How the West Was Won

By Nathaniel Smalley

The American Southwest, a land of raw elements and rugged terrain, a place where only the hardiest wildlife and plants survive. This corner of the world has captivated the imaginations of people for centuries. Once known as the great frontier, it drew settlers from all corners of the world seeking to make it their home. Today we read in history books about ‘How the West was won’, but my recent travels throughout Arizona and Utah would indicate that the wild west is anything but tamed. While crowds of tourists surely pour down its main highways in the summer months, just over the distant hills remains a land of unexplored beauty and silence. There the sun rises and sets over a stunning landscape, painting shadows in the corners that act as a supporting cast to the elaborate sandstone formations.
This was the first year since moving to Arizona in 2007 that I have not been in some remote corner of the world for the season of Spring. I took full advantage of this opportunity and spent the past three months chasing the light throughout the American Southwest. I was recently asked by Arizona Highways to lead a Best Of The West Photo Workshop for them in April of 2018, this was the perfect opportunity to scout for that upcoming itinerary and fill out my portfolio in those areas of the State.

My adventures of the season took me to countless iconic destinations across the gorgeous Arizona landscape. Monument Valley has long been known as the back yard playground of some of Hollywood’s greatest actors, most notably John Wayne. Standing there overlooking the vista dominated by towering rock buttes that are illuminated by the setting sun one quickly realizes why many have been so easily drawn to this magical place.

The beauty of this region extends below the earth’s surface as well, deep into narrow slot canyons that have been forged by flood waters rushing over the sandstone for centuries. These powerful torrents carry rocks, logs and other debris with such force that they carve out fantastic underworld realms that are incredible places to explore and even better to photograph! During the Spring and Summer months sunbeams occasionally make it down through the top of the canyon walls painting the walls with light and revealing their amazing textures and patterns. Walking through the chasm one can often hear the call of a Raven perched by the top echoing through through the passage, or that of a Great Horned Owl if you’re lucky!

The plant life in the Southwest is unlike anywhere else in the United States. Gigantic Saguaros and other varieties of cactus decorate certain sections of the landscape while other parts support species that dominate a specific region as is the case in Joshua Tree National Park. I happened to be there during the season when these ancient trees bloom and found some wonderful subjects. This image of one bowing down to the earth burdened by the weight of time was one of my favorites due to its unique shape.

I would be remiss if I didn’t share one of the wonderful shots I captured of the Grand Canyon during this adventure. Here is a place that is impossible to put into words or offer an image that dose justice to the majesty and glory of gazing out at one of the seven wonders of the world. When the sun cuts across the ridge line at sunset and casts beams across the vast opening it is truly breathtaking.

Another location that I photographed during this whirlwind tour was the beautiful Canyon de Chelly. Here a towering sandstone spire rises up 750 feet from the canyon floor reaching to the sky. The Navajo Nation has a fantastic legend about Spider Woman surrounding this formation that would impress even the most dedicated comic book enthusiast. Sunset overlooking this valley is unforgettable.

No trip in the American Southwest would be complete without walking around under the cover of darkness in the shadow of ancient rock formations, so I returned to do just that last weekend. My travels took me north where there is limited light pollution in order to photograph the Milky Way. Here in the wee hours of the morning the galaxy explodes above and leaves one feeling incredibly small. It is therapeutic, it puts life in context and heals your tattered soul. The adrenaline that courses through you standing there can not be duplicated. What a wonderful world.

The simple reality I discovered is that the West will never be won, it is a wild and free land for those who are willing to go out and seek its raw dimensions. If you would like more information on my upcoming Best Of The West Photo Workshop you can find complete details at this link. Three spots filled the day it was announced and space is limited. I can’t wait to return to these exceptional destinations next year with my group and look forward to sharing our images with you at that time. I am now off to lead my Ultimate African Adventure Safari, I’ll put together an in depth trip report from our experiences once we return. Thanks for reading!

Nathaniel Smalley is an Instructor with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops

 

A  Bold  New  World – Winter Photography in the Polar Circle

Author:  Nathaniel Smalley

Dance of the Green Dragon | Lofoten, Norway

Nordic-Dreams_Iceland_DSC2360

Nordic Dreams | Iceland – During my recent Iceland Winter Photography Tour we visited a few different locations looking for the elusive aurora borealis, including the mighty Skógafoss waterfall. The Northern Lights never danced for us here, but a moonbow put on a show all its own. Later over Vik we were rewarded with a beautiful aurora display. Iceland is a land full of wonders!

