Pre-dawn mist in the Okefenokee. Photo by Eric Bowles
By Eric Bowles
Many GNPA members participate in photo contests, online competitions, or gallery submissions of various types. But once you submit your images, you may not have a good idea of how they are evaluated, what the selection criteria are for winners, and what you can do to improve your odds. I typically judge more than a thousand images a year for various competitions, critiques, and contests, and I’ll share some tips and observations.
Follow the rules
Most contests are strict about the rules. Photos that fail to follow the rules are routinely removed from the judging early even if the image has merit. There are some small mistakes that can be frustrating – including a signature or watermark when it is prohibited, submitting images that are outside geographic restrictions (an African lion in a contest for Georgia and adjoining states), late entry, etc.
Don’t push sliders too far
There is a trend toward highly saturated images, particularly in online competitions. Excessive vibrance or saturation can easily go too far and cause an image to fail in the eyes of a judge. The same is true for other sliders and edits – clarity, contrast, texture, and sharpening can all be used excessively and create detail beyond what is needed. Sharpening or increasing contrast in an out of focus background can detract from an image. Consider applying some of these adjustments locally rather than globally.
Oxbow Bend is a heavily photographed location. Even a well-composed image with peak fall color is relatively common, with hundreds of similar images being made each day. Photo by Eric Bowles.
Be Interesting / Avoid Common Images
There is nothing wrong with making your own photos of common subjects – we all like landscape images of Sparks Lane in the Smokies, Yosemite from Tunnel View or Gates of the Valley, or iconic formations in Arches, Zion, or Canyonlands. These classic locations have been photographed by millions of photographers, so for your image to stand out, it’s subconsciously being compared with the best of those millions of images. What will make your image stand out as spectacular and unique compared to those well-known images? Look for exceptional images or unique views of common subjects.
A Great Egret is a common subject, but the unusual head position, tight composition, angled feathers and brilliant breeding plumage make this a winning image. Photo by Eric Bowles.
Key Moments – Behavior or Action
Wildlife images have their own common subjects – wading birds are big, slow, and abundant so they are easy to photograph. If a judge sees 3-4 great egret images in a contest, only a spectacular image will be selected. The same is true for common mammals. What makes your bear, elk, deer, lion, or elephant image unique? In national contests, photographers look for perfect timing on key behavior. Two thirds of the images are showing feeding, fighting, courtship, or similar behaviors with perfect light and timing. A simple portrait can be successful, but it needs to be extremely well done. Think about it this way – is the image unique because you rarely see it, or unique for someone who lives in the area and photographs the subject on a daily or weekly basis? Look for unique images of uncommon subjects or unique timing that makes an image special.
Watch the Details
It’s easy to look at a good image and fail to notice little details that make a difference. I recall one image that had a sharpening halo around the subject of what was otherwise a great image. A recent entry was produced as a high key monochrome image for an exhibit and it had wonderful content and composition. But it also had magenta and green chromatic aberration that could have been easily removed. Sensor dust spots always need to be removed. Small details – reflections, unwanted color, bits of debris or trash, etc. – can make a difference and should be addressed to show your best work.
While generally a good image, the butterfly is slightly clipped. That’s a major flaw and would prevent this image from doing well in a serious competition. Photo by Eric Bowles.
Watch the Edges
Before you finish with an image, check the edges. Ideally, you’d check the edges when you make the image, but be sure to check the edges when you are deciding to submit an image. Is there anything cutoff by the edge of the frame? Does it look intentional? Do the edges of the frame attract attention to a distraction or something that might be outside the frame? Do you have spots of bright colors or extreme contrast at the edge of the image? Normally you want to focus the eye on your subject, and avoid taking the eye to the edge of the frame. Be careful to compose and crop with intention and avoid clipping.
Pre-dawn mist in the Okefenokee captures wonderful soft colors and reflections. By 9:00 a.m., however, the mist is gone and this same scene would be rather bland. Photo by Eric Bowles.
Choose the Time of Day or Season
I often see images of landscapes or wildlife made during the middle of the day. I wonder if the photographer chose that time of day because it was the best for the image, or because of convenience. We all understand you may not be able to photograph during the golden hours or when there are great clouds and color in the sky. With contest submissions, the time of day or time of year is a choice. For wildlife, breeding season can bring great color and behavior. With birds, look for breeding plumage, courtship and displaying behaviors, or similar timing to show your subject at its best. With other mammals, breeding season brings action that is uncommon at other times of year. Adult bears are healthy in the early fall as their coats are glossy and they are eating to prepare for hibernation.
