It's all about dreamy backgrounds...
This week on the Art of Birding Wildlife & Nature Photography Challenge, we're tackling bokeh and blur. When I was first starting out as a photographer, I adored photos with a dreamy, buttery smooth background and a subject in sharp focus. But I struggled to replicate the look.
I eventually discovered there is more than one way to achieve it. Two techniques are free and the other costs lots of money. Let's chat about the free ones first!
Regardless of your camera, its settings, and your abilities, its possible to get out-of-focus backgrounds by being smart. No you don't need to get into the physics of why (but it is interesting if that's your thing). The secret is to get your subject close to the camera and ensure the background is waaaay in the distance, like in this photo of a tūī. This was taken at Zealandia (if you're familiar with the sanctuary) on the path leading from the Takahē lawn up to the Weka fence. To the right, the bank falls away to the wetlands There are scrubby trees at eye-height on the edge of the path and below and beyond them are the low-lying wetlands. In the distance are the green hills of the steep West Scarp. I love shooting here! If a bird lands on top of the nearby trees, the background is far, far away and creates a beautiful green blur pretty much regardless of the settings.
You can increase your chances of success by paying attention to your aperture, rather than shooting on Auto. Learning a bit more about how your current gear works may save you an expensive purchase. You want the aperture to be as wide as possible. This decreases the range that will be in focus. To get a wide aperture, you'll need to switch to Aperture priority mode (A or Av) or Manual mode, and set the aperture to the smallest number that the lens allows.
<pedant mode on>For the pedants out there, yes I know that it's actually 1 over the number, and so its the biggest number, but the reality is that people refer to just the denominator.</pedant mode off>
[Update Oct 16, 2020] At the above-mentioned location at Zealandia recently, I took a series of photos in Aperture-priority mode with my 100-400mm lens (set at 400mm) as if there was an interesting bird sitting on the foreground branches. (In this mode, as I changed aperture, the camera automatically changed shutter speed and ISO to ensure the same exposure for all photos in the series). For each photo I narrowed the aperture by a couple of clicks. The largest aperture on this lens is f/5.6, which is not that great but given how far away the background is, it still gives a nice blur. Even at f/18 the background is still nicely defocused (although its unlikely you'd want to use f/18 for wildlife).
You'll start having more reliable success if your lens is capable of apertures like f/1.4 and f/2.8. If you're using a 4/3rds or APSC camera, rather than a full-frame camera, the effective aperture will be narrower (ie the amount of blur will be lessened) even with wide-aperture lenses (this was a sad realization with my 4/3rds camera when I got an f/1.4 lens and I still wasn't getting that blur).
If you find you're frustrated by your gear, even when being smart about how you're shooting, this is when you start considering getting a lens that has a wide aperture. And usually when you start gulping when you look at the price and the weight. They're expensive and they're heavy. Don't consider getting one until you've exhausted all other techniques, such as the ones above, and that you understand what aperture and focus depth mean (otherwise you might not get the best out of your expensive purchase). But if you're serious about getting that look and having the ability to get it when you want it and not just when the conditions allow, it's well worth it. I must admit, I've drunk the KoolAid and don't regret it for a second.
One more affordable option that's worth considering is a Lensbaby lens, like one of the Velvet or Sweet lenses. Not only do they have wide apertures, but they also allow for special effects and can be a lot of fun to play with. You need to manually focus them though. They really are a lot of fun and you can even get them for your iPhone.
And finally, a fun thing to try is making patterned bokeh. You can buy Lensbaby templates to do this, or you can go old-school and cut up some cardboard to fit over the end of your lens. Simply cut a pattern like a heart or a star, ensure the edges are taped so no light sneaks around the edges, and set up a scene with your subject close to the camera and the background far away. Set the aperture to wide if you can. The key is to have something sparkly in the background like the Christmas tree lights in the photo above. You'll need to experiment a bit and you might have to manually focus, but if you succeed, your Christmas cards will be sorted this year!
