Bromeliads in moss-draped oaks, Davie, FL. Copyright Audrey R. Smith, 2013.
Be patient…I will divulge the title of a great book that I’ve had for a few years that caused me to look at my photography differently…a couple of points on the subject first…
Do you have a photography book collection? I do. Mine is pretty extensive, I think, though there is only a percentage on my shelves of what I would like to actually own and be able to study. I would like to add some of the masters, both for posterity and in the hope that I might finally get why they achieved such greatness. As I photograph nature more than people, I have always found it difficult to identify with these icons. One day, Avedon, LaChapelle, Steiglitz, Mann, Leibovitz, Cartier-Bresson, and other documentary masters of the human condition will find their way to my shelves; since I was fifteen, my photography library includes Nichols, Wolfe, Lanting, McDonald, Morris, Shaw, Zuckerman, Rowell, Netherton, Butcher, and others. If you don’t know who these guys are, I would suggest checking them out.
Those named just above are the old (I use that phrase respectfully!) nature photographers, the ones who were paid by National Geographic and other prestigious magazines and organizations to travel the world and bring back phenomenal images of the flora, fauna, vistas, and people of the places they visited. They are masters of their craft, the world’s top nature photographers, and they have undoubtedly forgotten more about photography than many of us will ever learn. Don’t get me wrong: the world is full of exceptionally fine shooters. However, with digital making photography a more open field, where anyone can learn how to take a picture, these individuals–and others–took the time to learn about how different films worked, why they worked the way they did, and how to use each film’s pros and cons to their advantage during each and every shoot. Photoshop wasn’t around to refine the image. Cropping and minor adjustments were all that were granted; you got it right, or you didn’t get it at all. I have several books by each of these individuals; some are coffee table books on photography or wildlife and conservation, or biology-based collections, but many are instructional. Instructional books are great when you are first starting out, wondering how these photographers compose and light their subjects. You figure out what they are doing, and try to see things similarly, down to the fine details. You learn about different ways of lighting wildlife and wild places, and how it is both like and unlike lighting things in a studio. You head into those wild places with your camera, and see what you can do.
Who is in your library? Do you have many instructional books? How about from ten or more years ago? Here’s what you do: open three of your instructional books, all by separate photographers. It doesn’t have to be anyone listed above, any photographer or subject will do. After the introduction, you will find pages about choosing the right camera, choosing the right lenses, film selection (yes, ten years ago, digital was still in the process of going mainstream), and tripods. Then comes chapters or sections on topics such as composition, lighting, color, close-ups, telephoto, and using flash. Each book was laid out in the same way, and had similar text. What varied were the images. Fast-forward to today, where the books might touch on your camera and equipment options, but most everything else is about the subject, how an individual image came to be, and marketing strategies for that genre. Today, whole books are dedicated to breaking the “photographic rules,” or bending them as far as they can; entire volumes on Lensbaby usage, pet photography, boudoir setups (classy, not porny), HDR, nighttime photography, you name it!
The book that I happened across in a bookstore one day had a very simple title: Photographing Nature. It was written by a man named Ralph A. Clevenger, who is a photographer and the “top nature photography instructor at Brooks’ Institute,” in Santa Barbara, California. It is, essentially, a workshop-in-a-book. That may not sound interesting, but just wait: while he also talks about equipment and lighting and all that other stuff, it is not done in such a way that he sounds like he works at B&H, but all the little tips and tricks I wish I knew of when reading all those other books. Honestly, I would have wound up spending more at B&H or similar companies, had I known about all this stuff years ago. Some of you may have known what a Wimberley “Plamp” was, but I had no idea. He not only talks about getting on the same level as your subject, he tells you to bring a plastic garbage bag to lay on in arid climates, so you don’t get thorns poking you while you are stretched out to photograph that desert flower. He includes Q&A’s of FAQ‘s. He tells you what equipment options are there to achieve the result you want: for example, using extention tubes, different flashes, perspectives, and why some things work while others don’t. He includes problems and solutions. Also included are assignments for you to carry out wherever you are. Most importantly, Mr. Clevenger also talks alot about using common sense, particularly when working around large wild animals (do you REALLY want to approach that bison/lion/alligator/etc?) and using ethics while in the field (please stay on the path so as not to trample the delicate alpine meadows…).
There really is no way for me to do this book justice. In trying to describe everything, I would wind up rewriting the book, which I really don’t have time to do. This classroom-in-a-book is what I find myself going back to again and again, just to see what I can incorporate, or re-try something I either missed or messed up. It’s a nature photography class I wish they had taught us at SECPS, millenia ago when I was attending the program. (Hear that, Daytona State? I would teach an online class for you…)
A very neat book, by a very talented and attentive and detail-oriented man. I can’t do it justice: borrow one, or pick it up for yourself!