Are you Putting your Best Foot Forward?

FORSYTH COUNTY, NC -  This is a topic which has the potential to make some of you angry and others take action.  It is a topic that gets to the very core of why we do what we do as nature photographers.  Simply put, "are you putting your best foot forward?"  Are you, as a photographer, showing the world your best work or are you so excited that you got a shot, and posting it as quickly as possible on social media?

I think to answer this question, you have to ask yourself what motivates you.  Here are some possible motivations I have identified:

1.  You want to show others where you have been, and what I have been doing.
2.  You want to attract buyers to buy your photographs.
3.  You want to impress your peers with your stunning photography.
4.  You want a private documentary gallery of images so you can document your travels.

If you answered anything other than #4, you might want to pay particular attention to what I am going to tell you in this article. 

As a more seasoned photographer, I have seen thousands upon thousands of photographs over the years.  I have seen beautiful images by some of the best photographers, and I have seen poor images generated from the very beginner.  I myself have made many many bad images right along side the good ones, but you will never see the failures posted on social media or sent to a potential client.  These images, except for the few I keep for demonstration purposes, are sent to the trash.

I do not care if I got a great action shot of an anhinga spearing a fish or a bald eagle fighting in mid air.  If it doesn't meet my standard guidelines for quality it goes into the trash.  So here are my standard guidelines for culling my images.

1.  Is the photograph sharp (essential)?   
2.  Is the photograph properly exposed (essential)?
3.  Is the lighting in the photograph better than acceptable (mostly essential)?
4.  Does the photograph tell a story or does it have gesture (mostly essential)?
5.  Is this my best work, given the situation?

If I can answer yes to all five of the preceding questions then the photograph is not only a keeper, but is marketable or worthy of posting online.  Now I want to address each of these five questions.

Is the Photograph Sharp?
Sharpness is not subjective.  It can be defined and it is repeatable and is absolutely a must  A sharp photograph is the culmination of focusing the lens and also making sure the shutter speed is set high enough to avoid camera shake (blur).  You should be able to zoom into 100% on your editing software and see a sharp, detailed image.  The only exception to this is when you are using creative blur (advanced technique).

The above image is not sharp at 100% magnification.  It will be rejected by photo editors and stock agencies.

The above image is sharp at 100%.  It has been accepted by publishers and agencies.

Is the Photograph Properly Exposed?
This is mostly subjective, but also takes some work to determine if your image is properly exposed.  In short, the whites should be white, the blacks should be black and the highlights should not be blown out.  You should be able to see detail in both the highlights and the shadows.  Obviously, this is a much larger discussion than a simply blog post can provide, but make sure you have the exposure right!

The above image is underexposed by a full stop. Notice the muddy and lifeless appearance.

Is the Lighting in the Photograph better than Acceptable?
Taking photographs of nature when the sun is directly overhead does not normally flatter a subject.  On animals it produces harsh shadows, making the eyes black holes. It basically increases the contrast to the point that it is hard to see details in the highlights and shadows.  A general rule in wildlife photography is to have the sun at your back.  Another way to look at this, is to point your shadow at the subject.  To do this, shoot between sunrise and plus three hours.  In the afternoon, shoot three hours before sunset to sunset.  This will give you that golden look with flattering highlights in the eyes of animals.   Not only wildlife, but landscapes also take on this beautiful golden glow.

The photo above has beautiful morning light being applied from right over my shoulder.

Does the Photograph Tell a Story or Have Gesture?
There are many times that I take a photograph which has neither gesture nor storytelling attributes and it is true that these kinds of images can sell and gather likes online.  However, I am always looking for images that tell a story or have peak action.  This can mean the difference between a boring portrait and an engaging and exciting photograph.  You don't have to start here, but strive to make this happen.  Strive to find the engaging shot.  Perhaps it is a coyote pouncing on a mouse or a bird fighting with another bird.  Maybe it's look deep into the eyes of a massive black bear that stops us in our tracks.

The above photo has action and gesture.  The bird is running from a crashing wave which helps draw the user into the photograph and tell a story about this birds life.

Is this my Best Work Given the Situation?
This is a question we must all ask ourselves.  If the answer is no, it doesn't necessarily mean the image is no good.  It might just mean that you have to try harder next time.  Look for better angles such as going low or going higher.  Maybe you needed a longer lens to compress and blur the background. Maybe you need to gather inspiration from other photographers. Check out other photographers books, magazines and videos.  This can all help inspire you to making better images.

In conclusion, I ask you to work hard, and get the best images you can. Do not be afraid to throw your image away.  In a few months you will forget about it.  Strive only for the best images and post those.  I promise it will be much more rewarding both from a personal perspective and if you would like, from a business perspective.

I hope you enjoyed this months newsletter.  There is much on the horizon at Matt Cuda Nature Photography.  To be specific, the time has come for the continuation of the Hummingbird Project and the Bluebird projects.  These two projects generally keep me busy from May through June, so expect to see some of those images in next months article.

Now get out there and enjoy nature!

God Bless,

Matt Cuda

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