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I enjoy what I see.  

Some time ago I decided to share what I was seeing in the wilderness with others.  I soon found out that what I was seeing was not what I was reproducing in my photographs.  

How then can we capture such an image? 

Easy, we See the image, then Take the image.  Too simple an idea?  

Not really, because a photograph captures an instant in time.

So, to take a photograph in the wilderness you need to be prepared and when the image presents itself, take it.

We choose the subject and what we include in the image determines how we respond. Re-read the prior sentence as this is the key to a good photograph.  

Being at the right place, for the right subject, at the right time, for the right light is essential to wilderness photography. 

The Right Place.

A fairly obvious statement.  But is may not be as easy as it sounds.  After all it could take days to walk to the spot you want to photograph. 

Pre-visualisation is helpful here.  In the wilderness, think about the type of places you want to photograph and what in those places too.

The Right Subject.

I seek to take images that represent the nature of the place I am in.  Images that evoke emotion. Images that capture the mood and spirit of the place. 

We see in a different way to that which the camera sees.  In particular, what we see is influenced by our emotions yet the camera sees objectively.

Our response to an image is governed by our emotions.  We see and respond.  The point to consider is that emotions are influenced by what is included in the image.  We have to select what to include in the image.  The skill is in identifying what the subject matter expresses and how it does so.  Then we select the elements to include in the image that express the subject matter.

Do we react and photograph what we see or act and choose what to photograph?  Both.  We see the "subject"  then arrange the "subject matter" to express what we see and more importantly feel.  What we "see" can vary enormously.  It could be just the scene itself, or an abstract idea, or a theme, or just an emotion.

We start by deciding what the "subject matter" expresses.  Then, we work out how it does that and include those elements in the photo.

Often I have noticed that this process happens at a subconscious level and the result manifests itself with a sudden "ah hah" feeling.  I am certain, though, that this subconscious process is enhanced by prior study and research into the subject of photography.

We need to be flexible and intuitive in our approach.

There are principles of visual design that can help us.   As stated above, what we have to work with is reflected light of different intensity and colours.  We see shapes, lines, textures, and perspective in a variety of colours.

It is said that two basic principles of design are simplicity and dynamics.  I suspect the human mind tries to subconsciously make sense out of what it sees, through simplifying what we see.  Yet we also like to be stimulated.  A simple scene presented in a dramatic way is a good starting point. 

This can be achieved by using secondary principles of design - dominance, balance, proportion, pattern and rhythm and deformation (to create perspective).  The most important being dominance and balance.  These are abstract concepts that are in an image and need to be learnt.

I find it a challenge to consciously identify the emotions I feel in a scene or subject.  It needs to be done, after all, why are we taking the photo?  (Sometimes this can be confusing)

The Right Time.

There are no studio lights, you have to work with what nature provides.

For example, not just the right time of the day but the right time of the seasons and in all types of weather.  

You have to spend time with the subject.  Ideally I like to be at least two days in an area of interest.

The Right Light.

This is the challenging bit.

The tone and colour of light is what we have to work with.

The image is made from reflected light of different  tone and colour.  The reflecting light highlights shapes, textures and lines.   Colour adds to the image and can influence our emotion, convey a sense of time and aid composition.

Remember, what we include influences how we respond.  

All of this comes from reflected light.   We need to observe and understand it.

Through observation we can understand what the subject expresses and how the design of the subject expresses it.  Then we photograph it.

What is the correct exposure?  Or more precisely, what in the image do you want to expose for?  A spot metre around the image to determine the tonal range is critical.  Try and fit your image into +1½  stops to -1 stop  of 18%grey.  With transparency film, "expose for the highlights".  This is a key point.  After two stops either side of 18% grey texture detail is lost and at three stops it's either black or white.  Because of this limitation a spot metre reading of the scene needs to be done to determine exposure latitude, then.....  

Work out what you want to be correctly exposed and let the rest fall into place.

