Urban Nature

Story and photography by F.M. Kearney

How can I crop out the edge of that building?

Has the traffic completely cleared the scene yet?

Are those tourists ever going to move?

If you’ve ever tried to shoot nature photos within an urban environment, you’ve undoubtedly asked yourself questions like these at one time or another. I often write about the difficulties of pursuing a career as a nature photographer in a large metropolitan city. It’s not always economically or logistically possible to escape city limits and venture into the wild to capture true nature. You sometimes have no choice but to shoot nature wherever you can find it—amidst all the inherent distractions of a concrete jungle.

I used to go to great lengths to avoid any man-made objects in my nature photos, believing that any hint of urban artifacts would lessen the impact of the natural subject. This would be true if the objects were only in the shot due to careless oversight. However, it’s an entirely different story if their inclusion is deliberate and done for creative purposes.

Cities come alive with color in the spring. You probably won’t have to go far to find a beautiful flower display. Instead of attempting to isolate it from its surroundings, try to incorporate the natural and the artificial worlds.

Looking down Park Avenue

Looking down Park Avenue

In New York, colorful tulips adorn the median of Park Avenue for several miles. With the traffic zooming by just a few feet away, it’s amazing that they survive. Yet, not only do they survive in this inhospitable environment, they flourish. And for a couple of weeks during the season, they really put the “park” in Park Avenue. Countless tourists photograph these flowers each year, but very few hang around until twilight. That’s too bad (well, it’s great for me since I practically have the whole place to myself), because the city and traffic lights add a lot of vitality to the scene. Instead of waiting for the traffic to clear out of the shot in the photo above, I waited for it to enter. I wanted to use the light trails from passing vehicles as a dynamic framing element for the tulips, as well as a way to help draw the viewer’s eye into the shot. I chose this particular spot in between two glass towers for more symmetry and more colorful light reflecting off the windows. Lastly, I used a 16mm fisheye lens to emphasize the “tunnel” effect of the scene. Continue reading

The “Old School” Graduated ND Filter

It is easy for digital photographers to get lazy out in the field — “Oh, I can fix it digitally, later. . . .”

There is nothing necessarily wrong with that approach, but I like to try to get it right in the field, preferably all in one shot. And sometimes that takes a few tricks.

Take the image below I just photographed.

A long exposure can give a nice abstract feel to an image. Using a polarizer slows down your shutter speed about 2 stops helps give you that longer exposure. Combined with a small aperture and low ISO, I had a nice long 30 second exposure to really abstract the water on the lake.

But what about the sky?  It is a lot brighter than the darker foreground here and will overexpose.  I could shoot it in two different exposures and add in the properly exposed sky later, but I’d rather get it one shot.

So I pulled my 3 stop Graduated Neutral Density filter out of my bag and held it over the lens to bring down the light in the bright sky and equalize the exposure.  Voila – you get the image all in one shot. A little more work up front, sure, but worth it to me. (And less work on the computer, later!).

Sean Fitzgerald

Dock at Sunset on Bitter Lake