Category Archives: andrew

Look to the Right

Andrew here. Last month, my brother and I took a trip to Mt. Rainier, Washington. This is a favorite destination of ours when out West, and this year we got to spend a couple of nights on the mountain. This also meant we got a couple of sunrises and, since my brother is himself an excellent photographer, it wasn’t too hard to convince him to get up at dawn and visit the famous Reflection Lakes.

We got up before sunrise, as landscape photographers are cursed to do, and were in place when the sun hit the mountain. We had uncharacteristically clear skies both mornings, which meant almost no clouds to catch the morning light and color. While we did get some good reflection shots, I took a more important lesson away from this opportunity: Even if you know what you’re there to shoot, keep your eyes open.

This shot of the treeline and rising sun reflected in the lake is the result of looking to my right, away from the mountain, and realizing this was the shot that really made the most of the atmosphere and light at that moment. I did take shots of Mt. Rainier reflected in the still waters of the lake, but the fact that you’re seeing this shot first should tell you something — the famous scene you went there to shoot isn’t always going to be your favorite shot of the visit, so keep your eyes peeled for what else is around you. You might be surprised.

Backyard Nature

HummyZinnia

Andrew here. Wildlife photographers typically make landscape photographers (who famously have to be in crazy places before the sun rises for the best shots) look like they have an easy time. Wildlife photography often involves hauling huge (and incredibly expensive) equipment into remote places and waiting… and watching… and following, and studying… and waiting. And did I mention waiting? And hauling? Not that I have any objection to hauling and waiting and watching… But that doesn’t always have to be the way it’s done.

We live in a pretty urban area on the edge of Washington D.C., but this year we decided to tailor our garden habitat to support (and attract!) the local fauna. This has allowed me to literally practice my photography from my living room.

Now, I’m not going to be getting any world class images of bears flipping salmon out of the river or the sun rising through moose antlers from my backyard, but if you’re interested in practicing your wildlife photography skills and learning to appreciate the surprising amount of beautiful wildlife where you already live, I highly recommend it.

Nom

A few tips:

– Find out what native plants support interesting wildlife where you live (milkweed for butterflies, for example, which need all the help they can get these days).

– Arrange the planting so you can at least see it from inside your house if at all possible. If not, consider building in a space to put an outdoor chair where you can comfortably watch from far enough away not to disturb, but close enough to photograph.

– Don’t overestimate your lens’ reach. Take some test shots from your vantage point before you plant everything to make sure you’ll be able to see what you want to see.

– Plan your backdrops. A beautiful hummingbird with a trashcan in the background probably won’t be the image you want. Consider planting flowers far enough in front of solid greenery that you get a nice solid, not-distracting background.

– Be patient and learn the behavior of your visitors once they arrive. You’ll start to see patterns of where birds land, and how the butterflies choose flowers. You don’t have to chase them around with your lens if you can anticipate where they’ll likely land. You can even build in perches to encourage them to choose certain places in easy reach for you.

This is a great opportunity to hone your photographic skills and support your local wildlife at the same time. There are lots of resources out there (including a great class by Moose Peterson on KelbyOne) on how to take great backyard wildlife photos. You never know what you’ll find right in your backyard, and you’ll learn good skills before you go trekking out into the wilderness!

HummyLantana

It’s Full of Stars

Andrew here. Sometimes you don’t have to go as far away as you think to get something interesting.

I live a few minutes outside Washington D.C. For years, I’ve wanted to try my hand at photographing the night sky and Milky Way, but there’s far too much light pollution where I live. All my travels over the past few years have been to other urban areas or to remote areas that were completely clouded over at night (with the incredibly fortunate exception of our one aurora night in Iceland last March), so I’ve just never had a good opportunity to try to see the Milky Way.

This summer, a couple of my photographer friends decided to visit Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and came back with some great night sky shots. This past weekend, I joined them.

It was amazing to be less than two hours from D.C. and able to see the Milky Way with my naked eye. There was some city glow in the distance and some hazy fog along the horizon, but there was no question what I was seeing up above.

There are many websites with detailed guides to shooting the night sky, so I’m not going to try to recreate those here, but here are a few quick tips:

– Use a program like Stellarium to find out when you’ll have the Milky Way visible where you’ll be, and what the sun and moon cycles will be like to get good, dark skies.

– Scout ahead of time – having a clear view of the night sky is easy enough in most places, but if you want any other compositional elements (and just for safety) it’s good to scout out the area before it gets dark.

– Use a headlamp with a red filter to help you work in the dark. The red filter will help protect your night vision and the headlamp means you’ll have your hands free.

– You will, of course, need a good tripod and a wide aperture, wide angle lens for best results. That said, you can do some creative things with other lenses, so if you don’t have the “right” one, give it a go anyway.