It is hard to believe that a few months have past since I returned from leading back to back photography tours in Iceland and Norway. I had a great groups of dedicated photographers for both destinations and we enjoyed shooting in some incredible conditions. People generally have one of two reactions when they consider the thought of participating in a photography tour to a colder climate. There are those that will jump at the chance relishing the challenge and new experiences, asking eagerly, ‘Where do I sign up?!’ The remaining personalities typically respond with ‘Over my dead body!’ or mutter something about how they’d turn into an icicle. Another objection I’ve heard is fear of the damage their camera will suffer from the snow. First of all, if your equipment is worth its salt then it should be able to manage a little dusting of snow. The main risk with

Labyrinth | Lofoten, Norway – A maze of fascinating sand patterns made the perfect foreground for the distant snow capped mountain peaks during my recent Norway photography tour. This quiet stream flows directly into the ocean and the large, broken ice patches were too inviting to pass up. Sometimes you wait for what seems like an eternity for clear skies when shooting in the polar circle, but when it clears the sunrises are nothing short of spectacular. This was one of those days.

camera gear in a colder climate is extreme temperature changes. If you you allow it to gradually adjust then you shouldn’t have any problems.

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Scream of the Sea | Lofoten, Norway – This image was captured on the upper northwestern side of the Lofoten peninsula. The weather was extremely dramatic and while we were there it began to snow. The raging ocean crashed harder and harder into rocks with the rising tide. I sat and stared for a long time before going to work on this composition. I listened to the gusting wind as it drove tiny white snowflakes through the air like so many small darts. I watched the surf dash onto the coast churning white froth all over the shoreline. There were so many different emotions at work in the scene. When I finally began to shoot it all went silent, but the sea still let it’s voice be heard visually with this striking face in the foaming water below… Unforgettable.

Keeping batteries in a base layer pocket close to your body should extend their life in the cold when they aren’t in use. Secondly, at the end of the day the simple reality is that their really is no such thing as ‘bad conditions’, just a lack of creativity. We live in an age today when apparel manufactures make gear and clothing that will keep us comfortable in nearly any type of weather or at any temperature. I’m speaking from experience. Last year I led an winter expedition in the Himalayas to photograph Snow Leopards in the wilds of northeastern India. With the the right type of clothing and apparel you can endure some pretty extreme conditions. Finally, perhaps one of the best kept secrets about winter in Iceland (and particularly Norway) is how mild the winters are. The general assumption is that just because it’s in the polar circle it must be frigid. The reality is that almost all of Norway’s coast remains free of ice and snow throughout the year. Norway and Iceland are located along the same latitude as Siberia, Greenland and Alaska, so it is often expected to be a land of bitterly cold weather. However, due to warming influences of the northern Gulf Stream, the country actually enjoys a fairly mild climate. Average daily temperatures in the winter are typically above 32°F or 0°C. The good news is that this rampant misconception drastically reduces that number of photographers that visit these Nordic regions during the winter months, leaving it for groups like mine to enjoy. Once you’ve experienced and shot these locations in the summer, winter is a whole new experience. Like peeling back that layers of an onion, winter removes all the ‘fluff’ from the landscape and leaves one composing from a raw, rugged scene… and it is breathtakingly beautiful.

Below are just a few more examples from my winter tours, if you’d like to see more visit my Iceland Portfolio  or my Norway Portfolio.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.

– Nathaniel

Flow | Iceland - There are few things that I enjoy more than spending time alone with a camera surrounded by nature. However, there is certainly something to be said for sharing the magic of the outdoors with fellow photographers. For some it's the moment they see a new country or species the first time that they have longed to witness for years. For others that have been to a destination before, it's like taking them back to visit an old companion. Each time that I lead a tour to the Nordic countries I look forward to sharing the magic of that region with friends both old and new, and with you all. This is a large chunk of glacial ice getting caught in the rushing tide that was photographed on a black sand beach in eastern Iceland. I hope you enjoy it.

Flow | Iceland – There are few things that I enjoy more than spending time alone with a camera surrounded by nature. However, there is certainly something to be said for sharing the magic of the outdoors with fellow photographers. For some it’s the moment they see a new country or species the first time that they have longed to witness for years. For others that have been to a destination before, it’s like taking them back to visit an old companion. Each time that I lead a tour to the Nordic countries I look forward to sharing the magic of that region with friends both old and new, and with you all. This is a large chunk of glacial ice getting caught in the rushing tide that was photographed on a black sand beach in eastern Iceland. I hope you enjoy it.

Ribbon Candy | Lofoten, Norway - At times hunting for the northern lights can be a bit like an emotional roller coaster. Typically I will have been up early that morning shooting sunrise and then out in the mid afternoon for sunset. After a warm meal for dinner one usually just wants to curl up on a couch and fall asleep looking at the images from the day. But the chance of seeing the beautiful aurora coaxes me back out into the dark and the crisp, winter air. Trudging through the snow or along a dark roadside thoughts of doubt creep into your mind and whisper that you're wasting precious hours you could be sleeping searching for a phantom. And then suddenly from out of nowhere the sky explodes into into vibrant, changing patterns of color. In that moment all thoughts of sleep rush out of your your mind and adrenaline courses through your body. For a minute you forget to even shoot. All the tired muscles and sore joints in your body are forgotten as you bask in the glorious display of one of the natural worlds greatest phenomena. Nature's therapy at its best.

