Backstage
 How I shoot 'em
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People often ask me  How do I create these portraits ?

I am neither a full-time photographer nor an amphibian biologist, but I am a certified "project maniac" and I'm lucky enough to have the essential elements that enable this unexpected and immensely fun project.

Here are the ingredients in my "secret sauce":


      1   A very convenient pond 
     2   A camera with "the right stuff"
     3   A tripod 
     4   The right clothes (mud-colored!)

     5   Commitment

     6  
Determination
     7  
Photoshop !

                                                                                                                                                        What's that on my T-shirt?
 1   A very convenient pond

  
Which means...

Nearby - Right here in my yard so I can go out between the late news and bedtime, while the pizza is in the oven, or while  
      the computer is taking too long to do something.  Any time of day or night I can go out the back door and walk 50 feet and 
      find a frog, without fail (during frog season, April to October).  I get many of my best portraits because I go out frequently and 
      just show up at the right time when something interesting happens to be happening.


Manicured
- Trimmed lawn right down to the water’s edge, giving the advantages of ...
     - No trekking through tall vegetation or soggy ground, so getting a good frog is as easy as getting the mail 
     - A clear view of frogs that are near or on the shore, which is where they mostly hang out



 2    A camera (or two) with "the right stuff"
 

Which means...
         

    Macro mode
 - So I can stick the camera right in the frog's face.  Surprisingly,
     most frogs don't seem to mind a close
camera, or even repeated flashes


    Good optical zoom
 - In case the subject is a few feet away from the shore,
      where I can't get right up close



      Many cameras have the above two features, but it's not so easy to find the next two,
      which are critical for this mission...


     Swivel viewscreen - This lets me aim at pond level, face-to-face with my
       subject, without putting my OWN face in the mud

                                                                                                                                                                                         Pucker up !   ... macro mode for closeup shots
    
Night vision -  For finding my subject in the dark (not just night FOCUS,
       which many cameras have these days).  There's a
lot of frog activity at night, especially with the noisy springtime frogs

 




My night camera is this Sony DSC-F707 (circa 2001), which allows me to find my target in the dark.  It is no longer

in production, but it is so essential to this project that I bought another one on the used market to have for backup.
(That left frog is the same one as the September 29 Frog of the Day, "
Tasted like chicken" )

 

   My day camera is the Canon PowerShot S3.  It’s a newer camera with image stabilization,
higher optical zoom, and a more agile viewscreen, so I use this one for everything except night work
.

 

Both of these cameras were gifts from astute camera-shoppers who knew
what to look for.   If my benefactors are reading this, you know who
you are, and thank you for your contribution to the project!

  3   A tripod
  You wouldn't think a tripod would be particularly useful for animals as fast-moving as frogs, but the reality is that most of the
  time they just sit there, very still, waiting for the next meal to show up
 slow shutter speeds are therefore no problem.  I didn't
  start using a tripod until 2009, and it has allowed me to get many shots I wouldn't otherwise get, particularly when the frog 
  is at a distance or light is low. 
 
   Direct sun is generally bad light for what I'm doing (wet reflections and highlights get washed out, shadows are too dark), so
   I typically will set up the tripod and wait for a cloud to calm down the light.  If it's a particularly dim situation, I use the timer so I
   don't have to worry about button-pressing wiggle. 

   Long exposures with a tripod allow for (1) low
i.e., "slow" ISO setting of 80 to minimize that crunchy digital "noise" in low
   light and (2) maximum depth of field, which is nice for some portraits.









              








                                                                          Shooting in the lilypad patch

 4   The right clothes (mud-colored)
So I can concentrate on the chase with no worries of sartorial damage! 


This means dedicated jeans for the job preferably black so I don't care if I get muddy when I sit or kneel to get the shot.

Later in the summer when the shoreline recedes and leaves a mud “beach," boots become essential in order to get close to the action.  Interestingly, boots don’t let me wade INTO the water, because the bottom is undefined and sucky-soft
I learned this the hard way!  If you step into the zone of bottomless muck, you have to pull out of your boot and squish back to shore with a soggy sock!  (Or maybe loose your balance with TWO stuck feet, and sit down in the mud.)







 

      Thank goodness for washing machines !                                           

 

       

 


  To get  a little further out into the soft stuff, I lay down a square of plywood

  like a "snowshoe" to stand on                 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

   5   Commitment
To get the good ones, I need to get out there often  even if sometimes I don’t really feel like it  to make sure I don’t miss whatever surprise may be waiting.  The animals do their thing whenever THEY feel like it, and if I'm not there to shoot it, it’s lost.


Examples of serendipitous discoveries:  The snake-grabs-frog episode (on the Food Chain page) and the big snapping turtle who made an algae-decorated appearance near the shore.

     

 

 6    Determination 

 

Once I’ve got a frog in my sights, I don’t give up until I get the

“good one” ... or until the subject leaves the scene!


Digital cameras and exploding storage capacities make this

strategy of "shoot-'til-you-get-it-right" both easy and affordable.

 

 

 

 

                                     

 

 

 






 

 

 

 

 

                                  Oops, leaving the scene... THIS shot is done !






 7   Photoshop !

Yes, I use Photoshop!  Half the fun is making a finished product from the raw image that comes off the camera's memory card.
(By the way, everything you'd ever want for photo-fixing is in Photoshop Elements, which is a "consumer" subset of full-blown "professional" Photoshop, at a fraction of the price.)

My "lab" work falls into two categories, technical corrections and artistic improvements :

Technical corrections

To make it look more like what I actually saw - no camera can match the stunning built-in abilities of the human eye

1. Brightness, contrast, color balance, "dodge and burn" (lighten dark areas, darken light areas) just like the darkroom jocks have been doing for decades.

2. Lighting balance in night shots, where the background comes out very dark compared to the flashed frog.

3. Remove reflections caused by the camera flash.  Sometimes this ends up leaving things looking too flat ... I'm experimenting with how to leave SOME reflection to keep things looking natural.

4. Combine focus (near/far) or exposure (dark/light) for two parts of a scene that the camera couldn't handle.  Shoot twice -- once focused/exposed on one part of the scene, the other focused/exposed on the other part of the scene.  Then combine the two so it looks right.

5. Straighten out a horizontal or vertical element that is unnaturally curved or skewed because of the lens or the shooting angle.


Artistic improvements
To remove distractions and make things "look nice"

6. Crop To frame the subject in an interesting way.

7.  Remove "junk".  This is better done later in Photoshop than during the actual shoot because, unlike cooperative still-life scenes or people shots where you can fiddle with things and move stuff out of the way, disturbing a frog like this may cause it to simply leave the scene... or if it's near a bullfrog's front end, might cause me to get bitten !  (The leaf I was attempting to reposition in Savor the Season shows what happens to anything moving too close to a bullfrog's "grab zone".)

8.  Fix areas of the foreground or background that have some sort of visual chaos that doesn't contribute to the scene and detracts from the overall impression.


The goal:  A pleasing portrait
I consider my post-click indoor work to be as much a part of the creative process as the outdoor work it took to wrangle the shot in the first place.  (Of course, to enter a photo contest that has a rule saying "no editing", I'm limited to my few lucky shots that didn't need any editing!)


Here are some BEFORE and AFTER examples of how I use Photoshop to turn a "shot" into a portrait.

                 ORIGINAL SHOT from the camera                                                      FINISHED PORTRAIT after editing