Story of a photo: mountain goats on Mount Evans

This picture of mountain goats is one of my favorite pictures that I took in 2016, and indeed one of my favorite pictures in my portfolio. I think this is a quintessential Colorado photo, with the two goats, the great mountain view, snow and sunshine.

Mountain goats on Mount Evans
Mountain goats on Mount Evans

It combines my passions of wildlife and landscape photography. From a landscape perspective it has good depth and balance and a range of interesting features, with the texture of the snow in the foreground, the rocks in the middle distance, the mountains in the background and nice clouds in the sky. From a wildlife perspective, the adult goat has quite an imperious pose, looking out into the distance as though surveying his kingdom, and the baby is mimicking this behind him. The whole photo is very sharp and well focused, from the close up snow to the distant mountains.

I have been to Mount Evans many times and have a large collection of good mountain goat photos. Whenever I go these days, I am not just looking for a nice sharp picture of a mountain goat, it has to be more than that. It has to have great scenery in the background or be doing something interesting. So I am always thinking about the background of the photo in addition to the subject. In some cases, if the animals are relatively still, you have time to make your composition. In other cases, like this one, they are moving quickly and you don’t have much time.

The taking of the photo required a combination of a few things, including observation, anticipation, quick thinking and a bit of luck, which you always need to some degree to get this sort of combination of things in a photo. I was driving up Mount Evans and getting fairly close to the top, and constantly scanning around looking for wildlife, which is tricky as it’s a very twisty and dangerous road so you can only take your eyes off the road very briefly. I spotted a goat’s head poking above a ridge of snow higher up on the mountain, some distance away. I quickly pulled over to the side of the road, at the apex of a hairpin turn which looked out over the view you see in the picture. I had a long zoom lens on the camera as I usually do when looking for wildlife, and got a couple of quick shots of the goat in the distance.

Here is the first shot I took of this goat. This was taken with my Panasonic Leica 100-400mm lens (200-800mm equivalent), which is a fantastic lens, very light and compact for the reach it has. It was only zoomed to 156mm (312mm equivalent).

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As an aside, I was curious how far away the goat was at this point, and so did a bit of research on how to estimate this based on the size of the goat in the photo, and knowing the focal length of the lens. I found this handy web page for calculating the distance of an object of known size in your photo. According to National Geographic, a typical mountain goat is 3.5 feet tall at the shoulder, so using that as an estimate I got this result:

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So the goat is a little over a hundred feet away at this point. This calculator is a cool little tool!  This shot was taken at 4:47:18.

At 4:47:21, three seconds later, I took this shot, and obviously had now figured out that there was a baby too, so I was excited about that.

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This shot was taken 2 seconds later at 4:47:23, so clearly the goats are moving fairly quickly and the scene is changing.

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The final shot I took with my big zoom lens was the following one, at 4:47:58, and at this point the goat is an estimated 40 feet away from me, so it has traveled around 60 feet in 40 seconds, heading pretty much straight down the mountain. My lens is at its widest zoom of 100mm (200mm equivalent) at this point.

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By this point I realized that they were coming pretty much in my direction, and might well walk very close to me, and if I was lucky they might walk in front of the spectacular mountain view to my left. But clearly I needed a wider angle lens in order to fit in the goats if they got any closer, and to fit in the mountain scene in the background. A real key to the image that I got was that I was visualizing the shot that I really wanted to get, and I was anticipating what the goats were going to do (while taking pictures at the same time).

One advantage of using a wide angle lens is that it has a larger depth of field than a larger zoom like this one, so you have the possibility of getting a shot with a nearby subject in the foreground, and a distant background, and having both in focus. If you look at the first goat shot above, taken at 312mm equivalent focal length, the goat is in focus, but the rocks that are further away are not. So I quickly scrambled to get my Lumix 14-140mm (28-280mm equivalent) lens which was in the car, and switch that onto my (Lumix GX8) camera. The first shot I got with the wide angle lens on the camera was 24 seconds after the last shot with the big zoom lens, and by this point the goat was 19 feet away. So it’s important in this sort of situation to be decisive and act quickly.