Ribbon Candy | Lofoten, Norway – At times hunting for the northern lights can be a bit like an emotional roller coaster. Typically I will have been up early that morning shooting sunrise and then out in the mid afternoon for sunset. After a warm meal for dinner one usually just wants to curl up on a couch and fall asleep looking at the images from the day. But the chance of seeing the beautiful aurora coaxes me back out into the dark and the crisp, winter air. Trudging through the snow or along a dark roadside thoughts of doubt creep into your mind and whisper that you’re wasting precious hours you could be sleeping searching for a phantom. And then suddenly from out of nowhere the sky explodes into into vibrant, changing patterns of color. In that moment all thoughts of sleep rush out of your your mind and adrenaline courses through your body. For a minute you forget to even shoot. All the tired muscles and sore joints in your body are forgotten as you bask in the glorious display of one of the natural worlds greatest phenomena. Nature’s therapy at its best.

Explosion | Iceland - There are certain locations that regardless of how many times you visit, it's like a new experience every time. Iceland is one of those. This image was made at dawn on the beach in Vik, and while most are drawn to photograph the ancient sea stacks there, the surf is a subject unto itself. This area tends to experience some of the island's more dramatic weather systems and the towering waves are astonishingly powerful. Exercising extreme caution here is of the utmost importance as sleeper waves often surprise tourists and can be deadly. The small black flecks that you see in the crashing wave here are actually fist-sized stones... just to give you an idea of how powerful the ocean is on this beach.

Explosion | Iceland – There are certain locations that regardless of how many times you visit, it’s like a new experience every time. Iceland is one of those. This image was made at dawn on the beach in Vik, and while most are drawn to photograph the ancient sea stacks there, the surf is a subject unto itself. This area tends to experience some of the island’s more dramatic weather systems and the towering waves are astonishingly powerful. Exercising extreme caution here is of the utmost importance as sleeper waves often surprise tourists and can be deadly. The small black flecks that you see in the crashing wave here are actually fist-sized stones… just to give you an idea of how powerful the ocean is on this beach.

Arctic Pastels | Lofoten, Norway - Hamnoy is the oldest fishing village in the Lofoten Archipelago, and though small, it is undeniably beautiful. Considered by many to be to be one of the most picturesque villages in the region, Hamnoy is also popular tourist destination due to its scenic, unspoiled nature. This village was only accessible by ferry until bridges were built connecting it to the rest of the peninsula about 35 years ago. During my Norway Photography Tour, participants are accommodated in remodeled fishermen cabins like the red ones pictured here. The oldest one of these was built in the 1890's. There are few things that compare with staying in a traditional seaside cabin overlooking the coastline and falling asleep to the sound of the ocean lapping against the rocks below. This image was captured during the first sunrise photo shoot of my tour, we were rewarded with a soft pink blush in the clouds just above these iconic peaks.

Arctic Pastels | Lofoten, Norway – Hamnoy is the oldest fishing village in the Lofoten Archipelago, and though small, it is undeniably beautiful. Considered by many to be to be one of the most picturesque villages in the region, Hamnoy is also popular tourist destination due to its scenic, unspoiled nature. This village was only accessible by ferry until bridges were built connecting it to the rest of the peninsula about 35 years ago. During my Norway Photography Tour, participants are accommodated in remodeled fishermen cabins like the red ones pictured here. The oldest one of these was built in the 1890’s. There are few things that compare with staying in a traditional seaside cabin overlooking the coastline and falling asleep to the sound of the ocean lapping against the rocks below. This image was captured during the first sunrise photo shoot of my tour, we were rewarded with a soft pink blush in the clouds just above these iconic peaks.

Winter Oasis | Lofoten, Norway - Ice is often one of the best elements to utilize in a winter scene, however this year many of the large lakes in Norway were covered due to increased snowfall late in the season. The snow cover compromised the stability of the ice which made working around the lakes difficult at times. Adapting to these conditions meant passing on some of the grand compositions with ice cracks in the foreground, and instead finding small hidden ponds like this one just off the beaten path. While shooting in a colder climate certainly has its challenges, with the proper clothing one can remain quite comfortable and and the rewards are great. Winter images are very unique and produce results unlike any other season. This is a favorite area of mine for sunrise in Norway for good reason. And yes, the ice is really that color.

Winter Oasis | Lofoten, Norway – Ice is often one of the best elements to utilize in a winter scene, however this year many of the large lakes in Norway were covered due to increased snowfall late in the season. The snow cover compromised the stability of the ice which made working around the lakes difficult at times. Adapting to these conditions meant passing on some of the grand compositions with ice cracks in the foreground, and instead finding small hidden ponds like this one just off the beaten path. While shooting in a colder climate certainly has its challenges, with the proper clothing one can remain quite comfortable and and the rewards are great. Winter images are very unique and produce results unlike any other season. This is a favorite area of mine for sunrise in Norway for good reason. And yes, the ice is really that color.

