Saturday, February 26, 2011

4 Simple Tips For Great Outdoor Photos

How many of you have ever been disappointed with the photos of some exciting outdoor moment? I know I have. Whether it's a buck or other game animal you've tagged out on or a nice fish you just landed, you want some great photos to capture the moment. Too often the pictures we take as outdoorsmen and women end up being mediocre at best. And even if you are personally proficient with a camera, you've probably had someone else take photos of you that didn't turn out as well as you'd like.

I've had an interest in photography my entire life. I am by no means a pro, though. I might be a rank amateur on a good day. The upside to that is I've made many amateur mistakes and have used the lessons to improve my photos. I'm going to share four very simple tips that can make a dramatic difference in your pictures. They aren't secret and they aren't new. They are guaranteed to work.

1. Fill. The. Flippin'. Frame.
If there's one pet peeve I have with photos, this is it. It's disappointing to see a picture of a hunter or angler with their trophy and it looks like the photographer stood twenty feet away. Adding to the problem is the fact that most point and shoot cameras come standard with a wide angle lens. What you end up with is a lot of unnecessary background that takes away from your subject. Get up close and personal and fill the frame! 

Here's an example of not filling the frame with the subject. There's a lot of wasted space and the background is not the least bit interesting which just makes it worse. The subject is too far away to see any detail. When looking at game photos, people want to see nice close-up shots. This is a bad photo all the way around.

Here's a photo where the subject takes up most of the frame. The unnecessary background is eliminated and the subject is close enough to see details.

Filling the frame is very simple. The easiest way is to physically get close to your subject. The other way is to use the zoom. Don't make the mistake, though, of standing far away and then zooming way in. Point and shoot cameras typically rely on digital zoom past a certain point and then you start to lose sharpness. You can zoom a little bit to get the lens out of wide angle mode and then adjust your physical position until the subject is filling the frame. Before you snap the shutter, look in the viewfinder or at the display screen and really SEE how the photo is composed. If there's still unwanted space around your subject, tighten up some more until the frame is filled. And don't be afraid to turn the camera and take vertical photos. That will often fill the frame better. 

Here's another example of a bad shot. The subject is too far away and the photo is so dark you almost can't tell there's a fish in the picture. I'll talk about that in a bit. The background is nice, but that's not supposed to be the focal point of the photo. This picture would have been better if it was just a shot of the dam.

This is a properly filled frame. The subject is front and center getting all of the attention. There's no wasted space or distracting background. And you can see the details.

You say, but Brian, I want some of the nice looking scenery in my photos. There's nothing wrong with that. Just be sure to get the close-up shots as well. Filling the frame will greatly increase the interest factor of your pictures.

2. Your Focus Needs More Focus
This has been the bane of photographs since cameras were first invented. I don't care if you've shot the biggest buck on planet Earth, if the picture is out of focus you've got an unappealing photo. 

With the exception of professionals and avid amateurs, most folks rely strictly on auto-focus cameras. And, for the most part, auto-focus works pretty well, but it's not perfect. Many cameras focus and then lock when you push the shutter button halfway. Pushing it the rest of the way snaps your photo. If you push the shutter button too quickly it can prevent the camera from focusing properly. It's also possible for the camera's sensors to focus on something other than your subject. Take your time and make sure the camera is focused where you want it. Don't press the shutter button too hard because that often results in the camera moving and you getting a blurry shot. Image stabilization is not foolproof.

It's not always possible to tell by looking at a photo on the display screen if it's out of focus. It might look okay on your camera, but when you download it and view it actual size it becomes obvious. The easiest remedy is just to take several photos in case you do get one that isn't properly focused. Some cameras have settings that allow you to blur the background while keeping the subject in sharp focus. That really makes your pictures pop!

3. Flash. Flash. Flash. 
An often overlooked tool is the flash. Unless it's a low light situation, many people don't think to use it. A flash can do wonders for your photos even in broad daylight. Using the flash will eliminate pesky shadows and help brighten details. One common area that is often dark is the subject's face. This is especially true when the person is wearing a hat which is a common thing with outdoorsmen. The flash will banish the shadow caused by the hat brim and make the face stand out. 

This photo was taken without a flash. It's not so dark that you can't see, but the various shadows obscure some of the details and make for an overall darker photo. You can see the hat creates a shadow across the face.

This is the same scene, but taken with the flash. Notice how it brightens the overall photo and brings out more detail. You really notice it when looking at the turkey feathers.