As I was changing the lens I was also thinking about what camera settings to use. I knew I would need a large depth of field to get both the goat and the background in focus, so I would want a relatively small aperture, though I would be helped by using a wider angle lens as I mentioned previously. But I also needed a fairly fast shutter speed in order to make sure I froze the movement of the goats and kept everything sharp. The goats were walking quickly and I knew I would only have a few seconds to get my shots in. So I decided to trust the auto mode (P mode) on my Lumix GX8, which is something I am a big fan of doing. Many good photographers turn their nose up at P mode, but in my experience on modern cameras (my GX8 in particular) the camera generally makes good decisions in most situations, and lets me concentrate on the important matter of making sure I get the right content in my image. This can make a key difference in situations like this when time is very tight. I watch what settings it is using as I shoot, so if I don’t think it is making good choices I can switch to another mode if needed.

One bit of random good luck I had in this instance, which I only found out after the fact, was that somehow in grabbing the camera quickly when I first got out of the car, I accidentally changed the ISO setting from “intelligent auto” to ISO 800, which is a setting you would normally use in somewhat low light. The light was very bright for this picture, so having a higher ISO setting had the effect of the camera choosing both a smaller aperture and a faster shutter speed than it would have done with the auto ISO setting (I assume), both of which were what I wanted. I think I would have still got a good shot without this ISO change, but this inadvertently helped make sure I got the sharpness and depth of field I was looking for. This technique of using a higher ISO in good light is potentially a good one to use intentionally if you are looking for both a fast shutter speed and a large depth of field, whether using P, S, A or M modes.

Once I had the right lens on, I just remained still next to my car as the goats walked quickly down the mountain, and fortunately they did indeed walk by where I hoped they would. My distance estimator says that the goats were about 14 feet away from me at this point. This is probably a good point to say that of course you should not approach wild animals too closely, and this is closer than I would normally approach a goat. However, on Mount Evans the goats are very accustomed to having people around, and my experience there is that if you just stand or sit still they will often come quite close but just ignore you, as they did on this occasion. Plus I was right next to my car, just in case I needed to hop into it!

The goats were walking quickly across the mountain view, so I snapped as many images as I could in high speed burst mode, framing the shots to try to get a good composition for both the background and the goats. Altogether I got a total of 50 shots in the space of about 15 seconds as they walked across my field of view, of which I would say about 36 in the space of 10 seconds were really in front of the best viewing area.

This video sequence is made from the 50 shots I took over the 15 seconds, so gives a reasonable impression of the speed they moved at and the shots I got, though of course it’s a bit jerkier than real life was!

Mountain Goat photo sequence on Mount Evans from Peter Batty on Vimeo.

I got a number of good shots in this sequence. I chose the one at the beginning of this post as the best because I liked the way the large goat is looking out over the mountain view, and the baby is doing the same. But the following are all candidates too.

The top three of these are the same two goats and are all part of that 50 shot sequence in the video. The last one was another goat that followed the first two ten seconds or so later.

There are several factors that make this a unique picture that is hard to reproduce. One is obviously just getting not just one goat but two, and not just any two but a male with good horns and a baby, in a location with such a good view and where I can manage to get this close to them – if this was taken from further away with a longer zoom, it wouldn’t be possible to get both the background and the goats in focus. There are not many spots along Mount Evans Road with such a good view including good details in both the middle and far distance. Another important element of the picture is the snow, especially in the foreground but also in the background, and there is only this much snow for a short period of time after Mount Evans Road opens for the season, normally on Memorial Day (at the end of May). These pictures were taken on June 2. You can also tell this is an early season picture because the goats still have their winter coats – the adult is just starting to lose his very slightly, but for much of the season apart from the beginning and the end the goats are shedding their winter coats and don’t look as nice as they do with a full coat. And on top of all that there is a nice interesting cloudy sky – though still with sun on the subjects.

One of the great things about living in Denver is that you can get these sort of shots after work. On this day I left downtown Denver just a little early, around 3pm, and was up near the top of Mount Evans by 4:30pm.

The $20 accessory that will dramatically improve your outdoor portraits

Photography is a notoriously expensive hobby (or profession!), but this post features a great accessory that is less than $20 :). I mainly do landscape, cityscape and wildlife photography, but this past weekend went out with the family to take some portraits in a sunflower field near Denver Airport. So I took along this reflector, which I bought a few years ago, and it really helped to get some nice pictures. Here it is in action with an iPhone!

