Crowell Photography & writing: Blog en-us (C)Nancy K. Crowell, all rights reserved, Crowell Photography, LLC (Crowell Photography & writing) Thu, 01 Mar 2018 00:04:00 GMT Thu, 01 Mar 2018 00:04:00 GMT Crowell Photography & writing: Blog 120 72 Costa Rica - A Photographer's First Visit Last year a dear friend of mine returned from his first trip to Costa Rica raving about the beauty of the place and insisting I needed to go take photos. I dismissed it as a pipe dream, but this year he made sure it happened by giving me his Alaska Airlines companion ticket and scheduling an itinerary in which he acted as guide and driver and part-time camera Sherpa. I have just returned from that trip and I have a few things to share with photographers and would-be photographers who are planning a visit.


First, camera gear. Do your research and carefully assess what you might need to capture the photos you think you are going to get. I did a lot of research before I went. I read a lot of blogs, watched some YouTube videos and even befriended some Costa Rican photographers on Instagram so I could ask advice. In the end, I bought a ThinkTank International travel bag to carry my gear. Here's what I took: two camera bodies, Nikon D500 & D750. Four lenses: Nikkor 200-500mm zoom, Nikkor 24-70 zoom, Nikkor 105mm macro and Nikkor 50mm f/4. I also took a 1.4 extender, which I did not use. I had multiple backup batteries and two battery chargers so I could recharge spent batteries at night. I also took multiple backup memory cards, a Surface Pro laptop and two external hard drives.

Usually when I travel I transfer my files each night to an external hard drive and clean my cards. In this case I ran into a road block. I had purchased a La Cie Rugged 2 TB external hard drive just before I left, but discovered on my first night there that it is not compatible with the Surface Pro. My travel companion works in IT and even he could not get it to work with the Surface Pro, so I changed course and simply watched how full my cards were getting. I didn't download anything till I got home.

Other essentials I took included two water-proof sleeves for the cameras, plenty of lens cleaning cloths, my rocket blower and brush, and a set of tools. I did not take a tripod. I knew we would be hiking through the jungle in the heat and I knew I was going to be suffering as it was. A tripod would have added to my misery and slowed me down. I also chatted with a local photographer who suggested a tripod wouldn't be necessary. 


I think I did a pretty good job of selecting gear. Although the 200-500mm lens is heavier than my 80-400, I survived. It enabled me to get better pics of the monkeys we saw, and some of the birds, than a shorter lens would. I took this lens virtually everywhere with me. Mounted on the D500, which is a DX format, it gave me good reach for almost all birds and critters and in some instances was too much. 

I did not need the 1.4 extender. I only used the macro lens a couple of times, but since we went in the dry season not much was blooming. If I had gotten to see the poison dart frogs I might have used it more. I used the 50mm the first night we were there for some 'street' photography. I wish I had done that more. I was usually so dialed in to trying to capture good bird images that I let that slide. I love the 50mm and it's a great walking around lens. If you have one, I recommend you take it and use it. 

I have an 80-400mm lens and that would have worked great for most photos, but if I added the 1.4 extender for more length it would have put me at a maximum of f/8, which is way too slow and dark for the harsh light and shadows of the jungle. 

Some of the information I read highly recommended purchasing a Better Beamer light diffuser for flash. It seems a lot of bird photographers use this. I looked into it, but in the end decided against it. I don't normally use flash, so I would have had to purchase a flash as well as the Better Beamer and then practice with it. Instead I took a headlamp and flashlights. When we did night tours the guides had strong enough flashlights that it was relatively easy to take photos anyway. I would skip the extra gear in this case, unless it's something you're accustomed to using.

I also took a small day backpack. Each day I would decide what I needed and only took that gear. 

We traveled by boat to Sirena Station in Corcavado National Park. I had planned carefully for protecting my gear from rain, but failed to consider the potential damage of salt water spray! Although I took a large garbage bag with me, I forgot to take it on the open boat. I sat in the middle and kept my gear in a backpack, but was definitely worried when the water sprayed over the bow numerous times. Next time I will take some sort of water-proof backpack or remember that garbage bag! 

After we returned from that trip I wiped down all my gear with a damp cloth and let it stay in the air conditioning for a while to dry out. It seems no worse for the wear. 



I watched so many documentaries and videos about Costa Rica, trying to imagine what the conditions would be like and how I would have to adapt. In the end the very best advice I gleaned was a single, casual tip. Many posts suggested investing in silicone bags to keep gear dry. The tip that made the most sense to me was this: if you're staying in an air conditioned place, keep your camera gear in the bathroom. Why? The bathrooms usually aren't air conditioned, so your gear won't be exposed to dramatic temperature fluctuations. When you take it out in the morning, it won't fog up in the heat and humidity. It works. My companion didn't do this and it took a good 15 minutes for his camera to adjust on the first day. I would have missed shots if I had been waiting for my gear to acclimate!


We decided on February because it is the middle of the dry season. It's easier to get around during dry season, plus it's easier to see animals and birds because the foliage isn't as dense. Also, traveling to the remote Osa Penninsula is particularly challenging during wet season. I used a OneNote notebook to track our itinerary and keep detailed photography notes, but we used TripIt to keep us organized. 

Our route was determined by my traveling companion's prior experience and the location of some friends I have who moved to Costa Rica a decade ago. I had never gotten to visit them, so we planned time to visit their remote location. It happens to be on the Osa Penninsula, near Corcavado National Park, so we knew it was a place we wanted to visit anyway. 

I knew I wanted to see hummingbirds, the resplendent quetzel, and macaws. Everything beyond that would be a bonus. 


We planned our route based on things we wanted to see and do, and allowing for travel time and "course corrections." We really didn't know what the roads would be like, so we built in a little extra time to change course if we needed to and we used to reserve rooms that could be canceled without forfeiting a deposit. Some of our plans worked out, some didn't.

I won't go through an exhaustive day-by-day description here, but I will highlight some things to think about if you're planning your first trip to Costa Rica.


What worked:  We flew into Liberia, rather than San Jose, because it's a smaller airport and we thought it would be easy to get to the coast for an overnight before starting our journey to Monteverde. If you're planning to go to the Osa Penninsula first, San Jose is a better choice. Our decision to rent a car and drive directly to the coast for our first night worked out well for us. We stayed at Hotel M&M Beach House in Playas Del Coco. Inexpensive, clean, private, guarded parking - it was all we needed. We arrived in time to get a light dinner, a good night's rest, and wake up early enough to enjoy the beach before hitting the road for a long drive to Monteverde. Beacause we had scheduled plenty of time, we actually booked a boat tour in the Paolo Verde park for our first day. Although we had booked a 10 a.m. tour, we arrived early and Palo Verde Boat Tours accommodated us - we got out on the water around 9:00 a.m. After a wonderful, personalized tour (the only other visitors were a biologist who spoke excellent English and served as an unexpectedly great guide, and his family), we had a fabulous lunch. Highly recommend this tour company if you're in the area. We saw at least 17 different birds, plus bats, crocodiles and iguanas. And when the boat driver saw my long lens, he urged me to sit in the bow of the boat - which proved perfect for photos.

What didn't work: We arrived on a Saturday afternoon. Apparently this is a really popular arrival time and we were stuck in the customs line for over an hour. Pick another day to fly in and you might not have to wait as long. Beach board walkBeach walkThe beach board walk in Costas. Costas shopsCostasColorful small shops at the beach. Reduce, reuse, recycle on a palm tree. Reduce, reuse, recycleCosta Ricans are becoming more and more environmentally savvy - as expressed by this sign at the beach. Photo of sailboats anchored offshore at the beach with some islands in the distance. Day 1View of the beach on our first day in Costa Rica. People walking down a dimly lit dirt road toward a lighted cabana. First nightIt was nice to walk in the tropical temperatures when we went out for dinner on our first night. Brightly lit tables and chairs outside a local "Soda" restaurant. Soda TeresiaCosta Rica is dotted with these small shops called "Sodas," where you can get a bite to eat and something to drink. Woman selling food from a cart on the street. Street vendorsWe saw plenty of street vendors throughout our trip, but never stopped at one. Two children playing at a skate park, one on a bicycle, one on a scooter.Local sceneKids played at the beachside skateboard park well after dark. Photo of the front porch of Hotel M & M. Hotel M & MThis is Hotel M & M, where we stayed our first night. It faces the beach and was a nice place to just hang out and get our bearings.


What worked: Wow. The roads in Costa Rica are REALLY BAD. I have never seen such bad roads. Still, since we rented a four-wheel drive SUV, we were able to drive all the way to Monteverde, albeit s l o w l y in some cases. We picked a hotel "Tobi's Place", closest to the Cloud Forest. Having the car was a good idea, as although people suggested we could walk to the entrance of the Cloud Forest Reserve, we would have been exhausted before we even got there if we had walked carrying our gear! We got up early, drove up and parked just outside the entrance. Although we hadn't hired a guide beforehand, there were plenty of guides available for hire when we purchased our entry tickets.

I can't emphasize this enough: HIRE A GUIDE! You will miss all sorts of things if you don't hire a guide the first time you walk through the Cloud Forest. We took the tour with a guide, then took a break at the nearby hummingbird garden, then went back and walked on our own. The guide will give you history and help you see things you would no doubt miss if you were just wandering through on your own.

We picked up a local hitchhiker on our way down from the Cloud Forest. He turned out to be not only a certified guide, but also a bird nerd and bird photographer. He also knew a lot about amphibians and reptiles. We ended up hiring him for a private night tour. I'm not sure I would have picked up a hitchhiker if I had been on my own, but I was sure glad to make this connection! We had a blast with Jean and now we're 'virtual' friends on Facebook and Instagram. If I ever get to return, I will hire him as a bird guide. 

Hummingbird nestHummingbird nestThis is a perfect example of why one should hire a guide when touring the parks. We would never have spotted this hummingbird nest without a guide.

What didn't work: I really wanted a great photo of the resplendent quetzel. Although I saw it in the Cloud Forest, I learned later that they are actually more visible in one of the local private reserves. Do a little research if there's something special you want to photograph and give yourself the best chance to capture that image.

I also wanted great hummingbird pictures. As it turned out, the best place to see the hummingbirds was at the hummingbird garden right next to the park entrance. They have tons of feeders and the hummingbird action is phenomenal. Although I got a few photos, I didn't allow enough time to get what I wanted. I could spend a whole day there watching and shooting pictures. Personally, I would allow more time for that if I went back. I also would consider taking a shorter lens. My 200-500mm was too long for this location. My macro wasn't quite right. I think my 80-400 would have worked better. 


What worked: We had no idea if we could actually drive to Drake Bay. Fortunately, the rental car company suggested we use the WAZE app. This worked beautifully everywhere we were. We also opted for the personal Wi-Fi hotspot when we rented the car. This portable Wi-Fi helped us out more than once during the trip. You can drive to Sierpe and take a boat to Drake Bay. We both decided that next time we would either do that or fly to Drake Bay. Although the drive was exciting (we had to drive through SIX rivers to get there!), it took more time than we would have liked due to the condition of the roads. 

When our first hotel turned out to be undoable, we got on Wi-Fi and searched for another. We found a cheap, clean, convenient place called Casa Toucan. It had parking next to the room (perfect if you have lots of photo gear, as I did), air conditioning (an unexpected bonus) and a small refrigerator in the room. Plus, after a little negotiation for four nights, it was only $50 a night. Would I stay there again? Probably not. The shower barely worked. The family that lived there was really noisy at night when we wanted to sleep. There was no breakfast or even coffee. There was no view. BUT, all that said, the family was very nice. We didn't spend that much time in our room, and because we were budget traveling, it worked for us. 

When our scheduled tour to Corcavado National Park fell through we scrambled to reschedule. We found a friend in Eric at Pacheco Tours who put up with our bugging him almost hourly and scheduled us for a tour. We would probably stay at their cottages next time, as they were reasonably priced and had an ocean view. 

