It should be noted that none of the nature images on this website were shot in a studio. All animals, insects, arachnids and wild plants were shot in their natural environments. There are also a handful of potted flower and plant shots which were taken in my backyard and home.
It's all about the light!
I've learned over the years that one of the most important aspects of a good photograph, or more specifically, of a photograph that I'm happy I created, is good lighting. Even if the subject and composition are picture perfect (pun intended), poor lighting can turn that could-have-been great shot into a mediocre shot. If I can't shoot in good lighting conditions I typically won't have my camera with me unless I'm on a family outing. When I've planned a photography shoot I make a point to get up early enough to use the first light of day (During sunrise and for a short period thereafter.), to shoot on an overcast/cloudy day or to shoot in early to late evening as the sun is setting. As an added bonus, this philosophy on the time of day when lighting conditions are optimum coincides with the time of day wildlife is typically more active.
Of course, rules are made to be broken, and my views on lighting stated above are a generalization. There may be an occasion when shooting in bright sunlight is warranted or desired, but those times are far and few between for the style I'm after. If I'm under a canopy of trees or inside an abandoned building where the strong light of the afternoon sun is diffused or obscured I'm more inclined to shoot in midday, and then there are times when a strong backlight is desired.
For landscape shots, clouds tend to add drama and character, but even more than that they tend to soften harsh sunlight. For these reasons I prefer to shoot landscape with moderate to heavy cloud cover. This is also true when I'm capturing sunrise or sunset colors in an image, however, for those shots I'd lean more towards light to moderate cloud cover which can help reveal some blue color from the sky as well.
As can be seen in the body of work I've included on this website, my subject preference is landscape and wildlife. I'm warming up to taking photographs of kids other than my own if the shots are candid, but I'm far, far from embracing posed shots of a 6 year old sitting on a fake tree stump with a grainy image of a rail fence and barn hanging on the wall behind him or her. I simply don't like posed shots, and it's been my limited experience that the harder it is to get a kid in that perfect, (Read: fake) posed position the worse the final product is likely to be. It's true my anti-posed photography opinion is most likely the result of my limited experience shooting people in lab-created situations, but there you have my opinion on it. I don't like posed portrait photography. I'll stick with the candid portraits for the time being.
I grew up playing in which ever patch of woods I could find near my house. It is in that setting where I observed birds, squirrels and other animals doing the things they do, and because of that exposure to wildlife and nature in general I feel that I have a somewhat greater understanding of animal behavior than I would have otherwise. This understanding goes a long way in capturing an image of a living creature that typically shies away from people, especially people carrying a large, unknown object pointed right at the animal's very own head. Having some understanding of animal behavior has helped me capture some of the shots posted on this site. In many cases I've used this knowledge to, in a sense, get the animal to 'pose' for me prior to taking the shot. Wait, does this mean I actually do like portrait photography after all?
When it comes to landscape photography, capturing the beauty of a softly-lit, cloudy sky with streaks of color from a sunset or sunrise puts a smile on my face, but as with wildlife photography there are some challenges. The most dynamic aspect of landscape photography is the timing of the light. If I'm shooting in an area with a lot of trees and there is a breeze, timing the location of the shadows from the swaying limbs may become important for the shot. If I'm set up on the edge of a field or the beach to get a sunset or sunrise I only have about 15 minutes to get the shot I'm after before the sun is out of position. What I want to shoot and the composition I'm after needs to be thought out ahead of time for these sunrise and sunset shots or there is simply not enough time to get it right. My tripod and camera are ideally set up and ready to fire sometime before the sun is in the ideal position. (This goes back to my original paragraph on lighting again.)
So, wildlife and landscape are my favorite types of photography followed by abandoned machinery, abandoned houses and abandoned buildings. Portrait photography of people comes in a distant 6th, but is gaining some ground as my kids get older. Getting good shots of my children also tends to put a smile on my face, and for that matter, on the face of my wife, and that's what really counts in the end.
The beauty of a composition is in the eye of the beholder. What works for some visually may not work for others. The final composition of an image is a personal choice, and I simply adjust until I'm satisfied with the results. Some of my images are uncropped from the camera, but the vast majority of my images are cropped to some degree to get that final composition just right in my mind. I tend to loosely follow the rule of thirds. I don't often put the subject in the center of an image except when I feel it works, and I wait to take the initial shot until after I've looked through the viewfinder and moved the camera into a position that creates a pleasing look to me at that moment in time. When I finally open the image on the computer I may or may not be happy with the choices I made, and I'll adjust from there using software.
Another important aspect for my shots, which indirectly deals with light, is the background of the image. The background, or Bokeh in photographic terms, of an image can make or break a shot just as poor composition and poor lighting can. Having a soft, pleasing background color and shape (or lack of shape) can work on our subconscious as we look at an image to make the image more or less appealing. I take great care in setting up shots by moving the camera in to a position that creates the background I want. I've learned over the years that even moving the camera from side to side or up and down small amounts can drastically alter the look of the final image because of what that change of angle does to the background, or, more specifically, what that change of angle excludes or ends up including in the background.
