Awesome Light!

Last week I had about an hour left of daylight and decided to take advantage of it. I was not sure if I would even see any wildlife since I was heading back out so late into the evening, but I thought I had nothing to lose so I went for it. And did it ever pay off!

Light is required in photography or else we will not be able to create an image. “Photo” is light, so “photography” is the study of light. We all know how to properly expose for an image. This is one of the basic standards in our toolkit as photographers. However, there are certain types of light that can make an image stand out above all the rest. Utilizing the light in this way will help us advance as wildlife photographers.

Moose Peterson is the one who I am learning this from. I read his book, “Captured,” which explains how to use light in great depth. I also enjoy reading Moose’s quarterly magazine, “BT Journal.” Hearing Moose explain his perspective on light and then seeing his images are enough to whet the appetite of any striving wildlife photographer, of which I am one. So I am paying attention to this teaching and trying to incorporate it into more of my wildlife photos.

I remember learning from Lennie Rue III, and Len Rue, Jr. in a workshop that capturing the highlight in an animals eye is very helpful in making a photograph. The viewer’s eye is first drawn to the brightest and lightest part of a photo. So if you catch the highlight in the eye it makes the animal almost come to life in the photo. This requires noting where the sun is shining and in which direction.

Fortunately, on this particular evening, I saw rays of sunlight being cast into the field in wide streaks. Once I saw this awesome light, I moved into the right location to take advantage of these light rays.


Noticing the light and getting into proper position is only part of the battle in capturing the light in photographs. The next step is to set up the camera correctly to replicate digitally what we are seeing with our eyes. I was shooting in Aperture Priority and had -1/3 exposure compensation dialed in but it wasn’t quite enough. Another half-stop made the elk pop a bit more and helped highlight some of the detail in the elk hides. This adjustment also helped to downplay the background slightly.

All-in-all I really like the results I got on this short hour of remaining daylight. Watch the light around you and especially on your subjects. Every once in a while the light will be awesome!

Amazing Encounter in Elk Country Pennsylvania

This week I had the privilege of being in the Elk Country of Pennsylvania with my good friend and fellow photographer, Dick McCreight, of Bluestem Photography. Dick is an amazing photographer and I always enjoy our photo times together as we learn and stretch one another. This week was a prime example of this collaborative learning experience.

We saw and photographed a lot of elk over the past four days. Circumstances beyond my control prevented me from joining Dick on the first day, so he had a nice head start on me. It is always difficult to hear about and see photographs that are captured in your absence! I was encouraged that Dick was seeing and photographing elk and I hoped it might continue. It did!

Dick had to leave a little earlier than me, so we said our goodbyes. There was still about an hour of useable daylight, so I headed back out to try my luck.

Light is a funny thing and unpredictable at that. One moment the light stinks and then the next it is absolutely gorgeous! This evening out on Winslow’s Hill was no exception. The day was mostly overcast but as the sun began to make its way to the horizon, some of the clouds parted, creating streaks of sunlight onto the scene I was photographing. It didn’t take long for me to get into the right position, and as you can see in these first two photos, the elk cooperated as well! The first photo is my favorite so far, but I still have more photos to sift through and edit. By the way, all these photos here are completely unedited and straight out of the camera. The light was so good!

I also need to thank Moose Peterson who through his book, “Captured,” and his magazine, “BT Journal,” is teaching me to see the light! Sorry for the bad pun; but since my family is tired of me trying to be funny, I thought I’d try it here! Anyway, I am learning from Moose about the different qualities of light and how to use light in my photographs. Thank you Moose, I think these photographs show that I am learning from you!

This particular evening was the third time I photographed elk in this same field. I guess they were getting used to me and realized that I was presenting no danger to them. I walked onto the field after spotting the elk, walked down the dirt road toward them and they readily accepted me. You can always tell a lot by the little behavioral signs an elk portrays. Ears, eyes, tails, and general body movement are like reading a book. Every detail is important so the photographer has to pay attention to all this!

My general procedure when photographing the elk of Pennsylvania is to approach slowly and very casually. Lennie Rue III and Len Rue, Jr. taught me to act as unconcerned about the elk as possible, almost like you don’t even care about them. This nonchalant attitude helps the elk realize that we are not hunters who are going to shoot them. Rather, we are photographers who are going to shoot them in a much different way and over and over again! I approach the elk, reading all their signs. Then, as I get closer, I only approach when their heads are down while they are eating. When they look up, I stop, look around and act as causal as possible. This approach and a great deal of patience helps me get closer to the elk.

On this particular evening, the elk readily accepted me. I literally had elk all around me at one point! They were busy eating a new crop of hay and they were feeding in every direction possible. Once in a while, they would look up to study me, but for the most part I was just like another tree to them.

Then something happened.

