Rocky Mountain School of Photography » Steve Russell Thu, 26 Mar 2015 22:36:49 +0000 en-US hourly 1 For the Love of Shooting – Guest Article by Steve Russell Tue, 03 Feb 2015 15:48:06 +0000 8H7A3317My second annual January trek to San Diego to shoot birds and wildlife gives me the perfect opportunity to share three reasons why I love doing this so much.

  1. The thrill of surprises. Not only do animals appear out of nowhere for shot opportunities, but sometimes astonishing and unexpected shots show up on the computer screen afterwards when I finally rifle through those hundreds or thousands of shots I took. Most notable for me this time was the hummingbird and nest (the first nest I’d ever seen) that suddenly presented to me at the lake, and then discovering later on during the processing of the images that I’d captured a baby in the nest as well.
  2. The joy of upping my game. There’s nothing quite like the satisfying feeling of capturing an image of something new or getting a better picture of something I’d shot before. It’s me against myself every time out. Last year in San Diego I’d gotten my first brown pelican in flight, but this year I set my sights on capturing them not only flying but skimming across huge crashing waves – and sure enough, I got some.
  3. The power of a group shoot. All six of us went to the same places looking for basically the same things, but I was amazed at what my friends were able to find and shoot that I had totally missed. While I was shooting a beautifully evolving sunset in a fairly standard way, another found a spindly group of long-beaked shore birds in the foreground of the setting sun and still another waded into the surf for a unique perspective. Remarkably different subjects, compositions, camera settings, lenses, and creative techniques – all freely swapped with one another at the time to be tucked away in my little brain to try out the next time I get the chance.


My San Diego experience at its best was that beautiful synchrony of waiting for nature to reveal itself and being prepared to shoot it when it did. It was full of surprises, loaded with opportunities advance my skill and experience, and it was enhanced by the shared experience. What could be better. Of course, it didn’t hurt that it was 72 degrees and sunny, either.

Steve Russel


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In the Spirit of Ansel Adams: Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons in Black and White – Guest Article by Steve Russell Fri, 05 Dec 2014 17:30:40 +0000 IMG_5687At the tail end of Fall I had a chance to join a small group of experienced photographers on a photo expedition to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Our goals were to “hunt” and “shoot” wild animals, photograph the Milky Way, and capture the grandeur of the Teton mountain range. Of course, this is Ansel Adams country, so in the spirit of his eminence, I processed my images in black and white using Lightroom 5 (exactly as I learned it in the RMSP Lightroom Workshop). What better way to reduce them to their essence.

Our group had the benefit of having a photographer with over 40 Yellowstone/Grand Teton photo shoots under his belt, which made all the difference in terms of finding opportunities. Two of in our group had been to the parks five times without ever having seen a grizzly bear; on this trip, however, we found them twice in five days. Along with the grizzlies we shot bull elk (in the rutting season), pronghorn antelope, black bear, bighorn sheep and bison, but unfortunately, we didn’t see any moose or wolves. Maybe next time. My best, sharpest images were when handholding my Canon 7D with 70-200mm IS lens and 1.4 teleconverter.

R22A1955Our day trip to the Grand Tetons was unsurprisingly spectacular, although we settled for big billowy clouds over the mountains instead of the more iconic snow-covered peaks (which was to occur only two days later). I used my 24-105mm f/4 and 15mm 2.8 lenses on a Canon 5D Mark III for my best results.

Back in Yellowstone the clouds luckily parted on two consecutive, new-moon nights allowing us to shoot the Milky Way (me, for the first time ever) over briefly light-painted geysers we’d scoped out during the day. It took some trial and error (mostly error) but I settled on ISO 3200, wide open at f/2.8, for 25-30 seconds on a tripod using the 15mm fisheye lens on my 5D Mark III. I couldn’t be happier with the results.

R22A1870We barely scratched the surface of wildlife, landscape and night-sky photographic opportunities in Yellowstone and Grand Tetons on our five-day visit. I’m no Ansel Adams but I suspect that I felt just as much of a thrill as he did when witnessing such extraordinary sights.