I also have a general idea of what the lens I have mounted on my camera is capable of in terms of making a pleasing background. Shooting close to a subject, having background objects/scenery far away and using a large aperture (Small f-stop number like f/1.8) work together to make a nice smooth background for an image that really makes the subject 'pop'. Some lenses are better at this than others. For each shot I take I adjust the camera as necessary to make the bokeh punctuate the subject and to get the lighting as correct as possible in the background of an image.
If I had to guess, a third of my shots are made while holding the camera and two thirds are shoot with the camera mounted on a tripod. I carry my camera on a strap hanging from my shoulder with one hand on the camera body in case I need to get quick shot of an animal at a moment’s notice. A few of my favorite animal shots were made with this technique where luck played a large role in the quality of the final image in terms of how the animal reacted to my presence.
If I've spotted a subject prior to the subject noticing me, I will quickly set up the camera on my tripod if it's not already mounted to it, and I'll get in to position for the shot. I'll adjust the aperture and ISO settings ahead of time for the given light (An aperture as wide as technically possible for most animal shots), adjust the position of the camera for composition and then follow the subject's movement by positioning the camera while it's on the tripod. A good ballhead mount for the camera to tripod connection is essential for my work in lieu of a gimbal mount. (Gimbals are great for the larger lenses.)
If I can shoot on a tripod I will because a sturdy tripod and adequate shutter speed are essential for getting tack-sharp images in most cases.
I shoot at aperture priority or manual most of the time. In aperture priority I tend to under-expose slightly at -0.3 to -1.0 EV on my D610. I prefer a darker look overall, and I can always lighten dark areas on the computer after the fact. If part of the image is over-exposed and the areas of light are blown out, there is no recovery in the editing stage.
Nikon has 'picture control' modes available to the shooter in the camera. These modes control the overall look of the image in terms of color and brightness, and I typically leave mine set to Vivid or Landscape for wildlife and landscape shots. These particular settings tend to darken the image and bring out the brighter colors of foliage, plumage and other points of color that may be in the shot.
I leave my ISO setting on automatic much of the time, but even on my D610 I limit it to less than 2000. I could technically shoot at higher ISOs and still be pleased with the results, but I typically don't find it necessary to shoot any higher than that to get the shutter speed I need to make a sharp image. (Higher ISO settings allow for the possibility of more noise in the final image, which can be removed in post-processing at the expense of overall sharpness.)
I absolutely always shoot RAW format so that I have more adjustments at my disposal at the time of editing. RAW is basically a proprietary image format which contains much more data/information about the shot taken than the JPG format. An image file saved in RAW format is generally much larger in terms of memory size due to the amount of data contained in the RAW image file. Shooting in JPG format only severely limits one’s ability to adjust settings during the editing phase, and some settings simply cannot be adjusted at all if the shot is in JPG only because the data is simply not there to adjust. (Nikon's RAW file format is NEF, while Canon's is CR2 or CRW.)
Memory these days is relatively cheap, and it is better for me to have fewer images on a memory card in RAW than to have twice as many in a format that I can't edit to my liking. There is always the option to shoot RAW + JPG and to simply delete the RAW files if you decide you don't need to edit the images. Modern DSLR bodies do a good job of getting SOME things right at the time the shot is taken, but I still prefer the ability to adjust all parameters of the shot when I get to the computer.
I use Nikon's Capture NX2 software with Nik Color Efex Filters plug-in as my primary photo editor. I also use Lightroom 5, which I'm trying to get more acquainted with now that Capture NX2 is no longer supported by Nikon.
In my mind I draw a distinction between digital photo editing and digital artwork. There is, to me, a point at which a digital photograph can become more digital artwork and less a photograph if it is edited or manipulated too heavily. That point is a matter of debate and is obviously subjective. As an example, I feel that if I use a healing tool to remove a stray branch from an otherwise nice image, the work can still be considered a photograph, albeit with some minor editing. However, if I take a photograph of a horse and separate photograph of a sandy beach then combine the two using software, the work is now digital art and not really photography in the strictest sense, even if both original images came from a camera.
I strive to do as little digital manipulation as possible to my images, but I'm no longer above removing a stray branch or an out of place spot of light in an image. My typical adjustments are cropping, contrast, brightness, minor saturation (color) adjustments and sharpening. I will remove stray or distracting objects if they aren't too large, but my editing skills and software are simply not up to the task of removing large areas or objects from an image.
I've used some minor blurring to create a more pleasing bokeh in one or two photographs, but I feel like I'm cheeting if I'm heavy handed with blurring an image background. Numerous times I've blurred the background and liked the results, but reverted back to the original to keep the image more honest. In fact, the images on this site which would appear to be comprised of a subject and a 'fake' or manufactured background (The tree frog gazing up at the sky, the dragonfly shots and the ladybug on a leaf as examples.) are not. The background in these images was the result of lighting, camera distance to the subject, distance from the subject to the background and the aperture setting.
There you have it in a nutshell. Hopefully you now have a better understanding of my creative process when it comes to my photography. I'm hoping I've imparted at least a tad bit of widsdom on you while taking away some of the mystery. There are a lot of things to think about when making an image both before the shutter is released and after the shot is taken, but the more you get out there and shoot the more the process (your personal process) becomes second nature. It's your photograph, and when you've taken a photograph that you truly enjoy looking at and sharing with others you've become a photographer! If you have any questions concerning photography or my work don't hesitate to email me. Now, get out there and shoot.