Sunday, April 8, 2018

N'Ice Ice Baby

As a 25 year Michigander, I often get the question when traveling "Where are you from?"  I already know their response when I say with a smile "Michigan".  Usually it's one of these:

"Wow, it's cold up there!" 
"Too cold and gray for me in the winter"                          
                                                             "I hear the summers are beautiful, but short."

Who needs a movie when we have more than 50 shades of gray between November and April?  Let's start by saying, yes it's cold in the winter in Michigan.  We have winters that you can sink your teeth in to. 
Blue Ice in Mackinaw City, Michigan by Sheen Watkins
Our ice is nice.  Actually, it's more than nice.  Our ice rivals abstract sculptures.  Our ice is rich with color, texture and depth. 

A trip to Mackinaw City, Michigan during the ice breaking season offered caverns of rich, blue ice formations and blocks.

I grew up in the sunbelt in Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas.  I happily thrived in the sunshine and heat.  When I moved to Michigan to marry my husband, neither of us realized if or how I would adapt to the cold and gray. 

Icy Slates at Sunrise in Northport, Michigan by Sheen Watkins
What I learned is with that the right gear and initiative, I see how Mother Nature adorns Michigan winters with works of art. 

You just have to go and explore.  

The iced tiles at sunrise in Northport, Michigan on the bay side of Lake Michigan lasted one day.

The evening before it was one big ice plate. 

Anticipating a potential shift from the forecast gale force winds, the alarm was set for oh-dark-thirty. 

Overnight, the winds picked up and the waves and conditions turned plates into formations that looked like slate tiles.  The sunrise brought a  color convergence of warm and cool.  24 hours later, they were gone.

Look for the less ventured view. 

Iced Cactus, Frankfort, Michigan by Sheen Watkins
On land, ice lasts a little bit longer in a given state. 

One of our most famous lighthouses, Point Betsie gets a lot of paparazzi with her stoic stance in the face of Michigan winters. 

I initially went to shoot the iconic beauty. 

Instead, a hike around the lighthouse uncovered a field of glistening iced 'cactus'. 

Don't let the gray get in the way!

For the many days that we don't see the sun, ice still  floats through the elements.

Frazil Ice by Sheen Watkins

Frazil ice, is a collection of soft, needle shaped ice crystals that form when the mist and water cool quickly.  From afar, the water looked like a film was on the surface.  A closer look revealed iced pancakes floating and shifting in the wavy waters.
Ice blocks by  Sheen Watkins

Note:  When photographing icy conditions, always use caution. 

Ice is slippery, sharp, can be thin in unexpected places. 

Take a partner.

Wear warm clothes.

Have the right foot gear (spikes are good!) and be careful. 

Carry your gear in a backpack when hiking.  If you fall with your gear you may be more worried about protecting your camera than you. 

No shot is worth putting yourself in danger.

Venturing out in the lower part of Northern Michigan in winter is definitely worth donning layers of clothing in winter. 

Oh yes, our summers are lovely too.

Happy shooting!

Sunday, February 4, 2018

"Photographer" Does that Title Define You or Me?

It's normal to describe ourselves using titles.   Maybe, potentially, we use titles because, describing what we do is easier than sharing who we are.

You may be a wife, a mother,  a husband, a father, a manager, a teacher, an executive, a clerk, an artist or a doctor.  Pick one, or add one to the list.

For years, I've been in corporate America and enjoy it immensely today.  I work for an organization with a legacy reputation built on ethics, quality and integrity. Their values reflect mine, and I hope that mine in turn reflects theirs.  But while working for that company is a big part of me, my title doesn't completely define or describe who I am.

Lake Michigan Sunset by Sheen Watkins
Our passions,  how we look at life, how we handle the good, the great, the fun, the hard, the sad and the horrific show who we are.

With each experience, our 'who we really are' continues to evolve.

Photography was just something I had always wanted to try.  I had no idea that once a camera was in my hands that my eyes and dreams would change so dramatically.

Photography has been an epiphany, a passion and a way of connecting and sharing nature with the world, or realistically, those who are interested.