Steve Russell
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Metamorphosis of a Dragonfly Caught on Camera – Guest Article by Steve Russell Wed, 23 Jul 2014 14:08:29 +0000 IMG_3562It was an amazing sight – the transformation of a beetle-like larva into a fully functioning flying dragonfly right before my very eyes – and camera.

I’d been shooting dragonflies this summer at my favorite marshy spot on the edge of nearby Waughop Lake. I happened to look down and spot an ugly little larva crawling along the grass toward my bike, which was laying on the ground. Cool, I thought, and I snapped a couple of shots before it disappeared under my rear tire for the shade, I figured.

I went back to the dragonflies until I needed something else from my pack when I noticed the larva had crawled up onto my tire. Snap-snap, and I went about my business. The third time I passed by, though, there were FOUR eyes looking back at me and it suddenly occurred to me that a dragonfly was pushing its way out of the back of the larva. Wow!

R22A0351I ran over to switch my telephoto lens for a macro and twin flash and returned to shoot the metamorphosis over the next 90 minutes. It was mid-day, high sun, harsh light and the larva had attached itself on the underside of the tire partially in the shade. Not the conditions I would choose, but in documentary or photo journalistic photography (which I would consider this to be in a nature sort of way) you work with what you got when you got it.

This grassy spot is right off the asphalt path that circles the lake and I am sprawled out on the grass, which is covered in goose poop, shooting what must have looked to the frequent passers-by to be my bike tire. Hmmm. But, oblivious to them and to the time, I shot away for an hour and a half trying to capture every conceivable angle knowing that in all likelihood this would be my first and only time with an opportunity like this.

The dragonfly and its huge compound eyes and compacted wings slowly eased out, moved next to the lifeless larva exoskeleton, gradually spread and dried its perfect wings, and with its stored genetic knowledge intact, launched its first flight flawlessly – off my bike tire. After surviving for two to three years as a larva in the muck of the lake bottom, it would live to fly, eat and procreate for perhaps another three to four WEEKS – the normal post-larval lifespan of a dragonfly.

It was purely by chance that I got to see (and shoot, no less) such a miraculous event. These may not be Pulitzer Prize winning photos, but they’ll forever distinguish my summer of 2014.

When viewing these photos keep in mind that I purposely re-oriented some right-side-up to make it easier to view them. Also, the last image is, as best I can tell, an adult version of the same type of dragonfly in great light, but it is NOT the same one.

Steve Russell

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Shadowlands: Five Tips for Capturing the Beauty of Back-Light Macro – Guest Article by Steve Russell Fri, 27 Jun 2014 22:38:29 +0000 R22A9416How is it that one can walk by, even photograph, the same thing thousands of times year in and year out – and not really see it? It’s happened to me. I shot small subjects for years in soft front-light and side-light or with flash and have had great results, but it wasn’t until I was stuck shooting at mid-day in harsh light recently that I looked toward the sun and noticed the grasses come alive with color and the bugs on the sun-side casting amazing shadows on the vividly striated grass. Not only that but any limbs hanging over the edges became brilliantly translucent. I began to notice this effect on any wide grass– contrasty shadows, bright colors and the amazing luminescence of my subjects created by back-light, especially at mid-day.

Shooting at mid-day in harsh light not only became possible, but preferred for this type of shooting. But to shoot this way there are a few things to know that may help you if you are interested in doing the same.


1) Look for background first and subjects second. This is the reverse of what I’m used to. Look in the direction of the light for wide grasses or leaves. Walk toward the light so you can spot the silhouettes of the bugs on the plants in front of you and because they are less likely to see you coming and get spooked off.

2) No flash needed or wanted here. While flash does an incredible job for detail and saturation, in this case it eliminates shadows and darkens backgrounds that can otherwise create a brilliant bokeh. Besides, there’s plenty of light on a sunshiny day.