One of the tours my friends had insisted I book in advance was The Night Bug Tour with Tracie the Bug Lady. Oh boy was it worth it! Smart, funny, informed - Tracie and her partner Gian do a fantastic job of showing you the jungle you don't know is there. Highly recommend! Five stars!

And here's something that surprised me - although we were well prepared to fend off mosquitoes, there were none! That's right. NO MOSQUITOES. I asked my friend who lives there about this and she told me there are a few during rainy season, but generally, it's not bad. A whip-tailed scorpion in the palm of a hand. Whip Tailed ScorpionTracie, of the The Night Tour, gives an entertaining, educational and hands-on tour of all the things in the jungle you don't see at first glance. In this picture she's holding a whip-tailed scorpion for all the tour attendees to see up close. Tropical rainforest up to the edge of the water with two boats in the foreground. Drake BayBeautiful Drake Bay was lush and green.


What didn't work: Ah, so many things went wrong in Drake Bay. We had booked a hotel (Lookout Drake Bay) through The room we booked looked lovely and had ceiling fans, which we thought would be good enough. When we arrived, the driveway to the hotel was nearly impossible to use. We barely made it up with our four-wheel drive! Then, there was a very long, steep walk up the hill. When the proprietor showed us the room it was nothing like the room we had viewed and booked on Instead, it was a small, fan-less room with a bunk bed. We said no thank you and went down to the town to get on Wi-Fi and find a new place. We were very worried (at least I was - my travel companion is pretty calm through things like this), that everything would be booked. (See the resolution above in "What Worked). 

I had also made a point of booking our tours for Drake Bay based on recommendations from my friends who live there. They highly recommended I book the guide Roy through Drake Divers to go to Sirena Station in Corcavado National Park. I did that in September. Everything was confirmed. When I sent an email the day before our arrival to reconfirm I received a casual response telling me Roy wasn't available due to family illness. They said they would book another tour for me if I wanted. Of course I said yes, then got no response. Frankly, they dropped the ball.

We spent our first day in Drake Bay walking from tour company to tour company trying to book a tour to Sirena Station because the National Park only allows a handful of people into the park every day. When we went to Drake Divers we were received with indifference. I showed the emails and the woman working there kind of shrugged her shoulders and said Roy lived in San Jose and they couldn't reach him. It was at this point I really lost it. This was on Wednesday and we had scheduled our trip for Friday, but told them we were flexible enough to go the next day. I even texted my friend who lives there, who called and talked to them. Long story short, long after we had found and booked another tour, they sent an email saying we could go with Roy the next day. It was after six in the evening and we were headed to a night tour. Needless to say, I would never try to book a tour with these people again. They get great reviews on Trip Advisor, but they dropped the ball for us. 

Gear: If I were planning for the night bug tour, I wouldn't take my camera. I would take my phone only. I had hoped to see poison dart frogs, but they're actually in Sierpe, not Osa (see note above about doing your research!). I had hoped to get some good pics with my macro lens, but it turned out to be too difficult to get close enough and Tracie and Gian are very conscious of not casting light on the creatures they show you for too long. A phone with a decent camera is plenty good enough for the night tour. 

For the trip to Sirena Station I took my Nikon D500 and 200-500mm lens. It was a good combo for most things I shot, but was admittedly a heavy load for me to carry in the heat. If I had a nice slush fund, I would probably have gotten the Nikkor 300mm f/4 and used my 1.4 extender. This would have given me the same distance with less weight, although less flexibility than the zoom. 


We decided the drive from Drake Bay back to Liberia was likely to be one we didn't want to do in one day, so we scheduled our last night to stay at Cerro Lodge in Tarcoles. Imagine my delight when I saw that they have bird feeders that attract scarlet macaws as well as dozens of other colorful birds! My only regret was that we didn't spend at least two nights here. If you want a lazy-man's way to see gorgeous birds (even a ferruginous pygmy owl!), this is a great location off the beaten path. The rooms are nice, the food is great, there is a pool, and the bird watching is top notch. 


I felt pretty good about my planning. Although I didn't use the D750 and my wider lenses as often as I would have liked, I was happy to have gotten some decent photos for my first trip out. Now that I have an idea what to expect, I would spend a little more time in Monteverde and visit a couple of the nearby nature Reserves in addition to the Park. 

I would consider getting a little lens for my iPhone and use it for some more 'touristy' casual photos. 

Clothes wise I did great. In fact, my clothes bag was much smaller than my camera bag. I took one pair of Keens and one pair of Teva sandals. I wore the Keens the entire time, except for the trip to Sirena station. For that I wore the Tevas simply to get in and out of the boat (which is a beach landing). Otherwise it was all tee shirts and shorts. For travel from the cold Pacific Northwest I wore a Nuu-Muu dress which I was able to layer with tights over shorts (I took off the tights when we landed), and a long-sleeved overshirt (which I removed upon landing). I also took and wore a fantastic lightweight vest by ScotteVest. 

This being my first trip to Costa Rica, I naturally had visions of getting photos of every single thing - from monkeys to birds to poison dart frogs. I also knew that probably wouldn't happen. Next time I would schedule time to visit Sierpe Frogs and get photos of the famous and beautiful poisonous amphibians. 


  • Don't be afraid to go on your own, without a tour
  • Pack lightly on clothes
  • Pick the right camera gear for the images you want
  • Use TripIt to plan your itinerary
  • Learn some Spanish - it helps 
  • Research where you're going and when to understand what birds/animals you stand a chance of seeing - there are many different areas to visit to see everything from hatching sea turtles to massive bird migrations to butterflies and sloths
  • It's Nature - know that you won't necessarily see everything you want to
  • Book tour guides in advance; if heading to Corcavado make sure you book with a guide who takes payment in advance in order to secure your spot
  • Sirena station is considered the best location in Corcavado to see the most animals/birds
  • Plan flexibility into your schedule - you may need a day or two to rework logistics
  • If you're going to shoot birds, download the Merlin Costa Rica guide, or other Costa Rica birds guide
  • Do the night tours - you can sleep when you get home
  • Notify your credit card companies in advance that you'll be out of the country and where you will be
  • If you're headed to the Osa Penninsula, take cash. There are no ATMs and few people take credit cards
  • Most places take US dollars, but it's always good to exchange some money when you arrive in the country
  • The food and water were excellent most places we went. Unlike Mexico, I did not get sick. I took anti-diarrheal medication just in case.


A turkey vulture in flight. Turkey vultureCosta Rica has many varieties of vultures, and we saw plenty of them. This turkey vulture was checking us out on our first day. A close-up of long-nosed bats on the bark of a tree. Long nosed batsI shot these photos from the boat during our tour in Palo Verde. I could not see what I was shooting, but the guide kept pointing and telling me there were bats. I did not see them until later, when I looked at my photos and was able to zoom in. Masters of disguise! A blue-capped night heron peeking out from his perch inside foliage.  Blue-capped night heronWe saw lots of herons. It was really difficult to get full pictures as they often turned away or backed into shadow when the boat approached. A boat-billed heron sitting on a branch in a tree looking directly at the camera. Boat-billed heronThis boat-billed heron was eyeing me carefully. It took a number of tries before I got a picture of him without much foliage in front of him. Photo of a sugar cane field with a single tree. Dry seaonI was smitten with the color palate of Costa Rica on our first day. The pale green of sugar cane against the blue skies was just the thing I needed after a long, dark winter in the Pacific Northwest.


  A brightly colored hummingbird perches on a feeder. Hummingbird at feederOf course it's much easier to see the many varieties of hummingbirds up close at the nearby hummingbird garden. It's just outside the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve entrance and has feeders that attract dozens of hummers. A hummingbird with a blue throat in flight, approaching a feeder. Hummingbird with blue throatThere are a seemingly endless variety of hummers in Costa Rica. A coatimundi on pavement. CoatimundiWildlife is one of the great attractions for Costa Rica. We saw our first coatamundi at the Cloud Forest Reserve. Although he was happily looking for handouts, visitors were really conscious of not feeding him. They are in the raccoon family and cause many of the same issues raccoons do in the US - like getting into the garbage.


Photo of a resplendent quetzal in a tree, showing his turquoise colored back side and long mating tail feathers. Resplendent quetzelThe resplendent quetzal is THE bird I had hoped to see and photograph in Costa Rica. Although I did see three of them, I never got a great shot. Still a thrill though.

Hummingbird with a purple chest sitting on a tree branch. Purple hummingbirdThis purple chested hummingbird terrorized all the other hummers at the feeders. A purple chested hummingbird in flight approaching a feeder.Purple hummingbird in flightI think the white tail of this hummingbird served as a huge warning to others, as they all scattered (except that little honeycreeper on the feeder) when it came in to feed. Anteater in a tree looking directly at camera. Anteater in treeI have to say, my favorite critter encounter was completely unplanned. This adorable anteater crossed the road in front of our car as we were leaving Monteverde Cloud Forest. We pulled over and I ran to take pics. It ambled up a tree, turned and posed for me, climbed back down and ambled off. Adorable! Scorpion glowing blue in the dark.ScorpionThis is a bad photo of a really cool critter. On our first night tour we were shown this scorpion that illuminates under blue light. I had no tripod, so this was the best I could do hand-held. A two-toed sloth hanging from a tree branch. Two-toed slothNo trip to Costa Rica is complete without a view of a sloth, even if a brief one. This two-toed sloth was high in a tree and moving ever-so-slowly the night we took our first night jungle tour. Again, no tripod meant fuzzy pics.


White faced monkey eating a banana.White faced monkeyWe saw lots of monkeys during our entire visit, but the white-faced monkeys are the clever ones. I am sure they annoy the people who live there, as they are always getting into something, but they were fun to watch. Two scarlet macaws on a branch in a tree. Scarlet macawsIf I couldn't get good pics of the Resplendent Quetzel, at least I could get pics of the scarlet macaw. These two were at Cerro Lodge, where we stayed our last night. I got better pictures of them in Drake Bay, but never got the great flying shot that shows their amazing feathers.

Scarlet macaw on a branch, looking down at camera. Scarlet macawI heard scarlet macaws on the first day in Drake Bay, but they flew by so fast I didn't get a shot. Every morning after that I got up before sunrise and walked to a nearby park overlooking the beach. I sat and waited for my opportunity. Finally, on the last day, six macaws flew to a nearby tree and stayed long enough for me to get some shots. I even got a couple of them in flight.

]]> (Crowell Photography & writing) a photographer's guide to costa rica costa rica costa rica photo tips costa rica travel costa rica wildlife costa rica wildlife photography pura vida tips for taking great photos in costa rica Wed, 28 Feb 2018 21:39:39 GMT
The Joys and Perils of Bird Photography The Joys and Perils of Bird Photography 

As a professional photographer I consider myself a lifelong student of photography. I have worked in portrait studios, as a photo editor, sold my flower and landscape images to large corporate clients and individual collectors. I have had my share of success in my ‘comfort zone’ areas of photography. But I feel there’s always something new to learn, always something new to inspire. For me, that current inspiration is birds.

I live in one of the most abundant areas in the country for winter birding. Not only do we get 50,000+ migrating snow geese, 7,000 trumpeter swans and 3,000 tundra swans, but we also attract a large number of birds of prey – from eagles to American kestrels and pretty much everything in-between. And I’m not talking about a single bird here and there. I’m talking about red tailed hawks on every telephone wire, eagles in every tall tree, and more. Once you start to see them, they truly are everywhere you look. That’s the joy of living here – there are birds in abundance and if you learn to see them, you will be endlessly entertained.

As a photographer, I hadn’t lived here long before I simply had to start shooting pictures of the snow geese. They gather in such huge numbers, the first time you see them take off from a field is unforgettable. Although they are legally hunted, there are plenty of places to watch them that are not hunting grounds. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see people simply pull off the side of the road to watch snow geese for a while. It’s one of the things I love about living here.

