Photograph of Garden of the Gods
Red Rock Formations in The Garden of the Gods. Colorado Springs, Colorado.

I recall seeing a documentary on television a few years ago about Ballet. There was an interview with a famous ballet instructor where she was talking about her students lamenting over their own talent and how to become recognized. It seems all artists struggle with this concept of self worth and evaluating their own talent. In the interview the teacher said that she always tried to teach her students that “You aren’t the judge of how good your art is.”

Art appreciation is highly subjective. Don’t delude yourself with thoughts of inadequacy or supremacy. Let the viewer tell you.

When I look and choose what I consider to be my best photographs I’ve come to the realization that I’m more often wrong about it. Yeah, I know a good photo when I see it, but my emotions won’t make the image more commercially viable nor will they infect the eye of the viewer. The photos that sit at the top of my list may indeed be good photographs, though in a commercial sense, they are not the ones that make the most money or get the most attention in public. My wishful or delusional thinking doesn’t alter reality.

Today’s photograph illustrates my point. A photo taken at The Garden of the Gods, a city park in Colorado Springs. It’s a famous venue, known for it’s scenic rock formations and views of the Rocky Mountains.

I took this photograph a few years ago, mostly as an afterthought. It was nothing special at the time. There are a thousand photos just like it out there, many of which I consider to be better than mine. My thinking was, it would make a good stock photo. I would never hang it on my wall though. It just wasn’t a personal favorite.

Make a good stock photo it did. I uploaded this shot to all of my stock agencies thinking it would earn me a few bucks. Boy was I wrong. It’s one of my most downloaded stock images for 2018. On ShutterStock alone, I’ve sold over 115 copies of this photo this past year. It’s even more popular on other stock agencies.  It’s paid for itself many times over. Who would have thunk? Small surprises happen all the time.

Don’t get me wrong though. Often times my best shots sell nicely and I’m quite pleased with that. But the best surprise is that image I take for granted as being “average”,  is flocked to for commercial use and ends up being a top seller. I’ve heard famous musicians lament this conundrum many times. Joe Walsh comes to mind. He can’t shake Rocky Mountain Way, a song he claims he never put much effort into nor really cared all that much about. The public eye is a fickle thing it seems.

This photograph has done far better with commercial sales than I would have ever given it credit. It’s been featured on web sites, television, Readers Digest and who the heck knows where else? And the sales keep coming in.

So, don’t think you are always the best judge of your artwork. Other people see your work through their eyes and they attach their emotions to the image and those thoughts will not coincide with your feelings most of the time.

This is why I try to teach my students that the best time to take the photo is when you see it. It may be a second thought or something that you contemplated skipping. It may be worthless. But, if you don’t take it, you won’t have it and you won’t learn nor earn a thing from it.

Always keep an open mind. Your best photos are probably not the ones you think.

I posted my cheap photographer’s gift list last year and it was a big hit. I thought I’d repeat the exercise this year with a whole new group of inexpensive photography related items that would make nice stocking stuffers for the photographer in your life.

Disclaimer: I’m not promoting any particular brand or business with my samples. This information is only a reference as the type of stuff I carry in my kit. As with all things photography related, some of these items may be camera/brand/make/model specific. Do a little research before you spend your money.

1. Battery Holster.
Allows the photographer to keep a spare battery attached to their camera strap.

Here’s a sample on B&H Photo.

2. Replacement Lens Caps.
Every photographer misplaces a lens cap from time to time. Help them not stress out by buying a few spares for their kit.  Most common sizes are 77mm, 67mm, 52mm, but not all lenses are the same. Sneak a peek at their lenses and look on the back side of their lens caps. The correct size should be stamped into the plastic on the inside of the cap. I’d recommend getting the center pinch style caps, as they are easy to remove with the lens hood attached to the lens. If you’re really cheap, look on eBay. Tons of offerings and very inexpensive.

Here’s a sample on Amazon.

3. Rocket Blower.
These are small rubber air puffers, good for removing dust and hairs from the camera sensor and lenses. No kit is complete with one, or two, or three. Beware, I heard stories of the TSA not liking these things because they look like bombs or something. Don’t let that prevent you from getting one though. All they do is puff air when you squeeze them.

Here’s a sample on Amazon.

4. Memory Card Holder.
I always keep spare memory cards in my camera kit and those cards get scattered around in different pockets and pouches. This is an easy, compact solution for keeping those spare cards handy and identifiable.

Here’s a sample on Amazon.

5. Portable 12vdc to 115vac Power Inverter.
I keep this in my vehicles. It will allow the photographer to plug in his/her camera battery charger, iPad, laptop PC and just about any low to medium wattage AC powered device while on the road. I’d look for a device that has a 3 prong outlet and USB charging ports.

Here’s a sample on Amazon.