If you try out any of these techniques, do leave a comment and let us know how you got on.
Some people dislike the holey nature of kawakawa (Piper excelsum), but I think it gives this under-rated native shrub some personality. Each leaf is uniquely carved out by the every-hungry kawakawa looper moth caterpillar. The birds adore the fruit and I adore a nice cup of peppery Kawakawa Fire tea.
It's week 2 in the 2020 Art of Birding challenge, and it was a simple one - to get inspired by leafy greens. Though my apologies to our snowed-in Northern Hemisphere participants who had much more of a challenge on their hands. I'm so glad so many of you were able to uncover some evergreen leaves.
400mm, f2.8, 160s, ISO 400, 0EV
I love taking photos of leaves, and often use them in my art by overlaying them with textures and collaging them to make leaf arrangements. Some examples are:
Do you have a favourite leaf?
We're kicking off Week 1 in the 2020 Art of Birding photo challenge with "Where I Stand," which alludes to the Māori concept of "tūrangawaewae" - a place of empowerment and connection. As a Pākehā and as someone who grew up living in many different places, I can only have an inkling of what it feels to be connected to the land in that way. The closest I come is my current home in Wellington, New Zealand, and especially Zealandia EcoSanctuary. For the past 16+ years I've been involved in this huge community project to restore an inner-city valley to a pre-human ecosystem. Not only have we transformed the valley into a lush landscape teaming with birdlife, but we've transformed the surrounding city. Wellingtonians are now fortunate to live in one of the few places in the world where biodiversity is increasing.
Today we went for a typical walk at Zealandia, but instead of the usual feelings of peace and tranquility, I was struck by the feelings of impending doom. The light was low and the air filled with haze and the faint smell of burning. Not because of anything local, but because the apocalyptic climate-change-enhanced bush fires from Australia have spread smoke across the Tasman Sea over 2000km away to New Zealand. The scale of these fires is unfathonamble and unprecedented and I can't bear to think of the lives lost - both humans and other animals. So many friends and family across the ditch are in harm's way.
It's the start of new year and a new decade, which should be a time for hope and anticipation of good things to come, but it feels more like the beginning of the end of life as we know it. Is it really as bad as we're told? According to this recent article by Jonathan Franzen, it's probably worse, because as he quite rightly points out, scientists tend to be cautious and underestimate the likely impacts of climate change. We are now living a "new normal".
So what can we do? It seems so insurmountable, but I'd rather we try than just give up. It may just be a little thing, but I hope that this photo challenge gives some of us a voice to our concerns, and, in conjunction with compelling imagery, will spread ripples throughout our friends and families. Showing our love for our wildlife and wildspaces and what we have to lose if we don't change our ways. Right now. Right away.
Creativity ebbs and flows and after a busy patch doing something else it can be hard to get back into it. Sometimes the business side of art, other work, and life has to come first for a bit. I've been reflecting on what's helped me in the past and I thought I would share my thoughts with you - I know I'm not alone in needing some inspiration (and a kick in the pants)! I'd love to know what works for you - feel free to add ideas in the comments...
1. a reward for getting going
Photo-art teacher Sebastian Michaels taught me that you have to turn up, and keep turning up, for your muse to arrive. She won't take you seriously unless you take yourself seriously too. I like to hook in a reward for turning up - something as simple as a cup of coffee or tea in a special mug first thing in the morning can get me out of bed and ready for action. For a long time I was starting every morning with art, but somehow I got out of the habit. This is probably the number one thing I need to remedy in my quest to get creative again. Sebastian's 21-days to creative abundance is a good kick-starter. I also love Elizabeth Gilbert's book "Big magic: creative living beyond fear". Might be time for a re-read...
