Tag Archives: landscape

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.

 

How I saw snow monkeys in Japan and ice caves in Iceland without taking a day off work

Last weekend I hiked across a glacier to visit several amazing ice caves in Iceland, and the weekend before I photographed the amazing snow monkeys in Japan. I did this without taking a single day off work.

Hello snow monkey!
Hello snow monkey!

Because I post a lot of photos and adventures online, people often ask me, “are you still working these days?”. The answer is yes, I have a full time job, but I just make more effort than most people to fit things in around my work schedule – and I am fortunate to travel quite a bit with work. So I thought I would post this to encourage people to make more effort to fit in adventures when you travel for work (or indeed when you are at home!). There’s no rocket science to this, it’s just making the effort to fit things in, and perhaps being a bit creative about how you organize your travel to optimize your time.

Snow monkeys in Japan

I was scheduled for a 3 day meeting with our company’s Japanese team in Tokyo. They suggested we could start the meeting on Wednesday, which would mean I could fly from Denver on Monday morning and arrive Tuesday evening in time for the meeting – you lose a day going out there – and then fly back either Friday night or Saturday. That would use up a week of work time, with two days of travel and three days of meetings. I suggested to them that instead I would fly out on Saturday morning and we should meet from Monday to Wednesday, then I could fly back on Sunday night, which would get me four days to explore in Japan. I am still fitting my five working days into that 9 day stretch, just organizing things a little differently to get my four days in Japan.

Relaxed snow monkeys!
Relaxed snow monkeys!

I will post more details on my snow monkey trip shortly, but in summary it was an amazing trip and I got lots of fantastic pictures. I did it as a two day trip from Tokyo – a morning traveling up there, an afternoon with the monkeys, a great evening at a traditional Japanese “Ryokan” hotel, and another morning with the monkeys before traveling back. I also fitted in some exploring in Tokyo, including a visit to the fish market, some great food, my first visit to a Japanese Onsen (public baths) with my friend Edson, which was a really interesting experience, and some time wondering around the historic district of Asakusa. Not bad for a full week at work!

Ice caves in Iceland

After my Japanese meeting had been set and I had booked travel, it turned out that I needed to be in England the following week for a management meeting. I looked at what it would take to change my tickets to fly from Tokyo straight on to London, and it was ridiculously expensive. So I decided to leave my original tickets as they were, return to Denver on Sunday lunchtime local time and then fly straight out to London that afternoon.

View from Sapphire Cave
View from Sapphire Cave

I had been intrigued by the IcelandAir stopover deal, which lets you fly from Denver (and various other US cities) to London (and various other European cities), and do a free stopover in either direction. On top of that, they had the cheapest fare of any airline from Denver to London on the dates that I wanted to go, and that seems to be consistently the case. Paula and I had just been to Iceland over New Year and we had a fantastic time, but the ice cave tour that we booked was canceled because of flooding, and also we didn’t see the Northern Lights, partly as we had lots of cloudy weather. So I was quite tempted to revisit, because we had liked it so much, and in particular to try to catch up on either or both of those things that we missed.

I was a little in two minds because of the craziness of my travel schedule, and wondered whether I should just take the British Airways direct flight, rather than flying Tokyo to Denver to Reykjavik to London. But you only live once, so I decided to go for it.

Or as Tim Ferriss said recently:

Time is a non-renewable resource, while money can be recouped. Think hard, work smart, and play often. Assume this life is your only chance at bat, so schedule the fun stuff.

I’m a big fan of Tim and this is very much my philosophy too.

So I went ahead and booked the IcelandAir flight. I arrived in Denver from Tokyo at 12:21pm, then flew out to Reykjavik at 4:15pm. Paula came to the airport to meet me for lunch and swap a couple of items in my baggage! I arrived at London Gatwick at 11:23 Monday morning, and made it to Cambridge in time for some mid afternoon meetings, and my main meetings started the next day. Two colleagues who were attending the same meetings also flew out from Denver Sunday afternoon, but took the direct BA flight.

We had meetings in London all day Thursday. My colleagues flew back to Denver on Friday, a full day of travel. Instead, I caught an IcelandAir flight out of London Heathrow at 8:30pm on Thursday night, getting into Reykjavik at 11:30pm. My flight on to Denver was at 5pm on Sunday, so I got more or less three whole days in Iceland, again without having to take a day off work, as otherwise I would have just been flying home on the Friday.

I booked an ice cave tour for the Saturday with Local Guide of VatnaJokull, who I recommend highly. It was a really incredible experience, see my picture story about it here.

Me in Waterfall Cave
Me in Waterfall Cave

Summary

As I said above, there is no great rocket science to this, but a surprisingly large number of people don’t take the opportunity to fit in something cool and interesting when they are on a business trip. As this story illustrates, you don’t necessarily even need to take any days off work to do some really cool things.

This particular example was an extreme case, where I was in Japan one week and Europe the next. But the same principles apply regardless of where you are traveling. I definitely recommend that anyone flying between the US and Europe should consider the IcelandAir stopover deal – Iceland is such a cool place, and I see this becoming a frequent destination for me, as I travel regularly between Denver and the UK.

Panoramas in Lightroom

One of my favorite new features in Lightroom 6, the most recent edition, is the ability to stitch multiple photos together into a panorama. Both of my Lumix cameras have the ability to create panoramas on the fly while panning with your camera, but that approach only creates JPEG files and you have much less control. With Lightroom you can merge multiple RAW images and then continue to edit the merged panorama as a RAW image.

Above is an example of elk grazing in front of Wilson Peak, taken from Last Dollar Road just outside Telluride as the sun was setting. The light was very challenging on this one – the elk in the foreground were in the shade and there was a bright light on the mountains and sky at the back. So I had to do a lot of raw processing to get the image looking reasonable, and wouldn’t have been able to do this if I’d just had a JPEG panorama from the camera. This one was created from two images and is 7301×2879 pixels, about 21 megapixels.

This one is taken in the same general area, a little further up Last Dollar Road, and shows a wider panorama of Wilson Peak and its neighbors, made from 5 overlapping RAW images. This one is 14270×2851 pixels, or 41 megapixels. Another important thing to remember when taking a panorama is that you want to make sure you have a consistent exposure across all the pictures. The easiest way to do this is to press and hold the exposure lock button while you take all the pictures. The exact details of how to do this will vary depending on your camera.

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The picture above is actually one I tried taking using the camera’s built in panorama function at the same location as the previous image, and it was not very successful at all in this case. There are a couple of places where the stitching just didn’t work and there’s an obvious discontinuity in the image, and there are several more places where the exposure doesn’t match and you see bands in the image (in the sky in particular). Usually the in camera function works better than this, but in this case in particular the one created in Lightroom was hugely better.

The basic panorama functionality in Lightroom is very easy to use – just select the images you want to combine into a panorama, and choose Photo -> Photo Merge -> Panorama, and choose the default settings. Adobe has a nice 8 minute video tutorial if you want to understand more detail about the capabilities and various options. I even found out from this that you can do HDR panoramas, which is pretty cool! I have an HDR panorama version of the top image here, made from 3 different exposures on both the left and the right side, but the end results looked pretty similar in this case. However, this could be useful in some situations.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

This final example, of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado, is a little different from the others in that it’s not a wide panorama. In this case it’s a combination of 3 pictures taken with a portrait orientation, which let me better capture the full height of the canyon. Its full dimensions are 6297×4024 pixels, or about 25 megapixels, compared to 16 megapixels for a single image from my camera.