Digital Nature Photography: The Art and the Science

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  • Digital Nature Photography

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  • Digital Nature Photography: The Art and the Science

    John and Barbara Gerlach


    Focal Press is an imprint of Elsevier

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  • For information on all Focal Press publicationsvisit our website at

    Acquisitions Editor: Diane HeppnerDevelopmental Editor: Valerie GearyPublishing Services Manager: George MorrisonProject Manager: Kathryn Liston Assistant Editor: Doug Shults Marketing Manager: Marcel KoppesInterior Design: Alisa AndreolaCover Design: Maria Mann

    Focal Press is an imprint of Elsevier30 Corporate Drive, Suite 400, Burlington, MA 01803, USALinacre House, Jordan Hill, Oxford OX2 8DP, UK

    Copyright 2007, Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

    No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

    Permissions may be sought directly from Elseviers Science & Technology Rights Department in Oxford, UK: phone: (44) 1865 843830, fax: (44) 1865 853333,E-mail: You may also complete your request on-line via the Elsevier homepage (, by selecting Support & Contact then Copyright and Permission and then Obtaining Permissions.

    Recognizing the importance of preserving what has been written, Elsevier prints its books on acid-free paper whenever possible.

    Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

    (Application submitted)

    British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication DataA catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

    ISBN: 978-0-240-80856-7

    Typeset by Charon Tec Ltd (A Macmillan Company), Chennai, Indiawww.charontec.comPrinted in China

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  • About the Authors vii

    Acknowledgments ix

    Preface xv

    Chapter 1 The Excitement Over Digital Photography 1

    Chapter 2 Developing Your Photographic Skills 15

    Chapter 3 Choosing Your Digital Camera 27

    Chapter 4 Exposure Essentials 45

    Chapter 5 Using Lenses Effectively 63

    Chapter 6 Shoot Sharp Images Consistently 81

    Chapter 7 The Magic of Light 101

    Chapter 8 Composing Strong Images 119

    Chapter 9 The Exciting World of Closeups and Macro 137

    Chapter 10 Using Flash Effectively 155

    Chapter 11 Carrying Your Photography Gear 167

    Chapter 12 Final Thoughts 175

    Index 183


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  • John and Barbara Gerlach have been professional nature photographers for more than 25 years. Their beautiful nature photographs are published in magazines, calendars, and books worldwide. They travel the globe leading photographic safaris to terrific wildlife destinations and teach field workshops on landscape, close-up, and hummingbird photography. More than 50,000 people have attended their intensive 1-day nature photography instructional seminars. Both love to teach others how to make their own fine photographs. They enjoy living in the mountains near Yellowstone National Park and frequently ride their horses in the backcountry to photograph. For details about their instructional nature photography field programs, please go to

    About the Authors

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  • I want to thank my best friend and wife, Barbara who has been my partner in life and business since the late eighties. Without her help, I doubt I would have ever enjoyed the success that has come my way. Together we have traveled to remote corners of the world photographing as a team. Its been a wonderful life, better than I could have imagined. While I wrote this book, she helped me every step of the way. Her ability to locate my silly mistakes and her suggestions for content were invaluable. Half of the photos in this book are hers too. I thought about writing this book to include her more using we and our, but the editors decided that would make the text a bit clunky to read.

    We wish to thank our parents and especially our mothers for putting up with all the mischief young naturalists heaped upon them. My mother, Donna suffered through countless wild pets which included red-tailed hawks, crows, raccoons, and herds of chipmunks in the basement.

    Barbaras mother Mary Ann endured similar animal misadventures. Since she had a small farm, it seemed only natural that all lost animals should live there so Barbara brought them home. She had an assortment of raccoons and skunks for pets, in addition to all of the barnyard animals.

    I thank Larry West and John Shaw who changed my life when I attended their weekend nature photography workshop in the mid-seventies while in college. I thought I was a decent nature photographer, but when I saw their images, I knew that not only were their photos better than mine, but I didnt even know you could shoot photos that good. I have strived to be the best nature photographer I could be ever since.


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  • I want to thank a few kind folks who encouraged me to pursue writing a nature photography book. My heart goes out to Peter Burian who hired me to write a number of magazine articles. Hes a wonderful writer and excellent photographer in his own right who always encouraged me to pursue book projects. He was also the content editor for this book who helped me organize things better and tighten up the text. Ian Adams is a superb landscape photographer from Ohio who has always been willing to answer any question I might have, especially in regards to large format photography. I was fortunate to meet Tony Sweet while conducting seminars on the East Coast in 2005. He was surprised I had not written a book and encouraged me to pursue it. I think his comments along with encouragement from my wife at that time finally moved me into action. I spent the next 2 weeks working hard on a detailed book proposal and mailed it off which led to this book.

    I confess that I am a book lover. Give me a cup of gourmet coffee and a new book and I am as happy as can be. I literally own hundreds of fine books so it was exciting to create this book.

    I want to thank the many thousands of stu-dents who have attended my nature photog-raphy programs over the years. Their probing questions helped me enormously in under-standing many facets of nature photography. Teaching has been a wonderful win-win situa-tion for all of us. For them I write this book.