Photo of snow geese in flight at twilight.Snow geeseThis shot of snow geese exiting is a bestseller. I think it just amuses people to see those dangling feet. I know it amused me when I shot it.

But shooting pictures of snow geese can lead down the slippery slope of wanting to know more about birds and thus wanting to shoot pictures of other birds. Birds are not easy. Unlike the plants and landscapes I usually shoot, birds are unpredictable and quick. And often they appear in abundance in low light, or in marshy, wet, cold places. All of these factors can be a hindrance to taking up bird photography.


What do you need for bird photography? Primarily, patience. While birds won’t complain that their portrait makes them look fat, they also won’t hang around and wait for you to get the lighting just right. They are wild creatures and are working hard to survive and reproduce. It’s important to keep this in mind – while you may be wanting to get a great shot of a bird, if you interfere with its hunting to get that picture, you may be jeopardizing its very survival. This is why you need patience.

The best way to get a good photo of a bird is to understand its environment and its behavior. Carefully put yourself into a position to observe and photograph without interfering and you will set yourself up for a successful photo session.

It’s critical to keep in mind that no photo is worth the death of a creature. Some days you will see things you wish you could photograph, but you will be too far away, the light will be too low, the weather won’t cooperate, the background won’t look good. If you’ve got the right mindset, none of this will matter. To be a successful bird photographer is to care about birds.

There are plenty of unethical bird and wildlife photographers – people who disrupt nests, bait, or flush birds that are resting just to get a shot. I personally don’t consider these people photographers – they are trophy hunters no better than those who kill endangered species. The difference is their trophy is a photo, not a carcass, but in the end it has the same impact. Single bald eagle in flightBald Eagle Eagles are abundant around here in winter. They feed on migrating snow geese as well as salmon and there are many great locations to observe and photograph them. This one happened to be in the backyard of a friend of mine. Photo of sky full of flying snow geese. Snow geese in flight at duskI never tire of watching and photographing the snow geese in Skagit Valley. I hear them fly over my house in the mornings and in the evenings and still I make an effort to see them in their huge numbers. These were heading to the roost at sunset on a cold winter evening. Photo of hundreds of dunlin in flight. Dunlin in flightSnow geese in flight are captivating, but a flock of dunlin in flight is downright mesmerizing. With their dark tops and light bellies, the flock moves in unison and quickly changes back and forth from a dark blur to a light one. Lucky us to get these wonderful shorebirds in our area each winter. Photo of single short eared owl in flight, looking down toward the ground. Short eared owl listening for preyWhen you understand a bird's behavior, you can situate yourself to capture moments like this. This short eared owl is listening intently for the sound of voles. He hovered near me for a few minutes before he dove and captured his dinner. Photo of large barred owl on a tree branch. Barred OwlWhen you have friends who know you're interested in photographing birds, they sometimes call or text you when they see something interesting. I was still in my pjs one morning when I received a text from a neighbor that just said "HUGE OWL!". Needless to say, I was dressed and at their door in less than five minutes.


There are many ways to approach bird photography. Some avid birders have set ups where they can attach a camera to their scopes. Some use point and shoot cameras with digital zooms. These all work fine if that’s what you want to do. As I shoot with a DSLR, I use more traditional equipment – a camera body, a long lens and sometimes a tripod. I find shooting without a tripod is often more efficient in our area because I can move more quickly, but using a tripod will result in more, better, sharper images.

Birds are so accessible around Skagit County that one of the most efficient ways to get good photos is to use one’s car as a blind and have a beanbag handy. I sometimes stay in my car and throw the beanbag over my door to give myself something on which to rest my camera. If I am walking out into a field where I will wait for birds to fly near, I use a technique for holding my long lens steady that involves bracing one elbow against my ribs. I also take a breath and hold it while I shoot. Even as advanced as today’s cameras are, with their autofocus and auto vibration reduction, when you’re shooting with a long lens even the slightest movement is likely to throw off your focus.

Since I first started shooting snow geese a decade ago I have come to understand that some birds are more difficult than others to follow with your camera. I shoot multiple exposures, 5-10 frames a second, and I pan with the birds, but shooting snow geese like this is a cakewalk compared to trying to follow a hawk on a hunt. This is where understanding the species you are trying to photograph helps. Some birds will return to their perch. Some birds hover while they hunt. If you can learn to anticipate this behavior, you stand a better chance of getting a good picture. I remember very clearly that the first owl I saw was sitting on a street sign on a foggy morning. I actually got a decent photo of it because I had my camera handy and was able to pull off the side of the road. I recommend joining your local Audubon Society if you’re serious about learning more about birds. There are also some great classes offered in the region, such a Bud Anderson’s raptor class (info available at

If you’re watching a bird on a perch – a wire or a post or a fence – waiting for it to fly, use that time to make sure your settings are right. I find a shutter speed of no less than 1/1600 is needed to stop birds in flight, and for some birds that can go as high as 1/2500. If you’re trying to shoot on an automatic setting, start with the sports setting. Ideally, you should take the time to learn to use your camera’s manual settings so you can control the look of the finished image. Photo of brightly colored male painted bunting at a bird feeder. Painted buntingWhen you start down the path of bird photography it becomes clear you need to hang out with birders. And when you hang out with birders you start to learn a lot. This Painted Bunting showed up in La Conner at a local feeder. It was way off course for its winter territory of New Mexico. I only found out about it because I am in the local birding community, which gave me the opportunity to shoot a bird I might not otherwise even see.

If a bird takes flight as soon as you raise your lens to shoot a picture, you’re too close. I have watched photographers make this mistake over and over. I have made this mistake! Thinking I’m well out of the bird’s way, I raise my lens only to be skunked when the bird decides I must be a threat.

It’s tempting to want to get just a little bit closer. However, with today’s digital cameras one can crop in very closely on a photo and still have a shot good enough to print. And let’s be realistic – how many people print their photos anymore?

A lot of professional bird photographers have camouflage clothing and even camouflage covers for their lenses. This is a good idea as it is the least disruptive to the birds’ environment. It’s not that they won’t see you – especially hawks – but you will seem less threatening if you blend in better. It’s also a good idea to use your car as a blind, as most birds don’t perceive cars as a threat.

I highly recommend reading the Audubon Guide to Ethical Bird Photography as a primer to understanding the impact of pursuing birds with your camera. 


It’s a slippery slope. You get into birding and then you want pictures. And then you want better pictures. . . If you become serious about bird photography, it’s only a matter of time before you will want a long lens – whether it’s a high powered digital zoom or a big traditional lens. I have succumbed to that temptation myself, as I get more and more interested in taking better pictures of birds in flight. However, it doesn’t take a lot of expensive equipment to begin. A good place to practice is capturing birds at the feeder in your yard, if you have one. My first challenging subjects were the hummingbirds who feed in my yard year round.

There are certainly plenty of photography workshops available if you are so inclined. I have done a couple of wildlife photography workshops through The Summit Series of Workshops, which offer excellent access to National Geographic photographers, but I’m a professional photographer and my excuse is I am investing in my skills. Hobbyists may not want to spend the money and time to do a workshop.


What I have learned is that bird photography is exciting and challenging. The more I learn about birds, the more I want to find them and capture their behaviors. Since the bulk of my professional work involves plants and landscapes, which are mostly summer photo opportunities, birds in winter keep me active and thinking about photography in new ways. I am far from a master of bird photography, but I do see incremental improvements each winter and that’s personally very satisfying.


For those who want bullet points – here’s my list:

1.       Lower your expectations – birding photography is difficult. Do not expect to get the perfect shot right out of the gate.

2.       Cultivate patience – birds are wild creatures and the best way to capture images of them in their natural environment is to learn their behaviors and wait and watch.

3.       Read and absorb ethical bird photography guidelines. It’s just a picture to you, but it may be life and death for a bird.

4.       The most important equipment is behind the camera – you. Don’t invest in expensive equipment until you are convinced this is a passion you must pursue.

5.       Become a birder. Join birding groups, learn from birders.

6.       Hunters are not your enemy. Understand that many birding areas are also hunting grounds – but hunters may have great observations to share with you. They often walk the fields at dawn and dusk and can share what they see if you take the time to engage in a conversation.

7.       Start with backyard feeder birds. They will be the most accessible and most accustomed to your presence.

8.       Take a class or workshop – on birds, birding, bird photography.

9.       Practice, practice, practice.  I can shoot a macro image of a flower or a landscape and know I have the image I want in just a few shots. With birds I may only get one or two shots I like out of hundreds – it’s the curse and the beauty of digital. In the old days of film, getting the shot right the first or second time was a real money saver. With digital, it’s a time saver as you won’t have as many photos to go through and throwaway.

10.   Remember to appreciate the birds. I love birding photography because it’s a technical and physical challenge, but also because I love watching the birds. Sometimes the light is bad or the background is junky or the birds are too far away for a good shot. When that happens, I usually just stop and watch. Photo of crow resting on driftwood silhouetted against violent surf, big rocks and an orange sky. Sunrise at the shoreWhen you start photographing birds, they begin to creep into your mindset. I shot this sunrise at La Push's First Beach with just waves at first - and then I saw the crow on the drift wood. How much better this image is with a bird in it!

]]> (Crowell Photography & writing) bird photography birding dunlin how to photograph birds migrating birds owls raptors shore birds snow geese swans Wed, 03 Jan 2018 21:05:36 GMT
Eclipse 2017 - Chasing Totality I had not planned to photograph this year's total eclipse. I have a small spot of damage on one of my eyes that my doctor suggests is from viewing an eclipse when I was younger, and I'm very careful about my vision. So, I kind of dismissed the whole total eclipse thing.

And then I read this article by one of my all-time favorite authors. It gave me pause. Then, I heard this podcast and my curiosity was piqued even more. Finally, one of my brothers called and asked me where I planned to view the eclipse. That was it. I needed to find a place and it was less than two weeks away!

Fortunately for me, I have a very good friend who recently moved to Portland, OR, so when I texted to find out what her plans were for the eclipse she just responded "Come on down! It will be fun!"  What I didn't know, but found out before I left, was that we were going to spend the night at a winery owned by friends of hers. As it turns out, St. Josef's Winery is located in Canby, OR, which fell within the path of totality. Lucky me!

Image of the exterior of the tasting room of St. Josef's winery in Canby, Oregon.St. Josef's WinerySt. Josef's Winery in Canby, Oregon, just before sunrise on the morning of August 21, 2017.

My next step was to do some research on photographing the eclipse. I read several articles, but the best advice I got was from some friends who are diehard umbrafiles. This eclipse was to be their 10th solar eclipse. Their advice? "Something always goes wrong with the photography. Don't try to fix it. Just stop and watch the eclipse because you need to enjoy the experience!"

They also shoot Nikon, so they gave me some specific settings for my camera. I had ordered eclipse glasses in time, but I also ordered some mylar solar filter material to make a filter for my camera. Although I wanted to capture the various stages of the eclipse, without a tracking device on my tripod, I knew it would be hard to create a decent composite from those images. I made my filter so that I could easily slip it off the lens at totality because you don't need it during totality and that's what I really wanted to capture, if I were going to get any photos at all.


Image of homemade solar filter slipped over lens. Solar FilterI made my solar filter the night before the eclipse. The day of the eclipse I had to make some adjustments because the tube was a little too tight for my longer lens.

The day before the eclipse was completely overcast. As a macro flower photographer, I am thrilled with those conditions when I have something to shoot. Fortunately, Canby is the home of Swan Island Dahlia farm. Dahlias are one of my top favorite flowers to photograph! We went to the farm and I spent hours walking around, shooting photos. The conditions were perfect. Overcast skies, no wind. I was in heaven!