The flash can sometimes create a wash-out effect so you may have to experiment with distance and angle to get the look you want. A dark photo isn't much better than a blurry one so don't forget this handy little tool even in broad daylight. 

4. Change It Up! 
They say variety is the spice of life. It applies to your pictures, too. Break the habit of taking half a dozen photos of the same pose from the same angle and calling it a day. If you mix it up a bit, you'll be amazed at some of the great shots you'll get. 

A common scene is the hunter posing next to his or her animal either sitting or kneeling behind it. The person taking the photos usually stands and snaps all the pictures from that one position. Learn to move. Kneel down and get on the same plane as the subject. Move to one side or the other and take some photos. Get shots of the subject holding the gun or bow and shots without it. Have the subject kneel or sit on both sides of the animal. Move the animal itself. Just use your imagination. Try to get a variety of poses and angles. This greatly reduces the chance of being disappointed because you took all the photos from the same spot and when viewed later at full size they weren't as good as you thought. 

Here's a typical game photo. It was shot straight on. It's a good close-up photo, but if you took all your pictures from this one angle you might be missing out.

Here's the same scene, but with one big difference - the buck's head is turned to offer a different angle. Notice how the tine length is more apparent in this picture than the first. You're getting a slightly different perspective and it works. As a side note, the buck's tongue is hanging out in the first picture as is often the case. For the second photo, it was put back in the mouth and I think that makes for a better shot. Hunters sometimes debate this among themselves and I'm not getting into it here. I pointed it out for the purpose of illustrating how minor changes can make a difference in your photos. Overall, this picture is better than the first, but you wouldn't know unless you changed it up.

The great thing about digital cameras is you can take numerous pictures, see the results instantly, and delete the ones you don't like. There's really no reason not to take lots of photos. One common exception would be in a fishing situation where you are releasing the fish. Obviously, you don't want to spend ten minutes shooting photos while the fish is suffocating. Even in a case like that you can still get great shots - you just have to be quicker. 

I applied these tips primarily to game photos for this post, but they will work in any situation - even at your next family reunion with cheek-squeezing Aunt Bertha and crass Uncle Bart. So to recap....

Fill. The. Flippin'. Frame.
Your Focus Needs More Focus
Flash. Flash. Flash.
Change It Up!

If you will pay attention to these four simple tips, I promise you will see great results. 

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Getting Permission To Hunt Private Land

Have you ever driven by a tract of land and thought, man, I'd like to have the opportunity to hunt there? I'm sure most of us know of property we'd like to be able to hunt, but can't because it's privately owned. In reality, the only thing standing between you and potentially new hunting opportunities is asking permission. I'm going to provide a few pointers that can help make that process a bit easier. 

You might be thinking, uh, Brian, deer season just closed recently and the next season is several months away. Why are you talking about this now? Well, seeking permission to hunt on private property is a bit like scouting - if you want to be ready for the upcoming season, you really need to start working now. Approaching a landowner right before the season is about to open is kinda like studying for a big test the night before. It's not the best way to go. Plus, this applies to any kind of hunting - not just deer hunting. Spring turkey will be opening in many states before too long. Now is the time to get on it. 

Here are a few tips that can help increase your odds of receiving permission... 

Start now and leave the camo at home. You should start making contact with landowners early in the year. It might seem like a minor thing, but asking several months in advance shows that you're thinking ahead and is more respectful than knocking on somebody's door two days before the season opens. This also gives a landowner time to think it over, if necessary, and get to know you better. Some people might be more open to the idea of letting you hunt on their land if they're not being asked to make a spur-of-the-moment decision. 

If you ask early and receive permission, this gives you time to scout and get to know the area well ahead of the season. It also allows you to set up stands or blinds depending on what you've discussed with the landowner. If you ask early and are denied permission, you can then move on to other prospects as opposed to wasting time right before the season opens. 

When knocking on a stranger's door for the first time, I highly recommend leaving the camo attire at home. I like wearing it as much as the next person and I'm not saying you should be ashamed to dress like a hunter. However, since you are meeting a landowner for the first time, I believe it's best to dress in your regular street clothes. Some folks are put off by camo attire and others may have had bad experiences in the past with hunters or poachers. You don't know how a particular landowner feels about hunting. If you show up in camo, it has the potential to create a wall before the person has a chance to hear what you have to say. The idea is to stack the odds in your favor and looking like an average Joe can be helpful for that initial contact. 