– Finally, focus on a light in the far distance (or focus on something far away if it’s still light out) and lock your focus in place by turning off autofocus and taping your focus ring in place with gaffer’s tape. (I failed to do the latter part and it cost me a lot of shots when I apparently bumped the focus just slightly at some point.) Just racking the lens to infinity usually doesn’t quite get you where you need to be on most lenses.

For more details on planning your trip, Dave Morrow has a great three part tutorial on Youtube here. It’s very worth checking out if you’re planning your first shot at the Milky Way.

One last recommendation: Make sure to put the camera aside for a couple of minutes and appreciate what you’re seeing. At night, the curtain of the sky gets pulled back and lets you see the galaxy we live in. Realizing what you’re really looking at is a truly amazing experience once that sinks in. It’s hard to imagine a more inspiring vista than 200 billion stars spread out over 120,000 light years of space. What a view.


This image is not a composite — it is a single image shot using a timer delay. I composed, set the timer, ran out and tried to stand still for the 8 seconds of the exposure. As you might imagine, it took a few tries to get right, but I think it was well worth it.

Support Gear Review: Kahtoola Microspikes

Kahtoola Microspikes

Kahtoola MICROspikes

Andrew here. If you saw my “Preface” post, you know a couple of things about me already — I love “bad” weather, and I like to find gear that lets me go out and take photos in that weather. I took my Kahtoola Microspikes with me to Iceland and they not only worked perfectly, I’d never go to Iceland in the winter without them. They were crucial for getting around since most trails and paths, especially around waterfalls, were frozen over. Sliding around in boots is slow, dangerous, and just unpleasant. The spikes gave us a freedom of movement and a level of safety that made the trip much more enjoyable and productive. After my great experience, I figured they were worth a writeup.

For most people, most of the time, crampons are overkill. They’re also a pain to use. On the other end of the spectrum, my limited experience with Yaktrax was that they weren’t very durable and were best suited for walking the dog on icy sidewalks. What happens when Crampons and Yaktrax meet in the middle? Kahtoola’s Microspikes. And the result is awesome.

The Microspikes have twelve ⅜” spikes on each foot, chained together and attached to your boot with a heavy duty rubber strap. The strap is allegedly flexible to something like -70 degrees F. That’s way beyond where I stop being flexible. These are pretty much the perfect hybrid of real grip and convenience. Overall, these are extremely durable, comfortable, and convenient.

When walking with them, you eventually forget you’re even wearing them. You can just walk on ice like it’s pavement. (For science, I even went for a brief jog on a solid sheet of ice. No problems.) The spikes are short enough and the whole system is durable enough that you can cross mixed terrain without having to take them off. Most of our Iceland hikes involved interspersed icy and rocky areas and it was good that we didn’t have to take the spikes off every 200 meters. I’m sure heavy use on rocky surfaces will dull the spikes, but I’d bet you can sharpen them again. Even with the amount of hiking we did, I didn’t notice any wear on the points.

One concern I had was that they’d be great on ice, but slippery rocks would be a problem if the metal didn’t grip (back to my original use for these, walking in mostly frozen streams). A few tests (without the camera gear in hand) proved my fears were unfounded. They’re awesome for slimy wet rocks too.


This was Day 1 and an early win for the Microspikes which let me easily walk the frozen trail and up the frozen stream to get to this incredible spot.

So, what’s the catch? Just like normal crampons, you can potentially step in a way where they don’t grip. The sides and back obviously don’t have spikes, so if you get too complacent in uneven terrain and forget you’re relying on spikes for traction, you could find yourself without grip. If you’re even mildly attentive to what you’re doing, you’ll be fine… but because they’re so comfortable and easy to get used to, complacency isn’t an unfounded concern. Walking on ice on metal spikes also makes a fair amount of noise, so if you’re planning to sneak up on wildlife, I’d either get there well ahead of time or stick to the kind being eaten by vultures. Finally, they’re not cheap. At somewhere near $65, you’re going to consider how much you’ll use them, but if you’re traveling or hiking with camera gear in the winter, it’s probably a very good investment.

As an aside, check out FStoppers’ awesome video series with Elia Locardi in which they discover they probably should have gotten themselves a few pairs of these before their trip to Iceland. You can see one such instance here where the icy terrain stopped them from getting the composition they planned, but I’d definitely recommend checking out the whole video series.

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[Thanks to my friend Norm for taking the awesome shot of me on Skaftafellsjokull glacier sporting my spikes.]