Close up image of pink dahlia.Dahlias bloom in AugustOne of the thousands of beautiful dahlias I photographed at Swan Island Dahlias farm in Canby, Oregon. Image of monk in burgundy robes taking a photo of a woman standing next to dahlias with a phone camera. People from all walks of life enjoy dahlias!I was photographing the flowers, when I looked up to see this monk shooting a picture of a friend on his phone.

That night we stayed at the winery and enjoyed a fire out under the stars. The next morning I got up to watch sunrise above the lake, and was thrilled to see there was not a cloud in the sky. The conditions could not have been better. I set up my tripod at a spot I thought would be good for shooting the eclipse, and was conveniently close to my car so I could access my equipment. St. Josef's only sold tickets to about 100 people to watch the eclipse at their location. The tickets included eclipse glasses, mimosas and a pancake breakfast provided by a local food truck. People who chose to view the eclipse here were friendly and relaxed. A handful of other photographers showed up and set up right next to me. I called it "Geek Row" because we were all sharing what info we had and talking about equipment. I was in my happy place! Mimosa in hand, camera set up, waiting. The winery had live music. It could not have been a more blissful morning.

Image of fire in fire pit and people sitting around it. The Night BeforeFriends hanging around the fire at St. Josef's winery in Canby, Oregon the night before the eclipse. Image of starry night sky with people sitting around a firepit.The Stars Came OutAs friends enjoyed the fire, I stepped back to view the stars. Image of roses and lake with a sign that shows places in all directions. Morning LightJust before sunrise on August 21, 2017. Image of three people and cameras on tripods.Geek RowFellow photographers get set up next to me. Image of people in a line.Pancake LinePeople line up for pancakes before the eclipse. Image of chef, pancake in air, and man about to catch pancake with his plate.Flying PancakesCheers would rise from the crowd every time the pancake chef flipped a pancake into the air for a hungry patron to catch on their plate. Image of pancake flying through the air.Flying PancakeA patron catching his breakfast mid-air. Image of crescent shaped shadows on the ground.Crescent Shaped ShadowsWhen the eclipse started, shadows began to take on a crescent shape. Image of people sitting and standing and looking up at the eclipse. The Lights Begin to DimPatrons watch as the sky begins to dim with the eclipse. Image of Champagne glass full of champagne and orange juice, with camera on tripod in background.Ready to ShootMimosa in hand, camera set up, I am ready for the eclipse to begin!

When the eclipse started, I started taking pictures. I got quite a few of the shadow taking bites out of the sun, but they aren't really very interesting compared to the totality. We only had 54 seconds of totality - so I was nervous as it approached. Just before totality I took my filter off my lens, reset my ISO to 800, locked my focus, set bracketing on my shutter and crossed my fingers. I had no idea if I was going to get anything. I shot pictures for about 30 seconds - enough to cover Bailey's Beads, the Diamond Ring and the corona. I couldn't really tell if I even had the sun in the frame of my image, as I had been shooting with my prescription sunglasses on but when totality arrived I couldn't see! That was the one thing that went wrong for me - I left my regular prescription glasses too far away to switch at the moment of totality. Oh well. I fiddled with my camera, shot blindly and then looked up at the sun. Oh my! The corona was shimmering and shining around a big black dot in the sky! It was amazing! The birds were quiet. The animals were quiet - but the human animals were gasping and making sounds of awe and wonder. And then, it was over.

When I flipped through my images afterward I could tell I had gotten the diamond ring - considered the 'holy grail' of eclipse photos. I had no idea I had also captured the corona - with the star Regulus showing! I didn't see those images until late that night when I got home and downloaded what I had shot.

Image of the total solar eclipse with red sun flares showing around the edge of the sun. TotalityThose red things are Bailey's Beads. Images of the total solar eclipse. The Diamond RingThe 'holy grail' of eclipse photos - known as the 'diamond ring' when the first sun rays start to appear behind the shadow. Image of the total solar eclipse with corona. The CoronaI didn't even know I had successfully captured the corona till I got home that evening. The small dot in the bottom left is the star Regulus.

Am I glad I went? Abosolutely! Will I try to see another total eclipse? You bet. I completely understand why umbrafiles chase the eclipse around the globe hoping for more. In fact, it looks like the 2024 eclipse in the U.S. has a whopping four minutes of totality along the center of the path. I think I'm going to have to make some plans. . . In the meantime, you can view my favorite photos from this year's eclipse in this gallery.

]]> (Crowell Photography & writing) 2017 21 august canby eclipse josef's of oregon path photos solar st. total totality winery Mon, 11 Sep 2017 19:21:02 GMT
The Summit Nature Workshop Experience About 100 years ago, when I was in college for the first time, I somehow came across information about a photography workshop I really, really wanted to do. I was in the south and the workshop was out west, and it cost way more than the money I would earn through my summer job. I fantasized about participating, but put it off because I could not afford it. I was certain I would have another opportunity, but before I knew it the photographer who offered the workshop was gone and I was left with a lifelong regret that I didn't try harder to get into that workshop. The photographer, of course, was Ansel Adams. He was generous with his knowledge and even left his negatives to the University of Arizona for future photographers to use for learning to perfect printing.

In commercial photography there's a more competitive jockeying for position. Photographers often joke that when they hire assistants they are 'training their replacement', which can in fact be true. But in landscape and nature photography there seems to be a generosity of spirit among photographers - at least the ones I've met. (Yes, this is a generalization, but I am only speaking of my own experience.) The Summit Workshops are based on this generosity and passing of the torch, if you will. A remarkable man and photographer, Rich Clarkson, has used his leverage and connections to bring together world class photographers to teach willing students. His generosity begets generosity and the workshops provide incredible access to some of the most revered photographers in the world. But enough about the background - if you are interested in doing one of the workshops, I suggest you investigate their web site.

The Week - Intensity

I admit, I didn't know exactly what I was in for when I initially signed up for the Nature workshop at The Summit. I had attended a Creative Live class with Tom Mangelsen and he mentioned the upcoming workshop in Jackson, Wyoming. The friend who had taken me to the Creative Live class said she planned to go, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to go as well. It's always fun to attend workshops with a friend. As things worked out, though, she had to forego the workshop so I was left on my own.

I love shooting landscapes and plants, and the occasional birds, but I'm just not that great at shooting wildlife. I thought maybe I'd learn a thing or two about how to approach wildlife photography at this workshop. It was very different from what I expected.

The majority of the photographers who teach during the workshop come from a photo journalism background, as does Rich Clarkson, so there was heavy emphasis on getting the shot right in the camera. This is great practice if you've never thought of photography in this way. We started each morning before dawn, had a couple of hours to go out and shoot, then came back to our classroom to download and edit our photos within about an hour or two. We each picked three images for the afternoon critique and the rules were - no editing. You could tweak exposure and color temperature a tiny bit, and you could crop within the same aspect ratio, but severe cropping, Lightroom or Photoshop work were strictly prohibited. You could not remove anything from the photo that was originally in the image.

If you're shooting wildlife, chances are you shoot thousands of images to get one clean, sharp image. I'm accustomed to rapid editing and although finding a good photo to shoot within a short period of time was moderately stressful, it was mostly just exhilarating. Each day we were taught new techniques or given new challenges, and I was more concerned with encompassing new ideas into my workflow (such as playing with color temperature in camera) than with getting sale-worthy shots. I was disappointed not to see the amazing animals others were able to find - moose, fox, bears, etc. I might spot them, but never in a photo-worthy setting. C'est la vie. Wildlife is not predictable.

During our editing process, we were lucky to listen to lectures on a wide variety of subjects, from editing workflow to what equipment you need to really store your photos properly.

Each day, there was a brief lunch break after the morning lecture, then we gathered in the auditorium at The National Wildlife Art Museum, where our classes were held, to sit through a couple of hours of critiques. Photos were anonymous as they appeared on the screen, and remained so unless a teacher had a question for the photographer. You may have seen me mention in the past that I'm not a fan of critiques. Well, I'm not a fan of anonymous critiques by a bunch of other photographers on the internet, but critiques by experienced photographers and photo editors can be invaluable when you are learning.

There were photographers of all abilities in our class and some of the less experienced photographers may have had a harsh awakening as remarks became more pointed by the end of the week. Comments such as "Where is the picture here?" and "If I see another reflection picture I'm going to stab my eye out!" were delivered humorously, but probably cut to the quick for timid souls. But more importantly, comments about gesture, composition, exposure and subject were as valuable as a class in art history - especially for those photographers who had never looked at their images in such a critical way.

Know Yourself

It's probably just my age, but I have some pretty strong opinions regarding what I like in my own work. There was one incident in the workshop that reinforced my instinct to trust my gut. Prior to submitting images one day I had shown one of my images to one of the teachers. He disliked it intensely. I actually really liked the image, so I went ahead and submitted it. It evoked the exact opposite reaction from another teacher, who pointed out the exact thing I liked about the image. That one comment reminded me to continue to trust my gut when it comes to my own work. After all, if a critique isn't about technical issues, it's just an opinion.

The Instructors

My favorite part of the workshop was the evening lectures. Each evening we were treated to two, one-hour long presentations. Each instructor gave a talk about their area of expertise and their work. We were treated to great stories, amazing photographs and genuine passion for the medium. Every single lecture was inspiring and educational. I wish I could have recorded them all to watch over and over. The participants who did not attend the evening lectures missed what I think was the meat of the program. It was the only time we got to hear, in depth, what moved these people to become who they are in the world of photography. While getting hands-on instruction from them was nice, this was worth the price of admission. From Jim Richardson's incredible story about food cultivation to Michael Forsberg's passionate study of the great plains, each lecture stood on its own as an event. (In fact, I didn't realize until he began speaking that I had watched a PBS documentary about the work Michael Forsberg is doing. It's just one example of the special contributions each of these people is making with their work. )

If you want to learn more about the amazing people who shared their stories, here are some links:

Thomas Mangelsen

Jim Richardson

William Albert Allard

Michael Forsberg

Bob Smith

Dave Black

MaryAnne Golon

Don Winslow 

Allen Murabayashi 

The Connections

Beyond the obvious connections with the staff of The Summit, networking with the participants in the workshop was invaluable. I met so many talented and up-and-coming photographers from around the country, and found so much inspiration in their creativity, I felt positively rejuvenated by the end of the workshop. Some are passionate wildlife photographers, while others prefer human subjects. One thing that surprised me was the number of repeat students - those who were attending the workshop for the second or even the third time. I understood by the end of the week why one might return. Friendships are formed and common interests are discussed at length. It's great to find a community of like-minded people from whom one can learn new things. Some have established photo businesses and web sites while others are passionate hobbyists. Below are a few of the folks I connected with.

Dana, who just moved to Toronto.

Colin, whose only wildlife for the week was a local squirrel.

Carolyn, who is beginning her journey as a photojournalist with excellent mentors on her side.

Stephanie, who gets to shoot pics of wild animals every day as the Houston Zoo photographer!

Jennifer, who shoots loving portraits of humans and wildlife.

Jennifer, who has a great start on her journey as a wildlife photographer.

Howard, who towered over us all at 6'7" and with his magnificent bird photography. . .

And so many other wonderful people and talented photographers. There was much passion for photography in the room and many great storytellers and aspiring storytellers. The people I've listed above are actively selling their work, but there were many more who were working for specific causes in their local areas. Yes, I've listed mostly women above, but the class was about half male/half female. The ages ranged from high school to retired. There was a healthy mix of techno-phobes and those embraced the latest technology.

Should you go?

I consider every workshop an investment in my skills as a photographer, and I am satisfied if I learn one new thing from each workshop. This particular workshop may or may not be for everyone. Here are some considerations if you are thinking about signing up:

1. Cost. If you aren't serious about improving your photography, save your money. You will get the most out of the workshop if you participate fully and already have basic command of your camera. There were beginners there, but I think one should save the basics for a different type of workshop.

