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Don't Major In Minor Things

Thomas's langur (Presbytis thomasi), or Thomas’s leaf monkey, eating a banana in Bukit Lawang, Indonesia.

Thomas's langur (Presbytis thomasi), or Thomas’s leaf monkey, eating a banana in Bukit Lawang, Indonesia.

This morning I woke up to an inspirational message. It came in the form of a YouTube video featuring audio from John Rohn. In it, John Rohn says, “Don’t major in minor things.” This caught my attention. I’m guilty of majoring in minor things often. I began thinking about the minor tasks I spend a lot of time on. This led me to think about the major tasks I don’t spend enough time on.

I got out a notebook and made a list of major and minor tasks in regards to photography:

  • Major Tasks:

  • Minor Tasks:

    • Tinkering with the appearance of this website

    • Playing with Etsy promoted listings

    • Thinking about the camera gear I want

    • Making lists such as this one

    • Worrying about what time and day I post my YouTube videos

    • Checking my likes on Instagram

    • Checking my views on YouTube

    • Checking how many people have signed up for my newsletter in the past day or week

    • Checking my stock photo sales

The minor task list is much longer than the major list. One could even argue that everything besides taking photos should be in the minor list. Getting out to take photos achieves so much on it’s own.

When I go out to take wildlife photos I am walking, and that is taking care of my health. When I see an animal, I learn, through many failed attempts, to approach stealthily. I learn through practice, in the pressure of the moment, how to create a good composition. I learn where the animals tend to be, when they tend to be there, how close they will let me get, and how they will behave.

The problem is that getting out to take photos can sometimes be the most difficult task. I like to sleep in. It’s easier to check stats of previous photos. It is more comfortable to make lists of shots you are going to get than it is to go out and get them. It makes me happy to see all the likes and views I am getting.

This does not mean I should stop all minor tasks. It simply means I should learn to recognize when I am making myself busy with a minor task and limit the time I spend on it. Also, I should allocate more time to major tasks. Currently, I spend more time overall on minor tasks than on major tasks. I need to flip this.

It is ironic that it took a minor task—writing out this list—for me to see this. However, I needed this minor task to teach me to focus on the major tasks. To help me do this, I have created a weekly schedule (I know, another minor task) for myself that places each major task on a specific day of the week. I now have a single major task to focus on every day. My hope is that this makes me more focused, productive, and successful.

What minor tasks do you tend to focus on? What major tasks do you want to spend more time on? I would love to have a discussion around this in the comments below.

Fitness For Wildlife Photographers

Hajducka Vrata natural stone arch in Blidinje National Park in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Hajducka Vrata natural stone arch in Blidinje National Park in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

If you’re anything like me, you always end up with a heavier pack than you intended. Every time I prepare for a long hike through the mountains, I tell myself I will pack lighter this time. Each time, despite removing stuff I may not need, my bag is at least as heavy as the last time. It’s just not possible to make it any lighter than thirty pounds, and thirty pounds is a killer on three to five hour hikes up steep slopes.

One of the biggest issues is my lens. I have the Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 and it weighs about eight pounds. I would really like to upgrade to the Canon 300mm f/2.8, or even downgrade to the Canon 300mm f/4, for this reason alone. Unfortunately, that’s not in the budget at the moment.

For now, my best option is to improve my fitness level. I thought I was a decently fit guy. I’m fairly thin and walk several miles every week. It turns out I’m not as fit as I originally believed. I went on a hike in Risnjak National Park recently and discovered I’m not so great at hiking mountains with a thirty-pound backpack on. The three-hour hike involved quite a few “water” breaks.

After that hike, I decided to start working out. Before, I was walking several miles around the cities I was visiting and eating decently well. But, it turns out, that is not at all enough. So I bought a kettlebell and pull-up bar. There are a million opinions on working out, and I will not pretend to be an expert, but a kettlebell and pull-up bar is all I personally need to stay moderately fit. You can look up videos by gurus, such as Mike Chang, for more of the particulars. Even bodyweight exercises are perfectly fine and require no monetary investment.