3) Forget the tripod (no time for it), but make speed, aperture and image stabilization a priority for handheld shooting. Plan on a minimum of 1/60th sec but really 1/500th sec or faster is preferred as is an aperture of f/11-16. To get these settings it is the ISO that may have to get bumped up and fortunately I have a camera that can handle it – most of the shots below were at ISO 1600, but my 5D Mark III shows little or no noise. My Tamron 90mm macro lens has Vibration Compensation (VC). I use a hiking pole if I can to help stabilize the camera, as well.

R22A1665 4) Keep the lens parallel to what you want in focus. I would suggest several years of intensive yoga so that you can contort yourself in position to shoot from behind bent grass. It ain’t easy sometimes. I’ve been looking through the viewfinder but if there’s time you could use live view (and a loupe no doubt) and magnify the image to get the best focus.

5) All these rules are made to be broken so have fun and experiment with the settings and techniques.

Mid-day sun is now my friend and I have added a whole new way of shooting to my macro repertoire. I shake my head when I realize that these opportunities were there all along and I hadn’t really seen them until now. As much as I enjoy the detail and the balanced light of my normal shooting, I equally appreciate the beautiful lines, shapes, colors and contrasts that back-light photography can generate.

Steve Russell


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The Bugs are Back! Guest Article By Steve Russell Fri, 09 May 2014 22:33:40 +0000 The Bugs are Back

R22A6655-13After my usual winter hiatus from bug-art photography, I dusted off my 65mm (Canon MP-E 65mm macro) and 90mm (Tamron macro VC) lenses and headed back to the park. What’s new this year is that I upgraded to a 5D Mark III camera, got a Hoodman Loupe (and elastic band to hold it on), and I start the season with lessons learned from last year’s shooting including how to shoot into a cloud-filtered setting sun with, of course, my trusty MT-24EX Macro Twin Lite Flash.

Dance flies made their usual debut at the flowering of the Oregon Grape bushes, but this year I spotted a first for any species I’ve ever shot: a pair of dance flies mating while the female simultaneously feasted on a just-caught fly. Damselflies emerged earlier than I’ve ever seen them and within the first few days I witnessed two of them caught in the fangs of spiders that are always lurking amongst the grasses. I also made my usual quota of one or two focused images per year of the most elusive fly around (orange and yellow with eyes in the back of its head) as I followed it bouncing around from one brief grass-stoR22A6966-18p to another, while getting off one quickly-composed handheld shot if I was lucky before it flew again.

My Mark III performed beautifully, although the move of the magnification button to the left of the LCD screen (from the top right of the camera on the Mark II) is infinitely more difficult to operate when I need my left hand to hold and steady the lens. It also takes a little longer for the LCD image to refresh after a shot and activates again only after I depress the shutter button half way. Maybe it’s just a matter of adjusting something in the camera. I hope so. I’m also experimenting more with high magnification handheld shooting at 4X and even 5X with my 65mm lens, and although there is a high rate of failure unless the conditions are absolutely perfect, the payoff is amazing in terms of detail.

The bugs are back and with them another season of endless opportunities to capture these tiny monsters in artistic compositions, with complimentary backgrounds, in ever-increasing detail while they’re doing instinctively dramatic things.

Let the shooting begin.

Steve Russell Photography

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7 Quick Tips for Shooting Birds – Guest article by Steve Russell Tue, 04 Mar 2014 22:17:14 +0000 IMG_2737-15Desperate for sun, warmth and shooting opportunities I recently joined a group of experienced wildlife photographers in the San Diego area to shoot birds. What I learned from them and from my own trials and errors over five days has opened up a whole new, exciting world of nature photography for me and I’d like to share some lessoned learned for increasing one’s chances for success.

1)   Equipment. I shot with a Canon 7D (7 frames per second), 70-200mm 2.8 IS lens, 1.4 and 2.0 teleconverters (TC), and a sturdy tripod with gimbal head. Others had longer and better prime lenses that I drooled over but I enjoyed the portability and flexibility of my lens. Big lesson regarding the TCs: all my “keeper” shots of flying birds were taken with the 1.4 TC, which focused noticeably faster and more accurately in the AI Servo mode than the 2.0. The 2.0 TC did very well for still birds farther away. I also had the most success handholding flight shots and using my tripod for the stills.