Initially photography was taking images of nature, with birds being front and center.  Each day that I have a camera in my hands, I feel a deeper connection with who I am and what I believe:

Time and experiences in nature and travel are not a given but a gift.  I am grateful for the privilege to combine nature gift's with the art of photography.

A favorite subject, the Snowy Owl by Sheen Watkins

I believe that nature's gifts should be cherished, shared and protected for future generations.  To grow as an artist and photographer,  is a continuous and joyous journey.  My photography time consists of being in the field is both exploring nature followed by post processing to share my personal eye with others. 

It isn't a one-shot moment and then moving on to the next subject. 

Each image that makes it to the light of day is a result of many photographs of the same subject taken from different angles using different settings.  Trial and error is a constant.  Then it's finding the 'one' image to process and bring to life on a computer screen or print.

Abstract of Forest or the Trees by Sheen Watkins
The other side of photography is not as easy or fun.  There's an element of guilt and self-centeredness. 

Photography is costly.

True, the gear expensive.   It's the investment of time in the field, time in thought, time in learning that can take it's toll on family and those close who don't share the same interest.

Time in the field is time away from family.  Many photographers have more than one job to support their livelihoods. 

Time immersed in learning is time distracted from those that are close and want to be with you.

Fall Monarch with Artistic Edits by Sheen Watkins
Finding the balance between the love of being in the field, the solo time of creating versus spending time with those that are your heart and soul is hard.

Our passions require sacrifices of ourselves and patience from those we hold most dear.

Every day, photographers share and display images and imagery that entices the eye and some may even stir the soul of a viewer. 

There is a ton of hard and diligent work.  The carrying of heavy equipment.  The unpredictability of the subject.  Dealing with nature's elements.  Studying post processing tools and techniques.

Behind each image is an artist, sharing their eye, their connection with that brief second of time. 

So if someone says that 'she's a nature photographer,'  I'm very comfortable being defined by that title.

Happy Shooting!


Sunday, January 7, 2018

Wildlife Photographers - Giving Our Profession a Good or Bad Name?

Cedar Waxwing by Sheen Watkins
Every day in the field is a gift, and not one to be taken lightly.  Birds, animals and our outdoor spaces are fragile.  It is up to us to help survival in our co-existence with mother nature.  

As a nature photographer, I see many photographers show respect for nature, for other photographers and hikers.  

I've also seen photographers exhibit behaviors that are 'not-so-nice'.  

What was most surprising is that some of these 'not-so-nice' photographers were not being intentionally careless or rude.  They were just  caught up in the moment getting the shot.  

Here's a few awareness reminders for all of us to help keep nature and our photography flourishing.

Awareness of Distance:  Safety first for you and them - avoid putting yourself and wildlife in danger.  They need their space and so do you.  When you get too close, you may frighten or stress the bird/animal.   They could leave their nest, the area for good.  Or, on the flip side an animal may feel threatened and feel the need to protect their space.   They waste energy instead of nesting and feeding their young. 

The two fox kits below were part of a family of 8 kits.  Several photographers, including me, had the privilege of watching them frolic, play and learn.  We all maintained a safe and respectful distance across the pond.  A photographer who had a shorter lens, made his way to the other side of the pond which was way too close to the kits.  Mama Fox was not happy.  By the next morning, the DNR reported that the fox had indeed moved the family.  

Two Fox Kits by Sheen Watkins using a Nikon 500mm

The Right Equipment:   Telephotos provide an up close image capture at a safer distance for them and for you.  Today's lenses offer diversity in quality and cost.  Plus there's the used option or the ability to rent lenses.  

Rules of the Road (or area):  If you're in nature parks, wilderness areas, take the time to review the rules of the area.  Stay on marked trails, boardwalks and mapped areas.  Be a protector of our fragile habitat and ecosystem.  Bogs, preserved areas are delicate and footprints last a very long time. 