The Gatekeepers | Iceland - Off Iceland's eastern coastline fantastic rocks protrude from the ocean creating great subject matter for compositions. At this particular location they're precisely where the sun sets during the winter season. As the sun drops down to the horizon it splits the difference between these two gigantic formations. If the skies are clear, then you're treated to a beautiful display like this one.

The Gatekeepers | Iceland – Off Iceland’s eastern coastline fantastic rocks protrude from the ocean creating great subject matter for compositions. At this particular location they’re precisely where the sun sets during the winter season. As the sun drops down to the horizon it splits the difference between these two gigantic formations. If the skies are clear, then you’re treated to a beautiful display like this one.

Kaleidoscope | Norway Fascinating sand patterns along the shoreline of one of Norway's many beautiful beaches. Turquoise waters and white sand beaches, Norway is very much like the Caribbean of the North.

Kaleidoscope | Norway Fascinating sand patterns along the shoreline of one of Norway’s many beautiful beaches. Turquoise waters and white sand beaches, Norway is very much like the Caribbean of the North.

Someone recently asked me what we do on my Nature Odyssey Worldwide Photo Tours when the weather changes and the storms blow in. I was puzzled, but smiled and said, 'That's often when we do our best work.' This shot was taken on my sold out Winter Iceland Photography Tour in 2016 with a great group of dedicated photographers. We've found some great scenes both in the landscape and the ice caves.

Someone recently asked me what we do on my Nature Odyssey Worldwide Photo Tours when the weather changes and the storms blow in. I was puzzled, but smiled and said, ‘That’s often when we do our best work.’ This shot was taken on my sold out Winter Iceland Photography Tour in 2016 with a great group of dedicated photographers. We’ve found some great scenes both in the landscape and the ice caves.

What a beautiful country! This shot was taken on the final day of my Nature Odyssey Worldwide Tours in Norway. A fitting end to what was a week filled with the perfect variety of weather, allowing us to photograph the landscape in all conditions. One of my participants that travels a lot for photography said this was perhaps the best tour they'd ever been on, I couldn't ask for a better compliment. Thanks to this great group for joining me this Winter, 2016 Photo Tour in Norway!

What a beautiful country! This shot was taken on the final day of my Nature Odyssey Worldwide Tours in Norway. A fitting end to what was a week filled with the perfect variety of weather, allowing us to photograph the landscape in all conditions. One of my participants that travels a lot for photography said this was perhaps the best tour they’d ever been on, I couldn’t ask for a better compliment. Thanks to this great group for joining me this Winter, 2016 Photo Tour in Norway!

Award Winning Bird Photography

Author: Nathaniel Smalley

Nathaniel @ Audubon AZ

Recently I was honored to be requested as the guest speaker at Audubon Arizona’s showcase event in November, featuring award winning images from the 2015 National Audubon Photography Competition. The event was very well attended and I enjoyed an engaged audience as I discussed the topic of award winning bird photography. Due to the popularity of the topic, I chose to compile some of my notes into a blog post here.

Though I haven’t personally invested a lot of time entering my work, I have been asked to be a judge for a number of different nature photography competitions including the distinguished Natures Best Photography – Africa (a division of Nature’s Best Photography), Viewbug.com and others.

Birds were my door into photography way back in high school. These days I rarely go anywhere for the sole purpose of watching birds, but that hobby helped shape my career as a professional nature photographer, and as a result birds will always hold a special place in my heart. I now carry a camera in place of my binoculars when out looking for avian subjects. So you might ask, what am I looking for when I photograph birds? Creating successful bird photographs requires one or more different elements in our composition. Obviously there are many that could be listed, but for the sake of simplicity I’ve limited it to 10 elements. In the caption of each photo in this article I have detailed the main elements from this list have been utilized in my photographs. They are as follows:

– Action | Behavior | Humor | Personality | Friendship | Light | Perspective | Habitat | Depth of Field | Nostalgia –

Despite popular opinion, bird photography isn’t all about having a big lens. While it can certainly help achieve certain images, there are many creative ways to photograph birds that certainly require more effort, but produce great results. This image of a Great Blue Heron in flight was taken with my 70-200mm zoom lens and a teleconverter making it effectively a 400mm lens. Capturing this image came down to being prepared for the bird as it flew in front of me, as opposed to having a piece of high powered glass.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron – This bird in flight image utilizes action. Camera: Nikon D700 & Nikon 70-200mm Lens w/ 2x Teleconverter – ISO 1,000 | f-5.6 | 1/1600 sec. @ 400mm

To further illustrate my point I want to show you the image below. This is perhaps the most popular photo I’ve ever taken. What camera was it taken with? My Sony Cybershot Point & Shoot, 8 megapixel camera! Sure, it’s not a bird photo, but it proves a point; Creativity and being passionate about your subject trumps expensive equipment every time.

-This image was licensed by Nikon for a corporate presentation.
-It has been shared to every corner of the world.
-Published in international magazines and used in multiple articles.
-Occupied 1st place on 500px ahead of over-saturated landscapes and photos of half-naked female models.