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The sun is behind Paula, off to the left hand side of the photo, but it is reflecting from the disk to cast a nice golden light onto her face. Here is how one of the iPhone shots looked with no editing – impressive for shooting directly into the sun! This also shows that the reflector can really help even if you are not using a fancy camera.

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Though the disk is 43″ across when in use, it easily folds with a twist into a 15″ pouch for carrying, and is very lightweight. It’s actually very versatile – the disk I have can be solid white, silver, gold or black, or translucent white, to let you create a range of effects (the base disk is translucent white with a metal hoop, and it has a reversible lightweight cloth cover that provides the other four colors).

I think it’s a remarkably good deal, for just $18.50 from Amazon at the time of writing.

Here is an example of a picture I took of Paula and Nikki, this is the raw image straight out of the camera, with no processing at all.

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Even though I am shooting directly into the sun, you can see that their faces are still fairly well lit from the left hand side. Here I am just holding my camera in my right hand and the reflector in my left hand, which is not ideal – it tends to work a lot better if you can recruit an assistant to hold the disk! The gold color is not too obvious here but comes out more with a little post processing. As a side note, I used a 15mm fisheye lens for this picture, which seems to work well shooting into the sun – I think this is because the sun occupies a much smaller portion of the overall photo than it would with a less wide angle. The other advantage of the fisheye in this situation is that it has a very large depth of field so everything stays sharp and in focus, which is what I want here, so we can see the sunflowers clearly.

The image below is the result of a quick one click edit using Seim Natural HDR presets in Lightroom, which I’m a big fan of – they often given nice results with a single click (this preset is called Big Sky Dynamics, which I use a lot for landscape pictures). I like the effect it provides here.

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Finally I did a quick bit of cloning in Photoshop to remove the cars in the background on the left hand side.

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The other plus of having a reflecting disk is that it makes you look like you’re a professional 🙂 !! Definitely a worthwhile thing to pick up even if you are a very occasional portrait photographer like I am.

 

Plotagraph: watching the ocean at Azulik, Tulum

Today’s plotagraph (see more) was created from a picture I took back in 2014 at Azulik in Tulum, one of the most beautiful places we’ve stayed. We love Tulum in general, and have visited four times in the last ten years or so.

Paula Tulum swing (640px, 30fps)

Click on the image above to see a higher resolution version. As with all plotagraphs, this was created from a single image – here is the original:

Paula Tulum swing

Amazing image stabilization with LUMIX GX8 and Panasonic Leica 100-400mm lens

I have been using micro four thirds cameras by LUMIX for several years now, having previously shot with a Nikon D7000. Since I travel a lot, and like to travel light, I love how compact and lightweight these cameras are compared to a traditional SLR (see a recent snapshot of my gear here). One thing that has been missing from the micro four thirds space until this year has been long zoom lenses. I have had a 14-140mm zoom for several years, which is my goto “do everything” lens, and is equivalent to 28-280mm in 35mm terms. I added an Olympus 40-150mm Pf/2.8 Pro lens in February 2015, together with a 1.4x teleconverter, which in combination amount to a maximum zoom of 420mm equivalent. This is the sharpest lens I have ever owned, I really love it.

However, for wildlife photography it is nice to have access to something longer than 420mm, so I was very excited when the Panasonic Leica 100-400mm Pro lens was announced, and I got one of these when it came out in April 2016. This lens weighs only 2 pounds, which is absurdly light and small for an 800mm equivalent lens – for comparison this Canon traditional DSLR 800mm (non zoom) lens weighs 10 pounds! There are lots of excellent technical reviews online and I’m not going to duplicate the details that you can find in those. I will just say that overall my experience with the lens has been great and I’ve been very pleased with many of the images I’ve got using it.

But what I wanted to talk about in this post is one particular image which I took on my recent trip to Brazil, in the Floresta da Tijuca, the rainforest in Rio de Janeiro – as it happens at the side of one of the roads that the Olympic cyclists raced along this week. It’s this image of a tufted (or brown) capuchin monkey – it’s not my favorite image that I’ve taken with this lens, but I think it’s technically one of the most interesting.