2)   Camera settings. I learned that an aperture of f/8 or more is essential if one wants as much detail in the wings and body as possible; shoot as a minimum speed of 1/1200 and faster if at all possible (especially for fast-flapping birds like cormorants); keep the ISO as low as one’s camera can handle, but the speed and aperture settings are more of a priority to maintain. I tried shooting in aperture priority, shutter priority, and auto-ISO and I’m still not sure which I like the best.

IMG_1764-83)   Composition. Not unlike shooting bugs, leave room to fit in all of the bird’s parts like wings; strive to keep the lens parallel to the parts of the bird one wants in focus; first priority is getting the eye in focus preferably with a catch light; be acutely aware of background, what one wants or doesn’t want complimenting or distracting from the subject.

4)   Light. As usual, it’s all about the light, right? As a general rule keep the sun to one’s back to get the light on the bird’s eyes and body; low light in the golden hour before sunset can magically transform, warm up and saturate birds as it did with the pelicans and flamingos I shot at this time of day. I was amazed. Low to the horizon source light also better illuminates the birds’ undersides.

5)   Shooting still birds. Even still birds move and do interesting and funny things like when they are preening, yawning, cawing, eating, hunting, taking off or landing, or in the case of the pelicans, throwing their heads back. Still birds in groups are hard to isolate but on the other hand my eye was drawn to when two or more lined up in symmetry or interacted with one another like when I caught an adult flamingo feeding a juvenile.

IMG_1414-56)   Carrying stuff. I tried and loved using a Cotton Carrier vest system to support my camera and lens but I also wore a small backpack for extra lenses, batteries, cards, etc. The Cotton Carrier bore the weight evenly at my chest level and freed both of my hands, but my camera was retrievable at a moment’s notice.

7)   Post-processing. Not much different here than it is for bugs: in Lightroom, highlight desired features (i.e., eyes), orient the subject with the rule of thirds in mind, bring out detail in the fringes of light and dark, improve contrast, minimize or eliminate distracting elements in the background, enhance color, sharpen, etc.

Boiling down the art and technique of shooting birds of one person’s experience into 600-plus words doesn’t do the subject justice, but maybe it’s enough to spur one to try something new or refine one’s own techniques. One thing is for sure: shooting birds, especially in flight, is easier said than done and there is no better way to get better than to go out and learn from one’s own experience. My thanks to my new-found bird-shooting friends in San Diego who led the way for me.


Steve Russell

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Random Acts of Photography – Guest Article by Steve Russell Wed, 15 Jan 2014 17:27:05 +0000 _MG_9975-1In the lowlands of the Pacific Northwest’s late fall and winter it is usually light-starved, wet and 50 shades of gray. Occasionally, though, the sun peeks out and it stops raining long enough for some shooting opportunities of the outdoor nature kind.

For example, I found salmon leaping out of the water trying to get upstream at a local fish hatchery during this year’s spawning season around Thanksgiving. I returned a week later to find the salmon had spawned out and died but a Great Blue Heron feeding on the carcasses let me inch up closer than ever.

_MG_0588-2I also sprang into action for two unexpected sunset opportunities at nearby Chambers Bay Park, which overlooks the Puget Sound. They yielded saturated silhouette shots (using a circular polarizer) that captured people crossing a bridge telling their stories in true environmental portraiture fashion.

Snow geese and trumpeter swans begin migrating to the Skagit Valley an hour north of Seattle this time of year, but finding sun and birds at the same time is hit and miss. And while the bugs are nearly all gone or in hiding, macro opportunities come up when it’s dewy or freezing overnight, which creates magical spiraling patterns on leftover spider webs in the park.