Don’t Expect Every Judge to Have the Same Perspective
Judges usually have similar perspectives, and with conversation bout an image, they can form a consensus opinion. But each judge has their own expertise and views in how an image is assessed. Some judges will have hot buttons that immediately reject images. Others have subjects they see or photograph regularly, and may have strict standards for what makes a good image. Don’t worry if your image is Best of Show in one competition, and not even a finalist in another competition. Judges and competitions are different. Competing images may be different. You’ll get a better idea of how judges view your image if you have multiple perspectives.
The nice thing about competitions is they are supposed to be fun. It’s a good way to share your images, get feedback, try out new ideas, and possibly be recognized for your photography. But above all, make sure you have fun sharing your images and seeing the work of others.
Outfitting Yourself for Cold-Weather Photography
By Charles Glatzer
For taking photos in frigid winter weather, layering is the way to go. The key to maintaining and regulating core temperature is wearing moisture-wicking base and mid-layer garments with a wind- and water-proof outer shell.
Today’s high-tech materials offer a plethora of lightweight, highly compressible materials such as Polar Fleece, Primaloft, Polarguard, WindPro and Coreloft to meet your thermal requirements. Waterproof shell fabrics from GORE-TEX, Epic and Event offer breathability and wind resistance while keeping you dry.
Editor’s Note: For more great advice on winter photography, don’t miss Charles Glatzer’s “14 Pro Tips for Conquering the Cold” also in this month’s newsletter.
Wicking undergarments like power dry, silk, or merino wool are the way to go, and having zippers, snap tops or buttons at the neck is, in my opinion, a must for venting and maintaining comfort while under exertion. Note: do not wear cotton shirts with or without wicking garments, as it will totally defeat the purpose. Cotton is known as the “death fabric,” because it stays wet, zapping valuable energy and dropping your core temperature.
Polar fleece, down or a synthetic jacket and pants are recommended. Again, breathability and wicking properties are key to regulating your temperature. If you plan on hiking with a pack, down would not be my first choice, as you will get wet from perspiration and stay wet. I prefer my mid-layer to have a hood.
Outer Shell Layer
A good, breathable waterproof shell jacket and pants from GORE-TEX, Epic, PreCip, HyVent, etc., is one of the most important pieces of clothing you can own. Get the jacket one size bigger than you normally wear so that you can layer clothing underneath. A built-in companion hood is also vital.
In extremely cold conditions, a prime goose-down parka with high loft (800) is your best option. An attached hood is imperative, preferably one that extends beyond your face with a removable fur or synthetic ruff for dissipating wind. Many top-brand cold-weather summit parkas do not come with a hood ruff, but if you are planning to spend time in Arctic-like conditions I would seriously consider adding a ruff to your parka. I suggest you make the ruff removable with a wire inside so that it will hold its shape when used. I had what many consider the ultimate cold-weather parka (Canada Goose Snow Mantra), which worked extremely well but was bulky and heavy, making it difficult to transport to locations with luggage and weight restrictions. I have since gone to a Mountain Hardware Absolute Zero Parka, which is highly compressible and lightweight, features welded waterproof construction, and is insanely warm.
Wearing mitten shell gloves with liners is a big plus in cold temperatures. The ultimate cold-weather photographic gloves, in my opinion, are TheHeatCompany.us Layer Gloves. Great emphasis has been incorporated into the functional details. The system is incredibly versatile, as the mitten can be used fully closed, providing the ultimate in warmth, or opened with the liner glove fully or partially exposed to allow for full freedom of movement and dexterity. Thumb and index fingers that feature silver fabric enable the use of your LCD camera and touch screens.
Sorel XT, Baffin Impact or Steger Mukluks (my favorite) boots are recommended. For wet landings in cold temperatures I use Arctic Pro Muck boots. Wool socks made by reputable manufacturers such as Patagonia or Smart Wool will wick moisture away from your feet, keeping them warmer as a result. Silk sock liners add additional comfort. Placing The Heat Company chemical toe/foot warmers inside gloves and boots will extend your comfort time in extremely cold conditions, especially when remaining in one position for long periods. Rechargeable USB lithium battery hand warmers, which warm quickly and work very well, are available on Amazon.