Nathaniel’s infant son Dimitri at one week old – ISO 400 | f-2.8 | 1/25 sec. @ 6mm

Nathaniel’s infant son Dimitri at one week old – ISO 400 | f-2.8 | 1/25 sec. @ 6mm

So the next logical question then is how does one get close enough to these subjects without spooking them. Birds tend to be very skittish of humans, and for good reason, in fact I’m wary of humans at times myself! When we photograph birds and wildlife we want them to be relaxed and in their natural state. I’m strongly opposed to using bait to lure in wild subjects, but that’s a whole topic in and of itself. (If you would like to read more on the topic of baiting birds and wildlife click on this link). I also refrain from using calls and recordings. As much as possible I want my wild subjects to be acting out their normal behavior patterns as though I was not present. This is when I capture my best images. The longer we sit still and the more we blend into our surroundings the more comfortable birds become with our presence and the closer they will come to us. The clothing colors that we wear can effect how birds react to our presence. Stay away from whites, reds, yellows and other brightly colored clothing, these colors are often associated with danger in the natural world. Instead choose earth tones or even camouflage. Bird blinds are another option allowing us to photograph birds without being detected. Many species are much easier to photograph in the spring when they spend a majority of their time singing, displaying their bright breeding plumage and engaged in territorial disputes. Sometimes a bird will be all but oblivious to human presence during this time of the year as they’re so preoccupied with finding a mate and defending their turf. Below is an American Redstart singing his heart out at Magee Marsh, along the shores of Lake Erie in Ohio. Magee Marsh is a bird photographer’s paradise! I’m returning to Magee Marsh in 2016 to lead an exclusive bird photography workshop for Arizona Highways Photo Workshops, (to see more information about that workshop click here).

American Redstart – This image illustrates behavior & action. Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 600mm Lens w/ 1.4x Teleconverter – Iso 1,250 | f-7.1 | 1/250 sec. @ 850mm

American Redstart – This image illustrates behavior & action. Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 600mm Lens w/ 1.4x Teleconverter – Iso 1,250 | f-7.1 | 1/250 sec. @ 850mm

Conversely, nesting season can be one of the most difficult times to photograph birds, as they are trying to be secretive and all their attention is consumed with feeding their young. While nest sites can be intriguing to photograph, one should take extreme caution to do so at a safe distance so as not to stress or make the birds feel threatened. No photograph is worth rising the welfare of the nestlings, regardless of how cute they are.

Even the most common species are popular as babies, like this pair of Herring Gull chicks (above right) navigating through a large patch of ice plant on the California coastline. For this image I climbed on top of a railing along the ocean cliff to get even higher perspective (see below). This allowed me to shoot down on my subjects and isolate them in the frame from one another. If I’d shot them straight on then they would have blended together into a fluffy blob with two heads.

Nathaniel on location at La Jolla Cove in San Diego, California © Laurie Rubin

Nathaniel on location at La Jolla Cove in San Diego, California © Laurie Rubin

Capturing fledglings in their natural element in great light can produce some really magical results. Below a baby Canada Goose is struggling to put down a large dandelion blossom. The early morning sun on the dew covered grass creates the perfect shooting conditions for an image like this. I got low to the ground on eye level with my subject to help put the size of the surroundings in perspective. Using a shallow depth of field helps to isolate the gosling from the habitat and draws the viewers attention directly to the subject.

Canada Goose – This image utilizes light (dramatic), perspective & depth of field. Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 1,000 | f-6.3 | 1/2000 sec. @ 600mm

Canada Goose – This image utilizes light (dramatic), perspective & depth of field. Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 1,000 | f-6.3 | 1/2000 sec. @ 600mm

Golden Plover chick – This image utilizes perspective & depth of field. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 1,000 | f-6.3 | 1/320 sec. @ 600mm

Golden Plover chick – This image utilizes perspective & depth of field. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 1,000 | f-6.3 | 1/320 sec. @ 600mm

By getting very low to the ground when shooting this Golden Plover chick, the subject appears much smaller and more vulnerable in the overall scene, which is what I was going for. This impression is enhanced by the fact that I centered the subject and composed the bird low in the frame with lots of negative space above it. This image breaks one of the main rules of composition, known as ‘The Rule of Thirds.’ The rule of thirds states that: ‘An image is most pleasing when its subjects or regions are composed along imaginary lines which divide the image into thirds – both vertically and horizontally ’. This just goes to show that all the ‘rules ‘ of photography are made to be broken.

Unlike the previous example, this image below was composed following ‘The Rule of Thirds’. You can see the owl’s eyes, as the primary point of interest, are located right where the top left intersecting lines meet. This photo has nice balance to it with the double Aspens on the right offsetting the ‘weight ’ of the owl on the left. I’ve used depth of field to manage how much of the surrounding habitat is in focus.