For wildlife photographers, we are often carrying heavy packs up steep ground. Thus, I decided it was best to focus on leg muscles (squats) and cardio. I also do core workouts, like kettlebell swings.

Not long ago I went on a hike to Hajducka Vrata in Blidinje National Park, Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was even more strenuous than the Risnjak National Park hike I mentioned before. My pack was just as heavy and the slopes were longer and steeper. Even though I had been working out for a month, it was still more difficult than the previous hike before I had been exercising. If I had not been working out, I may have had to turn around.

The effort I put into improving my fitness is what allowed me to persevere and capture the landscape shot you see at the top of this post. Do a search on Shutterstock or Getty Images for Hajducka Vrata and you won’t see much. Not like Ubud Monkey Forest or Batu Caves. That’s because not many people have been there, and very few of those who have are photographers.

Maintain a higher level of fitness than your peers and you will capture better photographs than they do. There is more to being a wildlife photographer than holding a camera with a big lens. As we all know, it takes patience and perseverance. But it also takes fitness. Keep yourself fit and get the shot.

What does your fitness routine look like? Let me know in the comments so we can learn from each other.

On Sharpness

There’s a saying photographers use a lot. “That photo is sharp as a tack.” If you are a professional photographer who has been taking pictures for a long time, you most likely already know the difference between “pretty sharp” and “sharp as a tack”. When I was starting out, I did not.

My first couple of years in photography I thought I was taking sharp images. I would get my RAW photos into Lightroom after a trek through the jungle, zoom in to 100%, and think, “Awesome, that image is tack-sharp!” It wasn’t. Almost none of them were. I was shooting on a garbage lens, without IS, in dark light. Even a seasoned pro would have had trouble capturing tack-sharp images in those conditions.

Even now, after years of shooting wildlife, I zoom in on a photo in Lightroom and think, “Awesome, I got it,” only to continue down the line, zoom in on another, and realize the first one was not nearly as sharp as I want it to be. The reason for this is simple: it’s all about relativity.

If you have not yet seen a similar, sharper photo to compare it to, the following image probably looks pretty sharp.

kinda-sharp.png

But, if you now look at the following image, and then back at the first, the second all of a sudden becomes sharp-as-a-tack, and the first, well, not so much. I would probably go ahead and mark that one for deletion.

tack-sharp.png

Here they are side-by-side to really compare.

combo.png

Look at the “hairs” at the top of the dandelion on the right. Do you see how much crisper the lines are? They follow all the way down to the stamen like that, just as crisp. There’s just a hint of blurriness to the “hairs” on the left image. That’s the difference between “pretty sharp” and “tack-sharp”.

Now you may think I just took a blurry image for this comparison to prove my point, but this is a photo I thought was sharp before looking at the next, sharper image. I have gotten better at picking this out over time, but I’m still no expert. I happens often that I get my images on the computer and pick out a favorite, only to realized a few images later that it was not nearly as sharp as I first decided.

I encourage you to keep a tack-sharp image in your Lightroom catalog that you can reference when you get back from a shoot. Compare the images you think are sharp to the one you know is sharp to be certain you are picking the right ones. Most of the time they look fine when you zoom back out, but as a professional, fine is not what I’m going for.

If you want to stand out from the crowd, read this article again and let it really sink in. Then go back through some of your recent photos and see if you notice some differences in the sharpness of a batch of images. If you do, you can thank me by signing up for my newsletter here: ricky.pictures/free. You’ll even get 5 FREE desktop wallpapers out of it!

Rights-Managed Stock Photo Agencies For Nature Photographers

An adult male Long-tailed Macaque rubbing its eye in Bako National Park, Borneo, Malaysia.

An adult male Long-tailed Macaque rubbing its eye in Bako National Park, Borneo, Malaysia.

For several years I have been searching out and applying to different rights-managed stock photo agencies that specialize in nature photography. Qualifying agencies have been difficult to find and even harder to get accepted by. Occasionally, my photos aren’t good enough, but more often than not the agency is no longer accepting new photographers.

