John Shaw Nature and Digital Photography Seminars

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By Steve Russell

If you stop learning, you stop creating history and become history.
Vadim Kotelnikov

The quote above has been said many different ways and attributed to many different people. I like the version above. It’s one of life’s truths, and because photography is a piece of life, it’s true in photography. I strongly believe that to become a better photographer it’s necessary to spend as much time learning about photography as you spend capturing and processing images. If you’re not learning then you’re taking the same quality of images over and over. Because I’m such a strong believer in doing everything possible to increase my knowledge of photography, I take night classes and go to seminars and meetings as often as I can. I talk to other photographers and listen to their viewpoint on various subjects. Learning equals improved photography. Not learning equals…well, you get the picture.

John Shaw
John Shaw

Recently I attended a weekend seminar sponsored by Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris featuring acclaimed nature photographer, John Shaw as presenter. Now before you say you’re not interested in nature photography let me point out that the majority of what John talked about is applicable in almost any kind of photography. In fact, to make a particular point John even used a photograph he had taken of the U.S. Air Force precision flying team, Thunderbirds.

The first day was focused on nature photography and John talked a lot about taking photos in nature and shared a number of images that he had captured over time. Some of them were breathtaking and all of them were ones that most of us wish we could have captured. But it was the more technical aspect of photography was the biggest value of the first day.

Separating auto focus (AF) from your shutter release button. Are you one of those photographers that sometimes gets frustrated because your lens keeps focusing on everything except what you want it to focus on? John advocates, as do many other highly respected photographers I’ve talked to or read, disabling the AF on the shutter release button. If your camera has an AF-On button on the back of the camera you can manipulate the settings in your camera so that the AF is only activated by pressing the AF On button and not activated when you press the shutter release button and setting your focus operation to AI Focus on Canon cameras or Continuous Focus on Nikon cameras. This allows you to activate the AF by pressing the AF-On button with your thumb to focus where you want it. When you release your thumb the focus is locked and you can take as many photos as you want and the focus won’t change until you press the AF-On button again. If you’re photographing moving objects like birds in flight or a football player running down the field, all you have to do is take the photograph without releasing your thumb from the AF On button.

I have both of my camera bodies set this way and use this method of activating the AF exclusively. A word of caution is in order. If you haven’t been using this method and want to try it out, I recommend you work with it a lot until you’re used to the process and the feel of the AF-On button. It will seem awkward at first but once you get used to it, you’ll probably ask yourself why you haven’t been doing it that way all the time.

Pay attention to the gaps. This is the composition “rule” that John demonstrated with the image of the Thunderbirds. It’s also a “rule” we’ve all broken or forgotten at one time or another – think of the tree or sign growing out of your spouse’s head. John’s point was that unless there was a reason for objects to be touching in the image, there should be some separation. He photographed the Thunderbirds in a diamond formation and there was blue sky space between each of the aircraft. Airplanes are not supposed to touch each other in flight, so he made sure to capture the image with some space between each of the planes. The same can be said about an image of a duck next to a limb from a tree. Ducks don’t have tree limbs growing out of their bodies, so make sure there is some separation between the duck and the tree limb. It’s really common sense when we stop and think about it, but all too often we become so excited about capturing the image of the duck that we forget the rest of the composition.

John Shaw’s view on photo manipulation. It’s always great when you hear an expert agree with your beliefs on any topic. This is a topic that seems to create great passion on both sides of the aisle. There are strong advocates of never manipulating photos and that straight out of the camera (SOOC) is the only way to go. Their argument tends to be that if you manipulate a photograph it isn’t realistic. As John pointed out, when you take a photo you just captured a two dimensional image of a three dimensional subject. Sorry, but that isn’t realistic. In the film days, the minute you processed an image in the dark room, you were manipulating the photo. Ansel Adams, one of the best known and highly regarded names in photography, captured his images with the thought of what he was going to do to it in the dark room. Realism in photography is a myth that just doesn’t hold water. However, there is a point where photo manipulation can go over the top. John showed an image of two penguins and a polar bear on the same ice floe to demonstrate the “manipulated way too much” point. John believes that if you take photo manipulation to this level, then you shouldn’t try to represent it as non-manipulated. Of course, having a polar bear and penguins on the same ice floe is pretty obvious and not because the bear would have eaten the penguins.

Here is an example of some of my photo manipulation.

Snowy Egret

This is SOOC. If I didn’t manipulate it I would probably discard the image. However…

Snowy Egret

With some cropping, exposure adjustment and a little sharpening I have an image I’ll keep. Which one is more realistic?

Filters for digital photography. John carries three filters – a circular polarizing filter and two neutral density filters. Why those three and why only those three? A polarizing filter reduces glare. The reason the sky looks bluer with a polarizing filter is because the filter reduces the glare of the water droplets in the atmosphere. It will also reduce glare reflecting off the ocean, a lake or pond, wet leaves on trees, etc. The neutral density filters reduces the amount of light that reaches the sensor. This means that when using a neutral density filter in a given lighting condition, you either have to open-up the aperture or use a slower shutter speed than you would without the filter. One of the uses of neutral density filters is so you can use a long enough exposure to capture that wispy blurred effect when photographing streams and waterfalls. Any other filter effect can be created in Photoshop. If you can create the effect with software you already own, why spend money on more filters?

JPEG or RAW? There were over 100 attendees at the Saturday session of the seminar. That 100 may have been more like 200 but because I was sitting close to the front I couldn’t make a good estimate. With a crowd of that size and with questions encouraged, you would expect about any question you could imagine. One question I heard asked multiple times in multiple ways is should I shoot in JPEG or RAW and should I shoot in JPEG and RAW at the same time? After the third or fourth time the question was asked John pointed out that all cameras shoot in RAW. Some cameras, however, convert the image to JPEG and that’s the only output you can get from the camera – point & shoot cameras for example. John answered the question essentially the way I would, just with different words. Here are mine. If you shoot in JPEG what you have is a JPEG image, period. If you shoot in RAW you have a RAW file that you can convert to PSD/PDD, JPEG or up to 19 other file formats and you still have the RAW file. So why would you take a $1,000+ camera with a $600+ lens and shoot in JPEG and only capture about a tenth of the data you would capture in RAW. As for shooting in both formats at the same time – why? Unless you’re immediately forwarding images electronically to a publisher as you take them, why do it? If I have RAW, I can easily create JPEG, I don’t need both. John, of course, was much nicer about it.

I was going to write about the weekend seminar in one article but this article is long enough already and I haven’t even started with Day 2 which I’ll write about in the next article.

There is one thing I want to say about the seminar. When I walked out of the room at the end of the first day, I realized that the second day was going to be free. What I had gained in knowledge and understanding on Saturday was well worth the cost of the entire weekend. In the next article I’ll talk about where to find information about these seminars.

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  • Tiffany

    I finished reading this article and just sat here thinking, “Excellent, excellent, excellent!” What a fantastic seminar. That auto-focus trick is a thing of GOLD and I will give the technique a try myself. Thanks for the inspiration, Steve!

  • Flachen Bauch

    I absolutely agree with you.. We should keep learning new stuff to keep us going and to keep things “interesting”

  • James Donahue

    When you tire of Learning, you are tired of life.