Great Gray Owl – This image utilizes habitat, depth of field & perspective. Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 600mm Lens w/ 1.4x Teleconverter – Iso 400 | f-8 | 1/320 sec. @ 850mm

Great Gray Owl – This image utilizes habitat, depth of field & perspective. Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 600mm Lens w/ 1.4x Teleconverter – Iso 400 | f-8 | 1/320 sec. @ 850mm

Spring Fancy | Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser – This image utilizes behavior, perspective, action & light (reflected & direct). Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 70-200mm Lens w/ 2x Teleconverter – Iso 1,000 | f-6.3 | 1/1250 sec. @ 400mm

With bird photography almost every image will have more impact if you can get on eye level with your subject. Sometimes photographers don’t put a lot of thought into the angle at which an image is taken, but considering the role it plays in creating a successful image it aught to get far more attention. People are instinctively drawn to an photo taken from an unusual angle. For the image below I had my tripod in the water and was laying down with the upper half of my body stretched out over the edge of the bank to operate the camera and capture this shot. Needless to say that is not a comfortable position to be in, but often capturing the best shot requires a bit of physical discomfort to achieve the desired results.

Brown Pelican – This image utilizes fine art & behavior. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 1,250 | f-7.1 | 1/100 sec. @ 600mm

Brown Pelican – This image utilizes fine art & behavior. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 1,250 | f-7.1 | 1/100 sec. @ 600mm

A fine art photograph is taken with the goal of creating a work of art. It goes beyond the literal aspect of the scene or the subject photographed and creates an image that shares the photographer’s personal vision, a metaphorical aspect or message. This type of photography is more about making a photograph, not just taking a photograph. Documentation is great for certain types of photography, such as forensics where the purpose is to record the scene in the most literal and factual manner possible, but fine art photography is is about more than just creating a documentary image. While defining exactly what constitutes fine art photography may be impossible, here are a few points to consider in defining it:

1). What a fine art photograph illustrates must be different from what is observed when the shot is taken.
2). The purpose of a fine art photograph is to share the photographer’s personal vision of the scene or subject.
3). When looking at a fine art photograph it’s clear that the photograph was created by an artist and not just by a camera.
Sunset Salute | Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron – This image utilizes action & behavior. Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 800 | f-4 | 1/3200 sec. @ 600mm

Great Blue Heron – This image utilizes action & behavior. Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 800 | f-4 | 1/3200 sec. @ 600mm

Often after catching and swallowing a large fish a heron will open and close its beak activating its throat muscles and helping it to fully swallow its meal. Knowing of this behavior and watching for it allows you to capture a shot like this one of the Great Blue Heron below and gives the impression of a loud audible call from your subject.

That is exactly what I was going for when I took the image below of this Green Heron. It looks as though the heron is screaming at the top of its lungs, when in reality it was simply trying to work down its morning meal.

Green Heron – This image utilizes action & behavior. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens w/ 1.4x Teleconverter – Iso 640 | f-7.1 | 1/800 sec. @ 850mm

Green Heron – This image utilizes action & behavior. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens w/ 1.4x Teleconverter – Iso 640 | f-7.1 | 1/800 sec. @ 850mm

Shooting into a glowing sunset certainly has its challenges as images can easily end up over-exposed. Be sure to take care not to look through the viewfinder when shooting directly towards the sun, use the live view function on your camera if possible. You’ll notice that I’ve composed this image with the sun just to the left of the frame to allow me to shoot while looking through the viewfinder. When the sun is still above the horizon, sunrise and sunset can provide photographers lots of light to work with, and as a result you are able to shoot at faster shutter speeds and freeze motion or smaller apertures for greater depth of field. That is exactly what I’ve done here with this flock of Arctic Terns over the coast of Iceland. In the image below I have taken advantage of the extra light to shoot at f-14 giving me more depth of field in the image and showing more of the layers in the distant hills.

Arctic Terns – This image utilizes action & light (dramatic). Camera: Nikon D700 & Nikon 70-200mm Lens w/ 1.4x Teleconverter – Iso 500 | f-14 | 1/200 sec. @ 220mm Last Light | Snowy Egret

Arctic Terns – This image utilizes action & light (dramatic). Camera: Nikon D700 & Nikon 70-200mm Lens w/ 1.4x Teleconverter – Iso 500 | f-14 | 1/200 sec. @ 220mm
Last Light | Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret – This image utilizes light (dramatic). Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 100 | f-8 | 1/1000 sec. @ 600mm

Snowy Egret – This image utilizes light (dramatic). Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 100 | f-8 | 1/1000 sec. @ 600mm

Back light can give an photo a very special effect and enhance shapes and forms. Back lighting works best when the details on the edges are more important than the colors of the subject. Here a Snowy Egret is beautifully illuminated by an early morning beam of light that perfectly highlights a stray feather on its chest. In a shot like this I’m adjusting my camera settings based on the reading from my camera’s light meter is giving me for the brightest parts in the image. By doing this most (if not all) of the distracting back ground elements fall off into the shadows and help to further isolate and emphasize the subject.