After hours of research I have compiled a list of rights-managed (RM) stock photo agencies (specifically for nature photographers).

Here are the agencies I have found, listed in no particular order (all agency names are links to the contributor application page):

  • Tandem Stock - Tandem stock has some great photos on their page, including wildlife. Unfortunately, in alignment with the common theme you will soon see on this list, they are no longer accepting contributors except by invitation from a current contributor. Unfortunately, it’s been this way for over a year, so I’m not sure when or if applications will ever open up again. However, you can still sign up to be a contributor and they claim they will go over all the applications once they open the gates for contributors again.

  • Robert Harding - Robert Harding seems to be a bit more travel related than nature, but I was invited to apply and applied nonetheless. I was not accepted, but ended up grateful for this as, like many other agencies, I saw that they also sell their work through Getty. This seems to be a common theme with RM agencies and something I don’t want to be a part of, as I am already a Getty contributor.

  • Getty Images - That brings me to the ring-leader (or so it seems), Getty Images. Getty has been around for a long time and I believe is still the leader in stock at the time of this writing. I am a Getty Contributor. Getty only gives 20% of revenue to the contributor, which is pretty low compared to the standard 40-50%. I make okay money on Getty (you can see exactly how much by watching my income videos on my YouTube channel) but as it is not specific to nature I would prefer to move on to something a bit more niche.

  • Westend61 - This agency is German and they do have some wildlife, but they don’t have enough wildlife or nature photos to make me consider them niche. I am looking for a more specific agency, but if you would like to try out Westend61, go for it. They have a great website and seem to be very transparent with contributors, offering daily updates on sales and statistics.

  • FLPA - A British nature photography agency, FLPA is, as of my last request to them in October 2018, not taking on new contributors. They seem to have good work in their catalog and it is very specific to nature/wildlife, so I have written to them again and will share their response when I receive one. Update: They got back to me and said they are unlikely to ever take on new contributors again :(.

  • Nature Picture Library - NaturePL is another British agency featuring some pretty incredible work. They still aren’t necessarily taking photographers (since July 2018) but they will consider you if you have something from their wants list or extensive coverage of a specific species. I just went through their wants list when researching this article and saw they want something I have, a Red-Headed Krait. Mine is even eating a frog - you can see it at the top of this article. I will be applying to them soon.

  • Nature In Stock - Looks like Nature in Stock has some high-quality nature imagery. Unfortunately, when I contacted them in October 2018, they are no longer taking on new photographers. I will update this post if this changes.

  • Minden Pictures - Minden is an esteemed nature photo agency based in the USA. Their photos are incredible and I have met a contributor that I know to be excellent at what he does. I applied in October 2018 and was informed that they are only accepting contributors who have photos of rare animals, such as rare fish, primates, or felines. I will be looking to capture these animals, as always, and will try again.

  • Ardea - I only recently heard about Ardea and have not yet seen any reviews of them, but I’m going to do a bit more research. One thing that concerns me is that they are an agency of “wildlife, pets, and environment”. I’m not sure I want to be on a pet photography website. They are accepting photographers that have in-depth coverage of specific species, or excellent work of a broader range.

  • Animals Animals - I’ve heard this is a good agency for wildlife, and though they seem to have some good photos, I have not yet applied. The main reason for this is that one needs 200 images to apply and I don’t have that many high-quality photos that aren’t tied up in other agencies/places at this time. Perhaps in the future I will give it a shot. If you have any experience with Animals Animals I would love to hear about it in the comments below.

  • Danita Delimont - This seems like a high-quality agency for both photos and videos. Art Wolfe is a contributor, so what else do I need to say? They are looking for contributors who have extensive experience in a specific area. I applied in 2018 but never heard back. Perhaps you will have more luck.

  • Steve Bloom Images - Steve Bloom is specifically a wildlife RM agency and they seem to have high-quality images (despite their low quality website, which is common among many of the sites on this list - why?). Unfortunately, when I contacted them in October 2018 I was informed they were no longer taking on more photographers, with no further information on whether they might in the future.