Random acts of photography in otherwise gray, dreary and wet weather. Lowland nature shooting is catch as catch can around here this time of the year, so it pays to be ready for just about anything when the right conditions do present themselves – or not – as unpredictable as that may be.

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Arachnophobobes, Avert Thy Eyes: The Annual Spider Issue – Guest Article by Steve Russell Wed, 13 Nov 2013 17:47:36 +0000 _MG_9948-13They’re creepy and they’re crawly; they cause more screams and heart palpitations per millimeter of length than just about any other creature; and they make great models for photo shoots as long as they don’t jump onto the photographer (i.e., ME) or crawl into the camera bag.

Spiders. Arachnids. Orb weavers. Stalkers. Jumpers. Trappers. Lightning fast. Lumbering slow. Menacing eyes (all eight of them). Cute and innocent looking. Camouflaged or black as night. Colorfully marked. There are all kinds, but in nearly all cases when they are enlarged on the computer screen they become humongous monsters that feed our primal fears.


This time of year – as Halloween approaches, not coincidentally – orb weavers are everywhere, their webs bridging every branch, secured to every mailbox, and spanning every porch. There are plenty of photo ops for those who can override their urge to take ‘em out. It’s a fascinating world to behold up close even if the images do make their way into your dreams and nightmares.

These images were all shot within the past year in their natural environment except the tarantula, which I was fortunate enough to shoot with permission at the Bug Museum in Bremerton, WA. Against the wishes of my inner exterminator, I actually held the gentle giant in my own hand and survived. Oh, one of these is not actually a spider, but a Garden Harvester, an eight-legged insect – can you guess which one it is?

Most of the images were shot with my Tamron 90mm VC Macro lens, but two close-ups of very small spiders were shot with my Canon 65E Macro lens. All of these had a splash of flash from a Canon MT-24EX Twin Lite Flash, and of course, I shot them all with my trusty Canon 5D Mark II camera.

Steve Russell
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The Tamron 90mm Macro VC Lens: Handheld Heaven – Guest Article by Steve Russell Tue, 03 Sep 2013 17:08:03 +0000 RussellSteve__MG_8769-13My Tamron 90mm 2.8 1:1 Macro Lens has been very, very good to me. I would have been content to use it as my primary macro lens for life because of its sharpness, versatility, lightness and shooting distance. But Tamron upgraded the lens this year and added vibration control (VC) and I took a chance, sold my beloved lens and got the new VC version. It has paid off in spades, and here’s why.

I shoot bugs. Bugs have a tendency to move and go in all directions. I move with them to keep the lens parallel to them in order to get as much in focus as possible. When I move, the camera and lens move and while I can be very patient and persistent, hold my breath for long periods of time, and brace the camera and/or lens against a hiking pole, the least little movement on my part diminishes the clarity and focus of the image. The addition of VC noticeably improves my percentage of sharp shots per shots taken.

RussellSteve__MG_5381-8For example, on two occasions this summer a pair of mating Blue Dasher dragonflies landed near me without warning (see the first pair in the attached photo). They are extremely skittish when they are “hooked up” and up until then I’d only been able to capture them from at least six feet away with my 70-200 lens. Both of these times, with the twin flash EV and the Manual camera settings already set, I moved like a mime to activate Live View, get into position, compose, magnify the view on the LCD and focus on one of their eyes, lock in the VC and shoot. One shot each time before they flew off. No time for the hiking pole let alone a tripod. Both times I nailed it. If I was shooting from my usual six feet with a longer lens I would have fired off, perhaps, 10-15 shots and hoped for one to turn out. And I could not have matched the sharpness I got with a true macro lens. Luck? Yep. Being prepared? Yep. Good camera (Canon 5D Mark II) and flash (Canon MT-24EX)? Yep. Nice mime work? Well, not bad. But the difference maker was having VC.

See for yourself. All of these images were handheld shots. The level of detail is the best I’ve ever been able to produce when shooting handheld and they took fewer attempts to get. I’m through grieving the loss of my original Tamron macro lens and am fully embracing the new VC version.


