Exclusive: an interview with Nick Brandt

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After my review of his first book, I received a very complimentary email from Nick thanking me for my review and expressing something between relief and gratitude that the lengths he went to to get to prints right were being appreciated. A short correspondence developed, and he has very graciously agreed to an exclusive interview for the site, which follows my review of the final book in the series – Across The Ravaged Land – and constitutes today’s post. I admit that writing the questions for that interview made me somewhat nervous, because Nick is one of my few true photographic heroes; a rockstar with integrity, talent, and beyond that, passion. Let us begin.

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Workshop report: Intro to Wildlife, Nov 2012 Kuala Lumpur

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Too close. RX100

The final workshop for this year was something a little different to my usual travel/ street or photoshop and lighting sessions: an introduction to basic wildlife photography techniques. Five curious photographers (including one who flew in from Hong Kong) discovered that wildlife photography is actually quite serious physical labor, and that rain isn’t the most pleasant environment to shoot in – but it does yield rather pictorially interesting results.

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Sleep with one eye open. OM-D, 100-300

We covered basic long lens techniques, tripod and monopod use; stalking birds and getting close; dealing with troublesome lighting and high contrast situations; animal portraiture; getting the right AF settings, and finally touching on species behaviour and what constitutes an interesting animal photograph. I even shot with a compact at one point to prove that you really can get close with the right technique – no more than 100mm. The session was split into two half days – between rain, exhaustion and other commitments it seemed like a smart thing to do – and in-between, images were reviewed and critiqued for feedback and general compositional good-practice reminders, which apply to all subjects.

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To prove you can do birding with a compact. RX100

Ultimately though, wildlife photography is polarizing: you either like it, or you don’t. There are plenty of things about it that most certainly aren’t fun – hauling heavy equipment around and being eaten by mosquitoes, for instance, or being ‘blessed’ by the birds from above – I think we all got bombed at one point or another – even physically handling the lenses requires some practice. However, the biggest challenge is inevitably patience: in the real world, you might well spend days, or weeks, on location and not see the particular species you’re looking for; the making of ‘Planet Earth’ is highly recommended for a taste into the world of the wildlife photographer/ cinematographer.

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Hidden. OM-D, 500/4P

We shot at a ‘safe’ location where the birds are captive in a large open-air aviary and relatively tame; they’ll still fly away if you get too close or move suddenly, but at least they’re still in the general area; it’s understandably completely useless to try and teach in a situation where there is no subject material! That said, if you’ve ever been curious, taking a trip to the local zoo or bird park with a decently long lens – say rent a 400 or 500mm – will tell you very quickly if wildlife photography is something you want to pursue farther or not.

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Part of the park. RX100

For the curious, I was using an Olympus OM-D with a Nikon 500/4 P generously loaned to me by one of my students on the first day (1000/4 equivalent, and an old familiar lens of mine – I used to do most of my wildlife work with one) and the Panasonic 100-300/4-5.6 on the second day (200-600 equivalent). I have to be honest and say that whilst having that much reach was great, it could often be too much; manual focusing is a lot easier than you’d expect on such a combination because the depth of field transition is quite fast. The second day was liberating from a weight standpoint; I was not envying David with his 1Dx and 600/4! That said, in a fast moving environment with say charging buffalo, I’m pretty sure I’d want the latter combination. MT

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By popular demand, I will be doing a US tour over late March/ early April, stopping at San Francisco (two sessions), New York and probably Boston. Please send me an email if you’d like more details – things are still in the planning stages, which means plans can be kept a bit fluid. Thanks!

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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Cloverleaf. OM-D, 100-300

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The thinker. OM-D, 100-300

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Scarlet ibis. OM-D, 500/4P

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Duck with halo. OM-D, 100-300

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Lost in a manmade world. OM-D, 100-300

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Sheltering from the rain. OM-D, 100-300

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Grooming. OM-D, 500/4P

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Untitled. OM-D, 500/4P

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Vigilant. OM-D, 500/4P

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Hidden peacock. OM-D, 100-300

Gentle reminder: two places left for the Intro to Wildlife Photography workshop…

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…to be held in Kuala Lumpur on Fri 23rd and Sat 24th of November, next week. More details heresend me an email if you’re interested. Thanks! MT

Last workshop for November 2012: Introduction to Wildlife Photography, Kuala Lumpur

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By popular demand, I’m going to be conducting one more workshop this month in Kuala Lumpur: an introduction to wildlife photography techniques. Due to our current weather and afternoon rains, the session will be split into two mornings – Friday 23 November, 9-1pm and Saturday 24 November, 9-1pm. The sessions run continuously, and the break in between allows for critiques and literal and figurative recharging of batteries between the two sessions.

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Since wildlife photography can be very hit and miss – in the past, I’ve spent entire weekends in swamps with only five minutes of action – we will be conducting the workshop in a ‘safe’ environment where there definitely will be animals to shoot: the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park at Lake Gardens.

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The topics covered will include:
- Long lens technique and shot discipline
- Approaching your subjects
- Understanding animal behaviour and what constitutes an interesting wildlife image
- Use of context and environment
- Metering techniques under difficult lighting
- Understanding and managing AF

There will also of course be feedback and critique sessions at the end of each half-day.

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Finally, it’s worth remembering that wildlife photography isn’t just applicable to wildlife: the skills of anticipation and shot discipline are valuable for every type of photography. The workshop will be jointly supported by the local distributor of Gitzo tripods and monopods, Shriro. They will be bringing along a range of tripods and monopods to experience.

