Mastering Photography – Those Pesky Power Lines

Bison in Field Near Denver, Colorado Bison At Rocky Mountain Arsenal

I’ve noticed over the years, the tendency of landscape photographers, including myself, to lament the presence of power lines in their composition.

Power lines are just about everywhere one goes. They are a byproduct of human civilization.

As a photographer, sooner or later, you’ll have to make a decision on what to do with them in your scene.

The first choice I see many photographers make is to simply edit them out in post processing.  Don’t want no stink’n power lines in my photo. It ruins the essence of nature I’m trying to capture. I’ll change reality and make it look more natural with a little help from Photoshop.

The second choice I often see is changing position to obtain a different field of view, one that doesn’t include the power lines in the scene. This works too, most particularly when a different position provides a better photographic viewpoint.

A more amateurish approach would be to be completely oblivious to the power lines and just take the photo. This is a rather hit and miss approach and often results in a strange combination of composition elements that don’t really capture the true essence of the scene in a pleasing manner. I call these “snapshots”

One of my early photography teachers enlightened me on how to handle them, photographically speaking.

I’ll share the knowledge.

Don’t look at power lines as being a negative.  Always start with the assumption that the power lines are part of the scene and try to find the composition that uses them rather than take the approach that they should be removed or avoided. Removing the power lines in post processing or compromising the composition by moving to a less desirable position should always be plan B or C.

The first decision you must make is rather or not the presence of power lines maintains the continuity of the scene.  By continuity, I’m talking about the reality of the situation. Why the power lines are there, where they appear, where they go. Are they really creating a distraction or is it some mental hangup you are experiencing that causes you to think they are really a problem.

Make the power lines work for you. Find the continuity of the power lines and the environment that complement the reality of what you are trying to capture.  The first choice should be to use them, not lose them.

The Bison photo explains this concept perfectly.

This shot was taken at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver and the backdrop of the Denver skylines defines how to approach this scene. Anybody who has been to RMA National Wildlife Refuge knows about these massive structures and it can sometimes be quite distracting to find a nice buffalo or deer standing under a great steal structure. It just doesn’t feel natural, so it’s a common practice to ignore the shots that include the power lines.

In the case of this photo though, the power lines aren’t out of place. The photograph conveys the juxtaposition of the natural world with the hand of man. The presence of a majestic bison in a field of tall grass with the Denver skyline in the background. Of course this isn’t what this scene would have looked like 200 years ago. Denver didn’t exist. But this photograph wasn’t taken 200 years ago. The power lines explain the environment and the composition uses them to frame the scene.  The power lines also amplify that juxtaposition of man vs nature. The bison is oblivious to the power lines, it’s only the human eye that knows what they are and why they are there.

Use good composition skills and learn to use the environmental elements to your advantage.

Tell the story.

Photography doesn’t have to be a deception. We don’t have to pretend that the human presence in nature is obscene or distracting. The truth is often more interesting than fiction. Reality trumps thought. Embrace the realities of the scene and use it to your advantage.

It’s possible that someday, these power lines will be gone or that civilization creeps into the environment to a greater degree. This photo documents reality as it existed when the photo was taken. Somebody viewing this image fifty years from now may have a different take on what it looked like “then” and what it looks like “now.”  It’s a historical representation of the truth. Those real life historical contexts can make this photo far more interesting for a much longer period of time.

We often try to separate humans from nature in photography, but the simple undeniable fact of life on earth is that humans are part of nature and so are the things we build. Give some thought to explaining nature as it exists now.

Learn to love your power lines and you’ll find their presence less bothersome.

Photographing the Buffalo

Photograph of a buffalo
Buffalo at RMA National Wildlife Refuge Near Denver

I have a love/hate relationship with RMA National Wildlife Refuge.

I love the wildlife photography available there; however, I hate the fact that it’s a miserable drive to get there for me. Being on the exact opposite side of the Denver-Metro area from my home and considering the best photographic time to be there being sunrise and sunset, that means I have to drive across the congested city during rush hours. Yuck.

Once there, all is well.

The “Arsenal” has quite a bit of good quality wildlife to photograph. Mule deer, white-tail deer, coyote, prairie dogs, foxes, bunny rabbits, white pelicans, ducks, geese, great horned owls, burrowing owls, hawks, eagles, great mountain backdrops, lakes, ponds, woods. Who could ask for more in the way of a one stop nature photography location?