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This is the image directly out of the camera – the raw image just loaded into Lightroom and exported as a jpeg. You can click on the image above to see a full size version. The remarkable thing about this image is that it was taken in very low light, as the rainforest canopy really blocks out a lot of light. It was hand held at 800mm equivalent using a 1/40s shutter speed, which is an incredibly slow shutter speed for such a long lens. A general rule of thumb is that to get a reasonably sharp image without any camera shake, you should use a shutter speed of 1 over the focal length or faster, so 1/800s or faster with an 800mm equivalent lens. For handheld wildlife shots with any longish zoom I will usually try to use a speed of 1/1000s or faster.

Modern cameras can mitigate camera shake using image stabilization technology, which can be done in the lens or in the camera body. My camera, the LUMIX GX8, has some of the most advanced image stabilization technology available today, which lets you combine image stabilization effects from both the lens and the camera body. People talk about the number of stops of improvement you get from image stabilization, and going from 1/800s to 1/40s is about 4.5 stops worth of improvement, which is pretty amazing I think. Of course you also need the subject to be still at such a slow shutter speed, and fortunately the monkey co-operated in this shot.

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Here’s a version of the photo with a little editing. It’s also worth commenting that this picture was taken at ISO 3200, which is pretty high for a micro four thirds camera, and I think the quality is very good when you consider that too.

Finally I will say that this picture was taken using auto exposure mode, and auto ISO. This is a theme I will return to repeatedly on this blog. A lot of serious photographers have the attitude that you’e not a “proper photographer” if you’re using auto mode. I strongly disagree with that. I am very proficient at using all the main modes on my camera, and use shutter, aperture or manual modes when appropriate. But I think that modern cameras are much smarter than many people give them credit for, and much of the time auto mode makes excellent decisions for you. Much of the time these days my default mode of operation is to use auto mode and keep an eye on the settings it is choosing, and just switch modes if I think the camera isn’t making good choices. This way I can focus more of my attention on the content of my photo, and I really think that has helped me take better pictures. When you’re doing wildlife pictures, saving fractions of a second can make a difference in getting a great shot, and with landscape pictures you can focus all your attention on getting the best possible composition and lighting. Also on occasions, like this one, auto mode will really surprise you in a good way – there was no way I would have attempted to take this picture at 1/40s if I was choosing the settings myself, I would have just given up and concluded that it was too dark.

Plotagraph of White Island, New Zealand

Another plotagraph from White Island in New Zealand (see my other plotagraphs). I’ve been fortunate to travel a lot and have many cool adventures, but flying to White Island in a helicopter is right up there with my very best travel experiences. It’s an island off the north coast of New Zealand which is an active volcano. About a quarter of the cone is blown out from a previous eruption which makes it look very dramatic. You fly in and land in the crater, and get to walk around for an hour or so before flying back. It is expensive but well worth it. We went with Frontier Helicopters from Whakatane, which was a fair bit less expensive than flying from Rotorua, which is the other option.

White Island 2 (640px, 30fps)
Click on the image for a larger version

This photo was taken from the front seat of a fast moving helicopter – it was tricky to get a full view of it through the window. Here is the original still image prior to processing with plotagraph

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An interesting thing about this image is that my original photo was quite tightly cropped on the right hand side, so I expanded the image slightly using Photoshop’s content aware fill, which is a trick I learned relatively recently.

This is the original image, before expanding it on the right hand side, and before final enhancements in Photoshop:

P1360257I will post more pictures and details about White Island in a future post, but in the mean time you can see a few more photos in this Facebook album.

Photo: Rio at night

Today’s featured photo is a picture of Rio at night, taken from Sugarloaf Mountain, Pão de Açúcar, which provides iconic views over the city.

Rio at night

It is known for great sunset views, but unfortunately the evening we went up there was no real sunset, and a lot of cloud cover which hid the tops of the mountains and the statue of Christ, Cristo Redentor. We decided to wait up there until it became dark, and were rewarded by the clouds clearing enough to get a great view – just another example of the fact that patience and timing are essential to getting good landscape and cityscape shots.