2. Do you shoot Nikon?  The workshop is supported by Nikon Professional Services, who are present and generously lend out gear, from cameras to lenses, for participants to use during the week. People shooting other brands are welcome and can also borrow the Nikon equipment, but you have a real advantage if you shoot Nikon and already know Nikon products. There were many Canon shooters present at my workshop and I did not get the impression they felt discriminated against. By and large, most of the photographers know enough about cameras other than Nikon to help with technical issues.

3. Are you ready to have your images publicly critiqued? Some photographers did not submit images. Personally, I wanted to take advantage of every aspect of the workshop and would not have missed the critiques for anything.

4. Do you need to sleep, or eat?  Once again, let me emphasize that this is an intense workshop. You can bow out of anything, but since I'm not likely to get another opportunity to do this, I wanted to be present for everything offered. You can sleep later.

5. Do you love wildlife and landscapes? This workshop is best enjoyed if you already love shooting images of wildlife and landscapes. There were several portrait photographers there who loved this workshop for the opportunity it presented for them to shoot something different. You should be prepared to get up before dawn, walk through the woods, and haul your equipment around.

The Photos I Submitted and Behind the Scenes

I already mentioned that I didn't get any iconic wildlife photos. I did the best I could with the time and locations I had.  I played by the rules and did not crop or edit the images as they came out of my camera.

Below are the images I submitted for critique all week. The one I was least happy with was the fly fisherman, but we had run out of time to shoot and I really wanted to submit three photos that day. It was also the only image that got lukewarm feedback from the critics. At least I knew it, going in.  I made a few errors, embarrassed myself, didn't create a great body of work, but most importantly, I learned a lot. Below are the images I submitted and some background.

On Day 1, I accidentally submitted a moonset image I had exported for posting to Facebook with my copyright on it. It was an embarrassing moment, as they specifically asked us not to put a copyright image on it. D'oh!

The image with the yellow reflections was shot shortly after I had dropped my 24-70mm lens and broken the hood. I couldn't use that perfect landscape lens until I could get it fixed, so I pulled out my trusty 105mm macro lens and when I turned around I saw the reflection. I was stressed and worried about my other lens, but I was transported by the beauty of the place and the contrast of the gnarly trees and the golden reflections. I think it was one of my best images of the week.

The image below that, of the thistle in the moonlight, was inspired by Dave Black's light painting lecture. It was my first attempt at light painting and I really fell in love with the concept.

The image of the backside of the thistle was the one I liked, but one instructor didn't. I set my white balance to 4400 to create cooler, blue light and I used my macro lens. It was freezing cold that morning and there was a strong breeze. I tried some sunrise shots of the Teton mountains, but one of my classmates unwittingly moved into the middle of my photo composition and I could never get his attention to ask him to move out of the way. Time was running out, so I went back to what I know - flowers.

The image of the blurred aspen reflection was created in frustration after a morning of chasing critters and getting no shots. I didn't want to do a straight reflection at this location because everyone does that, so I moved my camera to blur the reflection. I liked the result.

The backlit image of the yellow aspen leaves was taken in my light painting class. The leaves were actually taped to the top of a cowboy boot and I lit them from behind with a small pen light during a long exposure. It was a fun learning experience and I liked the result.








On the final day I was deeply disappointed in what I had to choose from, so I selected these bird images. Unfortunately, I submitted the wrong magpie image - I had a glorious image of it flying upward with wings open. I don't know how I clicked on the wrong version, but that's the kind of thing that happens when you have a limited time to select and submit. The critics didn't like the 'gesture' of the bird - well, of course not! Me either. But we learn from our mistakes and that's what the week was all about for me - learning.  







]]> (Crowell Photography & writing) Dave Black Photography Jackson Hole Jim Richardson Michael Forsberg NatGeo Photographers Rich Clarkson The Summit Workshops The Summit Workshops Review Tom Mangelsen William Allen Allard nature photography photo workshops Mon, 12 Oct 2015 16:42:37 GMT
Do Photos Limit Memories? The other day I was looking through some old prints I have and found a photo my father had taken of me when I was a child. The print was fading, so I decided to scan it and try my best to make it visible. I then shared the photo on Facebook as a #TBT (Throw Back Thursday) treat to see how friends would react. Likes were through the roof. Comments ranged from "Rockwellian" to "My mother also made my clothes!". The photo was liked by both those who remembered a similar time in their lives and those who are too young to relate to the image. 

Here's the image:

A picture of me sitting on a sofa eating popcorn when I was a young girl. Popcorn on a Sunday nightA photo my father shot of me sometime in my childhood evokes memories for me of everything that is not in the photo.






















As I read the commentary and watched the "likes" pile up on Facebook I was struck by what the photo meant to me. I remembered the evening the photo was taken. I can tell by what I am wearing that it was a Sunday night because I am wearing "dress" shoes, and I wore "corrective" shoes the rest of the week. I know that I am watching TV because in my mind's eye I can see the entire room and the other rooms of the house. We always had popcorn and tomato soup on Sunday nights - another clue it was a Sunday night.

I can't look at the photo without seeing my mother at the kitchen table, and my father standing by the glass door looking out at our back yard. I know that the leather couch will develop a tear in it that in the future I will absentmindedly worry into a bigger tear and get into trouble for having done so. I know that the lamp on the table is brass and has a golden lampshade. And I remember quite clearly that I was selecting only the pieces of popcorn with butter on them - which made me violently ill later that evening.

None of that information is captured in the photograph. And yet, for me, all of that information is captured in that photograph. I am absolutely transported to a time and place in my life. I know my mother made the jumper I'm wearing, and I think it was green (my favorite color), but I'm not 100% certain. I guess it wasn't a dress I loved, or I would surely remember what color it was. But more than anything, I can remember the absolute comfort of being the youngest child, home alone with my parents, enjoying my popcorn treat. 

What do you see when you look at this photo?  Do you see a scene from the late '50s, early '60s? A traditional home? Nice lighting captured by the photographer?  I hope that what you see is a story. It doesn't have to be the same story as mine, but if it tells you a story it has succeeded as an image. 

To me, that's the magic of photography. It's not just utilitarian. It's not strictly art. It's a way to record a moment in time that will live on - and it will live on as a story as long as people are able to view it. To me, as the subject of the photo, it evokes a vivid memory with all the associations I mentioned above. 


Photography is ubiquitous in today's digitally connected world. Selfies, drones, GoProsInstagram, Facebook - everywhere you turn there is an opportunity to record a moment and then share it with the world, or a few select friends. 

Some people think this obsession with digitally recording every moment kills memories and leaves you with only select bits of what happened. Some people think it is vital to record what you can of your life. Some people think that's narcissistic. What do you think?


If my Dad were alive, I would ask him if he remembered taking this photo. I bet he would. But he might just remember turning around to see his youngest daughter sitting in the light of a lamp that created an image he wanted to remember forever. That would have been his story.

I'm glad he took the picture, and I'm glad I found it. 

What do photos mean to you? 

]]> (Crowell Photography & writing) Crowell Photography Nancy K. Crowell capturing memories digital storytelling images and memories photos tell stories Fri, 14 Aug 2015 17:59:28 GMT
A Photographer's Guide to the Skagit Valley and Surrounds I talk a lot about this magnificent place that I live, so I know I bring it upon myself. But, this time of year I am absolutely inundated with questions from friends and acquaintances wanting my guidance on when to visit to get good photos and where to go. I am happy to help people, but I find myself copying and pasting emails and repeating myself often enough that I almost have a script.

This year I decided to compile my local knowledge into an ebook guide. It has turned into a pretty detailed, 25-page .pdf, full of useful links and including a lot of sample photos. My hope is that it not only answers some very specific questions (such as when are the tulips blooming and how do I find the snow geese), but that it also gives users an overall guide regarding where to explore in this area. Photo of ebook cover for "A Photographer's Guide to Skagit County, Washington and Surrounds" Cover of my new ebook: A Photographer's Guide to Skagit County, Washington and SurroundsA detailed, 25-page insider's guide to where to go in Skagit Valley to capture great wildlife and scenic images.

I hope you find it helpful and I welcome your feedback.

Click on the photo to purchase for $5, or go here.  Thank you for your support! 


]]> (Crowell Photography & writing) Crowell Photography Nancy Crowell Skagit River Bald Eagle Festival Skagit Valley Tulip Festival Where to take photos near La Conner bald eagles photo guide to Skagit Valley photograph the Skagit Valley photographing bald eagles where to photgraph owls where to photograph daffodil fields where to photograph snow geese where to photograph trumpeter swans where to photograph tulip fields where to take photos in Skagit Valley Tue, 24 Mar 2015 14:26:09 GMT
Becoming a Master Gardener A few months ago I left my corporate job in technology. I have been pursuing photography part time for years, but I suddenly found myself with extra time on my hands to practice my photography and improve my knowledge. So I signed up for Master Gardener training.

That might not make sense to some folks, but since I love gardening and photographing plants, I felt expanding my knowledge would greatly improve the stories I am able to tell about the photos I take. And as someone pointed out to me recently, stories are what make memories.

Yesterday, as I was among my 'tribe' of fellow Master Garden interns, someone pointed out a very special sight - an Anna's hummingbird nest. I love hummingbirds but have never spotted a nest, much less had the opportunity to photograph one. In training we learned that they use bits of lichen and moss for their nests and even spider webs to help hold them together. It was so exciting to actually see that in person. And the nesting mother was calm enough to let me get pretty close - most likely because she chose to put her nest in the middle of a busy garden!

I'm not sure what my future path is, but as long as it's filled with these kinds of stories, I'm certain it will be a joyous one.

Anna's hummingbird sitting on nest.Anna's hummingbird nest.She kept an eye on me, but allowed me to creep close enough to get a good picture of her nest. Anna's hummingbird sitting on nest.Anna's hummingbird on nest.Notice the spider webbing holding the nest to the tree limbs on this Anna's hummingbird nest.


]]> (Crowell Photography & writing) Anna's hummingbird Crowell Photography hummingbird nest hummingbirds master gardening nesting hummingbird Wed, 11 Mar 2015 14:35:56 GMT
Quick Tips - Take Better Portraits Seems like a hundred years ago that I worked in a portrait studio. The work was fun, but I often thought of a line a photographer I know used when shooting portraits. He liked to say, sarcastically, "I'm a photographer, not a magician!" Of course what he meant by that was that the camera doesn't lie and no matter how much you wish you looked like Elle McPherson, if you don't, you won't look that way in the portrait.

It's true that one can use Photoshop to really change an image - such as the controversial Justin Bieber Calvin Klein ads. However, most people don't have or use Photoshop and aren't likely to start using it anytime soon. So, I thought I'd offer up a couple of quick tips for how to make your portraits better - even if you're shooting with your phone.

I don't shoot portraits anymore, so I don't have a lot of images to share, but I will offer links to examples to illustrate my points below.

1. Focus on the eyes. As humans, we connect through our eyes. If nothing else in the photo is in focus, at least make sure the eyes are sharp. It's the first place people will look.

2. Don't be afraid to get really close. Portraits are about connecting. Why stand 30 feet away when what you really want to see is the expression on your subject's face? Take one picture, then step in closer. Shoot another picture and compare. If you're still not close enough, try again. You want to connect. Don't hold the subject at arm's length! Many photographers think an 85mm lens is the perfect portrait lens. I think it's most important, though, to simply get close enough to make your subject compelling, but not distorted.

3. Pay attention to the background. Sometimes you want background for context - especially when you're capturing a travel photo. "Here we are in Italy!"  - you want to see that coliseum behind the subject so the context makes sense. If your background isn't central to the picture, though, try shooting at a wider aperture (f4) to create a shallower depth of field. This will blur the background and draw people into your subject's face. Look for weird lines/objects in the background before snapping the picture. How many photos have you seen ruined by a telephone pole or lamppost sticking out of someone's head? (Even if you are shooting with a shallow depth of field, as recommended above, harsh lines can be distracting.) Sometimes the easiest correction is to move one step left or right of the subject to get a neutral background.