It’s easy to get into a photographic rut at the Arsenal though. A common refrain is “who needs more photos of deer and sticks?”

My approach has morphed over the years. I tend to concentrate on getting good stock photos there, based on what sells well. One of my more popular wildlife subjects on the stock agencies are the buffalo. I still call them buffalo too, because that’s what they were called by the people who were here before us.

Buffalo are not as easy to photograph as you might imagine. Yeah, they are large and often times fairly close to you, but they aren’t the most dynamic animal and their behavior isn’t always that exciting. But, they are an American Icon and like bald eagles, they represent our heritage, so you can bet on a good buffalo shot making a little cash.

The biggest challenge I’ve faced getting good, sharp images of these critters is due to the fact that buffalo fur plays havoc with the camera’s auto-focus system. That thick, wiry, low contrast fuzziness of buffalo fur drives a camera’s auto-focus crazy and my hit rate for critically sharp images of buffalo is measurablly lower than it is for other large ungulates as a result.

Here’s an animal that I can honestly say I do better with using Nikon cameras than I ever did with Canon bodies. Canon’s auto-focus tends to be a little more unreliable in this situation.

When I switched to Nikon from Canon a few years ago, I immediately tried using the same focus techniques on the Nikon bodies that I had used on the Canon bodies. Single or small group spot focusing, focus and recompose. I wasn’t really seeing any improvement at first but then I discovered the 3D tracking mode on the Nikon cameras and it opened up a whole new range of improvement in my results.

I’ve always been aware of 3D tracking, but my experience with it was nil at first, so I shied away from using it thinking it was a gimmick or something. My habits were stuck in Canon mode.

In a nutshell, he’s how it works for me.

Those high precision cross-sensors in the camera are what you want to be using. The 3D tracking on the Nikon bodies allows you to point that high precision point at the part of the animal you want to be critically sharp and it will track that point with good reliability. With wildlife, that would be the eyes of the animal in most cases. Using 3D tracking, I can put that little focus square on the eyes of the buffalo and then follow the critter as it moves using continuous focus mode and simultaneously frame the image for a suitable composition without having to do much more than keep an eye on what that sensor square is doing in the viewfinder. The focus point I set tracks the point on the animal as the composition changes. So long as that point is tracking in the viewfinder, and this is what you have to pay attention to, I have a critically sharp image based on that focus point. That tracking point can wiggle a little, and sometimes it drops off to something else. The trick is to watch for it losing the spot and quickly re-establishing that focus point. If the focus point moves off into the fur, you can bet that there’s a better likelihood of that image not being critically sharp. Canon doesn’t give you this, it’s much more operator intensive. Yeah, the precision is there, but it’s much easier to lose that critical sharpness because Canon bodies don’t track that well in 3 dimensions while the camera and subject are moving.

I’ve been using 3D tracking for almost all the large animals I photograph now and it’s been giving me excellent results.

What I also discovered over the past few years teaching workshops is that most Nikon users aren’t aware of the benefit of 3D tracking. Most I’ve encountered haven’t even tried it, so I try to enlighten them on the functionality and improved results I see from using it. If you’re a wildlife photographer shooting Nikon, I strongly suggest you give 3D tracking a go. It’s not for everything though. It’s not as effective with flying birds and other smaller moving critters, but for deer, elk, bighorn, buffalo and other large moving objects such as automobiles and trains, it will improve your auto-focus hit rate.

And improving your in focus hit rate is improving your profit.

The Photographic Cycles of Life in Colorado

American, Bison, blue, buffalo, bull, calf, coat, Colorado, cow, fur, generically, grass, heavy, herd, hoofed, horned, large, mammal, nature, plains, prairie, pure, seasons, sky, snow, tall, thick, trees, ungulate, water, wild, Wildlife, Wyoming
American Bison at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge

By mid-October, Winter weather begins its grip on Colorado. As a matter of fact, it’s snowing as I type this. Our first noticeable snow storm of the season here in Denver.

The warm season doesn’t last long here at high altitude. Mountain folk think of Denver and the Front Range dwellers as “flat-landers” to a certain degree.

Being a flat-lander doesn’t dial us suburban folks out of the mountains though. And it certainly doesn’t prevent us from experiencing and photographing wildlife. My primary residence is in the foothills on the South West side of the Denver metropolitan area and for me to get into the mountains is not much trouble. Living in the Denver area provides us locals with plenty of wildlife to photograph.