You can, of course, buy them through Amazon (if you buy through the links on this post, we’ll get a small percentage which will go toward more photography and support gear):
Kahtoola MICROspikes

An Ice Sunset

Andrew here. If you saw my teaser post on the Iceland trip, you already know we didn’t have the most cooperative weather for photography. To be more specific, we had hurricane and “strong gale force” winds, rain, sleet, snow, and/or hail for a lot of the time. This meant we also had a lot of dim, flat, gray light to work with. The one morning we had some good light was one of the days my camera was completely non-functional (more on that another time), so the few shots I have with anything resembling interesting light tend to stand out for me.

This is the famous glacial lagoon of Jokulsarlon in the southeast corner of Iceland. A glacier calves icebergs off into this large body of water, which empties into the sea. The glacier is shrinking rapidly, so the lagoon keeps getting larger. It’s a famous site for photography; you see lots of photos of clear ice on black sand beaches taken near here.

We got there for sunset, which was mostly obscured by heavy clouds but for a brief window when just enough light and color was poking through to get me this scene. Photography frustration aside, I’m happy to say that just being there to see these amazing features is reward enough. That said, I’d be lying if I said I’m not hoping for better light next time…

Bragging Rights

Sarah here. Andrew and I hang out on a few photo-related sites, including one called ViewBug, which runs regular photography contests. Since he won’t brag about it, I will… Andrew won the Healthy Lifestyles contest with his picture of kayakers at Silver Falls.

(As an aside, that picture was taken with my old camera –a Nikon D5200– since his D800E was several thousand miles away in the shop for repairs at the time. Just goes to show that you don’t need the fanciest gear to capture great shots; the photographer and the subject matter a lot more than the camera.)

And today, I noticed that ViewBug used Andrew’s shot of Gljúfrabúi – Hidden Falls as the headline picture for their summer photo contest. Ironically, the picture was taken during an Icelandic winter, but never mind. I still commend their taste.

To wrap up with a little joint bragging, the picture on the homepage of Langdon Tactical was a tag-team effort between Andrew and me: Andrew took the picture, and I did the Photoshopping.

Whew… it’s been a busy week! Andrew and I are pretty new at putting our stuff out there, so it’s very exciting to see our work getting some attention!

Keep Trying

Andrew here. I’m rarely somewhere scenic for long. I’d say 99 times out of 100, I’m in front of something photographically compelling once, either as an intentional destination, or stopping while in transit to somewhere else. If I’m going there on purpose, I *try* to time it for good conditions — the right light, the right time of year, the right weather… and so on — but that’s not always an option. That’s even less likely when I happen upon something interesting.

So, on those rare occasions when I will be spending time at or around something with good photographic potential, I really try to make the most of it.

In this case, I spent most of a week at the Grand Hotel Baglioni in Florence, Italy. I was there for work, so I couldn’t really focus on photography but because I was there for a week, I did have many chances to check out the incredible view of Florence from the rooftop. I saw it in the morning, I saw it at night (no tripod… alas!), I saw it in the rain, and I saw it at sunset. In this case, I saw it in the rain at sunset, and when I saw the side light start poking through the clouds, I grabbed the camera and headed for the roof. I didn’t stay for long (thunder plus rooftop shooting = bad idea), but I managed to come away with a few shots, including this one.

Always Stop for Gelato

Andrew here. I still intend to revisit a few things from my recent trip to Iceland and I’ve got a couple of gear reviews in the works too, but last month I spent a few days in another “I” country — Italy — and decided the story and this shot were worth sharing.

I was in Florence for work and I knew I wasn’t going to have the opportunity to do most of the main tourist things, so I made a point of going walking around in the early mornings and evenings. Turns out this was a good plan.

One evening, I was walking back toward the hotel via my favorite Gelato shop (somehow *every* walk back to the hotel took me past there even though it was a mile or so from the hotel …how odd), when I noticed the sun starting to set over the Arno river. It wasn’t an epic sunset yet, but the height of the clouds and the stillness of the water told me that the scene was just going to get better.

To make a long story short, I spent over an hour (and a melon gelato) there watching the sunset progress and go through a variety of stages. This is the peak of the saturation and color, but I came away with a series of nice shots.

Over the week there, I’d gotten used to the locals being thoroughly uninterested in everything I found intriguing. After all, life in Florence was just everyday life for them. In this case, however, the bridge was lined with both tourists and locals, cell phone cameras in hand like electronic butterfly nets trying to capture the amazing colors. At one point, a police officer stopped his car in the middle of the road, came over next to me (I had the prime spot in the middle of the bridge) and took a few shots with his cell phone too. I asked if he minded if I take a photo of him taking the photo (always a good idea to ask law enforcement – especially in foreign countries – before photographing them), he cheerfully obliged, then asked me what camera I had. Turns out he’s a photographer when not working as a police officer and was wishing he had his trusty D700 with him instead of his iPhone.