6. Quick Release Camera Strap.
A spare camera strap is always handy to have. I prefer detachable straps as they allow for more flexibility in the field when working on a tripod or shooting from a fixed position. The detachable straps are quickly removed and reattached and sturdy enough to hold the camera and lens. I never use the manufacturers straps, so one of these could be a decent replacement for the OEM strap and the OEM strap can be used as a spare instead.

Here’s a sample on B&H.

7.  USB Flash Drives.
I always keep a handful of USB Flash Drives in my laptop and camera cases. The larger the capicity, the better. 64 gigabyte drives are inexpensive and come in handy all the time when working with photos. Not all of these flash drives are the same though, some have faster transfer rates so do your research. The higher capacity and faster flash drives are normally more expensive. I prefer the flash drives that have some type of protective cover for the business end of the drive. There are rotating covers, plastic removable covers and retractable covers. The choice is yours.

Here’s a sample on Amazon.

8. Gray Card for White Balance.
I always have a gray card in my kit. It’s small, slides into a sleeve on my camera pack and are a very good accessory that allows the photographer to set a reference white balance when working in any light. One shot of the gray card can be used to do bulk adjustments for white balance when post processing. No photographer should be without one. They also make these as lens attachments but I’ve never tried them. A simple card is all you need.

Here’s a sample on Adorama.

9. Spare Camera Body Caps.
If you want to see a photographer flip out, just watch what happens when they lose a camera body cap. Just like lens caps, once removed from the camera they have a tendency to float around aimlessly. All camera brands are specific so don’t buy a Canon body cap for a Nikon camera. They are cheap and having spares is a very good idea.

Here are a few samples from Adorama.

10. Replacement Camera Eye Cup.
Most higher quality cameras have a rubber eye cup than can be removed or fall off. I’ve learned the hard way that sooner or later my camera’s eyecup is going to fall off and be gone forever. I buy spares for all my cameras and keep spares in my camera bag for peace of mind. You can find third party eye cups very cheap, however, I normally buy the OEM eye cups. They tend to fit better and last longer. Eye cups are normally specific to the brand/model camera, so don’t assume that one size fits all.

Here are a few samples from Adorama.

Most of these items are under $50 US and easily found on any of the reputable online stores. I recommend Adorama, B&H and Amazon, but you can also find more deals on eBay if you have the inclination.

Don’t ignore your local retailers either as many brick & mortar camera shops carry these types of items. I try to support my local camera shops as much as possible. You may pay a little more at the local stores but you won’t get your package stolen from your front porch and it helps keep them in business too.

I guarantee you that your photographer friend could use one or more of these items.

Grammatical exceptions aside, here is a quick list of photography “do’s and don’ts” I’ve formulated from my field experience.

Just for a little fun.

Do; Keep a charged extra camera battery on your body when working.

Don’t; Offer unsolicited critique of another person’s photograph.

Do; Keep a lens cloth with you when working.

Don’t; Use a UV filter on your lens.

Do; Keep spare lens caps.

Don’t; Show a client a photograph that is unflattering towards them.

Do; Learn how to use your flash.

Don’t; Forget to bring your flash.

Do; Keep extra camera memory chips with you.

Don’t; Photograph the south end of a north bound animal.

Do; Make prints of your photos.

Don’t; Forget to back-up your digital images.

Do; Learn post processing.

Don’t; Count on earning much money from your selfies.

Do; Take your camera with you when you leave the house.

Don’t; Leave your camera gear in the car overnight.

Do; Consider your lens as more important than the body it’s on.

Don’t; Work for the promise of “exposure.”

Do; Keep your camera’s sensor clean.

Don’t; Brag about your expensive camera gear.

Do; Keep a hand towel in your camera kit.

Don’t; Forget to clean your camera equipment when you’ve returned from the field.

Do; Respect the other photographers in your work area, they have as much right to be there as you.

Don’t; Forget to fill the gas tank the evening before the trip.

Do; Own a rocket blower.

Don’t; Change lenses in the wind.

Do; Keep a pair of gloves in the vehicle.

Don’t; Suddenly stop your vehicle with a camera laying on the passenger’s seat.

Do; Put the window down before you see the animal.

Don’t; Make noises to get the animal to look up.

Do; Turn the engine off when shooting from the vehicle.

Don’t; Step in the moose poop.

Do; Check your shoes.

Talk to any experienced portrait photographer and they’ll explain the importance of the eyes in any close-up photograph. The best portraits display the subjects eyes clearly and distinctly. It is the eyes that attract the viewers gaze. An important aspect of those captivating eyes is the use of “catch light.”

Catch light is a specular highlight in the subjects eye(s) caused by a reflection of a bright light source.

Unlike a portrait studio where a light and reflectors can be positioned to enhance a human subject, photographic conditions for wildlife can be a bit more difficult to control. Absent the ability to control the light, one must consciously be aware of the possibility that natural light will produce a good result.