Outdoor Research and Black Rock make ultra-lightweight goose-down beanies and hoods that are extremely warm. OR also makes a very warm Aerogel beanie. Balaclavas are a must for keeping your face from getting frostbitten in extreme cold.
Goggles are very effective for protecting your eyes and face in extremely cold temperatures and wind. You should note, however, that it’s very difficult to see the full image through your camera’s viewfinder when wearing goggles, and few of them fit or work well if you wear glasses.
To prevent snow blindness in bright, sunlit snow conditions, polarized or transition eyeglasses are a must.
This is very useful to prevent your glasses from fogging up due to the moisture from your breath when using a face covering.
I hope these tips will be helpful. Please feel free to contact us for specific clothing or gear product recommendations.
Charles Glatzer’s Clothing and Gear Links
Boots: Baffin Exterme, Sorel XT, Steger Arctic/Yukon Mukluks
Shells and Parka: Arc’Teryx, Mountain Hardware, RAB Expedition, Feathered Friends Rock Ice, Fjallraven
Down Pants: RAB Expedition, Mountain Hardware Nilas, Feathered Friends, Millet Expert Pro
Shells, mid and base layers; Arc’Teryx, Mtn Hardware, The North Face, RAB, Patagonia, REI, Outdoor Research, Ice Breaker, Fjallraven
Gloves: The Heat Company US
Balaclava & Hats: Black Rock, Outdoor Research, Arc’Teryx, Nomar, Mountain Hardware
Socks: Smart wool
Warm-Weather Shirts & Pants: ExOfficio, Columbia, Rail Riders, Mountain Hardware, Fjallraven
Stuff Sacks for Gear: Sea to Summit
Additional outdoor gear accessories: Sea to Summit, Outdoor Research, Exped
Sleeping Pads: Exped sleeping mats
Anti-fog: Cat Crap or Z Clear Lens Cleaner & Anti-Fog
Goggles: Smith I/O, Bolle
Sunglasses: Maui Jim, Smith’s
14 Pro Tips for Conquering the Cold
By Charles Glatzer
Editor’s Note: After years of capturing award-winning images in some of the most inhospitable winter locations on the planet, Chas Glatzer has encountered almost every cold-weather problem a photographer can face. Below, he shares some hard-earned tips for dealing with the challenges of winter photography.
Whenever you move your camera from a cold environment to a warmer one – especially when humidity is high – condensation can be a big problem. To avoid condensation on camera gear, place your bodies and lenses into stuff sacks, garbage bags or camera bags before bringing them indoors. But be sure to remove media cards and batteries while outside prior to placing the gear into bags. Thin bags will allow your gear to acclimate faster to the indoor ambient temperature than an insulated camera bag. I use Sea to Summit Big River stuff sacks on cold-weather trips.
When you’re wearing gloves, it can be difficult to locate and depress the buttons on your camera. To make it easier, I use inexpensive, self-stick 3/8-inch round felt tabs on my horizontal and vertical shutter and AF buttons in cold weather. In fact, I like this technique so much that I usually just leave them on all year. Plus, the packages come with enough tabs to share with everyone on the trip. The small tabs are available at Lowe’s, Home Depot, Bed, Bath and Beyond and other retailers.
Always allow your gear to become fully acclimated to the outside ambient temperature before taking images. Lenses are made of different metals and contain various types of glass that expand and contract at different rates. I have found that leaving my camera and lens outdoors prior to shooting increases image sharpness, particularly my initial images. I place my gear in a stuff sack and leave it outside when not in use, even overnight. Just remember to remove the camera batteries when not in use and stash them indoors.
Protect your gear
Many cameras and lenses have a high degree of weather sealing. That said, even the slightest nick in an O-ring gasket can lead to catastrophic gear failure. I cannot afford to take that gamble, especially when shooting in remote locations. I typically use LensCoat RainCoat covers in rain, wet snow and salt spray, and rely upon fully encapsulated covers like Think Tank Hydrophobia or AquaTech covers when I’m dealing with blowing sand.
A dry, absorbent pack towel or cloth will come in handy to quickly wipe moisture off your gear or to clean your filter or front element if it does get wet.
USB rechargeable lithium battery hand warmers
Inexpensive, rechargeable lithium battery hand-warmers are available in various shapes, and range from 5200-7800mAh. They heat up quickly and provide hours of warmth on low settings.