Always be polite and respectful. This really goes without saying. Your request should be made politely. Using "sir" and "ma'am" never hurt anyone even though it is less common now. If you are turned down it is very important to remain polite. Remember, you are representing hunters in general and you want to leave a good impression no matter what answer you receive. It has the potential to open doors later. If you receive a definite "no", don't argue or keep going back to ask again. It's part of being respectful.

Being respectful also means be mindful of the landowner's time and activities. Avoid knocking on the door during traditional dinner hours. None of us like to be interrupted during a meal. Try not to disrupt a landowner's work, particularly if they are a farmer or rancher. Time is money for these folks. If it's obvious the landowner is busy in the field or with livestock, think about coming back another time. 

Be prepared to give some information. In some ways, getting permission to hunt private property is a bit like a job interview. At least you should think of it in those terms. You may be asked what you do for a living, where you live, how long you've been hunting, if you've taken a hunter safety course, or possibly even for personal references. If you don't receive permission during that initial contact, ask if it would be okay to leave your name and number. This is especially important if the landowner is going to consider your request. 

Bowhunters can have an advantage. You may talk with landowners who are hesitant to allow gun hunting on their property. Maybe they have concerns about livestock, pets, or just don't want guns being fired on their land. If you are also a bowhunter, you may be able to secure permission to hunt that way. Some people don't have the same concerns about bows that they do with guns. 

It's not a one-way street. If you do get permission to hunt on private property, don't just be a taker. One of the nicest things you can do is offer to assist with work on the land. This is especially true with farmers and ranchers. I don't mean you have to be there every weekend, but maybe there is fence to be repaired or wood to be cut or painting to be done. Offer to donate some of your time in exchange for the hunting privilege. When I was in school, my brother and I helped a farmer bale his hay during the summer as our way of thanking him for allowing us to hunt on his land. It was hot, nasty work, but worth it. Even if the landowner doesn't need or want your help, you can still offer to give them part of your meat. For those who enjoy wild game, this is a nice gesture. 

Make it a point to stop by during the off-season and see if there's anything you can do and just to say hi. This shows consideration for the landowner and helps develop a stronger relationship.

Some definite no-no's. If you get permission for yourself, do NOT show up with a couple of hunting buddies in tow. Nothing will annoy a landowner faster than you presuming you have the authority to invite others. If you want to bring another person along, you need to discuss that up front and have it worked out from the get-go.

Don't litter or otherwise trash the property. Don't drive where you don't have explicit permission to do so. Don't leave equipment behind unless this has been worked out with the landowner. Don't endanger livestock or pets. And don't assume the permission automatically extends from season to season. Always check with the landowner and make sure you can hunt again the following season. 

Final thoughts. If you receive permission, make sure you obey all game laws. The last thing you want is to create problems for a landowner. We should all obey the laws no matter where we hunt, but don't do something stupid on another person's property.

If you show respect toward the landowner and abide by their requests, you will likely develop a good relationship over time as you get to know each other. This helps secure your ongoing hunting privilege. 

Remember, there are people who simply don't want anyone hunting on their land. It could be they don't allow it period or they hunt it themselves. Getting permission is not a guarantee no matter how respectfully you approach it. If you are denied permission, scratch that location off the list and move on to another. Above all, represent hunting and your fellow hunters in the proper manner no matter what answer you receive.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The U.P. In Pictures

One cold November, several of the guys in my family went to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for a few days of deer hunting. We stayed in the southern portion of the U.P. not far from Little Bay De Noc. In between hunting, I spent some time taking photos in the local area and even going as far as Lake Superior. This post isn't about the hunting itself, but highlights the scenery we experienced during our trip. This trip is even more special to me now because my late grandfather was one of the guys along on this hunt. 

Covered bridge in winter

Swim at your own risk

Follow the leader


Snowy shoreline

Old Great Lakes freighter

Lake Superior

U.P. village

Snow covered fence line

Smoke on the water

Shoreline deadfall

Icy shore

Lone windmill

Ice cold waterfalls

Long way down

These photos were taken before digital cameras were prevalent. At the time, I used a Canon SLR and 35mm film. You may notice some imperfections in the photos as I had to scan each of them for this post.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Thoughts From The Outhouse: Real Hunting?

There have been several occasions when I have heard someone remark, "Man, I wish somebody would make a real hunting show." A real hunting show? I wonder what a real hunting show would look like?

It's not a big secret that hunters have complaints with many of the current hunting programs. That's not to say that all shows are bad or aren't real, but people have legitimate gripes. I'm one of them. I'm not going to name specific programs, good or bad. That is not the purpose of my post. I will share some of my complaints, though.