A quick note on equipment requirements: Although you can bring along your big guns and DSLRs – 300mm would be a minimum, and 400mm+ preferable – you can also produce compelling work with smaller formats such as a M4/3 camera and 100-300 zoom, or even a bridge camera – a lot of the images in this post were shot with a Leica V-Lux 3. 

The price for both days with an experienced wildlife photographer – I shot mainly wildlife for five years, and my some of my work can be seen here – is just RM1,250 inclusive of park admission. Please send an email to mingthein2@gmail.com for bookings or more information. Thanks! MT

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

POTD: Flamingo reflections

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Napping flamingo. Nikon D3, AFS 300/2.8 VRII. Sometimes I have to admit I miss my long lenses and wildlife photography days. Other times, I remember the fruitless days spent sitting in swamps being a blood donor for various painful biting and stinging insects: there’s always a tradeoff. Bottom line: patience pays. MT

10X10: 100 ways to improve your photography: Birding and Wildlife

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Scarlet ibis. Nikon D200, AI 500/4 P

The focus of this post is on birding and wildlife: it’s something that every aspiring serious amateur photographer will probably try at least once, usually right after they purchase an enormous telephoto lens. Bragging rights are only good if you have the images to go along with the lens.

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Cattle egret. Nikon D3, 400/2.8 VRII

10: Dress right, bring mosquito/ insect repellant, and carry a bottle of water and a hat. The environment where some animals live can be harsh and remote. You’re not going to be concentrating on the photography if you’re not comfortable.

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Scarlet ibises. Nikon D3, 70-300VR

9: Pay attention to the time of day. There’s no wrong or right time to shoot, but there is good light and bad light. Bad light is flat and uninteresting, and doesn’t flatter your subject. Good light is always tangential and thus creates contrasts; better still, it can isolate your subject from the background. And if there’s plenty of it, that’s a bonus because you can use a higher shutter speed.

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Eagle. Nikon D3, 300/2.8 VR + 1.4x

8: A sharp but noisy image is better than a noise-free but blur one. Unless your intention is to be artistic or atmospheric, it’s better to have grain than none but also no idea what the subject actually is. This goes for all subjects, and types of photography: if your subject and composition are strong enough, nobody is going to care that the shot is grainy – look at Robert Capa’s Normandy Beach landing photos.

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Albino peacock. Nikon D3, 300/2.8 VR + 1.4x TC

7: Use single point continuous AF. Avoid the temptation to let the camera decide the AF point; it will almost never focus on the eyes, and certainly won’t be able to recognize animal faces (except perhaps some chimpanzees.) Continuous AF is necessary because your depth of field is razor thin; a little movement to and fro either by you or your subject can move focus dramatically.

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A thoughtful scratch. Nikon D200, 300/2.8 VR + 1.4x TC

6: Shoot in bursts. Two reasons for this: action usually unfolds in a sequence, and the first image may not be the most interesting; secondly, if you’re using a borderline shutter speed, then the burst helps to negate the effects of your finger pushing the shutter (and also camera). The first and last shots will usually be blur, but the middle group will be sharp because you didn’t have to move your finger in between.

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Stealth duck. Nikon D200, 300/2.8 VR + 1.4x TC

5: Focus on the eyes. With all living things, the eyes are the key to the soul. I can’t explain why, but everybody knows that a portrait with the subject looking at the camera is a lot more powerful than one where you just see the back of the person’s head. The same goes for wildlife. Better yet if you can get a catchlight in the pupil, be it the sun or a very small fill flash.

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Caught in the act of lunch. Nikon D200, AI 500/4 P

4: Have support. I don’t mean a sherpa team or an agony aunt. The longer the lens, the more support you’re going to need. A 0.1 degree camera movement with a wide lens covering 100 degrees horizontally is going to produce 0.1% blur, which you can probably get away with on a small print; but an 0.1 degree camera movement with a 5 degree field of view – corresponding to a 500mm lens – is equivalent to a whopping 2% blur. That shot will be so bad it might as well be completely out of focus. A gimbal head and solid tripod legs are great, but not very mobile. What I prefer to do is use a stout carbon-fiber monopod and rest my arm on the top of the lens to tension the system; if I’ve got something convenient to lean on, then I’ll use a bean bag to support the lens. This gets worse as your lenses get longer – I normally used an old manual focus 500/4 with 1.4x converter on DX, meaning 1,050mm equivalent. Handheld, this is an impossible combination to aim and hold, let alone get a steady shot with. With the monopod technique, 1/50s was routinely possible.

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Angry cassowary. Olympus E-410, Nikon AI 500/4 P + 1.4x TC

3: Know our subject. Do your research, learn behavioral patterns, feeding patterns and anything else such as favorite watering spots or trees; the more you know about your subject, the easier it will be to find it and go unnoticed. Also, identify rare or unusual behavior – further adding something unique to your image.

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The bird with the sun hat. Canon 1D Mark III, 500/4 L IS

2: Patience, patience, patience. The rarer your subject, the longer it’s going to take for you to a) find it and b) get into a position where you can shoot it, or where it stays still for long enough for you to get a good image. Give up and call it a day only when you absolutely can’t stand waiting any longer; some of the most stunning wildlife images – think of the BBC Planet Earth series – were only captured after years of waiting.

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Dancing flamingoes. Nikon D2H, 55-200/4-5.6 DX

1: Be ready and stay alert. Usually most interesting action happens in a split second; if you’re not ready with your settings fixed and your finger on the shutter, you’re going to miss it. This one seems to conflict with #2, but it really doesn’t; it’s what makes wildlife photography so difficult. Endless waiting, but the need to be vigilant. In the end though, the results pay off. MT

 

More of my nature and wildlife work can be seen here on flickr

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