Holiday Photos


The Holiday season is a great time for photography. Christmas lights can become great photo subjects! Using a Christmas tree as a background for portraiture can result in very pleasing results. By shooting with a wide aperture – smaller numbers f/1.4, f/1.8, or f/2.8 – the lights will be pleasantly rendered into large round bokeh. Bokeh is a Japanese term for the way the out of focus part of a picture looks. Different lens create different bokeh. Generally higher end lenses create softer more pleasing bokeh. Alternative lenses like tilt shifts and Lensbabies can also be very fun to use with Christmas lights.


Christmas lights can also be very pleasing as abstracts. By using long exposures and moving the camera unique designs can be created like this image capture last year. The subtle blue in the top of the images comes from the late evening light outdoors. I slowly moved the camera back and forth to get this result. Play around this holiday season and try getting some unique Christmas light shots.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays

– Ryan Watkins (to see more of my work visit or find me on flickr.)

The Last Remnants of Fall

Please forgive me for not writing in such a long time; due to some computer issues and time constraints it’s been difficult to write lately. As the fall comes to its chilly end and winter approaches it may seem like a less than optimum time for nature photography in the Midwest. The skies are gray, leaves are dying, and winter has yet to bring its plentiful snow cover. Instead of just waiting for the next season to shoot I’ve been outside almost every day for a short period of time attempting to find some worthy subjects; even though, I admit they’ve been few and far between. During one particular evening the light beautifully lit the decaying leaf featured above. I’d taken advantage of the soft light from the gray dull skies to photograph several textures from local structures. These images alone are quite boring, but by putting them over top of other images in Photoshop at a low opacity it can give a subtle mood and texture to the underlying image. The overlaying texture is from the wood grain of a hunting shanty. By adjusting the opacity it made it so that the wood grain just barely shows on the final image giving it a non overwhelming texture to help intensify this dismal foreboding image.

 I’ll be writing more posts about shooting during winter and the holidays soon! I’ve cover tacking advantage of Christmas trees and decoration for great photo backgrounds and abstracts soon.

– Ryan Watkins (to see more of Ryan’s work visit or find me on flickr

Pumpkins and Portraits


Forgive me for having very sparse posts lately. Over the past month I’ve had some amazing photographic experiences and have been exceedingly busy. Two weeks ago I was able to attend Scott Kelby’s Light It Shoot It Retouch It seminar and yesterday I had the exhilarating opportunity to visit one of the greatest places in the world to learn photography: The Hallmark Institute of Photography.


 Here are a few images I’ve recently gotten by taking advantage of the last fall colors in Michigan. The top image was shot as soon as I returned to Michigan from Massachusetts. The tree in my front yard finally has some pleasing colors so I used it as a soft painterly background for this pumpkin.  I shot at 300mm at f/5.6 to get the shallowest depth of field possible. It was lit using the nice ambient lighting. After taking this image I realized that my Nikon D200’s sensor was getting quite dirt. To remove these specs I used the healing brush tool and clone stamp tool in Photoshop. The dust spots are starting to get to evident so I’m having my sensor cleaned at the local camera store.  This will save me a lot of time in post processing. One last image is not technically a nature image but it is a nice photo which incorporated Michigan’s beautiful fall colors. I great way to improve your portrait photography is including the fall colors in your background. Also adding fill flash to get a nice catch light in your subjects eyes will greatly improve your portrait and wildlife images. Keep shooting!

 – Ryan Watkins (to read more how to articles and see more of my photography visit my website or find me on flickr)

Off-Camera Flash

 Alright technically this isn’t a nature image but it can help teach some off camera flash tips. Most people think of using flash for portraiture or study work, but it really improve our nature images as well. Without adding flash to this still life the cross would have been completely black. My adding a bit of fill flash it made the image engaging and detailed. Adding flash to a variety of subjects – macros, intimate landscapes, or even foreground elements in wide vistas – can add emphasis to you nature images. Keep shooting!

– Ryan Watkins (to read more how to articles and see more of my photography visit my website or find me on flickr)

The Fall Colors are Finally Here!

I’d like to start out by apologizing for not posting my weekly post last week. Due to shooting several portrait sessions and school I didn’t have any new images or tips to share. The fall colors have started to show their full potential here in mid Michigan. I’ve decided to share a few of my favorites and tips for getting shots like this with all of you this week.