What to metre?  Hopefully the subject.  You need to understand that a light colour may require an increase in exposure and a dark colour may need a reduction in exposure.  This point is critical.  The camera metre tries to convert everything it sees to 18% grey.  If you don't correct for light and dark subjects your images won't be properly exposed.

My preference is for soft light.  This is usually found at the magic hours or when it is overcast.  Many good shots are taken in between rainfall.  My favourite month for light is late autumn.  I also have a tendency for dramatic light so, in addition to the sunrises and sunsets, I also seek out inclement weather.

The direction of the sun is critical.  Just as important is the lack of sun.   Overcast conditions are perfect for under the canopy of trees shooting.

The magic hours are those around dawn and dusk.  Many factors distil at these times to optimise good shooting.

Consider the "colour temperature" of light, too blue, too yellow?  The correct choice of filter to adjust for colour temperature can be critical.

Include some Graduated Neutral Density filters to reduce the tonal range within an image.  A  Polariser to intensify colours, I rarely use this in sunlight rather in under the canopy shots.  The warming filters 81a or b or ef to reduce the impact of blue colour temperature light.  The 81a is good for reducing blue haze, and flash work.  A good combination in old growth rainforest is the 81a and the polariser, for example.

The Process.

I seek to produce images that evoke emotion, that are more than just clever or technically perfect.

I begin by trying to connect with my subject. If the subject is the wilderness I try to "still my mind" to allow me to feel the "spirit" of the environment.  Simply put, I exclude all other thoughts and focus on what I am seeing, physically feeling and hearing.  If it is a person I talk to them until I am comfortable and try to connect with them emotionally.

When it is time to take the photos, I try to let go and not think too much about the mechanics of taking the photos, I listen to my sub-conscious.  Something unexpected and pleasantly surprising usually results.  This means that you have to know the mechanics of your tools of trade well.

I then try to ask myself some quick critical questions.  Eg:

  • What do I want to photograph?  Why?
  • What elements of the subject make the photo arresting or rather why do I like what I am seeing?
  • Is it good light?
  • What shall I include and exclude?
  • How will I arrange it?
  • What will I expose for?  (This can be a challenge at times and can slow down the process, see the section above on "The Right Light")

Here are some quick ideas:

  • It helps to start with an overview of the subject or scene then work down.  A macro shot may better express the location than a panoramic.  Be flexible.
  • Eliminate distractions in the image.
  • Consider not just the subject but the space around the subject.  EG... Do you want to convey a feeling of isolation?  Moving away from the subject might help or shoot wide angle.
  • If you are not sure about the subject take some shots anyhow as the results can be both surprising and educational.  Experimentation is worth the effort.
  • Take a grab shots first, in matrix mode, in case you lose the light or wind moves the subject before you are set up.  Move around the subject.  Try different lenses and positions.  Consider the macro image too.   I bracket my shots.  If it is a tricky lighting situation I bracket further than a 1/3 each side.
  • Consider also using a flash to add some punch to the foreground; particularly, on an overcast day.
  • Learn how the lenses and camera sees. Learn how film sees. 
  • When taking photos keep a record of what you photograph and how you did it.  Let me say that I am the worst offender for not doing this.  I usually get so caught up in what I am doing I forget, but when I remember I always learn something.  When you get the images back, analyse them for why they worked and why they didn't.  
  • If you are physically and mentally tired it requires discipline to make yourself set up and take the photos. 

Be patient and persistent - strive for perfection. 

Most importantly, enjoy yourself.

Wilderness photography is an immensely pleasurable pastime.  I find it physically demanding, intellectually challenging and emotionally satisfying.  What else could you ask for.

As for bringing those images to the internet, well that definitely is another matter.

In conclusion, the "Art" created by man has, to me, evolved to a stage were a lot of it is esoteric - for the initiated only to understand and appreciate.  The art created by "Nature" has a universal appeal.  It continues to amaze me.  It has always been there, we just have to "see" it.

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Any text and images found on this web page are copyright © Geoff Wise, 1998 - 2009All rights reserved.

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