2. The time is now
There's no point waiting for the perfect time to get creative - there is no better time than now, even if just for a few minutes. Waiting for the perfect time means so many lost opportunities. I find when the perfectionism/procrastination ramps up so that I find I'm waiting for the perfect time, when it arrives I'm out of practice and risk squandering the opportunity. A little bit more often, even if not ideal, means I'm more likely to have days when I find my muse and get into the zone.
3. Message a trusted friend
It makes a big difference touching base with artist friends regularly to inspire each other with plans and schemes and to bounce ideas around. I'm blessed to have a couple of artist friends that regularly check in and are quick with positive encouragement. We all need people in our lives that believe in what we're doing, especially for those times when we don't believe in ourselves.
5. Try a new art medium
Seeing a favourite subject in a new way can help, and what better way to feel enthused than a visit to the art store for new and interesting art supplies. My life was forever enriched when pastel artist Karen Rankin Neal put me onto shimmery Pan Pastels and Dahler Rowney pearlescent inks! It's what took me from a purely digital world into experimenting with Giclee print embellishment, mixed media, and big messes.
6. Do a creative course
I love getting creative and crafty with weekend workshops and online courses. Even if not directly related to my main artform, they can lead to creative connections. The weekend picture framing course I did last year at The Learning Connexion unleashed an entire product line (TinyArt), produced a rewarding collaboration with friend and framer Chris Helliwell, and enabled me to get bolder and more creative with my framing choices. There are so many free online courses and tutorials on literally every creative endeavour - start with YouTube and you'll soon be on an adventure. Did you know all the classic Bob Ross "Joy of Painting" courses are online and free? All 403 of them! What a resource! I've not been taking advantage of my subscriptions to the online KAIZEN (enrollments currently closed) and Shift Art photo-artistry communities, both of which have an incredible wealth of creative tutorials, and I will get back into them tomorrow... or even today... I promise.
7. Schedule social media
Being active on social media is an essential part of most modern artist's lives, but it so easy to go down unrelated rabbit holes and never return. Make time for social media, but not at the expense of the most productive hours of the day. I have to relearn this lesson again and again and again… how about you?
8. Join a regular creative challenge
daily, weekly, or monthly creative challenge can be a fun way to keep trying new things and to build a habit of creating regularly. I created the weekly Art of Birding Wildlife & Nature Photography Challenge in 2018 to push myself to try new things, and then invited the world to join me. There are now hundreds of people also doing the challenge and we're all set to go for 2020 - check back in early December for the new challenges. Next year's challenges will emphasize creativity and composition, won't rely on having special gear, will have extra credit challenges, and will work for both photographers and other artists. I'm excited!
9. Create something just for fun and just for you
It can be too easy to get caught up in the mindset that everything created needs to count. But sometimes it's best to relax and take the time to create something just for ourselves. It's especially important if you're having an "attack of the shoulds" (when you hear yourself saying "I should be doing this" and "I should be doing that"). It took two days to make this crazy-complicated secret Belgian binding notebook, but I loved every moment. Especially fossicking through my decades of interesting paper scraps. Want to make one too? There's lots of tutorials out there and I referred to many, but the lovely Jennifer aka Sea Lemon tutorial was the clearest.
10. Fill your world with inspiration
Enrich your surroundings by subscribing to art magazines (check out Artists Down Under), collecting art, following artists on social media, and going to exhibitions. Try the Excio app that puts art and photography on your phone's wallpaper. Put on some of your favourite music, grab your tools, and get creating!
Do any of these suggestions resonate with you? What works for you? What else would you recommend I try? Let me know in the comments below...