The image on the top of this post was shot on the edge of the woods near my home. The sun was shining though the vibrant leaves. I composed the image so that sun was shining through the crack in the trees. To get the sun to become the distinctive star shape I had to stop my lens down to f/16. Shooting at very narrow apertures into the sun will convert the ugly sun spot into an intriguing star. Just having the dark tree with a sun spot would have been a boring image, so I found a nice leaf in its peak color. I taped it to the tree using Shurtape 672 professional grade gaffers tape. Gaffers tape is a strong non-reflective heat resistant tape which doesn’t leave residue and can be easily peeled off of a variety of surfaces. Many portrait photographers use this in studio to attach different accessories – like colored gels or grids – to studio strobes. I always carry some Shurtape gaffers tape in my camera bag. I use it to tape accessories to my hot shoe flash or occasionally for more unconventional uses like this. Next I had to add some flash to the leaf and tree. Without flash the tree and leaf would have been black, but by adding fill flash it made the detail and texture of the leaf and tree visible.  I set my Sunpak PZ42X Hot shoe flash with a LumiQuest Softbox III on a tripod to the left of the camera to light the tree. The LumiQuest Softbox III helped make the quality of light better and softer than strait flash. By using the flash off camera it helped bring out the shape and texture of the tree unlike if I’d used my on camera pop up flash. The only editing was contrast adjustments, sharpening, and the removal of some lens flare.  

This next image may appear like a crazy Photoshop concoction but it isn’t! This was created by using rear sync flash combined with a long exposure. I covered the topic of rear sync flash a few weeks ago but here’s a quick review to reiterate. Rear sync is simply setting your flash to fire at the end of the exposure. This makes it so whatever the flash lights is sharp unlike if you fire the flash at the beginning of the exposure. Even if you move the camera during the exposure what the flash lights will stay sharp as if you shot that part of the image with a quicker shutter speed. For this image I set my Sunpak PZ42X hot shoe flash to the right of the tree which I again taped a leaf to. I got close to the tree with my Tokina 12-24mm f/4 lens. I zoomed the lens and moved the camera during the long exposure. The flash fired at the end keeping the tree sharp but keeping the background colors blurred from the camera movements. Playing around with rear sync flash can create some truly unique and creative images whether they be tame low light images or chaotic surreal images like this.

This final image is a more conventional image which is part of an ongoing personal series of mine. The forest floor became an ideal background for this image. To get the nice soft background I got fairly close to the cross statue and shot at f/2.2 with my 50mm portrait lens. The closer you are to the subject and the wider aperture you use the softer the background blur – commonly referred to as bokeh – is. My 50mm lens can use the aperture of f/1.8 which gives an incredibly smooth bokeh, but I decided to shoot at f/2.2. “Why did I do this,” you may ask if the smooth bokeh was my main priority. Because most lenses aren’t as sharp wide open. Shooting one or two stops from the widest aperture will result in sharper images than shooting at the maximum aperture. F/2.2 provided sharp results and still a wonderful bokeh where as f/1.8 would have had a softer image.


I personally love shooting the fall colors and as photographers we have a wide variety of ways to shoot these spectacular aspects of nature. Have fun shooting the fall colors and share them with the naturesbeststudents flickr group! Lastly happy thanksgiving to all Canadian readers!


– Ryan Watkins (to read more how to articles and see more of my photography visit my website or find me on flickr)

Tips for Shooting Handheld




Here in Clare, Michigan I’m still patiently waiting for the best of the fall colors. I’ll hopefully have some new images to share with you soon. In the meanwhile here are some helpful tips for shooting handheld.


Using a tripod will usually result in the sharpest possible imagery, but tripods aren’t always practical. In these situations we need to find the way to steady our cameras without our tripods. When using longer lenses on your DSLR putting one hand under the lens and another on the grip of your camera will result in the best images. Gripping the camera very tightly can result in blurry images. Letting the camera rest in your hands comfortably is your best bet. Bracing your elbows on car windows, stumps, or anything else you can find greatly increases the probability of getting a sharp image. The above image of an elk in Banff, Alberta won’t have been sharp if I hadn’t braced by arms a stump. Try to avoid shooting with longer shutter speeds than the reciprocal of the lens focal length your shooting with. For example try not to shoot using shutter speeds longer than 1/300s of a second when shooting with a 300mm lens. Vibration reduction or image stabilization can be very helpful when shooting handheld. Some lenses allow you to shoot at three stops longer shutter speeds than lens lacking this feature. Using these techniques can help you get sharp images in less than ideal situations.


– Ryan Watkins (to read more articles and view more of my images visit or find me on flickr)

Landscape Basics: Foreground Interest

A simple compositional technique which can be used to greatly enhance your landscape imagery is adding foreground interest. The world’s greatest landscape photographers (Ansel Adams, David Muench, and Jack Dykinga) all use this technique. Using wide angle lenses and placing an object like a rock, leaf, tree, bush, or flower in the front of image with the mountain or other interesting subject in the background can create stunning imagery. For example the above image shot outside Lake Placid, New York in June 2010 would have been fairly dull if I just shot the fog in the background. By focusing on the tree and placing the fog in the background it created a compelling photograph. The double rainbow in the below image was stunning but it needed something more to make the image exceptional. By focusing on the barn the rainbow ended up being the additional aspect which made this image this pleasing.

Try finding unique things to focus on for foreground interest in your landscape image!

– Ryan Watkins (Check out more of my blog posts and photography at or on flickr)

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