A popular location is the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, about 20 miles north-east of downtown Denver, near Denver International Airport.

My next photographic cycle of the season will involve returning the Arsenal for photographs of deer, eagles, hawks, coyote and bison. All of these subjects are worthy of the effort, as I sell quite a few stock photos of these critters. Most popular among them are the bison.

One of the “holy-grail” photos I’ll be after will be the snow covered buffalo. I have a few, some better than others, but there’s always a better shot to get and I will put forth the effort to find that new and better snowy buffalo.

I still call them buffalo too. Techincally speaking buffalo aren’t really buffalo. As every pedantic wildlife enthusiast in the area knows, they are American Bison, but who cares. Nobody ever heard of Bison Bill. He was called Buffalo Bill and he’s buried on top of Lookout Mountain near my house.

I read somewhere that there are over 500,000 buffalo in the United States, the majority of which are actually domestic livestock that are genetically a mix of regular cattle and buffalo. Buffalo meat is tasty and ranchers breed the buffalo with cattle to make the animal more docile and easy to manage in large numbers, though you’d be hard pressed to look at one and know if it’s a Beefalo or a Buffalo.

We have a number of genetically pure buffalo in the state though. The Arsenal herd is a genetically pure herd, so I try to keep it as authentic as possible and go for the pure species specimens.

So with all those happy thoughts evoked, my next goal is the Buffalo.

Sunday Morning Deer Action

Wildlife photography by Gary Gray
Mule Deer Doe

Out to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR this morning.

There have been news reports of newborn bison at the Arsenal so my buddy Tim and I made a run through the arsenal this morning.

Lots of bison, lots of deer, not a lot of photography as the animals weren’t exactly in good light for most of the morning.  Still, we managed to spot three newborn bison calves. One looks like it was born in the past 24 hours as the mother was looking quite raw and low on strength.

Bison photograph by Gary Gray
Newborn Bison Calf

The placenta is still fresh and hanging from the calf and the mother is on her feet.  One of three calves we spotted.

Photographic Cycles of Life

Bison Photo by Gary Gray
American Bison

For the past month or so, I’ve been concentrating on photographing Bison in a Winter environment. Photos of Buffalo covered in snow sell, plain and simple.

As I’ve grown older I’ve moved away from an active 9 to 5 type of existence into a more laissez faire approach to life in general.

I’m no longer interested in getting a “big job.” I’ve stopped photographing weddings and events. I’m more interested in finding the images that make me happy and the financial side is more or less secondary now that my wife is retired and I’m semi-retired. I don’t need the income to make ends meet and that probably is the driving force behind my approach. Man has to eat.

These days, I have been taking a seasonal approach to my photography. Living in Colorado affords me opportunities for wildlife and landscape work all year long and I find myself drifting from prime-time subject to prime-time subject for everything Colorado has to offer.

Right now. I want more Buffalo.

Trending on Sunday.

Photography by Gary Gray
Bison Sparring at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge

A nice little snow storm landed on Denver yesterday and they have been far and few between this season to use an overused cliche.

As a result, my friend Tim and I took the opportunity to spend Sunday morning at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, Northwest of Denver.

We lucked out with a herd of about 100 or so Bison being positioned in good light near the road.

The kit today.  Nikon D750 with the 200-500mm VR and the Nikon D7200 with the 18-140mm VR.

Bison are one of the more difficult larger animals I’ve photographed over the years.  Reason being, their fur.  Bison fur is very course and thick and doesn’t provide a lot of edge contrast for the autofocus on most cameras to accurately pick up on.  End result, I get a higher than normal amount of out of focus shots with Bison.  Therefore, I take lots of shots when I’m shooting Buffalo, just to add a little more water to the gravy so to speak.

Couple the fur/focus issue with the fact that we were working in large open fields of snow, and you’re just asking for trouble with the cameras focus and exposure.  Today, I cranked in +.7 stops of exposure compensation to make up for metering in an almost solid white environment.

Trending on Thursday

Photography by Gary Gray
A herd of buffalo at the base of the The Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Colorado

The Bison are part of the herd at Wolf Springs Ranch in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Westcliffe, Colorado. With over 55,000 acres of land, you can purchase this property for a mere 49 million dollars.

If you’re looking for a good place for Colorado outdoor photography, try exploring what the Sangre de Cristo Mountains have to offer.