  • Photoshot - I have been a contributor to Photoshot since 2018. Unfortunately, I don’t have enough experience with them yet to say whether I would or would not recommend them, so I will write a more extensive post on my experience in the future.

Those are all the noteworthy RM agencies for nature photography that I have found. If you know of any others, I would love to hear in the comments below. I’m also interested in beginning a discussion as to whether RM agencies are a practical way to go in this day and age when there are so many outlets, like Etsy or Squarespace, that make it easy for us to sell our photos on our own. Let me know what you think, and I hope you found this list useful.

How To Make Common Animals Interesting In WIldlife Photography

Two Cream-coloured giant squirrels or pale giant squirrels (Ratufa affinis) inspecting each other on a tree branch in Borneo, Sepilok, Malaysia.

Two Cream-coloured giant squirrels or pale giant squirrels (Ratufa affinis) inspecting each other on a tree branch in Borneo, Sepilok, Malaysia.

Many of us don’t have access to a jungle, desert or remote forest teeming with rare wildlife except during short vacations. And that’s only if the rest of the family wouldn’t rather go to a beach resort in Fiji - which, let’s be real, they would. So, we end up taking lots of photos of squirrels, deer, robins, and rabbits. There is nothing wrong with this, but as everyone else also has the opportunity to get these photos, the market is already saturated with photos of them. Here are a few tips on how to make your photos of common animals stand out.

Behavior

I believe this is the easiest way to make an image of a common backyard animal stand out from the crowd. Like the photo at the top of this post, getting a shot of cool behavior that is rarely witnessed by passers-by will likely make people feel some emotion or connection to the animal.

I have seen great photos of squirrels that could compete with some of the best lion photos. Pictures of squirrels jumping over something, leaning from a stone into a puddle of water for a drink, or a mother squirrel feeding her young, would all make me stop to get a second look.

Light

There is a park I like to visit near my house that gets some of the most amazing golden light I have ever witnessed glinting off the surface of the bay every morning. The problem is that light usually only lasts about five to ten minutes if it appears at all.

The secret to getting great light is to be there when it strikes an animals face. This means you have to be there every day, positioned perfectly, waiting and hoping. Sometimes you will be wet, other times cold, and other times still far too hot. But if you are there, every day, it will happen. It may be days, weeks, months, or even years. It will, however, be worth the wait.

Place

Think about the animals you typically photograph and do a Google Image Search of that animal. Where are they usually photographed? If it’s a Great Blue Heron, it’s probably standing in the shallow water of a marsh. A squirrel will probably be in the grass or on the side of a tree. Think about where you can photograph that animal that will make it more interesting.

For example, can you get a squirrel peeking out of its nest at dawn? Or maybe carrying its babies to a safer location? How interesting would it be to get a photo of a squirrel swimming?! Think outside the box. Photography is a creative art, and great creative arts take a lot of time spent inside your imagination.

Composition

The easiest way to photograph an animal, whether common or rare, is to stand straight up with a telephoto lens pointing at it. Therefore, this is the photo most people take. If you want your photo to be different, you have to be different. Get your belly down on the ground and take your photo from the animal’s eye-level or lower.

One of the most important things to me in my photography is removing distracting elements. For me, this typically means backgrounds and any man-made items. This is one of the biggest reasons I bought an f/2.8 lens - I love the blurred out, buttery bokeh look in a photo. When I shoot at f/2.8 I can get my subject’s eye pin-sharp, while having one or two blurry colors swirling in the background. This is a great way to make your subject stand out. If you don’t have an f/2.8 lens, not to worry, you will just need to get closer to your subject and choose a location where the background is further away.

That’s about it. If you have three out of four of those elements you will have a good photo. If you have all four, I can nearly guarantee your photo will turn some heads and stick out from all the other squirrel photos out there. So don’t wait for your next safari; get out in your own backyard at the break of dawn tomorrow and be there when the light strikes.