    Many people have helped me over the years. At the risk of leaving out some who are most deserving of my gratitude, I do wish to highlight a few. Helen Longest-Saccone hired me to write a column for Nature Photographer Magazine when it first began more than a decade ago. Writing these columns has allowed me to share the things I discover about nature photography with others. Helen has always been most supportive and allows me to write about anything I want to. Teaching field workshops has been most enjoyable. In 1988, I began teaching field workshops in Michigans beautiful Upper Peninsula. The workshop is based at the Timber Ridge Motel and Lodge. I wish to thank the owners for put-ting up with all the changes I made to their lodge every time we conduct programs there. It has been and continues to be a wonderful experience working with Mike, Mary Sue, Janice, and Terry Nolan. I appreciate Bill Howell for hiring me to lead photo tours in Yellowstone

    National Park for the Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort Hotel. Yellowstone park ranger Dennis Young and Denise Herman have been help-ful pointing out new photo opportunities such as the bobcat during our winter tours for many seasons. Pam Hawkins helped Barbara enor-mously with PhotoShop early on when she was first getting into it. With Pams patient help, Barbara was able to conquer the basics of mak-ing prints so she could move ahead. Early in my career, Alan Charnley and Rod Planck helped enormously in developing new photo-graphic techniques while joining me on photo trips.

    Hummingbirds are an important part of our lives. We wish to express our apprecia-tion to Hans and Cindy Koch for allowing us to conduct hummingbird photo workshops at their gorgeous guest ranch in the mountains of Southeastern British Columbia.

    David Blanton hired me in the early eight-ies to lead foreign photo tours for Voyagers International. Although it has been bought out by International Expeditions, we led numerous photo tours to Kenya, Tanzania, Galapagos, Antarctica, and the Falkland Islands for David. While we dont travel as much anymore, we continue to lead a terrific photo tour to Kenya

    x Acknowledgments

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  • We found this bobcat feeding on the remains of an elk thanks to a tip by Denise Herman, our friend and naturalist in Yellowstone.

    Acknowledgments xi

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  • every year for International Expeditions. The staff at International Expeditions (especially Kim Guth) has been superb.

    Michele Smith, our office manager, deserves special thanks for putting up with our hectic trip schedule. She and her hus-band Shay have helped us in numerous ways aside from the office work such as put-ting shoes on our horses and baby sitting them when we go on long business trips.

    Finally, we wish to express our profound gratitude for the faith that the staff at Focal Press had in us and this book. They have been patient and helpful with this first-time book writer who had to learn the process of writing a book. Always cheerful Valerie Geary nudged me along in a most gentle way to keep things on schedule.

    Olive baboons are social primates that are easily photographed on Kenya wildlife photo safaris.

    xii Acknowledgments

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  • Rock Patterns in the wave.

    Cool days in March are the perfect time to visit the Wave. This famous spot that lies in the Paria Canyon Wilderness near Page, AZ is a 6-mile round-trip hike. A daily

    permit is required, but it was easy to obtain during March.

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  • I was born with a keen interest and fascination for the natural world. Even as a small child growing up in the farm country of southern Michigan, I spent every possible moment outside learning about animals. I remember countless hours catching frogs or insects. I especially liked fishing and spent every summer day catching bass, northern pike, and bluegills.

    While all wildlife fascinated me, I was particularly fond of birds, a passion that remains with me today. I remember seeing and learning the calls of all the common birds such as mourning doves, black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, cardinals, blue jays, and robins before I was 10-years old. Nobody around me knew the birds so I taught myself using Petersens Field Guides as best I could. Every new bird seen and identified brought great pleasure to me. I especially enjoyed learning winter birds and found each new species sighted most satisfying. Since some species didnt visit every year, it took several seasons to see most of them that could be expected in southern Michigan such as snow buntings, common redpolls, tree spar-rows, red crossbills, evening grosbeaks, purple finches, and pine siskens.

    My keen interest in birds and photographing them continues today, four decades later. Recently, I had another one of those special new bird moments. My wife Barbara was riding her horse in the forest near our Idaho mountain home when she discovered a woodpeckers nest. She finds a lot of woodpecker nests around the Fourth of July because baby woodpeckers make a constant loud buzzing sound. Since she has excellent hearing, she commonly hears the young from distances of 100 yards or more on a still day and tracks the sound down. We enjoy photographing nesting woodpeckers so she finds each nest to see if it is a suitable nest for photography. We are looking for nests that are close to the ground which means less than 10-feet high. By locating a number of nests, we find a couple nests every year that are easy


    LEFT: This male evening grosbeak is readily attracted to backyard feeders with sunflower seeds.

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  • to photograph. She is quite good at identi-fying all the local species of woodpeckers around our home which include downy, hairy, northern flicker, and red-naped sapsucker. She watched the friendly pair of woodpeck-ers feeding its babies from 10 yards away with binoculars, but could not identify them. She excitedly rode home to tell me about the mystery birds. I quizzed her closely to find out one looked sort of like a small flicker and the other was mostly black with a bright yellow belly and the nest was only 3 feet above the ground. She said the two birds feeding the young were so different in appearance that they didnt look like they belonged to each other. I soon came to the conclusion she may have found the nest of Williamsons sap-sucker, a bird I had never seen before. We immediately mounted up and rode our horses 3 miles to the nest. With great anticipation, we awaited the birds arrival at the nest tree. Within a few minutes, the unmistakable male Williamsons sapsucker landed at the nest cavity to feed the young. He was soon fol-lowed by the female. It was difficult to contain my excitement. I am certain my hair (at least what I have left) stood up on end when I first saw them. We enjoyed photographing these very trusting birds in the followings days. I am glad my passion for birds has continued for all of these years. If I tend to mention birds a bit too much in this book, please forgive me.

    Youll notice we used our horses to visit the Williamsons sapsucker nest. We commonly

    use horses to reach remote backcountry locations to take nature photographs. Horses are an efficient and quiet way to explore the backcountry. Wildlife tends to be much less afraid of humans mounted on horses. A remote waterfall such as Union Falls, con-sidered by many to be the most beautiful waterfalls in Yellowstone National Park,...


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