4. The sun is your friend - when it's at your back. How many photos have you seen of people squinting into harsh sunlight? Don't be afraid to put the sun at the back of your subject. It will highlight their hair, giving them a beautiful 'glow' or 'halo' effect. There are plenty of programs available today to tweak your image after shooting so that the dark shadows on a face can be opened up and you keep the sunlight as a background. You can also use almost anything to simply reflect light into the subject's face - a piece of white paper, a hand-held reflector, even a windshield protector (popular in the South where the sun bakes cars.) Play with the reflector to see how it bounces light into your subject's face and eyes. At the very least, try shooting your subject turned 3/4 away from the sun, with light hitting one side of their face and creating a triangle of light on the other side (basic "Rembrandt" lighting). While classic Rembrandt lighting is easily created in a controlled, studio setting, you can come close to creating it in an outdoor setting by simply positioning your subject in the correct angle to the sun. Any of these options will be better than squinting into the sun.

5. Overcast skies are your friend. If you think you have to shoot on a sunny day, you're wrong. Cloudy or overcast days can create some of the very best lighting for portraits, as they create a nice, soft, even filter that removes harsh shadows. Seriously. Just look at the difference between a portrait shot in bright sunlight vs. one shot on a cloudy day.

There are plenty of other 'tricks' portrait photographers use to make their subjects look better, but these five basics will help you improve your snapshots and family pics immediately. People who have had their portraits taken by professionals will pick up some tricks for hiding their double chins and looking slimmer. When you're shooting friends and family, you really just want to capture their essence - spontaneous images are always the best. Just keep the above in mind when you do so and I promise you'll be happier with your results.

Here's a portrait of my husband shot while we were in Venice, Italy. I love this image of him because it takes me right back to that balcony as if I were standing there. In this case, I really wanted the background to appear, as it's central to the purpose of the photo. The cloudy skies worked well and cast a soft light on his face, with just a bit of light bouncing off it in all the right places. I didn't pose him - I simply caught him looking out at the canal, watching the boats go by, proving you don't need a fancy set up or camera to get images you will treasure.

Image of my husband looking over a balcony in Venice with the city and canals in the background. Michael in VeniceOvercast skies created soft light highlighting my husband's face as he gazed off our balcony in Venice. It's not a formal portrait, it's not perfect, but it captures a moment that takes me back to that location.



]]> (Crowell Photography & writing) Crowell Photography easy steps for better portraits how to shoot portraits portraits tips for portrait photography travel photo portraits Sat, 10 Jan 2015 18:21:11 GMT
Basics of Good Composition I went on a photo shoot with a friend the other day and we started talking about composition. She asked me how I decide which composition is best when I have a series of photos of the same scene.

It was a difficult question to answer. I don’t claim to be a professional artist or photographer, but I’m always happy to share whatever little knowledge I have. When it comes to composition, I think I have spent a lifetime looking at great images – both paintings and photographs – and have acquired some sort of instinct about what I like. That doesn’t mean I always hit the nail on the head, it just means that I will gravitate toward compositions with certain basic elements. If I have multiple versions of a photo that are similar in composition, I will trust my initial instincts to pick the top few, then look closely at the details to decide what I like best.

As I was looking for some examples I found one scene I shot a number of years ago that has remained a perennial favorite of mine. Here is the scene I shot, starting with the first image I took. It was nice, but didn't quite match what I thought I saw.

Two rows of trees converging in snow.Trees in SnowI spotted these trees on a snowy day and knew there was something about them I really liked, so I stopped to take some pictures. This is the first one I took, unedited. Two rows of bare trees converging in snow. Trees converging in snow.This is the second image I shot, unedited. Notice the converging line in the composition? By simply moving left a few steps, I created a much more pleasing image.

In the second image (above), I moved a few steps and captured the composition I liked, but the final image still wasn't there.

High contrast black and white image of two rows of trees converging in snow. Black and white trees in snow.The composition was there, but the image still wasn't what I was seeing in my mind's eye. I edited it into a black and white image and increased the highlights to help the white blow out a bit. This is what I saw in my mind's eye that the camera did not capture.

The final image (above) is the result of converting to black and white and editing. When I post that final image I get lots of "likes" on my fan page, so I know that it resonates with others as well. This image was shot well before I really had any idea what I was doing in digital photography. In fact, I believe the original image is a jpeg, not shot in RAW. I barely understood Lightroom and I certainly hadn't given a lot of thought to composition. It was just obvious to me which was the most pleasing image.

I believe it is the leading line + the asymmetrical rows + the high contrast. What do you think?

When it comes to abstracts, which are a new area of interest for me, I am still learning what I like. Here’s an image I composited and liked, but then I flipped it to portrait orientation and liked it much better. 


A multi-colored abstract with texture composite.A Notion of Movement _ LandscapeI first tried this abstract in landscape orientation and liked the general look.

A portrait orientation multi-colored abstract with texture. A Notion of Movement - PortraitAnd then I rotated it to portrait orientation and I liked it more. In portrait orientation it looks to me like some sort of road with a moody sky.

There are plenty of books and basic courses on composition. This article has some good basics on composition with great examples. I suggest you do a search on YouTube for "composition basics" or "golden ratio in composition".  There are dozens of tutorial videos available.

If you use Lightroom, there is a cropping tool overlay guide that will enable you to actually look at your images with these compositions in mind.

Be sure you are in Develop mode and have the Crop Guide on:

A close-up image showing Develop mode and Crop mode turned on in Lightroom. Develop mode in Lightroom.To access the crop guide tool overlay you must be in crop mode.

An image in Lightroom with the crop guides overlay tool showing. How to add the crop guide overlay in Lightroom.You can use the crop guide overlays in Lightroom to check your composition.

I don't pretend to be a great photographer or teacher, but since I have friends who ask me these types of questions, I'm happy to share the little bits of knowledge I have picked up. To learn more about Lightroom, I highly recommend these terrific resources:

Julianne Kost Lightroom Videos

The Lightroom Queen

]]> (Crowell Photography & writing) Crowell Photography Lightroom composition tools best photography composition composition golden ratio rule of thirds Fri, 09 Jan 2015 17:28:59 GMT
How to get the "starburst" effect in photos Here’s a quick tip. Have you always wondered how photographers got that beautiful starburst effect in night shots and sunsets?

It’s simply shooting at f16. The basic explanation is that the aperture blades filter the light when you close down to a small aperture opening. Most lenses are sharpest in the f8 - f11 "sweet spot" range, so going beyond f16 to get a starburst may result in images that are a little less crisp than you want.  So, if you’re shooting a sunset and you want to get those extra rays, set your camera to “aperture” priority, f16, and adjust accordingly.


Here are two examples: Sunrise over a field of red tulips in La Conner, Washington. Sunrise over a tulip field in La Conner, Washington.This is a sunrise shot at f16 to make the rays more prominent as they start to shed light on the tulip field.


Pisa on the Arno at NightPisa on the Arno at NightThis night shot of Pisa from a bridge over the Arno river is shot at f16 to turn boring street lights into starbursts.

]]> (Crowell Photography & writing) Crowell Photography Pisa Pisa, Italy night photography photo tips sunburst effect sunrise photography sunset photography tulips Thu, 08 Jan 2015 17:34:33 GMT
Getting Outside Your Comfort Zone We have had such miserable weather here lately, I have resorted to editing old images just to keep thinking about photography. I have shot a few things inside, that I don’t really like, so when the sun popped out on Christmas Eve I bolted out the door, camera in hand.

We have thousands of birds that overwinter in our valley, and I’m always looking for that elusive shot that captures the way I feel when I see them. As I’ve stated previously, I’m not a wildlife photographer, so capturing images of birds is outside my comfort zone. I don’t go on autopilot when I see a field of birds. I have to stop and think about what settings I want on my camera, what lens to use, whether or not to set up a tripod, etc. That’s not how I shoot when I am in a garden. I am on autopilot with my macro lens. I hardly think – I just act.

With the birds, it’s important to be aware of one’s impact. They are here to feed and get fat so they can make the long trek back to their summer homes. It’s important not to stress or disturb them.

Fortunately, I found a great gathering in a potato field next to a farm road. I drive a hybrid car, so when it goes into ‘stealth’ mode, it’s very quiet. I was able to pull over and let the birds get used to my presence before I stepped out of the car to take pictures.

A field and sky full of trumpeter swans and mallards against the dark blue mountains of the Skagit Valley. Birds overwinter in Skagit Valley fields. Trumpeter swans feed on abandoned spuds in a fallow potato field. Mallards swirl behind them.

It was great fun for me to try and capture the essence of what I could see and hear. The trumpeter swans are noisy, and the mallards in the field were jumpy and would take off in a heartbeat.

I stayed for about an hour, just trying to catch one or two good shots. I did finally get more comfortable with my camera, but just as I was relaxing into the shoot, a local farmer drove up to chat. He was a charming older gentleman who lived across the street from where I was shooting. We chatted for a while and he told me a funny story about being a kid and deciding he needed an ice cream cone, so he drove his tractor into our town.

This kind of spontaneous chat is one of the best things about living in a rural area. It’s also outside my comfort zone. I’m glad that I seem approachable enough to invite a chat. It happens a lot. But, as an introvert, I’m rarely going to initiate the conversation.

A lone trumpeter swan flies low, close to a powerline. Trumpeter SwanThe trumpeter swans sometimes run into power lines, so reflectors have been added to the power lines.

What’s my point? Sometimes you need to just step outside your comfort zone to crack open your creativity again. Go someplace different. Shoot alongside people you barely know. Shoot a subject that’s atypical for you. Take your camera off automatic and try it on manual or aperture priority. Whatever it is that holds you back – step up and try it. Maybe you’ll succeed. Maybe you will learn something new and valuable. And maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll make a new friend.

A pair of trumpeter swans are flying low to land in a puddle where other swans are eating old spuds. Incoming!A pair of trumpeter swans come in for a landing in the wet potato field where their relatives are feasting on old spuds.

]]> (Crowell Photography & writing) Skagit Valley birds in flight landscapes mallards trumpeter swans Fri, 26 Dec 2014 18:44:04 GMT
Getting the Whole Picture Getting the Whole Picture


A couple of weeks ago I took a two-day course from award-winning landscape photographer Tom Mangelsen. Because we were a studio audience for a live broadcast, some of the course was pre-shot in the field with Tom.


The pre-shot footage was interesting, but more interesting to me were the audience reactions to that footage. In the footage Tom takes a handful of students out into the landscape and assists them in getting the types of photos he likes to take – magnificent vistas with wildlife in their natural habitat. Not only was he able to describe to the students what animal behavior they would observe, but he taught them something about predictive observation by knowing their subject. He could tell them, for instance, when a male elk was likely to stand up and move based on where the females were. These insights were a revelation to the audience. People were genuinely surprised at the things he was thinking about when shooting.


It was obvious from his running monologue that he is deeply knowledgeable about his subject matter – and he sees the whole picture. Tom’s big on framing within camera, and not doing a lot of post production editing. Knowing one’s subject and being able to anticipate movement is a huge advantage for him.


I am completely on board with this approach. Who wants to spend a lot of time at the computer, editing?  It’s the act of shooting pictures that is more fun.


Another thing Tom was able to do while shooting was talk through his ideas regarding what fstop, ISO and shutter speed he was using and why. He also made mistakes and talked about those. Sometimes when you are in the heat of a particularly photogenic moment, it’s pretty easy to make mistakes. I’ve certainly done it myself. Those are precious learning moments. You may not get the shot you wanted, but you won’t miss it the next time! And if you are observant, there really will be a next time.