Steve Russell
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Dragonflies – Guest Article by Steve Russell Thu, 18 Jul 2013 22:27:59 +0000 _MG_5280It’s easy to miss them – as I did for years riding my bike fast around the local lake – and easy to dismiss them as they whiz by at breakneck speed. But up close, dragonflies have an amazing array of colors, and set against nature’s greens and yellows and oranges and blues they make stunning macro subjects to shoot – and you don’t even need a macro lens to shoot them.

Some dragonflies fly around most of the time and roost (perch) on tall grasses or bushes only occasionally. Others roost a lot and fly less. It is when they roost that we have the best chance at decent photographs. Catching them in flight can be done, but it ain’t easy.

IMG_5284My favorite lens for shooting dragonflies is a Canon 70-200mm, f/4, IS lens with a 1.4 extender. It is infinitely lighter than the f/2.8 version and since I always shoot at f/11 or f/16, the wider aperture of the faster and more expensive lens isn’t needed. The extender gets me a little closer from a distance (4-6 feet usually) and that helps because dragonflies can often be easily spooked if you get too close. The loss of a stop of aperture with the extender (from f/4 to f/5.6) doesn’t matter with the greater depth of field settings. The image stabilization (IS) is essential because there is usually so little time for using a tripod that all of my shooting is handheld or with the help of a used carbon fiber walking stick I got at REI to brace my camera against.

Ninety percent of getting good quality images of dragonflies is showing up. Just shoot and shoot and shoot and you will begin to learn the dragonflies habits and rhythms and where and when to find them. And it will pay off in spades with the most unique and color-filled images you can imagine.

Steve Russell
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Shooting Into the Sun: Back-light + Flash = Cool Effects Thu, 20 Jun 2013 17:10:03 +0000 _MG_2639I have long shot macro mostly with side- or front-light, although using a macro twin flash gives me the flexibility to shoot in most any direction. However, it wasn’t until recently that I discovered shooting directly into the sun can create some very cool effects – under the right circumstances.

I came upon a butterfly in a field of grass as the sun was getting near the horizon behind some trees. On a whim I wondered what would happen if I shot the butterfly with the sun directly behind it. The sun was a bright circular orb on my LCD screen in Live View and it was difficult to see the butterfly’s eyes and wings with clarity, but I managed to get off a few shots and hoped for the best.

_MG_4569Judge for yourself one of the images I produced. The sun came out hexagonal as it was filtered through a prism and the flash exposed for the butterfly in the foreground. I’ve since experimented more and learned that the direct sun can illuminate the subject beautifully when off to the side or top and out of the screen. I also discovered that it only worked when the sun was low to the horizon and filtered by clouds or trees – otherwise it just washed out the image regardless of the camera and flash settings. Slight variations in position and orientation of the camera can create completely different effects as you can see from the attached multiple images of the same subjects shot seconds apart. The biggest challenge was finding focus and positioning my camera accordingly.

Shooting into the sun is counterintuitive and was never taught in any of my photography classes unless one wanted to create a silhouette, but in the macro world it opens up new and surprising and dramatic possibilities when the conditions are right.

Steve Russell
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A Matter of Perspective: Shooting Butterflies from All Angles – Guest Article by Steve Russell Thu, 25 Apr 2013 18:02:25 +0000 _MG_1189Starving for small, living creatures to shoot during the winter months, I visited the Butterfly House in the Seattle Science Center hoping to get a shot or two up close. Butterflies from all over the world live their brief lives in an 85-degree glass greenhouse filled with tropical plants and it’s open to the public. It turned out that despite the fluctuating crowds there were plenty of opportunities to shoot these beautiful insects just inches away.

