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Sharper shots

Ruth Moon
Ruth MoonThe first pointer Todd gave was to Scout out your location instead of snapping the first scene you see. Look for interesting angles and potential subjects.
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Gone are the days when it took expensive camera equipment and darkroom knowledge to create a good photo.

Now that a decent digital camera goes for as little as $100, anyone can claim “photographer” status. But if the bald eagle you shot a photo of on your last trip turned out more like a blob than a living creature, and you usually preface your photos with “you had to be there to understand,” then perhaps a few tips and tricks from a seasoned photographer will serve you well.

Local nature photographer Todd Pierce, who teaches photography classes and workshops around the Vail Valley, agreed to spend a few hours last week showing me how to one-up the typical “touristy” nature photos. Pierce has lived in the Vail Valley all his life and photographed nature and architecture full-time for the past 10 years; his photography can be seen at http://www.toddwinslowpierce.com.

Four hours, a sunburn and several mosquito bites later, I had collected a set of tips on how to tone down the “point and shoot” mentality and improve my photography skills to get some great photos.

Piney Lake ” the site of our adventure ” is 12 miles north of West Vail and accessible by car (if you drive, watch out; the road is narrow and bumpy). The destination is definitely a notch up, comfort-wise, from a typical wilderness location, although a sign at the lake still proudly proclaims “wilderness.” Guest services at the lake include cabins, a gift shop, horseback riding and a restaurant.

But, questions of wilderness legitimacy aside, Piney Lake proved an excellent location for some nature photography. We stepped out of the car to face a glassy lake lit by the morning sun, backed by wooded hills and rugged, snow-covered mountains. Sunflowers and purple wildflowers peppered the foreground.

When we got to the water’s edge, I took a snapshot. Camera out, as soon as I saw something that made me “ooh,” I snapped a shot. In this case, it was the combination of water, pine trees, mountain and reflection. The result was unimpressive; a blob of sky, lake and mountain ” with a lot of haze because I shot straight into the sun ” that looked nice enough but wouldn’t draw gasps of wonder from any audience. So, with that photo under our belt, we set to work.

The first pointer Todd gave was to Scout out your location instead of snapping the first scene you see. Look for interesting angles and potential subjects. Duly informed, we set out around the lake to check out different angles. We were distracted by a tangential subject ” a teepee, set up in the woods with a nice view of the lake.

I snapped another tourist shot.

Todd moved on to the second step: Think about how you are capturing the subject. Explore different angles and find the best perspective. This may be startling advice, especially to those who think photography is 99 percent luck. But, as Pierce pointed out, photographers train themselves to be in the right place at the right time; they can get lucky, but usually don’t just stumble across the decisive moment.

“People come and point and shoot, but they’re not crafting an image that will evoke emotion,” Pierce said. “It’s fast food versus gourmet.”

Practically speaking, he said, it’s a good idea to shoot a series of photos to tell a story. Start with a wide-angle shot; a big-picture image that captures the place you’re visiting, with five to 10 elements in the shot.

Next, look for some element shots. Try to capture two or three things in the photo, so it’s simplified but you still have an idea of the context.

Last, look for two or three detail shots of images you might have overlooked your first time around. Sunflowers next to the lake, for example ” an image we used ” provide a great detail shot.

We examined the teepee. My tourist shot was, predictably, not awe-inspiring, so we circled the tent to find a new angle. Then we zoomed in. Try to tell a story through the perspectives and details, Pierce said; instead of shooting random images, look for the views that will provide a unique perspective.

Next, in the spirit of thinking outside the box, we entered the teepee and shot some photos from inside.

After exhausting the teepee as a resource, we turned again to the lake. We tramped out to the tall, marshy grass bordering the water, getting as close as we could, looking for new angles.

As we moved, I received tip No. 3. “Photography is a process of subtraction,” Pierce said. “Simplify until your message is clear.”

In other words, look through the viewfinder ” on the camera screen ” and play with the image before you shoot it. If you move a step closer, can you crop out that tree branch cutting through the mountain on the right? If you back up, will you be able to fit the whole mountain in the frame, instead of cutting off the top?

As we trudged back to the car, Pierce offered a last piece of advice: Figure out what you want to say with the image. Why do you like the view? What’s so great about the mountain? Think about it before you put the camera to your eye, and the resulting images are likely to be 10 times more compelling to the family back home when you pull out the vacation photos. Heck, maybe they’ll even ask for more.


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