Never, ever, ever, ever bait animals:  This is the one thing that makes me nuts.  There are no winners here.  When an animal is baited, you put them at risk.  Baiting IS different than feeding chickadees, cardinals, woodpeckers at a feeder.   With baiting, they are pulled away from their routine, their hunt and even their location.   

There isn't one photograph that is worth putting any animal or human in danger.

Lead by example:  Even when no one is around.  We are a only a guest, a visitor on this planet.  Treat nature with care.   

Savannah Sparrow by Sheen Watkins
Awareness of Other Photographers:  When other photographers are shooting a subject, respect that they were there first.  Don't be 'that photographer' that rushed in to join the shooting only to scare the subject away.  

Cool Heads Prevail:  Many of us have come across photographers who give 'photographers' a bad name in how they treat others and nature.  When it is evident they don't care, there's probably nothing you can do to change their perspective.  Instead of engaging in negative banter, there's the power of reporting them to the local area, photographing their license plate or them when not looking.

With all of our websites, social media outlets, blogs, books, many folks enjoy seeing the moments in nature we get to experience first hand in the field.  We do live a pretty amazing life!

Happy Shooting!

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Gear Bag List - 2 Years Later

Photo by David Watkins,
A couple of years ago this month I provided a list of my camera gear in response to many emails and inquiries.  Today, it is still one of the top questions I still receive.

As my photography continues to evolve and expand, so does the gear in the bag.

Camera gear is an important decision and not one we take lightly.

Before I dive into my revised list (products with links take you to Amazon) - a few considerations:
  1. I am still a believer that the best camera and lens for the task is the one in your hand.  You are the one that creates and composes the images. 
  2. Time in the field will make you a better photographer - not the equipment. Sure, there is equipment that is better equipped for various situations.  You probably won't get the desired  'fill the frame" image of a bird when it is 25 feet away with a 50mm.  
  3. Buy the best you can afford.  As a continuation to #2 - the glass won't make you a better photographer.  I've bought and sold lenses (they hold their value well) when I could afford to upgrade my equipment to faster and sharper lenses.  
Savannah Sparrow by Sheen Watkins

Camera & Lens Brands
I continue to use Nikon cameras and lenses.   Their glass is terrific and I find the cameras to be solid. I would add that Canon, Sony and other brands are high quality and get the job done.  I have also added third party lenses as well as sold lenses that I no longer use.

The camera brand is important, but it's the lens selection based on your photography goals that should heavily influence your decision

Camera Bodies
For birds and wildlife, Nikon's 500D is my camera body of choice as of today.  The cropped sensor format, image quality and speed  is ideal for photographing birds and wildlife.   For landscapes, macro, portraits and street photography, I still use my well-worn, time in the field tested Nikon's 810. The bigger sensor renders beautiful details, colors and tones.

For information on cropped versus full framed sensors, check out my Light Stalking article: Cropped vs. Full Frame Sensor
Winter Beach by by Sheen Watkins
Nikon Lenses - zooms - general purpose and great for travel:
14-24mm 2.8 extra wide angle
24-70mm 2.8 mid range zoom
70-200mm 2.8 telephoto
When do I use zoom lenses? Travel photography, when I'm photographing multiple subject types, when I don't know what I'm going to shoot and want flexibility along with landscapes and wildlife.

Nikon Macro (Nikon refers to them as Micro) - macro lens for flowers, bees, close-up, 1:1.
105mm 2.8

Nikon Telephoto- 500mm FL ED f/4 - telephoto for birds, wildlife
Protective cover for lens (as seen in the photo above) by Lenscoat.
Teleconverters:  Nikon 1.4 III

Nikon Lenses - primes - lightweight, fast and sharp
28mm 1.8
50mm 1.8
85mm 1.8

When do I use primes?  Walk around photography, out on the town with friends, photographing my pets, nature walks where I have limited time, when I want to act like I have a point & shoot.

My favorite little prime?   There's a reason it's a nifty fifty.  A great price performer and just about every time I take this little guy out I have a creative blast.

I don't pull my primes out as much as I should.  The primary reason is that I travel to a lot of my shoots and need to minimize packing and maximize versatility.  When I'm local, I love to bring out my primes.  Light, fast and fun. 

