 and 1500 photos from a zodiac or on a hike. My cards hold 1400 to 2500 pictures combined (Sony allow for 3 SD cards). I don’t like to change cards in the field while shooting because that’s precisely when the rare bird/wild animal will appear! Guaranteed! And I’ll have no ability to photograph it while I fumble with all my gear. So that means, if I keep all my pictures on memory cards, I’ll need two cards a day (minimum) for each day of the adventure. Sony’s fast cards for 64GB costs about $120 a card, so a 22 day trip would be $5,280 worth of SD cards. I tried this strategy on an Alaska photo adventure and I ended up spending loads of time in small towns buying SD cards. My LATEST strategy is to empty my MacBook pro as best I can before the trip, then upload pictures after every ½ day. To make sure I don’t lose any pictures I have a 2TB disk for backup (I use apple’s time machine) A 2TB disk currently costs $99 on amazon. I also now carry a 4TB disk in case my portable runs out of room. I create a new lightroom library for each trip; this gives me the option of creating a second lightroom library and moving the first library off my MacBook to the 4TB disk.

Stage 9:  Use more than one focus mode. Most DLSR have a tracking mode, this works great for birds in flight, if I get a bird in focus with auto tracking and the focus is locked in, I can shoot many frames with the bird in focus (I usually get 6-8 shots in focus and usually need to refocus while shooting). If my camera focus is set to tracking mode and I’m trying to shoot a bear, or a stationary bird, the camera will focus on just about everything in the frame except the thing I’m trying to shoot. J It’s time to flip over the center weighted autofocus. It’s very hard to shoot birds in flight dead center of your camera’s viewfinder, which is why tracking works so well. So at the end of the day you need both types of focus methods.

Stage 10: Learn to delete bad photos early and often. Learn to delete mediocre photos early and often. I had a habit of keeping all my photos from expedition travel. From a trip I took 3 years ago I still have 16,000 photos. I’ve become more disciplined as I’ve traveled to just keep the ones in focus, so the 2nd to the last trip I took I have 5,000 photos and the last trip I took which was 3 times longer than any other trip I kept 2,500 pictures. I will have to go back to earlier expeditions and aggressively use the delete key. One of my issues is I’m consistently bad at picking pictures in PERFECT focus on my laptop, I need to look at a big screen to see the picture clearly. When you shoot 20 good pictures of a bird in flight, a few will be perfect and a few will be near perfect. If you must keep more than one picture of a particular wildlife pose, make sure they are in perfect focus.

Stage 11:  Who decides what the color of your photo should look like, you or your camera? There are two approaches to color fixing when you snap the shutter. The default of every camera is JPEG: when you snap the shutter, the camera will fix the color palette and produce a reasonable decision for what it thinks is an average picture. The other alternative is you save your image as the camera shot it as a set of ones and zeros in a larger file, is called a RAW image. Why in the world would you do this? The camera uses a grey scale, which is optimal for 60% of every picture shot. Once a JPEG is produced, the camera makes those decisions; if you use RAW you get to optimize each image, then you can make if moodier, make it brighter as you remember the image. You can tweak a JPEG but much of the information to make it better has been lost. You’ve entered Stage 3 when you rent Lightroom from Adobe and use it to process your images. Once you make a decision to use RAW, you’ll need to commit to renting software, specifically, Photoshop and lightroom from Adobe: you need to keep these software items up to date, which means you need to pay the monthly fees. Why? Because you will at some point upgrade your camera body and a new version of RAW will appear and will be unreadable to old versions of Photoshop and lightroom.

Stage 12:  Un-program the buttons on the back of the camera that give you trouble. For me with my Sony, my thumb kept hitting the ISO button on a wheel, which flicked my camera from AUTO ISO to ISO 50 or ISO 32000 both of which were confusing because my eye was on the viewfinder and suddenly the view (and photographs) went all white or all black. On my old Canon I was able to use my thumb to change the camera to black and white mode while shooting Cayman in the Amazon. It was night and I didn’t notice, since I was at the time shooting in JPEG and not RAW, I now have the proud collection of 200 black and white Cayman, none of which actually look like I wanted. Disabling the specific buttons that cause trouble can solve these issues, and yes you’re going to have to wade into your camera manual to do this…

Stage 13: Unlink the focus from the shutter. If you’ve been using your camera for a long time, it’s second nature that you hold your shutter button half way and you let the camera autofocus, then click all the rest of the way down to take the picture. As your photography matures think you realize these are two different operations, and you can use two fingers at once to operate them independently. This is called back button focus and you can learn it in a few weeks to photographing. You can then take control. Next in stage 4 is learning how to use the tracking feature of your camera. Most cameras today allow you to set a small area in the center of the camera and if you focus on something moving, your camera will track it in focus. Shooting a bird in flight improves the number of focused photographs.

Stage 14:   Since you’re using speed priority and you’re allowing ISO to float automatically, then put on your big boy pants and shoot in manual mode. What I never realized until recently is your lens is sharpest 2 F stops from fully open. So on a 100-400mm lens that’s F/8. So if you’re shooting birds in flight, start with a speed of 1/2000 and an f/8 and check you ISO settings, if your ISO is set to 15,000 your picture will suck! Start to compromise down, maybe 1/1000 and f/5.6 and then recheck ISO. If on the other hand, your ISO is 320 or less, shoot away!

Stage 15:  Continuously improve workflow.  It takes 5-10 seconds for lightroom to load an image from my Sony A7R III.  I’ve recently changed my workflow to use photo mechanic which is MUCH faster at initially loading these images.  So I take pictures, Load the images into photo mechanic, delete all the bad images or repetitive images, then load the remaining images into lightroom.  In lightroom I apply two filters, one that stamps the metadata with my name, and a second that tweaks the vibancy and changes to auto tone for all incoming pictures into lightroom.

Stages I’m not yet at:

Stage 16:  Worry about the exposure wheel while shooting. Can’t everything be fixed in lightroom????

Stage17:  Worry about metering: Should I be center weighted or use the whole scene?

Stage18: Do I need lighter gear?  Change from full frame to micro 4/3’s?

Stage19: Wait, has the iPhone camera caught up yet? Do I really need all this gear?

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