Urban Nature is a new feature of NANPA’s blog, a series of articles created to address the issues of nature photographers living in urban areas, with little or no access to conventional, natural environments. It will focus on topics ranging from finding subjects to finding inspiration. Also, in an effort to attract more beginners into the field, it will attempt to demystify the art of photography in general.
City living may have its benefits when it comes to a lot of things, but it might not be so advantageous if you’re a nature photographer seeking subjects to shoot. This is a problem all year around, but it’s especially difficult in the winter. Other seasons allow amble time to plan quick getaways to photograph spring flowers or fall foliage. But, if you’re trying to capture pristine, snow-covered landscapes without a hint of man-made objects, it’s not so easy if you live in an urban area. You can visit a local park, but pristine conditions won’t remain that way for very long. In no time at all, the place will be inundated with hordes of hyperactive schoolkids celebrating their snow day – forever erasing that delicate Winter Wonderland. Also, even in a large park, it’s still very difficult to avoid traces of civilization almost anywhere you point your camera. Of course, you can try to venture outside of your city limits, but what if you don’t have a car? Many people (myself included) who live in large cities do not own cars. They’re more of a hinderance than anything else. Public transportation is usually the best option. But public transportation may not get you exactly where you want to be at the time you want to be there. So, having said all of that… if you live in the city and you want to get photos of unspoiled, snow-covered landscapes, your best option might be to stay in the city.
I had always dreamt of photographing a Winter Wonderland – a landscape where every inch of ground and every branch and twig is totally coated in a thick layer of fluffy, white powder. In some parts of the world, that’s just an average Tuesday, but it’s quite a rare sight to see if you live in an urban area. In fact, in nearly the past 20 years, I can only remember one time when the snow conditions in the New York City area rivaled that of what one might typically expect to see in a rural, Midwestern locale. It was Christmas Day, 2002 – the first White Christmas the city had experienced in many years. Although we only received about six inches of snow, it was the dense, heavy kind that tends to stick to everything it touches. The photo above is one of the many photos I shot the next day in the New York Botanical Garden. As you can see, it was a photographer’s dream. Conditions were so optimum that I wrote an article about it back in 2015:
In the days of film, accurate metering was a big headache for many beginning photographers. It was even worse if you were shooting color slide film. Unlike color print film, which often had color and exposure corrected by the processing lab before the prints were made, slide film was much less forgiving… what you shot was what you got. My film of choice was Fuji Velvia ISO 50. It’s a highly-saturated, fine-grain film and perfect for nature photography. Its only downside is that it has very little exposure latitude – meaning that if your exposure is off by just a stop or two, your highlight and/or shadow details might be completely lost. My normal workflow was to take multiple meter readings of each scene… one of the highlights, one of the mid-tones and one of the shadows. I’d then do a quick mental calculation to determine the best exposure for the subject – usually a totally different setting from any of the readings I just took.
Back in the days of film, I used to carry a complete assortment of filters in my camera bag. I had warming filters, cooling filters, neutral density filters, graduated neutral density filters, special effect filters and, of course, a polarizing filter. The digital age had made life much easier. Most of these filter effects can now be applied in post with much greater precision and in varying degrees of intensity. Not having to carry so many filters is a definite plus, but there are some filter effects that can’t be created digitally… yet.
I often write about the challenges of finding nature subjects in an urban environment. Of course, even the largest concrete jungles aren’t all concrete. There’s always a local park or a botanical garden somewhere nearby. Places like these are perfect locations to capture unique compositions of natural and man-made subjects.
In last month’s Photography 101 article, I discussed what I consider to be one of the most fundamental basics of photography: apertures and shutter speeds. Following closely behind in terms of importance are focal lengths. Simply put, the focal length describes the angle of view of a lens, as compared to natural eyesight. It’s a measurement (expressed in millimeters) of how much of a scene it captures. A long focal length lens, such as a 200mm lens, captures a narrow angle of view, or an enlarged view of the subject. These types of lenses are known as telephoto lenses. A short focal length lens, such as a 28mm lens, captures a much wider angle of view, making the subject appear smaller. As their angle of view implies, these types of lenses are known as wide angle lenses. Lenses that encompass multiple focal lengths are known as zoom lenses. They are easily identifiable with ranges such as 12-24mm, 24-70mm or 100-300mm. A variety of focal lengths can be achieved simply turning or sliding a ring on the lens.
Perhaps you were intrigued by the photos you saw in magazines. Maybe you wondered why your own photos never came close to matching them, or even the scene you just photographed. It might simply be that you’re just curious about the purpose of all those strange-looking buttons and dials on your new camera or lens. Whatever the reason, you’ve decided to get a little more serious about photography and you’re interested in elevating your skills to another level. If that’s the case, then this article was written just for you.
Besides photography, one of my other passions is cooking and baking. To satisfy my sweet tooth, I’m always baking some type of cookies or cakes. I use baker’s tools like piping bags and scrapers to make them look like they were purchased from a bakery. People often tell me I should bake professionally, but I have little interest in doing that. I don’t think I would enjoy it as much if I knew I had to do it. I also have an extensive collection of cookbooks and a filing cabinet full of recipes, categorized with folders devoted to specific meats, vegetables, and of course, sweets. However, I would never consider myself a chef. A cook, perhaps, but never a chef. Unless I’m intimately familiar with a dish, I have to follow a recipe. True chefs don’t “cook by numbers.” They instinctively know how to combine obscure ingredients to produce the most spectacular dishes. I love watching cooking competition shows on the Food Network. I always marvel at how chefs are able to take an odd-ball collection of ingredients like a banana, a pork chop and a cup of cashews, and combine them into award-winning, gourmet masterpieces.
I started to wonder how I could apply that same concept to photography. It’s really not that difficult to create an amazing photo of a great subject in the perfect light. But, what if your subject is less than stellar and your lighting is awful? As a personal challenge, I set out to find the most unremarkable subject and to shoot it in the worst possible light.
In this third and final installment of my series on compositions (see Part 1 and Part 2), I will discuss methods that are occasionally used, as well as some of the most unusual and obscure techniques. That being said, it’s highly likely that you’ve used at least some of these techniques without even realizing it.
Last month in part one of this series, I discussed some of the most commonly used compositional techniques in nature photography. In Part 2 I’ll be highlighting a few more popular methods, but some might not be used that frequently.