Peach Delight with the Lensbaby Velvet 56mm by Sheen Watkins

Art Lens: Lensbaby Velvet 56mm - a departure from my sharp, all about the details photography.  Lensbaby's tagline is see in a new way.  For those wanting smooth, creamy blur and that unique edge, this company has a series of art lenses to choose from.

Schneider Optics B+W:  Circular Polarizer, Neutral Density Filters
Lee Filter System: 150 Extra Wide Filter System for the Nikon 14-24mm and the filter adapter ring for the 24-70.  Circular Polarizer, Medium Grad Filter and a 6 stop neutral density

Tripod: Manfrotto mt190cxpro4 Carbon Fiber Tripod
Tripod Head:  Really Right Stuff BH-40-LR (available through Really Right Stuff) and and their PG-02-Pano-Gimbal-Head.
Remote Shutter Release: Promaster

Camera bags:
Tamrac Anvil.  This is a big beast that holds a lot of gear and laptop.  When fully loaded, you'll get a workout as the weight adds up.  I use this bag when traveling on large planes or on a road trip. This is  partnered with one of the following for travel as this bag is too large for me to hike with.
Lowepro   They do a great job with lean.  I typically pack my 810, 14-24mm, 24-70, 70-200 and the needed filters in this streamlined bag.
Tenba's Vector Daypack.  This weighs two pounds, holds a 15" laptop and it's completely customizable inside.  Great for day trips and hiking.  I have two so that when I travel on small planes one goes under the seat and the Lowepro goes in the overhead.
Think Tank - for hikes, travel, a muti-short lens bag or camera with a 70-200 attached.  This holster is a pretty cool hipster.

Camera gear is an investment in you.  Take the time to read articles, customer reviews on the retailer's site (the good and the bad) and look at images produced by other photographers using gear you're considering.

Happy Shooting!

Monday, December 4, 2017

Eating "Michigan's" Fire for Breakfast

Fire in the Sky - Omena, Michigan by Sheen Watkins
Over the course of time, I've experienced many of Michigan's finest sights from behind the lens.  My idea of a good breakfast?  A fiery, Michigan sunrise!

I've taken thousands of images trying to reflect the diversity that's commonly known as "Pure Michigan."

With a vivid, intense sunrise glistening over our Great Lakes, it's an easy and energizing way to start the day.

If rising and shining is a bit of a challenge, get a jump start with a rich cup of coffee from Coffee Beanery, one of Michigan's finest businesses operating since 1976.  Or it may be the habitat friendly Birds and Beans Coffee or a cup of hot tea with a squeeze of citrus.

Norhport's Harbor by Sheen Watkins

From late fall to mid spring, Michigan is infamous for our grey, chilly winters.

For those who live (and photograph) here, we also know that gray is just a temporary state.   All you need is an early wake up call to go outside.  There...our breakfast may be served sunny-side up with a little fire mixed in. 

North of Omena on M22 by Sheen Watkins
There are those mornings where the sky's rosy red consumes land and water.   Skies go from twilight, shades of rich rose only to layer Grand Traverse Bay with glistening orange.

If red's not your taste, just wait a few minutes.  The red shifts to tints of oranges and yellows, adding a hint of warmth to the morning's chill.

A Door to Sunrise by Sheen Watkins
When the sun crests the horizon, don't rush the moment.  Just wait.

With a little local knowledge, you can find many interesting little unique treasures for the sun to peak through.

Some of my favorite spots?

Just head up Michigan's M22 on the east side of the Leelanau Peninsula.  Quaint towns of Sutton's Bay and Omena rest on the Grand Traverse Bay's shoreline. Then the veer up onto 201 along Northport's harbor and North Shore drive.

Along the way, savor the moment and let the sun rise to greet you.

Happy Shooting!
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Sunday, November 19, 2017

Finding Scenic, Hidden Treasures ~ "Go Greyhound"

Historic Greyhound Depot by Sheen Watkins
A road frequently traveled may host a few surprises.  Sometimes, you just have to look for the unexpected intentionally.