One practical tip if you are going to Sugarloaf is that the lines for the cable car (bondinho) can be quite long, but you can book tickets online (for a specified time) which should speed things up – we didn’t do this. Either way, if you are going there for sunset, allow some extra time for standing in lines, both at the bottom and half way up, where you stop at the lower mountain, Morro da Urca, and have to catch a second cable car.

When we were there, about a month before the start of the Olympics, there were actually very few places at the top of Sugarloaf with a view towards the city like this – it seemed as though they were doing lots of remodeling up there, presumably because of the Olympics. In fact the only place I found to get this view was right by the top of the cable car, a spot where at most two people can fit at once. Paula and I are standing there in this selfie, which obviously we took a bit earlier, before dark – and you can see the clouds covering Cristo here.

Pete and Paula in Rio

Later on there was quite a line of people waiting to take photos here, so I had to be patient and wait a while, and then be fairly quick taking the picture when I got to the front and had my turn. I needed to use a tripod of course for a night shot like this – I used a 1 second exposure and ISO 400. There was no room to stand the tripod normally, so I used it with the legs as short as possible – it’s a pretty compact tripod, and had to perch it rather precariously on the corner of the railings that you can see here, holding onto it while I shot, which was not ideal.

I took this shot with my newest lens, which is a wide angle fisheye lens by Rokinon. It has a focal length of 7.5mm, which on my micro four thirds LUMIX GX8 camera translates to a 15mm equivalent on a full frame camera. I’ve been really pleased with a number of the pictures I’ve got with it – it’s great for these sort of wide cityscapes.

Rokinon lens

Its maximum aperture of f/3.5mm is not super fast, but that’s not too important for landscape and cityscape photography which is where I mainly use this. An interesting thing about this lens is that it is fully manual. You have to focus manually, and change the aperture manually by turning the aperture ring on the lens – the camera can’t set the aperture on the lens. The camera can’t even read the aperture to record what was used in the EXIF information stored on the photo – you just see the shutter speed and ISO, but no aperture value. But on the positive side, its optics are excellent and it is much cheaper than similar lenses that aren’t manual. Panasonic has a 7-14mm zoom lens that costs around $800, for example, while I paid around $250 for this. The manual focus is not nearly such an issue as you might think, as the depth of field is so large on a lens with such a wide angle that you can just set the focus to infinity and not worry about it. At the widest aperture of f/3.5, everything should be sharp from 3.5 feet away to infinity, and stopping down slightly to f/5.6, everything is sharp from 2.5 feet away.

You do get some distortion with a fish eye lens, which can be an issue in some situations but not in others. You can correct the distortion to varying extents with post processing, but generally at a cost of losing some of the outer edge of the image. And the distortion bothers some people more than others – in a lot of situations I’ve liked the images I got just fine, without doing any correction. Over time I’ll post more fisheye images I’ve taken so you can see for yourself what you think – click here for more.

A good technique with the fisheye in a lot of cases is to centre the horizon in the image when you take it, then the horizon will be straight, whereas it will be curved if it is above or below the center. I didn’t manage to do that in this case, probably because of the situation of being rushed and also having to balance the tripod precariously so it was hard to set up as carefully as usual. So here the horizon curves down at the edges but I still think it looks good – I don’t particularly have an urge to correct it, though I suppose I could!

Actually I just decided to do a quick lens correction in Lightroom, which is the simplest (but not the only) way to reduce the distortion. After that, the image looks like this (this version is also missing a few final tweaks I did to the one above in Photoshop):

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You can see that the horizon is flatter, especially on the right side of the image, but also items near the edge are stretched. So the lights on the shore at the right hand side of the image are much wider and more spaced out than the ones in the middle, and we’ve lost about half of the lights that we originally had there. I like the look of those lights much better in the top image – the three groups of shore lights across the image match better, and I think the image has a better balance. I could use warp tools or other techniques, but overall I like how the original image looks, so I’m happy to leave this one uncorrected.

I didn’t do much other work on this image, just a bit of minor tweaking of tone and colors in Lightroom and a little sharpening with a high pass filter in Photoshop, which also intensifies the lights a little. I’ll talk more about the sort of post-processing I do in other posts, I think that is enough for now!

Travel better!