For more years than I can count, I've felt compelled to tell the stories of our precious wildlife, through photography, art, and writing. In late 2017, after completing the 52-week 2017 Dogwood photography challenge, I was in the market for a new challenge, but one focused more specifically on wildlife. I also wanted to encourage my Zealandia "Storyteller" volunteer team to push themselves further too. But I couldn't find anything suitable. Rather than giving up, I realized that I could just make up my own challenges and that perhaps others might be interested in joining me. So just before New Years, I came up with the Art of Birding 2018 Wildlife & Nature Photography Challenge and put it out there for the world to join
In anticipation of World Wetlands Day today (2 Feb), earlier in the week we added a visit to a wetland in and among our stops at various wineries around Martinborough. The wetland of choice was Carter Scenic Reserve, located in the back-blocks of Carterton. The nominal 30 minute walk stretched to an hour and a half, despite the blistering 30C heat, because it was a truly lovely and interesting spot. I hope you enjoy these photos and that they inspire you to visit one of your local wetlands.
#worldwetlandsday #artofbirding2018 #artofbirdingweek5
The reserve is a mix of wetland, grass and shrubland, and lowland forest. The trees of note are kāhikatea and tōtara, with many towering trunks, many dead, as water flow has changed in recent years killing off these stately trees, presumably due to surrounding land use. I can only speculate that there is a correlation between this change and the intensive irrigation seen in surrounding dairy farms. DOC, however, look like they're doing a fantastic job regenerating the area and propagating and planting many natives.
Week 1 of the Art of Birding Challenge (#artofbirdingweek1) and the first assignment was to go somewhere off the beaten track where we hadn't been before and take a photo that might inspire someone else to also visit. I chose Birdwood Reserve because I wasn't sure my legs were up to taking on the Faultline Track at Zealandia, which was Plan A.
I did it! Challenge completed on 30 Dec 2017. Thanks to everyone who offered encouragement over the year, and especially to Janice who loaned me equipment at strategic points! Was it worth doing the weekly challenge? At various times, I wondered, but now that I've completed it I say absolutely! Was it hard? You betcha! It really brought home how different fields of photography require totally different skill sets. And that I still suck at bringing "story" to my images - mainly because it takes thought and effort and I don't always have the head-space to do that. But I also found that I love shooting still life and not just wildlife, and that taking people photos is not quite so scary anymore.
For 2018, I wanted to find a challenge with a more wildlife focus, in part so that more of my friends would perhaps join me (more fun with more than one!), but I couldn't find anything quite what I was after. So I decided to go all-in and put together my own challenge - for myself and for anyone else in the world who wishes to join me. The overall challenge is to use your wildlife and nature photos not just for pretty pictures, but for advocacy: by telling a (visual) story, creating compelling images, and improving on technical skills, then posting your images online for others to enjoy, be inspired by, and to learn from. You can start the challenge at any time, and do it at your own pace. You only have yourself to satisfy. Find out more at on the challenge webpage and join our private Facebook group if you decide to take the challenge on.
So without further ado, here are the photos for the last quarter of the 2017 Dogwood Challenge. If you're interested and inspired, they're doing a 2018 version.
I am so glad I didn't take on a 365 challenge as I'm struggling (failing) to keep up with a weekly challenge. Rather than doing them weekly, I find I'm doing a bunch at a time or when an opportunity arises, rather than deliberately setting out to do a challenge each week. Throw in some procrastination and perfectionism, it's a recipe for dipping out before the challenge is completed. But I am determined to see this through though, and today did a big push to catch up with the third quarter, even if some aren't my best work. Will I get the last quarter done by the end of the year? Feel free to place your bets!
Week 27 - Communication (Artistic)
I love how the light from her screen makes her face glow.
It's taken me this long to complete the second quarter of the Dogwood 2017 weekly photography challenge because I struggled to get Week 14 Panning completed. Panning is hard! So without further ado, here are the results....
Week 14 - Panning (Technical)
This challenge has been "dogging" me for weeks, so what better subject to choose than a doggo. Must be the slowest pan ever done, but it's done!
Access Octomono Masonry Settings
Judi Lapsley Miller
Fine art inspired by the stories of birds and the natural world. Starting with photographs, I let my imagination take me on flights of fancy. What is real and what is imagined is blurred. What is physical and what is virtual is disrupted. Bursting with colour and life.
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