It's easy to get caught up in reaching your destination quickly, that we may miss some amazing sites along the way.

My family still resides in the same town and house I grew up in.  After many 16-hour road trips from Michigan to Arkansas, I decided to explore the small town we use as a regular stop-over. 

Arriving before sunset, I  "googled" Blytheville, Arkansas just to see what was there.  I was thrilled with the results.

The small town of Blytheville, Arkansas hosts a historic and fully restored Greyhound Bus Station that was built in 1937.   What a beautiful little gem.

Back in the day, this was the way to travel.

Go Greyhound by Sheen Watkins
The station, with a small cafe type setting displayed true to the era decor Moderne Art appointments. All that was missing was a few Bing Crosby tunes.

Inside the station - Sheen Watkins
Within the state of Arkansas and for transportation historians, it is well-known.  From an artistic standpoint, it's modern styling, color and faded neon, it was a fortunate find.

While shooting the exterior, a couple stopped by and asked if I was interested to see the inside.  They had a key, access to the building and loved sharing how the town had restored a colorful piece of history.

For those making the venture up or down I-55 in northeast Arkansas, it's definitely worth a stop.

If you plan on stopping by, bring your widest angle lens (I had my Nikon 14-24mm extra wide) and also a tripod.  The tripod is a must if you want to take a few night shots.

Happy shooting!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Photography & Packing - Oh the Woe to be on the Go!

Photography and travel pack the perfect punch for adventure.  From new destinations to favorite locations we're rewarded with images and many fun memories.

Icelandair, a wonderful airline - by Sheen Watkins
The good news is that the images and memories don't weigh much.  Our gear, luggage and accessories on the other hand, can be a pain in the....back.

I much rather focus on shooting in smooth waters  than worrying about keeping up with too much stuff!

There are many more efficient packers than me, there are others that are anything but efficient.  With a few changes to my planning and packing process, I've significantly reduced my baggage.   When traveling with camera gear, every ounce adds up fast!

For clothing:
I bought a packing cube set  (my choice was the Bagail) and also quart and gallon sized Ziploc Slider Bags earlier this year.  Rolling clothes, compressing items into the ziploc bags significantly reduced the amount of storage space needed.  I was further inspired by the you tube video below by Storia. I loved the creative use of many household items versus buying more single use 'organizing tools'.

On a recent trip, I was able to pack clothing, shoes, etc. for 2 weeks in my 22" spinner suitcase using packing cubes and plastic bags combined with a tripod.  The plus?  I had room to spare!

For Camera Gear:
Camera bags - another potential "woe".  I've been through a few and thought I had made purchasing mistakes.  They weren't.  Different sizes, configurations work for various situations.  For example, my durable, 'hold everything but the long lens'  my large, heavy and well padded Tamrac bag is my choice when I can work from and out of the car - which is quite frequent.   Fully loaded, it's over thirty pounds with a laptop.  Not travel or hiking friendly but it is a workhorse.

Waiting to Go by Sheen Watkins
The only piece of photography equipment I'll check is my tripod when I need to check a bag.  It's just too risky to check any other gear.  My cameras, lenses, batteries, filters, chargers, tripod head and my laptop stay with me in 2 carry-on bags.

Think Tank's Digital Holster - compressed, it holds my Nikon 810 with a 24-70mm + filters, spare battery, cleaners, car keys and wallet.  Expanded in length, I can add 2 primes or macro in addition to the camera with the attached 24-70mm.

I've used the holster when hiking with my Nikon D500 and a 70-200mm 2.8 attached.  One of my best bag purchases period!

Lowepro Flipside Series - I use an older version of this series.  It fits a significant amount of gear snugly, plus I can include my 15" laptop when flying in the same area with my cameras and lenses.  I wrap the laptop in a soft, protective cloth.  To access gear, the swing-around, table-top like set up makes it easy to change lenses, find and store accessories quickly.

Here's to making our 'go' a bit lighter and more efficient!

Happy Shooting!