Part by choice and part by chance, I was able to shoot from a variety of perspectives, which made the overall collection of images much more interesting and unique. The standard shots from the side with the camera lens parallel to the subject (usually the wings _MG_1145and an eye) with me shooting from my “strike zone” were most available. But looking up I found butterflies perched on leaves overlooking things, and looking down I found surprise reflections in the pond and a pair trying to mate. Getting two large, opened wings in focus is next to impossible, but playing with the height and angle of my camera got me close to full focus even with two spread-winged butterflies in the same frame. Shooting head-on, from the rear (still focusing on the eyes and antennae), at an extreme close-up, with the subject upside-down, and with the butterfly on my friend’s arm gave me images that would supplement and enrich the collection of standard shots.

_MG_1118Technically, I shot most of the accompanying images with a 90mm 1:1 macro lens and twin flash at f/16, ISO 100, at 1/200 sec. I used a makeshift monopod (actually a rifle monopod with no tripod head) since there was little time or space to use a tripod). I did try out a 180mm 1:1 macro lens (the butterfly on a blue background), but found it much heavier and harder to use hand-held even with the monopod.

The chance to shoot such elaborately colored, live bugs in pseudo-natural surroundings year-round in the cool Pacific Northwest is a treat. Now that I’ve got my fix (three visits) and the sun is beginning to peak out now and then I’ll head back to the ponds and parks to try my luck with the natives.

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Arctic Snowy Owls in Washington – Guest Article by Steve Russell Mon, 25 Mar 2013 22:53:42 +0000 IMG_6834I have long admired Paul Bannick’s photographs of Arctic Snowy Owls and, living in the Pacific Northwest, it never occurred to me that I would ever get the chance to shoot them myself without heading north. But the opportunity came my way when I discovered that the owls were making one of their “irregular” winter migrations to the Washington coast this year in search of food.

The Arctic Snowy Owl is among the largest owls in North America often over two feet in height with four foot wingspans. One of their migratory haunts on the years in which their prime food source (lemmings) is scarce in the Arctic is Damon Point at Ocean Shores, WA. On two separate weekend days I trekked a couple of miles in the sand with camera gear on my back to find 10-15 of the owls on scattered driftwood in the low grasses or on low tree branches.

IMG_7340I brought my Canon 7D camera and 70-200mm f/2.8 IS lens with 1.4 extender. Many other photographers around me had monster telephoto lenses that I envied, but I compensated by scooting a little closer to the owls and my lighter load allowed me to move around more freely to get different perspectives. My first day I used a tripod with Wimberley Sidekick (gimbal head) but found it too restrictive, so on my second visit I propped my camera on a small Giottos ball head screwed into a Primos Trigger Stick, which is a rifle monopod with a one-handed spring height-adjustment mechanism. It gave me a better combination of flexibility and stability especially when I could prop it against a log.

I shot with a wide-open aperture (f/4 with the extender on) except on one occasion when I wanted to get more detail of a mountain in the background and shot at f/16. When the sun was out I was able to keep the ISO low (100-200) and still shoot at 1/1000th or faster.

It didn’t take long to learn IMG_7587(again) that the quality of light is everything. I was happy to get the mid-day front or perpendicular light, but when that magical golden hour just before sunset finally came all the colors warmed and saturated beautifully. I was thrilled to get the photos I got, but my dream of a Paul Bannick-like, in-focus shot of a golden-eyed Arctic Snowy Owl flying toward me with outstretched wings is still just a dream. Reason enough to keep coming back while I still can.

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Eat or Be Et – Guest Article by Steve Russell Fri, 28 Dec 2012 23:48:59 +0000 _MG_6758-4This is a photography blog, but sometimes subject matter themes present themselves at timely moments of the year. As we humans celebrate our holidays by consuming turkeys and other animal life, so too, do the bugs around us consume each other and it is all done in concert with the natural law of the jungle – “Eat or be Et.”