I was photographing this cow when it started looking intently in a direction beyond me. As you can see in this photograph, the elk is looking in my general direction but somewhere behind me. It took me a while to really notice this, but then, as if on cue, all the elk began to exhibit an uneasiness that I could not explain. It is always amazing to me how wild animals communicate with each other. This time, the warning sign of alert was communicated and every elk stopped eating and was staring in the same direction. Something of interest was happening behind me; but what?

I thought that maybe another elk was coming into the field out of the woods behind me because I observed this earlier in the morning. There was a loud clashing as an elk bumbled onto the scene and the elk in the field looked in her direction when they heard the sound. But this was different. The intent stares of the elk and their body language indicated to me that something was wrong.

I even spoke out loud to the cow I photographed in the above photo, asking, “What’s wrong?” Yeah, I do talk to the animals. They never talk back, but Lennie Rue III teaches that he learned a lot while growing up on a farm. One time he came up behind a horse and surprised it so much that it kicked him square in the chest with both hind feet! He learned an important lesson. Talking to animals in an almost monotone and comforting manner is often helpful, and so I practice this every time I am in the field with the Pennsylvania Elk. “Hi, there. Don’t worry; I’m not going to hurt you.” Call me crazy, but sometimes I even think they understand me!

Something was wrong behind me this evening and every elk in the field knew it and saw it before I did. So after, asking, “What’s wrong?” I turned around to see this:

A black bear!

Now I knew what the elk were so intently looking at and it was obviously cause for great alarm to them. Some of the cows are now on the brink of giving birth to their calves. Black bears in Pennsylvania pose a definite threat to these baby calves. The Pennsylvania Game Commission conducted several elk calf studies over the years. You can read more detailed information about these studies and their findings here: Richardson, Lori D. Pennsylvania Game News November 2007: 31-37.

This recent study revealed that bears are not as big a threat to Pennsylvania Elk as they are to the Rocky Mountain Elk. Some of this is due to the mere numbers of the elk out west compared to the relatively lower numbers here in the east. Whitetail fawns are much more at risk here in our state. Nevertheless, a cow elk will definitely pay attention when it sees a black bear.

So here was the subject which attracted all the attention of these elk. I was the last one to realize it!

Now, I’ve been in the wood and fields of Pennsylvania all my life, so I know full well that predicting the size of a bear is anything but an exact science. I’ve seen the bear check stations where hunters bring in their bears to be weighed and studied by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Seeing is not always believing because what oftentimes looks like a huge bear simply is not. This is particularly true when a bear is by itself with nothing which to compare. I will suffice it to say that this bear was no cub.

I also know enough about bear behavior that black bears pose very little threat to adult humans. Grizzly bears and Polar bears are much different! So, even though I was in the middle of this field and a bear appeared out of the woods on the field’s edge, I was not concerned. I started photographing the bear, overjoyed to be experiencing this amazing encounter in elk country!

But then something happened that caught my attention again!

The black bear started walking right toward me!

(To Be Continued…)

Midday Light

Many photographers pack up their cameras and photo equipment when the sun gets high in the sky. This is understandable because the midday sunlight is often too harsh for good, quality photographs. However, some days provide excellent light even at midday.

This fall I was in the mountains of Elk County, Pennsylvania during a rainy week. It rained every day I was there! One afternoon I decided to take a walk. It was midday but it was cloudy. On my walk the clouds separated somewhat and the sunlight came pouring through. The light was absolutely beautiful!

Pay attention to the quality of light even at midday. Once in a while it will be okay to shoot photographs even when the sun is high in the sky.

Looking Back

This young calf was in the midst of a nice herd of elk. Several bulls were bugling and keeping a very close eye on their harems. The evening was full of suspense in the midst of the fall rut. Even the cows were showing signs of the rambunctious activity. But in the midst of it all, this young calf was lying down and looking back.

What was the calf looking back at? It’s mother? A bugling bull? Honestly, I don’t know. I framed the calf in my viewfinder and pressed the shutter release.

I like this photograph for a number of reasons. First, even though the calf is lying down, its ears are up and alert. And, secondly, look closely at those ears? Do you see how the late light of the setting sun is reflecting off them? This helps to highlight them because the viewer’s eye is drawn to the brightest part of the photograph.

Do you like this photograph? Why?

I’m Slowly Learning to See the Light

I am thoroughly enjoying Moose Peterson’s book, “Captured.” I enjoy wildlife photography and read all of Lennie Lee Rue III’s books, which I just love. His books really rock! They taught me a lot that I use and depend on every time I am out in the wild with my camera. So I guess I was rather slow to purchase a different photographer’s book on wildlife photography. Well, let me tell you, Moose’s book is equally as impressive. The best part of Moose’s book is how different it is from other photo books I’ve read in the past. Forget the nuts and bolts of f-stops and shutter speeds. The book takes a different and refreshing approach.