Chemical hand- and toe-warmers provide needed warmth to the extremities in severe cold conditions. Make sure you open the warmers and leave them exposed to air for a few minutes before placing them in your pockets or in your boots. Toe-warmers are thin and have an adhesive backing, which also makes them great for utilizing in the top of shell mittens.
In cold weather, consider using a battery grip on your camera. Grips typically allow the use of two batteries instead of one, thus helping to maintain longer camera life in winter conditions. Keeping extra batteries in a warm pocket will provide maximum voltage when needed, and help to revitalize those that have dropped in voltage due to the cold. Switch out cold batteries with the warm ones for longer shooting.
Turning off IS/VR when not needed will help prolong battery life.
Carbon fiber becomes more brittle in colder temperatures. The deeper the snow, the more the legs need to spread. Pulling out the leg locks will allow the legs to splay out sufficiently, preventing them from breaking at the tripod flange. Additionally, do not try to stand up by pushing down with all your weight on a tripod leg in cold temperatures, or you risk breaking the leg. Tripod foot spikes or rock claws will help in snow and on icy surfaces to keep your tripod feet from slipping.
Try to avoid breathing onto the camera’s viewfinder and rear LCD, as they will quickly ice over in very cold temperatures.
Metal and skin do not mix
Many camera bodies contain metal, which can become extremely cold. Avoid placing your bare skin (cheek and nose) in contact with metal camera bodies, because this can quickly result in freezing your skin, with resulting frost nip and even more severe frostbite. I have come home with a black nose on a few occasions! Lesson learned: I now place a one-inch adhesive tape strip across the bridge of my nose to prevent frost nip.
Eyeglass fogging is a big issue when photographing in cold weather, especially when wearing a face covering like a balaclava. Condensation from your warm breath will sneak out the top of your garment, causing your glasses to fog and making it almost impossible to see. I have found some facemasks and balaclavas that allow greater air exchange directly in front of your mouth to help avoid eyeglass fogging. All that’s needed are a few pencil-sized holes punched through the fabric near your mouth. Anti-fog products like Cat Crap and Z Clear Wax also help, but require frequent applications to be effective.
When walking on slippery icy surfaces, devices like Kathoola MICROspikes, ICEtrekkers Diamond Grip and Black Diamond Access traction systems provide you with improved stability.
Also read Charles Glatzer’s tips on specialized winter clothing this month in “Outfitting Yourself for Cold-Weather Photography.”
Shoot the Light, Office: 828-891-4082
Instagram@charlesglatzer, Facebook: charles.glatzer
TheHeatCompany.us, firstname.lastname@example.org, 1-828-393-6513
Use Filters To Elevate Your Photography
By Tricia Raffensperger
No matter what type of photography you prefer, learning how to cope with difficult lighting conditions is one of the biggest challenges we face. Fortunately, there are some practical and easy-to-use tools that can help us capture images that might otherwise be impossible.
Polarizing filters and neutral density filters give you the ability to tame harsh light, restore color and eliminate reflections that obscure or distract from your subjects. Regardless of your camera type or lens, these two filters can improve your images. And with the GNPA Smokies Fall Weekend coming up on Nov. 5-8, there will be many opportunities to play around with both types of filters to create some stunning effects. Personally, I love using them with water shots to create looks I could not otherwise achieve, or to make those fall colors pop even more.
The filters I’ll be talking about are the screw-on variety, which thread directly onto the front of your lens. Whether it’s a circular polarizing (CP) or neutral density (ND) filter, you can adjust the effect by rotating it. And by the way, it’s a good idea to get into the habit of always rotating your filter in the same direction in which you threaded it onto your lens. That way, you won’t accidentally unscrew your filter as you’re adjusting it (a lesson some of have learned the hard way!).
Here are a few of the ways that I enjoy using these two filters:
These allow you to remove the glare from water (and other surfaces), and enable your camera to capture what is beneath the surface, which can often add interest and detail to your foreground. To use a circular polarizer, you simply look through the viewfinder and rotate the filter until you see the effect you desire. You may choose to completely or partially eliminate the reflection on water, bright foliage or the sky to reveal more detail and color. Polarizers work best when you are facing 90 degrees away from the sun; in other words, when the sun is off to your side.
Photo by Tricia Raffensperger
Photo by Tricia Raffensperger
These filters also enable you to capture beautiful reflections and color in the water by removing the glare. Polarizers are especially useful at places like Gibbs Gardens to capture the reflections of the flowers in the water, as well as all the different reflected colors from the surrounding trees and plants.