The most common technique I use is to position myself with the sun or bright sky to my 4 O’clock or 8 O’clock behind me.  By insuring I have a bright source of light at a suitable angle behind me, all I have to do is watch the animal’s movement and look for that reflection to appear in the eyes of the critter. Once the animal’s eyes are lit, I start firing shots. Once the animal moves and the specular highlight is no longer appearing, I stop shooting until I can see the animal’s eyes again. It’s an observational and reactionary technique called capturing the decisive moment.

For sunlight reflection, I’ve normally found the best conditions to be at sunrise and early morning after sunrise, or late afternoon, as the sun is low in the sky and beaming directly into the eyes of the animal. I try to position myself to get the sun at my 4 or 8 o’clock. Animals don’t normally like to look into the sun so they’ll often times reposition their head to minimize the glare and that can give you a nice angular field of view to their head, thus reducing the likelihood that the animal will be staring directly at the camera.

Bright blue sky can produce a very appealing catch light in the eyes as well. It will normally manifest itself as a half or partial reflection in the upper portion of the critter’s eyes. Again, one looks for the decisive moment. Simply ripping off shots may result in a frame or two with catch light, but waiting for it to happen and capturing it when it does is the secret here.

I’ve noticed a great reluctance on the part of wildlife photographers to use a flash when photographing animals. I’ve heard many reasons for not making use of a flash; I don’t have one, I’m afraid it will startle the animal and it will attack me, I don’t know how to use a flash, etc…

In my experience, firing a flash at an animal produces no response. I’ve never seen an animal react to a flash going off. They don’t know what it is and animals are more likely to react to something they identify as a potential threat. I believe that flash is just another bright light to critters and they are programed to deal with it the same as any other light they see. They react more to the sound of your camera shutter, and the beauty of a flash is that you aren’t likely to rip out a stream of shots, which can startle them. A rapid mechanical sound of a burst from your camera’s shutter is what they’ll react to. With the flash, you may get two or three frames off but that flash is going to have to recharge and this keeps the bursting down to a minimum while the camera waits for the flash to return to use.

Flash is particularly good with lighting the eyes of birds. The reflective properties of bird eyes are different from mammals and that flash can actually light up the eyes of the feathered creatures quite evenly and distinctly. I’ve never seen a bird react to a flash either.

Don’t be afraid to use your flash.

There are situations where you aren’t likely to get a good catch light and you’ll have no choice but to accept the light as it is. Backlit shots are what come to mind as being the mostly likely scenario. If there is no direct light to bounce of the animal’s eyes, you’ll get those deep shadows and you’ll have to rely on other composition techniques to make the photo stand out. Rim light, silhouettes, etc…

I continue to practice what I preach. and practice is where you’ll find the techniques and results that make compelling animal portraits. When you venture out into nature, take the time to concentrate on perfecting the techniques that work. The trick to getting good animal portraits is to be close to the animal and get those eyes lit up. Every animal has a different personality and it’s the portrait that gives us a look into the soul of the creature. It’s the catch light that draws the viewers eye into the photo and directly into the individual personality of the subject.

There’s more to getting an appealing catch light though. Post processing is always an option for enhancing the catch light.

For me, I never create an artificial catch light in Photoshop. A discerning viewer can tell when something is natural and creating a fake light in the eye, to me, is obvious and more often than not unnatural in appearance. I’m not suggesting you not try it or use it, but for me, I avoid faking something in post processing.

But, as with human portraits, you can and should enhance those eyes if it can be done with good effect. I have no qualms about zooming in on the eyes when editing and giving that specular highlight a little bump of brightness and contrast. I’ll sometimes do a little dodging and burning around the eyes to enhance the natural lines and details that grab the viewers attention. Sharpening the area around the eye ever so slightly improves the detail of the hairs, eyebrows and eyelids. Making those specular reflections just a touch brighter is quite effective too. I look at it as applying makeup to the subject, after the fact.

For me, the eyes have it.


This marmot head-shot was taken on top of Mt. Evans, Colorado. The critter was sitting on a rock and I had a bright, clear blue sky behind me.  The curious animal moved his head to an angle while I was framing him in the viewfinder. Once the catch light appeared, I ripped off a burst of shots.
Here’s an example of a moose with catch light. On this particular occasion, it was cloudy and the light was quite flat.  I was fairly close to this moose so I used an external flash to fill the face of the animal and the reflection of the flash gave me the catch light I wanted. The moose didn’t flinch.
Bison in Colorado
This bison photo was taken as a snow storm was clearing. The sky in the direction I pointed the camera was nearly totally white along with the snowy environment the bison was in. The clearing bright blue sky was directly behind me, so I had a nice flat light situation with a very bright blue sky to reflect in the eyes of the buffalo. I spot metered on the forehead of the bison to get the snow to saturate the exposure and give detail to the head of the animal. I let the sky do the rest of the talking. End result, a nice, high-key image with great catch light. Interestingly, this bison had blue eyes (yes, it happens in nature), so it gave me a nice positive reflective property that created an other-worldly appearance of this bison’s face.
Portrait of a mule deer doe with catch light and a neutral background.