The moral of the story — always stop for gelato.

Choosing Lenses

(Not shown: Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8)
(Not shown: Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8)

Andrew here. I originally wrote this as an email to a friend who just got his first full frame DSLR and was looking for advice on lenses. In his case, he got a Nikon so this is tailored to Nikon lenses, but the same principles apply across brands. If you use a Canon or Sony or something else, there is almost certainly an equivalent in each of these categories. A little research will help you choose the right one.

Choosing a lens is a very personal decision. It can be driven by preferred subject, budget, or priorities (are you a sharpness fanatic? a featherweight fan? a versatility virtuoso?), so one person’s plan may make no sense for the next guy to follow. If you are a studio portrait shooter through and through, there’s no reason to go through all the steps below. But if you’re a generalist, or still learning, experimenting, and finding your way, then this is a very good way to go.

This is my approach and it has served me well, but I encourage you to add your voice in the comments since your experience is going to be different than mine. What have you learned from buying the lenses you have owned? What would you tell someone just starting out?

So… you just got your first serious DSLR and you want to make the most of it. How do you decide what lenses to get?

First, a philosophy: Your lens is more important than the body. A great lens on a decent body is usually better than a mediocre lens on a high end body. Also, lens technology changes more slowly than body technology, so they retain their value a lot longer. That means that your major investment should be in lenses (or “glass,” if you prefer).

What you should get, and in what order, depends on what you’re doing. If you’re like me, this is what your lens stable will probably look like before long. Personally, I’d work in this order, especially if you aren’t starting out with a firm preference for subject/style:

1) Get one superzoom for flexibility. This won’t be the best lens for anything, but sometimes you just want something that is good enough at a lot, especially if you’re in a place where changing lenses often isn’t practical. Early on, it also gives you a sense for your shooting style and lets you experiment with a wide variety of subjects. For FX, you want the 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6. It’s fine. It’s not amazing, fast, or weather sealed, but it serves its purpose — versatility — and it does it well enough.

2) Get one high quality specialized lens for whatever it is you like most. If it’s macro, get the 105mm f/2.8 macro (that was me). If it’s astrophotography, go for something really wide and really wide aperture like the 14-24mm f/2.8 or 20mm f/1.8. If it’s ducks, the 200-400mm f/4 with 2x Teleconverter. If it’s portraits, 70-200mm f/2.8 or 85mm f/1.2 depending on your style. If you’re a generalist, it’s now time to get the 24-70mm f/2.8. You’ll use this one a lot for stuff you’re really excited about, so this is a place to buy the best-in-class for whatever you’re most motivated to shoot.

3) Get one small fast prime. This is small, light, inexpensive, and very wide aperture. You use it when you want minimal size/weight/bulk. You might use it when shooting inside or in low light. The 50mm f/1.8 is the budget option, but choose something that makes sense for your subjects. If there were a 24mm f/1.8 that was small and affordable, I’d have one. This isn’t a big investment, lens-wise. If you’re like me, you rarely use it, but it’s handy sometimes.

4) Time to get into pro glass if you haven’t already in #2 (you should have). Nikon has the “holy trinity” of lenses that cover the focal lengths from 14mm-200mm in three sections – 14-24mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm. They are all professional quality optics (best in class), constant f/2.8 aperture, weather sealed, and solidly made. They’re also very expensive. If you don’t have the 24-70mm by now, that’s where I’d start. Whether you go wide or long from there depends on what you already have and what your interests are.

5) If you make it this far, you’re probably getting into specialized things. That might be tilt-shift lenses for landscape or architecture, fisheye for different points of view, bazooka lenses for wildlife. By the time you get here, you’re not looking for my input anymore. You’re fully invested and you know what you want.

There are many factors in choosing a good lens, but hopefully this will narrow down a wide field and give you some structure. Don’t limit yourself to what I have here. I came to this by a ton of research and experimentation, but there are many options out there. If something intrigues you, do your homework on it and see for yourself if it’s the right tool for you.

Iceland Teaser

Andrew here.  I just got back from a week in Iceland, so take a look back here soon for some observations about gear performance in hurricane force winds, snow and rain in one of the coolest places on earth.  Spoiler alert — My support gear worked impressively well, a piece of my tripod head disappeared into an icy waterfall, and my camera stopped working on Day 2 of 7.  Yep, it was an interesting trip.

I did get some images at least, and I’m working through those now to see if I can salvage a few shots.  This one’s from Gljúfrabúi, the “Hidden Falls” behind Seljalandsfoss in the south of the island.  As with most of the island, it feels like a magical movie set.

More to come.