There are many CP options available and prices range from $100 to $400. Filters come in various sizes to fit your individual lenses, so be sure to purchase the right size for whatever lens you’re using. Since I have a variety of lens sizes, I found it helpful to purchase a 1-82mm filter and several inexpensive step-up rings to fit all my different lenses. This has helped me keep costs down and travel a little lighter. It also allowed me to purchase a more expensive polarizer to use with all my lenses, rather than many of a lesser quality. You can also choose between neutral, warming or cool polarizers, depending upon the effect you wish to achieve. But any CP will allow you more creativity and eliminate common problems with reflections and glare.
These filters allow you to slow down your shutter speed by reducing the amount of light reaching your camera’s sensor. This is especially important when you’re trying to use a long exposure to blur motion, but the ambient light is too bright to allow those slower shutter speeds.
Photo by Tricia Raffensperger
With an ND filter, you can create silky, dreamy effects with waterfalls, moving water or clouds, no matter how bright the scene. You can also shoot dramatic images of city lights or floating leaves as they drift on water.
While newer cameras make it possible to hand-hold at longer exposures than previously possible, a tripod and shutter remote are often required for many slow-shutter water scenes. Also, keep in mind that ND filters are manufactured in different “stops” that reduce the amount of light reaching the camera’s sensor by various degrees, from three stops to 16 or more. Each graduation or stop level can be purchased separately and in different sizes for different lenses. Or, there is the option of a variable ND filter that has many stops in one filter. By turning the filter ring to block the light, you can choose the amount of stops required to achieve your effect. The amount of available light determines the number of stops you must add to reach the results you desire. So a variable filter can again come in handy for coping with different situations.
I always recommend reading reviews on the different types and brands of filters. Some can create vignetting on your image or a color cast, so the more knowledge you have, the better choice you can make regarding type of filter and price point.
Photo by Tricia Raffensperger
When using filters, I prefer to use the manual settings on my camera to control the exposure balance, aperture and shutter speed. I feel this gives me better control and more options. But you can use other modes as well. I suggest choosing your water scene, and then setting the ISO as low as possible, but not on auto. You could choose your aperture and then adjust your exposure with the shutter speed, or vice versa. There are endless ways to use CP and ND filters, and I’m by no means an expert. So I’d encourage you to experiment with different approaches and settings to learn what works well for you.
I think the best way to learn is among friends and surrounded by beautiful landscapes. So please consider joining us in November at our Smokies Fall Weekend, and let’s see what we can create together.
Make Your Images More Compelling
By Alfie Wace
Whenever my photography is displayed, whether at an art show, festival or gallery, one of the most frequent comments I hear is “great composition!” Initially, I would attribute those kind remarks to the fact that I was following the Rules of Thirds and utilizing leading lines in my images. But as I analyzed my work more carefully, I realized there was an additional element at work, one that I learned years ago as a student at Southeastern Center for the Arts in Atlanta.
During my studies, I had the supreme privilege of working with some phenomenal photographers, including Neil Chaput de Saintonge, Bruce Barnbaum, Alison Shaw and, especially, Cole Weston. At that time, digital photography was far off on the horizon. Shooting in manual mode was the norm, and we relied on the basics: aperture, shutter speed, film ISO and composition. But I came to understand and appreciate an additional composition element, which I refer to as “The Western Eye.” And no, this has nothing to do with cowboys and Indians! Rather, it’s about how our eyes are trained to read.
For example, in the Far East, the Asian script system is written from top to bottom, as such:
In the Middle East, Hebrew and Arabic are written and read from right to left. This is how their eyes are trained from childhood: top to bottom, or right to left:
But in European and western cultures, our language is written from left to right. That’s how our eyes have been taught to perceive the world. It’s how we read, and what is most natural and comfortable for us.
That’s why the most compelling images, in my view, are the ones where the “story” begins on the left and moves across the page. David duChemin refers to this concept as “visual mass” in his eBook Drawing the Eye. (1)
Here are a few of my images that incorporate The Western Eye theory:
So yes, keep the basic composition rules in mind. But an understanding and use of The Western Eye, in my opinion, provides the opportunity to elevate your images to a higher level of visual excellence.
- David duChemin, Drawing the Eye https://craftandvision.com/collections/all/products/drawing-the-eye