When seeking bird subjects to photograph there are a few questions we can ask ourselves that will aid us in finding them in the best conditions. What is the dominant habitat for the location you are photographing? Researching the region and the knowing the geography will aid you in being better prepared for the type of vegetation and/or terrain you’ll be working in. For most bird species the year is divided into different activities (migration, nesting etc.). Understanding what birds are doing at different times of the year will help you learn when is the best time to photograph them. Where do the birds in your part of the world like to nest and feed? Discovering where their food sources are will lead you to the birds. In the image below a Northern Parula Warbler feeds on small insects inside the seed heads of an Alder Tree, knowing this information makes locating my subject more predictable.

Seeds Of Spring | Northen Parula Warbler

Northern Parula Warbler – This image utilizes habitat & light (soft). Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 600mm Lens w/ 1.4x Teleconverter – Iso 800 | f-6.3 | 1/1250 sec. @ 850mm

Signs Of Spring | American Robin

American Robin – This image utilizes nostalgia & habitat. Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 800 | f-8 | 1/200 sec. @ 600mm

Depending on what part of the Country you grew up in, seeing a Robin in a blooming Crab Apple Tree can be synonymous with spring and feelings of happiness. Having grown up in New England shots like this one of an American Robin bring back great memories for me personally. Capturing a familiar subject in an identifiable scene often takes a bit of planning, but when it is done right you can create a heartwarming photo that has a lot of appeal in front of the right audience. Photos that resonate with a viewer often do so because there is some nostalgic connection that they have with the image. I can’t track how many times I’ve been told by clients purchasing a print that they were ‘buying a hummingbird photo because their mom loved hummingbirds and the photo reminds them of their mother’, or they simply ‘had to have that print of the ocean because they grew up on the coast and the photo reminded them of home’.

Burrowing Owl – This image utilizes personality & behavior. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 200 | f-6.3 | 1/3200 sec. @ 600mm

Burrowing Owl – This image utilizes personality & behavior. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 200 | f-6.3 | 1/3200 sec. @ 600mm

This look of a Burrowing Owl in the image to the left is achieved by photographing it from just the right angle and produces the look of a stern school master (or perhaps your mother when she’s angry at you). Capturing birds from the best angle and at the perfect moment can yield exceptional results that give your subject a personality all its own. Photos of birds and wildlife that show a recognizable personality immediately resonate with the viewer and tend to be very popular.

Images that illustrate friendship between two wild subjects (whether actual or perceived), always evoke positive responses. Places where birds and wildlife both find food sources together are great locations to look for this kind of interaction and capture these types of shots. I found this sea lion and cormorant sunning themselves together on a rock along the coastline of California.

Sea Lion-Cormorant

Sea Lion & Cormorant – This image utilizes friendship & habitat. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 800 | f-8 | 1/320 sec. @ 600mm

 

The Height Of Audacity | Elk and Magpie

Elk & Magpie – This image utilizes friendship & humor. Camera: Nikon D700 & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 400 | f-4| 1/350 sec. @ 600mm

 

 

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of studying bird behavior in the field. That’s how I was able to be prepared for a shot like the one to the right of the elk and magpie. I watched this magpie that was hanging out with a herd of Elk, eating parasites out of their fur and foraging underneath their feet. I witnessed it fly up and land on this one elk’s back numerous times before I got the opportunity to capture this shot on the right. Anticipating bird behavior is absolutely essential for capturing winning bird photographs. Also be sure to read up in your bird field guide. There have been numerous birds that seeing them for the first time I immediately knew what they were just from having looked at them in my bird field guides or having read about their behaviors so many times in the past.

The final image I’ll discuss is by far the most comical image I’ve ever captured. This photo below of a Sandhill Crane was taken before I’d really gone full time with my photography, but it is consistently one of my best selling photographs. This photo is also one of the few images of mine that I’ve entered into a photography competition. However, when I did, it took home Honorable Mention from the National Wildlife Federation Nature Photography Competition in 2012. People love humorous images of birds and wildlife so I jump at the opportunity to capture a photograph like this. It’s also the only image from my bird portfolio that was taken in captivity. This photo was shot on an a family outing there with my children at the Sandhill Crane exhibit in the Phoenix Zoo. Since beginning to work as a professional photographer I no longer take photographs of captive subjects. All the photos that you’ll see on my website were taken in the wild.

Sandhill Crane – This image utilizes humor & personality. Camera: Nikon D700 & Nikon 70-200mm Lens w/ 2x Teleconverter – Iso 200 | f-5.6 | 1/640 sec. @ 400mm

Sandhill Crane – This image utilizes humor & personality. Camera: Nikon D700 & Nikon 70-200mm Lens w/ 2x Teleconverter – Iso 200 | f-5.6 | 1/640 sec. @ 400mm

In conclusion I’ll say that the absolute best way to produce award winning images is to get outdoors with your camera. The more you’re out in the wild looking for avian subjects and watching bird behavior, the greater your odds are of seeing and capturing an exceptional image. After all, even if you don’t get the image you’re chasing after I can’t think of a better way to spend the day than being outside surrounded by your feathered friends. So boost your award winning potential, and grab your camera… the birds are calling.