Moose shares wonderful narratives and helps the reader really think about the subject being photographed. He walks you along the paths he took to capture his amazing and breath-taking photographs. He does not hold your hand, telling you which f-stop is the best or even his favorite. No, this is not a book for those needing to have their photographic hand-held. Rather, Moose makes you think. He makes you think about your approach and goal in the photograph. He also challenges the reader to see the light (pun intended, I’m pretty sure).

Light of some kind is required for photography. After all, “photography” literally means “writing with light.” With out a light source we don’t got a photo! So we can agree on the importance light brings to the photo party. However, even after many years behind the viewfinder, I am not sure I’ve been looking at the light critically or inquisitively enough. We all were told about the Golden Hours and to aim to shoot just after dawn and just before dusk. Light often takes on a unique and special quality at these times.

Light can change in an instance. Just this evening I took my son, James, to his baseball practice and was sitting in the truck playing with the menus on the LCD screen on my camera. I like to do this every now and then to familiarize myself with my camera. After all, there is nothing worse than messing with trying to find a particular setting in the heat of the moment when the photo action is fast and furious. It is much better to be fully prepared and so spending some down time with my camera is time well-spent. Anyway, I was playing with my camera when I noticed the light of the late day bouncing off the tips of some of the cumulus clouds. I was not in a good place to take a photograph due to electrical wires and some parking lights being in my way, but I couldn’t help but notice the way the light was just dancing off the tips of the clouds. It was beautiful. And here’s the thing–I doubt I would ever even notice this if I wasn’t interested in photography. How much do we miss by not looking or paying attention in this life?

Light has several qualities that we need to think about as photographers. Quantity, direction, and quality are the top three from what I was taught. The amount of light, or quantity, is critical because without enough light there can be no photograph. On the other hand, too much light, like at high noon, can be extremely difficult to deal with in photography. Quantity of light will dictate a lot about proper exposure. Less light requires us to open up our f-stop, while bright light requires us to stop down. This is pretty easy so far.

Direction of light is also important. Most of us were taught to place the sun behind us or over one of our shoulders when photographing a subject. This is typically sound advice but it is no always possible. For example, I sometimes photograph baseball games where I have to shoot directly into the sun as it sets due to how the field is set up. This is tough, if not impossible. However, sometimes shooting into the sun can create some stunning photographs like for silhouettes to mention just one. Back-lighting can also create amazing effects in a photograph. So, yeah, the direction of light is pretty important, too.

Quality of light is one of the most overlooked and perhaps the least understood of these three. We all see the difference in the sun’s light between morning and high noon and then dusk. But have you ever stood at the same place for any length of time and witnessed how the quality of light changes over time. Add some clouds and things change. Different seasons make some obvious changes, too. Yes, some of these changes are in the first two categories of quantity and direction of light, but watch carefully for the quality of light. This is so subtle at times. In fact, it is hard to describe or talk about, but when you see it you know it. The quality of light can make or break a photograph. I remember shooting a baseball game recently where the sun was just gorgeous. I vaguely noticed it at the time, but when I got back home and started processing my photos the quality of light revealed itself in an entire sequence of photographs. It was beautiful!

Now the key is to notice these lighting subtleties before we photograph a subject. See the light! It sounds so simple and yet it can be so elusive!

Later this evening I was driving in my truck and noticed how the setting sunlight was just kissing the very tippy tops of some of distant clouds. I was not in a good position to photograph these clouds, but I saw the light and the light was just gorgeous! I’m slowly learning to see the light!

I am almost embarrassed to post this photo I took earlier this evening of the cumulus clouds, but it fits with my topic of seeing the light. The direction of light was coming from right to left into the cloud. The quantity of light was pretty bright but the humidity and haze in the air helped to defuse it a touch. The quality of light wasn’t bad. It created some very nice contrast in the cloud formations, which really made them stand out.

See the light. You and your photographs will be the better for it!


Lydia, our theatrical daughter, enjoys performing in community theater. Last weekend The Sherman Theater hosted Ragtime. The actors/singers/dancers in this musical were astounding! Their voices, expressions, and stage movement provided wonderful opportunities for photography.

Now don’t think for a minute this was easy. No, the light wreaked havoc on exposure settings and the low-level of light blurred just about any movement whatsoever. Add to this the variant colors of the stage lighting and you begin to get an idea of what I was facing. Fortunately, I was able to capture some of the wonderful facial expressions of the actors and I believe the following photographs show at least some of this expressive drama.

