Creative Problem Solving = Better Pictures

Every obstacle's an inspiration.”  Craig Bartholomew-Strydom

Every now and then one can point a camera at a scene, press the shutter release, and take home a winning photograph. More often, to get that winner it's necessary to overcome a series of problems, issues that must be resolved before shooting if the image is to be something greater than average.

For the outdoor photographer, weather may be the issue that frames all others; rain, snow, ice, cold, heat, humidity, wind and the crud it can blow around, sun/glare/intense reflections, and of course, the dreaded white sky. You can't control the weather, but you must deal with it, find ways to work with the conditions you're given. They affect you physically, and they affect your equipment.

Equipment sometimes presents its own issues: How to carry it, how to set up in challenging locations, how to protect it so it remains functional and produces the best possible images, even how to find it (more on that later).

You can solve most problems with your checkbook. There's an overwhelming selection of stuff, much of it quite specialized, intended to solve very specific problems. Find what you need, learn to use it, and the problem goes away. If you like to tinker, you can have some fun fashioning your own solutions.

Start Here

Creative problem solving requires a key first step: define the problem. I'll limit the scope to this simple goal: making the best picture you can, capturing your vision of the landscape, wildlife, or other outdoor scene in front of you.

The next time you're in the field shooting, and struggling, stop a minute to think: what's the hassle here? What am I trying to do? What's keeping me from doing it? You've done your scouting, you're ready to exercise your creativity, but lousy weather, balky photo gear, slippery, steep, or uneven terrain, something, has stopped you in your tracks.

Define that something and you're well on your way to eliminating whatever's stopping you. Considered in that way, it's often fairly easy to understand the problem. Now you can get serious about solving it.

Here's a short list of solutions I've found, some commercial, some home-made, to various small photographic problems.

It's Right Over There. Or Not.

Backpack with hot-pink ribbon

My pack, hiding in fall grass. The pink ribbon makes it easy to spot.

I carry my gear in a medium-size Tamrack backpack. The pros and cons of that are outside my scope here, but the pack works pretty well for me.

To access my gear it's necessary to take the pack off my back, which usually means setting it on the ground, where the pack's green color often blends in too well. When I'm working a scene I tend to wander. With camera on tripod, I'll walk around looking for compositions, the best position to reveal or hide details in the scene, etc., often setting up a considerable distance from my pack. I often lose sight of it. There are several thousand dollars worth of equipment inside; I've been a little panicky about it more than once.

I set the pack up high when possible, say on top of a rock, hanging from a tree branch, or otherwise position it so it's easily seen. To help with that, a very simple solution suggested by my bother-in-law: tie a brightly colored ribbon to the bag. I used a hot-pink plastic ribbon, the sort of material used on construction sites to mark stakes, wires or cables, overhead obstacles, etc. This cost next to nothing, and makes the pack a beacon, even when I'm some distance away.

Snowshoes by Vlasic

Snyder Creek Snow, Glacier National Park, Montana, U.S.

The snow along Snyder Creek in Glacier National Park was waist-deep on this March morning. Snowshoes on the photographer and on the tripod made this picture possible.

I love working in snow. Shooting in Glacier or Yellowstone National Parks in winter, the snow is often quite deep. I always use a tripod. The combination presents a number of challenges.

When the snow is deep I travel on snowshoes, which increase the surface area of my feet so I don't sink to my waist in the snow. The tripod has the same issue; the tiny surface area of each leg allows it to settle into the snow. This makes the tripod relatively useless, but worse, the snow can bow the legs, stressing the material and potentially leading to damage.

I've created a hard-packed area in the snow, a few feet square, by marching around with the snowshoes. With an area sufficiently packed, it works pretty well for the tripod, especially if I remove the standard hard-rubber feet and replace them with steel spikes. But making that pad is a lot of work, and I often need to expand it or create others nearby as I move around adjusting my composition.

The solution: snowshoes for the tripod. I haven't looked, but I'd guess these are available commercially. To make mine I drilled a hole in the center of three pickle-jar lids. The lids are about three inches (8 cm) in diameter. Plastics often perform poorly in the cold, so I chose steel lids. To install these, I unscrew the feet from the tripod legs, insert the threaded stud on the feet through the holes, and then reinstall the feet. This looks ridiculous, but works quite well. The rubber feet usually are fine. In some conditions I'll replace those with spike feet to provide a little more grip.

Slow it Down

Silver Staircase Falls

Silver Staircase Falls, photographed with the Hoya Variable ND filter. Six seconds at F/14, ISO 100.

When photographing moving water, whether waterfalls, waves in a lake, even hard rain, a common technique is to use a slow shutter speed, at least several seconds. This creates a silky effect, eliminating the hard “edges” you'd otherwise see in the water. This also works when shooting scenes with moving clouds, or just about any movement you'd like to blur. However, it's not always easy to get the slow shutter speeds needed for the desired result. One can stop the lens down to extremes, but doing so likely introduces softness elsewhere in the image due to diffraction. ISO typically can't be lowered enough to help much.

The answer here is a neutral density filter. These can be purchased in values from one to ten or more stops, and as round screw-in filters or rectangular filters with screw-in holders. Both work well. Of course, one typically needs filters that darken three, six, and nine stops, and perhaps more for some situations. If you have lenses with different filter sizes, you might need more than one “set”, or use step-up or step-down rings. High quality, color-neutral filters aren't inexpensive; a large collection could run many hundreds of dollars and add significantly to the amount of stuff one must carry.

EOS 5D MkIII, 24-70, Vari-ND filter, Hills cap

The solution: a variable neutral density filter. With a single filter one can darken (typically) by two to eight or more stops simply by turning the ring on the filter. A quality, color-neutral vari-ND isn't cheap, but will surely cost less than a stack of individual filters. I purchased a Hoya variable ND, 82mm, for a bit under $220.00 (US). With a step-down ring I can use this on lenses with 77mm filter threads. I've found the Hoya to be quite neutral. I've had no issues with it down to about eight stops. Dialing in darkness takes a little getting used to, but it gets easier with practice.

This filter has no front thread, making it impossible to use the lens's cap on the filter. One must find a slip-on cap, which likely means a trial-and-error process at a local camera shop (good luck with that). I found the solution in our kitchen: a plastic cap intended to seal a cat-food tin is a perfect fit on the 82mm Hoya. Quite stylish, too, as shown above.

Obstacles, be Gone!

My list could go on: a home-made tripod carrying strap. The wonderful Acratech leveling head, intended for use with my panorama rig, but so useful I rarely remove it from the tripod. The low-tech hot-shoe level, easier, faster, and better than the camera's built-in electronic level display. Each problem seems to have inspired either a home-made solution, or the search for the right commercial choice.

Getting the shot often means solving problems, eliminating the little gremlins standing between you and a great photo. Sometimes the solutions are as creative as the picture taking. It's part of the job, and it's all great fun.

September, 2013

The Monthly Disclaimer:I'm sorry about the big © in the middle of the pictures. I hate doing this, and dislike the mess it makes of the image. But I constantly find my pictures all over the Web, often using my bandwidth to display them. There's very little that can be done to stop this violation of my copyright, but I've found when I insert the watermark, the images are virtually never stolen.