One shot I get asked about a lot is this image of a California poppy with light streaming through the stem. When I have it displayed at shows I often hear people say “That was definitely ‘shopped!” – meaning they believe the image was Photoshopped.  My response – “if I could use Photoshop that well, I wouldn’t need to take pictures!” Seriously, though, like Tom, except for certain images, I rarely touch a photo in Photoshop. I find Photoshop challenging to use, so I avoid it most of the time. I do some basic optimization in Lightroom and call it good for most things. Yellow California poppy close-up against a bright pink background. California PoppyClose-up of a California poppy with sunlight streaming through its translucent stem.

But back to this poppy. This is an instance of composing in camera and getting the shot. I was actually on location to shoot bamboo, as this place had a wide variety of bamboo stands. And I did shoot some images of the bamboo, but they weren’t working for me. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a bright spot of color – and small patch of poppies in the sun. I resisted at first, thinking I was really there to shoot bamboo, but, fortunately, realized this was an opportunity I ought to pursue. I walked over to the sunny patch of poppies blowing in the gentle breeze and I started shooting. I took my eye away from the viewfinder and saw there was a patch of brilliant pink flowers behind the poppies. I knew if I could find the right poppy and get myself into position, I could have an unusual and bright background. And this image is the result.


I have a number of other images in the series that are just fine. This one stands out because of that unusual background – and it’s likely the background that makes people think I did something in Photoshop. I didn’t. This is how the image looked through my viewfinder. I just looked for the whole picture. Sure, I could have used Photoshop to remove the ghostly stem of the other poppy in the background, but I opted to let it be because for me it captures the movement and the ethereal reality of the moment. Some people might prefer the image without that distraction. That's okay by me - everyone is entitled to their opinion, and to capture the image they see.


So, that’s my simple tip for improving your own photography. Don’t just look at your subject matter. Look at the background. Decide if you want that background in focus (if so, shoot at a higher depth of field, such as f8, f11, f16). If you want the background blurry behind your subject, shoot at a shallower depth of field f2.8, f4, even f5.6. If you don’t know the difference, shoot the same image in sequence – go from one extreme fstop to the other and then look at the difference in the images. The more you do this, the more you will begin to understand how to get the image you want to capture, whether you are shooting a landscape, a portrait, or a macro shot of an insect.


What do you look for when you shoot an image? Are you seeing the whole picture?

]]> (Crowell Photography & writing) crowell photography how to take better pictures learning photography macro photography Mon, 22 Dec 2014 16:41:09 GMT
Finding Inspiration How Other Photographers Inspire Me

In my last post I talked about how I am in continuous learning mode when it comes to photography. While online courses and self-paced learning are great ways to get specific techniques down, I find it even more valuable to either attend workshops or go out shooting with other photographers.

I have spent the past two days at a workshop in the audience (very different from watching online, where you can easily get distracted or walk away). My fellow photographer and friend Kamriell Welty has an abiding passion for wildlife photography, so she invited me to join her in the class being taught by one of her favorite wildlife photographers, the legendary Tom Mangelsen. I jumped at the chance – both for the opportunity to spend time with Kami, talking about photography, and to learn from Tom.

I don’t aspire to be a wildlife photographer, but I live in a spectacular location where I often have the opportunity to shoot images of wildlife. Tom’s work is special because he not only shoots ‘portraits’ of wildlife, but also captures wildlife in landscapes. I knew I could learn something from the course, so why not?

So, I did not attend the course with the intention of duplicating Tom’s life or lifestyle, but simply to absorb inspiration and information from a very successful and talented photographer. And because I had that intention, I found the course fulfilled my expectations and went beyond what I had hoped to gain from it. I always think if I take one useful tip away from a workshop, it was worth it.

In this case, I had several takeaways I think are worth sharing. These are things I think everyone should keep in mind when they are working on their photography.

  • Shoot what you know. Tom lives near Jackson, Wyoming, with the Grand Tetons in his backyard. It’s not surprising his has captured some astonishing moments in his own territory. Of course he has traveled and shot wildlife in many places, but in looking at all his images, I believe the images from where he lives are by far the best.
  • First and foremost, compose in the viewfinder. This was a valuable reminder that photography is about seeing and conveying what you see. It’s easy to get so caught up in the moment that you don’t look at everything in your composition. I think composing in the viewfinder comes with practice, but it’s a great thing to think about when you are out shooting. Don’t shoot to crop later –shoot as if the picture you are shooting is going straight to print. This one thing should help you pay attention to stray branches, odd lines, ugly backgrounds, etc. When I shoot macro images, this is something I am keenly aware of – I move if I don’t like the background. You should too. Look at your subject, then scan the rest of the image surrounding your subject. Should it be in sharp focus? If yes, use a higher F-stop for greater depth of field (F11, F16). Is the background distracting? Shoot at a shallower depth of field and blur it (F2.8,F4). Try both if you don’t know what you want.
  • Be flexible. I think this is at the heart of it all. Even if you’re shooting a pre-designed commercial image in a studio, it’s important to recognize that unexpected moments happen. Be ready to capture them. If you go out to shoot images of snow geese, and they are too far away, or not moving, but you see a pair of eagles flying in front of Mt. Baker, why not switch and shoot that?  Keep your eyes and ears open. Pay attention to the light. Maybe clouds are moving in and making the image you wanted to shoot look flat. Look where the light is and see if there’s another image.  

Flock of snow geese taking off in flight.Snow Geese Some 30,000 snow geese over winter in the Skagit Valley of Washington state.

After two days of listening and talking to Tom, and chatting with other members of the audience, Kami and I headed home both excited and inspired. We talked about photography the entire way home. It's wonderful to share your passion with like-minded people.

]]> (Crowell Photography & writing) Crowell Photography Kamriell Welty Photography Skagit Valley Tom Mangelsen inspiration photo tips snow geese wildlife photography Thu, 04 Dec 2014 19:07:22 GMT
How do you do that? I love that photo! How do you do that?

Double RainbowDouble Rainbow It’s a common question. People look at the photos I post and send me private messages. “What equipment are you using? Did you do something to that in Photoshop? I love your work, have you been doing this for a long time?”

First, let me say I probably had a head start, but it was only that. I grew up in a family of artists and had beautiful images hanging in my childhood room. Just like reading great writing can lead to better use of language, I believe looking at great images can improve one’s personal ‘vision.’ But, I also believe it’s something that can be learned – at any age and at any stage of photography. I have friends who now shoot amazing photos with their iPhones and iPads –and what they shoot has changed as they studied what they liked about my photos. I love that! Imitation is most definitely the sincerest form of flattery.

The most important piece of equipment – is you.

Second, regarding equipment. As I noted above, a great image does not require expensive equipment. I believe the most important piece of capturing a great image is behind the camera. It’s you. Your vision. Your composition. Your unique perspective.

Okay, so maybe you see things that you think you’re capturing, but they don’t turn out the way you see them in your “mind’s eye.”  That’s where technical knowledge does come into play. Perhaps you’ve used too wide a lens, or you didn’t use the right exposure, or you just need to crop a bit to get the image you want. These things come with training and experimentation. Do some reading about the ‘rule of thirds’ and the golden ratio. Try experimenting with different framing. Study images you love. Follow photographers you love on Facebook. You will start to see what it is you like.

From Analog to Digital –with the help of a friend.

It’s true I have been taking photos since I was a child and I would sneak out with my grandmother’s Brownie box camera. I learned to develop and print film when I was a teenager. I have had the privilege of knowing many great and successful photographers and have edited images for some of them. I have looked at a lot of photos. A lot. But when digital cameras first emerged, I was hesitant.

I stayed away from still photography while I pursued cinematography for a few years. Then I moved, started working for a large tech company in Redmond, Washington, and suppressed my creative side.

I was intimidated about making the switch to digital, but I got lucky. I had a lovely neighbor and friend who was studying photography at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography in Missoula, Montana, and she offered to help me transition to digital. In fact, when she got a new digital camera, she lent me hers for almost a year. We would go out and shoot together, share images, talk about what we saw. It was a blast and I am forever grateful to her for jump-starting my return to photography. Check out her work at Dirtie Dog Photography.

Be generous with your own creativity – share ideas and enthusiasm with folks. It can be really fun to go out on a photo shoot with someone else. You will be surprised at how much you learn.

Gaining confidence through learning

Great, you say, but I don’t have a friend like that. I just bought a camera and I want to take good photos! 

There is an astonishing amount of free training available on the internet. There are also some courses that are very reasonably priced. I’ll give you an idea of the things I have done and would recommend to anyone just starting out.

  1. I took a weekend course through RMSP. So much learning packed into two days! It was a great confidence builder.
  2. I watched and continue to watch many free courses on CreativeLive.
  3. I took a Kelby Training in-person course on Photoshop. I still don’t use Photoshop very much, but I know more than I did originally.
  4. I follow Laura Shoe for Lightroom tutorials. I do almost all my work in Lightroom and have found it to be a fantastic tool for organizing and simple editing.
  5. I read and watch tutorials by Julieanne Kost from Adobe. I also follow her on Facebook.
  6. I also find courses on
  7. I shoot. A lot.
  8. Worth repeating. I shoot. A lot. Tons. All the time.
  9. When I had a big sale, I used the money to travel to Italy for a landscape photography course with Jim Nilsen’s Photography Travel Tours.
  10. I talk to lots of other photographers. Ask questions, share ideas, get tips, share tips.
  11. I shoot. A lot.
  12. I never, ever stop learning or looking for learning opportunities. There is so much out there that I haven’t even mentioned.
  13. I look at a lot of photos. I love looking at the work of other photographers! One place to see lots of great work is 500px.  Follow photographers you like and be inspired - not intimidated!
  14. Shoot more pictures.
  15. Shoot more pictures.

And here’s what I don’t do.

I never invite other photographers to critique my work. I find it much more useful to discuss how an image was shot than to listen to some blowhard explain to me what’s wrong with my images. Frankly, I don’t care. If I wanted to shoot like someone else, I study their work –or, if I’m lucky, I study with them to learn new techniques. But, my vision is my own. Some of my work is good, some is lousy. I usually have a pretty good idea which is which. And some of my work speaks to people in ways I never imagined, so I don’t let anyone else dictate what is good or bad about what I do. That's not to say I don't enjoy brainstorming with other photographers. And I've certainly asked for help when I had a vision I wasn't sure how to execute. But I'm not a fan of the forums and groups where people say "here's my photo, what's your feedback."

I consider myself a student of photography. I’m still learning. I don’t want restrictions on what I do or where I go with my work. I will fail often and I learn from failing. You should too. Get a little bit of knowledge, then try new things. You will be amazed at what you can pull out of your own imagination. And don’t let anyone else shape your vision. It is unique.

]]> (Crowell Photography & writing) best online photography courses crowell photography how to shoot digital photos learning photography photo tips where to learn photography Wed, 26 Nov 2014 20:12:27 GMT
The Bright and Colorful Tropics The place where I live beckons to artists of all mediums. With its diffused light and pastel colors, flat valley farm fields and distant blue mountains, the landscape is soothing and beautiful. I never tire of the vistas, especially as the seasons change and early morning fog creeps in to spread its magic.

But when I go to the tropics I am reminded that other people live in an astonishingly bright and colorful world. I find myself oohing and ahhing at every turn and unable to put my camera down for very long. From the moment I step off the plane into the steamy heat of Hawaii, I am transfixed by its lush and showy beauty.

I go there, like other people, to refresh my soul. That includes my 'vision'. I see the same plants every time, but I see different images I want to capture and remember.

So, I am just back from a week in paradise. This time around I was captivated by the textures. To view a collection of this recent work, see the images I have posted in this folder.