Photographs require light and light is the subject we are after many times. Light can make or completely destroy a photograph. I was shooting without flash, which wasn’t allowed and is a huge distraction for the actors, so available light was the only option. As  you can see in these photos, the colors of the lights changed from red, to yellow, to blue. I found that darkening the background worked some of the time but it was a struggle to work with the available light and get images in focus. Even with my f/2.8 70-200mm Nikkor Lens, this was not possible much of the time. Facial expressions can also make a photograph successful and certainly help to tell the story and drama of the musical. Facial expressions are great and I believe the facial expressions in these photos make them work. What do you think?



Photography is literally defined as “writing (“graphy”) with light (“photo”).

So as photographers we need to do everything we can to understand light. Without understanding this basic component of our craft we will be severely limited. This is so important and yet overlooked by so many. It is easy to get all cranked up over a new camera body or lens, but without the right kind of light our photographs will be substandard.

Light has several qualities that we need to pay attention to and learn about. Light has color, direction, and quality.

The color of light is something we know a little about when we start thinking about the proper white balance in our camera settings. As a test, turn your camera’s white balance to flourescent and take a photo. Now turn the white balance to incandescent and take another photo. Depending on the existing light, you  will see different colors of light in these two photographs. Light can be, for example, blue, green, orange, yellow, and many other colors. The color of light tends to evoke certain emotions and feelings-blue is cool, orange is warm, etc. Paying attention to the color of light is the first step in understanding light better.

Light also has direction. From where is the light coming? Is it side-lit, back-lit, or front-lit? This component of light is also critical to understand and learn about. Front lighting is perhaps the least attractive directional light. Side-lighting creates deep shadows, revealing depth and character in a subject. Back-lighting can create silhouettes as well as interesting halos.

Quality of light is the most difficult component to describe, but when you see great qualities of light you will certainly know it. Quality can range from horrible to average to sensational and even breath-taking. “The golden hour” is one description but it can happen almost anytime and a photographer should always be vigilant and ready for this superior quality of light to appear.

The following photograph is not sensational or even an above average photo. However, the color, direction, and quality of light make it interesting; at least in my humble opinion. When the light is right the photograph will be right!

Foggy Mornings

Trying to photograph elk in foggy mornings is not easy but it sure is fun!

I enjoy being around the elk whenever I can, even when the weather conditions are not conducive to photography. We all know that photography literally means “painting with light” so light is definitely required! Photographers are notorious complainers when the light is not so good like in the middle of the day or when it’s raining. If we had our druthers (what are druthers anyway?) we would prefer soft, quality light all the time on each and every shoot. Unfortunately, this is not always possible and if we wait for perfect lighting we will not capture many photos.

Added to this is the fact that I have limited time on the elk range. So the days I am there I have to deal with whatever conditions the good Lord provides. I always prefer to see the cup as half-full. Besides, a bad day of elk photography is better than most other days away from the elk!

One particular morning in September, we came onto a nice bull. His rack was impressive and he was a very nice animal to photograph. The lighting conditions were not so good. It was foggy and the amount of light was limited. I decided to shoot some shots anyway and see what I might be able to accomplish. This next photo was one that I liked. What do you think?

By the way, “druthers” is a noun which means “free choice” or “would rather.” It is used especially in the phrase “if one had one’s druthers.” For example, if I had my druthers, I’d be photographing elk today!”

Old Fashioned Drawing Diagrams Can Help

I am a computer geek and prefer using the computer for just about everything possible. In fact, I’m not sure what I would do without a computer!

However, I still know the value of good old pen and paper. Drawing diagrams can help in planning a photo shoot. Where is the main light? Should you add a fill light and where should it be placed? How about your subject–where is it in relation to everything else? What about the camera–should it be at a low angle?

Admittedly, this is quite difficult when photographing wildlife, but just about every photo subject can be better photographed with advanced planning. I certainly am no artist, but diagrams definitely help me in the planning stages of a shoot. These diagrams allow me to think ahead and do some planning before I even get to the location.

I find these diagrams very useful. Give it a try. Before you go to you next photo shoot take some time to draw up a diagram or two and see if they help.

Stage Lighting and Backgrounds

This past weekend I photographed a Christmas musical that my daughter had a role in as Holly Moss. I find stage light to be difficult and un-user friendly much of the time. The problem is that many different colored lights create all kinds of light casts on the actors and have a way of tinting skin and hair to amazingly unhuman qualities. It can get quite funky!

I choose to go without flash for two reasons: first, most of the time flash is not allowed in these situations, and second, I want to portray the lighting as we see it in the actual performance. These seem like pretty good reasons to me.

I have found that dark, black backgrounds are the best in these conditions. Other backgrounds not only can get busy looking, but they can reflect a lot of different colors that come from the stage lights. Black is predictable more so than any other background and it seems to swallow up some of the ambient light colors that reek havoc on skin tones.

The next time you are out on a photo shoot think more about the backgrounds and try a black one if possible. It works beautifully at times when nothing else seems to work at all.