Too Expensive
Many of the hunts on TV are priced far above what the average hunter can afford. It doesn't even have to be an expensive safari in Africa. There are many hunts right here in the U.S. that can only be afforded by the wealthy. And I'm not knocking the wealthy. If you can afford to hunt anywhere you like, more power to you. However, for many people these expensive hunts are not realistic because folks know they will never be able to participate. It makes for entertaining television, but may not connect with the majority of hunters.

Box Blinds Over Food Plots
This is an annoyance for me when it comes to hunting shows. There's nothing wrong with hunting this way if that's how you want to do it, although I suspect some might have a different view. I just don't need to spend a half hour watching someone sit in a box over a food plot so they can kill a deer. Anybody who can hit what they aim at can take game this way. To me, this is the least interesting method of hunting to watch. It's great to see kids take their first deer, etc., but I don't learn anything from it.

Whisper Mode
Maybe I'm the only one who is annoyed by this, but I can't stand it when a host whispers non-stop at the camera. I know when they're on stand they don't want to spook game. And I have no issue with whispering brief statements, but to whisper for three or four minutes straight is just irritating! If it's that important maybe they should have said it before getting on stand. Or go back later and narrate that portion during editing. Something. People can't understand half of what they're saying when they whisper. It's really not necessary to talk, anyway. I suspect most viewers don't care. Just sit there and hunt.

Some shows are worse than others with the tracking phase. Many folks may like this part of a show, but I could do without it. I don't need to watch a host follow the blood trail to his or her game. The scenes are all the same for the most part and some just come off as staged even if they aren't. The host follows a blood trail, finally spots the game, and throws their hands up in celebration. I'm not belittling the importance of tracking, but in the context of TV shows it's really just filler. Show the shot and just jump to the recovered animal. I realize it's part of the whole process and may be important for image, but there's very little for even a novice to learn by watching tracking on TV. It has to be learned in the field.

A lot of hunts on TV take place in target rich environments. I've seen more than one show where the host will have a dozen or more bucks in view at the same time. And they're usually not small bucks, either. This isn't a realistic scenario for most hunters. Many hunters don't even have access to private land. From talking with other hunters, last season was awful for many of them. A lot of hunters were fortunate to see does, much less shooter bucks. When the TV shows continually have the hosts in locations with many targets to choose from, it simply doesn't represent what the average hunter experiences. I've heard people say, "I'd like to see so and so come hunt where I do and see how well he does then."

In many ways, hunting shows are just big infomercials for the sponsors. Does it get annoying at times? Sure. I also understand there's a business side to things and sponsors pay the bills. More often, it's not the fact that products are mentioned, but the manner in which they're mentioned. It's as if the hunter wouldn't have been successful if it wasn't for a certain product. Or you have to have the latest and greatest to be successful which is simply not true. Hunting show hosts have nothing on NASCAR drivers when it comes to pimpin' sponsors, though! You NASCAR fans know what I mean. A driver being interviewed after a race can rattle off six sponsors at the beginning of the sentence and still answer the question all while holding a bottle of Coke or Pepsi. And I don't necessarily blame the hosts (or drivers). It's part of the business and sponsors expect a certain amount of exposure for their money. I just don't like it when it's "over-the-top, in-your-face" silly.

So would changes to anything I've mentioned make hunting shows any more real? I've spent many long, boring hours in the stand. How many of us would spend thirty minutes just watching a host sit and never see anything? It might be more in line with what many of us experience, but it probably wouldn't make for good television. Shows need viewers to attract sponsors who supply funding. A boring show won't hold viewers.

I suspect if hunting shows more accurately depicted what most hunters experience, many of them wouldn't last long. You will see shows where tags go unfilled and things go wrong, but those are in the minority. I've stopped expecting to learn much from shows nowadays. To me they're purely for entertainment. I enjoy watching many of them, but I don't get much from them. Some I don't like at all. I suppose you have to decide what your expectations are and then determine what's real for you. This is not meant to bash hunting shows or the people involved in them. I think it's great that people can make a living doing what they love! In terms of hunting in general, many of these folks are good ambassadors. It's a matter of perception and expectations.

Does real hunting take place on these shows? Yes, of course. Does the hunting on most of these shows realistically represent what the majority of hunters experience? My personal opinion is no.

Oh. In case you were wondering, no, I didn't write this while in the outhouse - though some might say it's a bunch of crap. I'm not sleeping in the outhouse, either. That would be the doghouse. I'm just throwing out some thoughts on a topic that gets a lot of discussion in hunting camp.