Nathaniel on location in the Himalayas photographing raptors. – India, 2015

Nathaniel on location in the Himalayas photographing raptors. – India, 2015

Nathaniel Smalley is a full time professional nature photographer based in Phoenix, Arizona. To read more and view his portfolio, please visit his website: www.NathanielSmalleyPhotography.com

BEYOND THE WATERFALLS

Author: Nathaniel Smalley

© Nathaniel Smalley

© Nathaniel Smalley

A N   I N T I M A T E   E X P L O R A T I O N    O F     I C E L A N D

© Nathaniel Smalley

© Nathaniel Smalley

You may have dreamed of traveling to Iceland, as I did for years, longing to photograph its incredibly diverse landscape. A plethora of images had tempted me for a decade

© Nathaniel Smalley

© Nathaniel Smalley

or longer, enticing with massive waterfalls, glowing sunsets and noble Icelandic horses. Admittedly the allure of this magical country is hard to resist. As recently as a few years ago I had a powerful ambition to capture all the ‘iconic’ shots so often published of Iceland, but over time something in me changed. I’m not sure exactly what it was that altered my perspective, perhaps it was a number of factors. I noticed that my interest had shifted towards photographers that were creating more subtle, unique compositions and capturing the hidden elements of a scene, as opposed to the more obvious, grand shots that have almost become common now. I also became weary of what I perceived to be a rabid pursuit of ‘epic’ light. I do not mean to imply that there is anything wrong with photographing ultra-dramatic light and conditions, we would be remiss as photographers if we did not. Unfortunately though, the message often conveyed is, “If there isn’t a flaming sky, stay home” or even worse, “If there isn’t a flaming sky, just paint one in later with Photoshop”. Despite the general popularity and initial impact of these ‘sensationalized’ images of nature, I felt there was something missing. That approach to landscape photography left me feeling jaded. It is to the point now when one posts a photograph depicting spectacular light that they run the risk of their audience automatically assuming that the saturation slider was pushed too far to the right, or some Photoshop processing trick was executed. The viewer usually doubts, even if only sub-consciously, that the conditions represented in the photo ever existed. Often in today’s culture of digital nature photography great liberties are taken when processing files, pushing them far beyond the realm of reality. We’ve labeled this ‘artistic expression’ and moved on. I became more certain with each passing day that there was something forgotten, something overlooked…

Waiting for our attention, beyond all the hype about towering waterfalls and blazing sunsets, there is a quite landscape.

© Nathaniel Smalley

© Nathaniel Smalley

It was with these thoughts on my mind that I arrived in Iceland and began my quest to capture the beauty of this land from a fresh perspective. My first impression was that none of the photos I’d seen could do this amazing country justice. The photographic potential of the landscape in Iceland is staggering, at nearly every turn I found inspiration and elements that caught my eye, begging to be photographed. Since this was our summer photography tour we had nearly 24 hours of light each day making for nearly endless opportunities.

© Nathaniel Smalley

© Nathaniel Smalley

One of the great benefits of this ‘midnight sun’ is that the ‘golden hour’ stretches into multiple hours and the window for soft light during sunrise and sunset has a much longer duration. Due to its proximity to the polar circle and location in the center of the vast Atlantic Ocean the weather changes frequently. Some days we would awaken to bright sunshine and a soft breeze and another day troubled, stormy skies with 60 mile per hour wind gusts. Regardless of the weather, the landscape is enchanting, and from a photographer’s perspective it is paradise. Glaciers, icebergs, volcanoes, lava fields, geysers, waterfalls, rivers, mountains, meadows, flowers, birds, horses, beaches and the mighty ocean, what’s not to love?

© Nathaniel Smalley

© Nathaniel Smalley

We visited many of the iconic locations throughout Iceland, but you might not know it looking through my Iceland portfolio. I wanted to shoot what resonated with me personally, not what garnered recognition or would get lots of attention on social media platforms. Much of the time this approach worked well, other times it meant visiting an iconic location and finding nothing that caught my eye but the obvious composition. When this occurred I’d set my gear aside and drink in the beauty surrounding me, capturing mental memories of the scene to enjoy forever.

© Nathaniel Smalley

© Nathaniel Smalley

My one regret from our tour is that it did not last longer. Thankfully I’ll be back in 2016 to lead our Iceland Photography Tours in January and February where we’ll experience Iceland decorated in winter’s embrace and then again in July for our summer tours in July. I can’t wait to return and hope that a journey to Iceland is in your future as well, it’s truly an unforgettable experience.

There are stunning waterfalls everywhere in Iceland… be sure to look beyond them and find all the other beauty this land holds for those who seek it out.

Enjoy a hi-res gallery of the images from this article in my Iceland Portfolio. 

© Nathaniel Smalley

© Nathaniel Smalley

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Nathaniel is a nature photographer and instructor for Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.