Imagine life – and death – in a bug’s world. A bee with absolutely nothing on its mind except collecting pollen until it suddenly slams into a spider’s web. Or a butte_MG_7170-12rfly ventures too deeply into dense flowers and without warning feels the jaws of a crab spider clench its neck and inject it with paralyzing venom. I’ve seen and photographed smaller male spiders attack the larger females only to be wrapped up like a gift package and devoured within seconds. Ants somehow coordinate their kill as I saw happen on the stucco wall of my Nicaraguan hotel once, and they carried their much larger insect victim up the wall presumably to their nest to share the spoils. Damselflies and dragonflies lie in wait on grass tips and zip off to capture smaller insects in mid-flight and begin their meal even before they return to their roost. But as it is with all of these tiny creatures, the hunters can turn to prey in a moment’s notice.

_MG_7677-14No one is safe in the “Eat or be Et” world and it is the luck of the photographer that dictates whether or not the act is caught in the lens of the camera. If there is any trick to capturing these images beyond the usual camera settings, it is expecting the unexpected and being prepared for action. Each time it happens to me, though, I just thank my lucky stars that I’m in my world and not theirs.


Steve Russell
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Shooting Dragonflies: Show Up, Watch Stuff Happen, Shoot it When it Does (Part 2) – Guest Article by Steve Russell Thu, 04 Oct 2012 20:30:45 +0000 See Shooting Dragonflies: Show Up, Watch Stuff Happen, Shoot it When it Does (Part 1) here.

Shooting Roosters

Some roosters startle easily so shooting with a longer lens helps. I use a 70-200mm lens with a 1.4 extender and can fill a frame with a dragonfly from about 4-5 feet away or stand further back and crop later. On occasion I’ve pushed the envelope and gotten within a foot of the subject with my 90mm macro lens and it usually produces a crisper image.

Flash can be used to enhance detail and saturation and remove distracting background elements. For close-ups with my macro lens I’ll use a macro twin flash, but I use my external flash in the hot shoe when using my 70-200mm lens. As much as I love the detail and saturation using flash, the soft bokeh of blurred greens and browns from vegetation and dried grasses in the background can be beautiful.

I generally shoot roosters with a wide-open aperture (when I’m not using flash) to get as much light (and speed) as possible, but the depth of field is very shallow. For that reason, being parallel to the subject or at least what you want in focus is important. But with eyes, a body and wings going every which way, decide your priorities when you shoot and take as many shots as you can and cull them later.

With roosters I try to keep the ISO (100-200) low since I’m not as worried about speed, especially with flash. Flash allows me to freeze the action at the maximum sync speed of 1/200 sec. and with roosters on a calm day that’s often fast enough with or without flash.


Focusing on flyers is the biggest challenge of all – even when they are hovering. Automatic focus (AF) is hard to use unless the dragonfly is close and fills much of your frame, which doesn’t happen very often. I like manual focus because it’s actually faster to do, but the window for coordinating the sighting, focus and shoot is very small before the flyer zips off. Standing in the path or favorite haunt of a dragonfly you’ve been watching helps and sometimes they get very curious and will hover longer nearby (they’ve even landed on me twice now).

I’ve had better luck with flyers with my 90mm macro lens and an external flash (not my macro twin flash) – it’s lighter and easier to hold and point and the flash covers farther. I’ve had far better luck by using flash and waiting for the dragonflies to come close to me (as opposed to using a heavier, longer lens and shooting them at a distance). Areas of bright shade seem to produce the best results on sunny days. Shooting flying dragonflies requires a ton of patience and a willingness to fail much more than you succeed. But the rare sharp capture of the intricately webbed wings and unusual faces is worth the trouble.

 And In Conclusion…

One of the great things about just showing up at these ponds is the unexpected opportunities that may come your way like they did for me. The mating pair flying in tandem that suddenly split apart and land clinging to low grass totally exhausted. The sudden appearance of a female laying her eggs on the algae of a pond just a few feet away. The sound of fluttering wings against thick tall grasses that lead me to a lone female laying her eggs in the dense vegetation.

Stuff happens and the trick is to be there ready to shoot it when it does. These things all occur on the dragonflies’ timetable, not ours, but maybe by tuning in to their rhythms and habits and tuning up our skills we can improve our chances of getting some good quality images of these amazing creatures.

Steve Russell

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