Meanwhile, here are a few samples to help you adjust your eye.  Aloha.

green bambooBamboo curvesGraceful fronds tickle the textured trunk of old growth bamboo. Pink PlumeriaPlumeriaThe gardenia-like scent of plumeria creates an indelible sense memory of the islands. Close up of a brilliant colored leaf with red, yellow and green coloring. Tropical foliageRich reds, warm yellows and brilliant greens accent the lush green landscapes of the tropics. The fronds of a single coconut palm blowing in the breeze against a blue sky with puffy white clouds. WindyThe swishing sounds of coconut palm fronds are ever-present when the trade winds blow.

]]> (Crowell Photography & writing) Crowell Photography Hawaii Tropical vegetation bamboo green palm texture Mon, 22 Sep 2014 14:15:00 GMT
Monks Among the Daffodils Long, neat rows of yellow daffodils in full bloom in the Skagit Valley, Washington. Daffodils of Skagit Valley in Washington state. Some years the fields are bigger than others, so the concentration of daffodil yellow against blue skies and blue mountains is stunning - especially when the sun shines on the Skagit Valley. I have lived in the lovely Skagit Valley for more than a decade. Spring is always announced by the first blooms of our local flower farmers - daffodils - which create vast swaths of yellow carpet across our valley. 

Every year I think "I have enough daffodil photos, I can just look this year." And then the sun comes out. Or a stormy sky creates drama I cannot resist. And off I go to document another year of yellow.

The best part of just getting out in the fields is the lucky accident shot. A couple of years ago I got some amusing photos of tourists in the tulip fields.

This year I was walking along the road, capturing images of the largest expanse of yellow fields when I looked up and spotted what I thought were some women in wonderful, matching orange dresses. "Great color combo!" I thought to myself and walked toward them. It wasn't long before I realized they were not women in dresses - they were monks in robes. This falls into the category of lucky accident. Nothing amuses me as much as the unexpected encounter in what has become a spring ritual for me. The best part? They weren't meditating. They were actively shooting photos - just like me.

I'd like to know what images they took home with them. I'm guessing they are similar to the scenes I have captures. Happy spring!

Yellow as far as the eye can see. Daffodils sway in the wind in the Skagit Valley, Washington. Daffodils of Skagit ValleyDaffodils carpet the Skagit Valley every spring.

Migrant workers picking daffodils in Skagit Valley, Washington. Daffodil cutting fields in Skagit Valley, Washington. Migrant workers pick bunches of daffodils for sale as fresh flowers. The 2014 price is 3 bunches for $5.














Some fields (above) are set aside for fresh-cut sales. Others are grown for the bulbs and unlike the tulips, farmers let the flowers die on the stem.

A view from above the fields in Skagit Valley, Washington, shows a surprising swath of brilliant yellow where daffodils are blooming. Skagit Valley fields of daffodils.There are high points in the Skagit Valley where the yellow fields are easily spotted. The long row of cars behind the field belongs to the migrant workers who pick bunches for sale as fresh flowers.















The bright fields pop when viewed from vantage points on high.

Daffodils fields in the Skagit Valley still pop against dramatic, stormy skies. Stormy skies over daffodil fields in Skagit Valley, Washington.Even stormy weather cannot dampen the dramatic color of daffodil fields in the Skagit Valley.















Rain or shine, the fields bring dramatic color to the Skagit Valley.

Orange-robed monks offer colorful juxtaposition against the brilliant yellow daffodil fields of the Skagit Valley when they stop to take photos. Monks among the daffodils.Everyone who sees the daffodil fields of the Skagit Valley is compelled to stop. Here, monks stop to take photos with their digital cameras.














The monks I spotted were enjoying taking pictures of the flower fields.

An orange-robed monk checks focus on his digital camera as he takes photos of the yellow daffodil fields in the Skagit Valley, Washington. A monk taking photos is a surprising sight in the daffodil fields of Skagit Valley, Washington. This monk walked away from the others to get his own angle. Orange-robed monk squatting down to take close-up pictures of daffodils in Skagit Valley, Washington. Meditating or concentrating?An orange-robed monk squats down in the mud to get a closer angle for a photo of the daffodil fields in the Skagit Valley, Washington.










One of the monks I was watching stepped away from the others to get a different angle for his photos. He comfortably squatted in the mud to get a close-up. Just like I do.

A macro photo of a yellow daffodil in bloom. Into the heart of a daffodil.A macro photo reveals the intricate and delicate interior of a blooming yellow daffodil. Empty baskets at the ends of daffodil rows. Baskets are left in the fields during cutting season. After migrant workers have finished picking bunches of daffodils for fresh-cut sales, baskets are left strewn in the muddy fields. The abandoned baskets make the fields look as if someone dropped everything mid-task and ran away.


]]> (Crowell Photography & writing) Crowell Photography Skagit Valley Wasington state landscapes daffodil fields of flowers flower farms flowers jonquil landscape photography landscapes narcissus spring yellow yellow flowers Sat, 22 Mar 2014 19:25:14 GMT
Behind the Yellow Door Over the past four months I have been working on a project that forced me to move away from home for a few weeks at a time. Fortunately, I had friends that invited me into their homes and let me invade their space.

One of these friends was an extraordinary woman I actually only knew through Facebook.  We had been put in touch by mutual friends who knew we had a lot in common, and we had corresponded for more than a year, but never met face to face before I showed up on her doorstep with suitcase in hand.

I spent more than a month living with Carrie Brown and therefore she deserves her own blog post.  I am so appreciative of her kindness and generosity, and was so amused by her ‘family’ I just have to share a bit.

Carrie Brown The unsinkable Carrie Brown in her famous kitchen with lap-hog Dougal.

Carrie has her own, ever-expanding, set of rabid fans. We were introduced by friends because we are both photographers who happen to love our macro lenses and often shoot the same subjects. But photography is the least of her talents. Carrie is one half of one of the most popular podcast series on iTunes. She partners with Jonathan Bailor on The Smarter Science of Slim. Just investigate.

She’s written (so far) two cookbooks, and I have no doubt she’s already working on the next two.

So here’s the thing. Carrie lives in a non-remarkable development in a fairly vanilla subdivision. But you know Carrie’s house because she’s the one with the yellow door! And that yellow door is the first clue that she is a non-conformist.

Carrie shares her space with five, six felines. Yes, that’s right. Six felines. And that meant I had to befriend them all. Not a problem – I actually like cats.

So, here’s a little bit about Carrie’s family.

DaisyDaisyFormerly queen of the roost, Daisy's authority has been supplanted by newcomer Mr. McHenry. She is not happy about it. Daisy – was queen of the roost until Carrie brought in a new kitten, Mr. McHenry. Daisy was not happy about being displaced and her blue eyes looked accusingly at you every time you cooed over the kitten. McHenryMcHenryMr. McHenry didn't take long to establish the power seat in the house.



Mr. McHenry, being a kitten, naturally disrupted Daisy’s special status and incurred her wrath early on. I hear they get along now. Of course he's a lot bigger now, too. 

DougalDougalDougal likes to be at the center of the action -especially if there's a lap available. He greets you at the door like a dog would.



Dougal. He’s the lover – greets you like a dog. Wants to be petted all the time and is a lap hog. He’s not picky though – anyone’s lap will do. 


Penelope (a.k.a. LooLoo) – the pretty girl who has aged. Sometimes a bit persnickety. Likes to suck her thumb. Really. 

LuluLuluPenelope defaults to thumb sucking whenever she is stressed.



ZebedeZebedeeThe original scaredy cat, ZebZeb is only friendly when you sit on the leather couch. Then you become just another lap.









Zebedee (a.ka.Zebzeb)  - scaredy cat. Totally terrified of unknown people in his space – unless it’s the leather couch. Then unknown persons miraculously turn into available laps.

Florence – the slow one. Florence, as you will know if you read Carrie’s blog, loves boxes. It’s true. I’ve witnessed it in person. She also loves dairy. If you even reach for a yogurt or cheese, she suddenly appears at your feet. Most of the time she doesn’t move much. FlorenceIt doesn't matter if it's too small, if there's a box, Florence will be in it.

The cats and Carrie have an understanding. I have never seen such well-behaved cats. Well, I’ve never seen cats that actually behave. Carrie has trained them to come when she whistles, to retire to their garage beds in the evening, and not to whine when food is being prepped. It’s actually a very orderly house. 

If you are British (like Carrie) you may recognize these names from an animated TV show Carrie tells me became a cult hit in the UK. It's called The Magic Roundabout

I have always been an animal lover, and have had my fair share of pets. I admit, though, it took a while for all six of these fabulous felines to adjust to my presence in the house. Once they did, though, we all got along famously.

Thank you, Carrie & family, for inviting me into your world. 



]]> (Crowell Photography & writing) Carrie Brown Cats SANE Smarter Science of Slim Sat, 23 Nov 2013 17:50:45 GMT
2014 Calendars Now Available It's been a busy few months and I have been remiss in getting these ready. I admit, I was indecisive about what to use for my 2014 calendars, but I finally landed on a selection of my favorite images from this year.

Please visit this page for details. 

I will post another blog update about what I've been up to for the past few months soon.

Lavendar PoppyLavendar PoppyA soft lavender poppy against a brilliant green background.

]]> (Crowell Photography & writing) 2014 Crowell K. Nancy Photography art calendar calendars fine flower gifts nature photo photography wall Fri, 15 Nov 2013 23:29:45 GMT
Landscapes of Italy Lone tree against stormy sky in Tuscany, Italy.Italy-5-3 It's been a while since I posted here. I promised I would get back to my trip to Tuscany, and finally I have time to fulfill my promise to you. I went to Italy for a landscape photography workshop with one of my favorite photographers, Jim Nilsen. Jim and his wife Magrit have been doing photo tours for a number of years and are fabulous guides.  

I wasn't looking for a real "how-to" workshop, as I already know how to shoot. I really wanted the kind of trip Jim & Magrit offer - camaraderie, beautiful locations, and sharing knowledge. Our trip included photographers at many different skill levels, so not only was I able to learn from Jim, but I was also able to assist other participants at times, which was fun for me.

The thing I appreciated most, though, was the opportunity to shoot places I have never been, and to have that guidance from Jim about what time of day was going to best and where to go. He had pre-scouted everything, yet was flexible enough to stop when any of us saw a moment we wanted to capture.

Enough talking. Let me just share some of my landscapes captured during this tour.

Wild flowers in Tuscany.Italy-7 Chasing olive trees. Italy-5 A river of poppies.River of Poppies Rolling hills of Tuscany.Italy-2-2 View from our room in Pienza, Italy.Italy-3-2 Chapel in Tuscany, Italy. Italy-1-2 Valle deItaly-5-2 Via del Reggio, along the coast in Tuscany, Italy. Italy-8-2 Civita, Italy, at night. Italy-10 The Tuscan hillside. Italy-5-4 Tuscan cypress.Italy-4

]]> (Crowell Photography & writing) Italian landscapes Italy Tuscan landscapes Tuscany landscape photography Sun, 08 Sep 2013 00:55:47 GMT
Ahh, Italy Italian Adventures

Last month I had the great pleasure of going to Italy to do a photo workshop with one of my favorite photographers, Jim Nilsen. Jim and his wife Magrit, who is a graphic designer, are not only lovely people, they make an exceptional creative team and wonderful tour guides.  I have long admired Jim's graphic work and was excited to get a chance to shoot with him. I've got so much to say about the experience, but for this first post I just want to share a few images from the trip. The first is from our first night as a group, when we did a "blue hour" shot of the Arno River in Pisa.

The brilliantly colored windows are from my post-workshop trip to Venice. These images are all posted in my new "Europe" folder on the site (at the request of several Facebook fans.)

More soon, I promise.

The Arno river in Pisa, Italy at night.Pisa on the Arno at Night Colorful Burano, Italy.Burano window 1

















Colorful doors and windows in Burano, Italy.Burano window and door






Color is everywhere in Burano, Italy. Burano purple

]]> (Crowell Photography & writing) Burano Italy Pisa Venice Wed, 26 Jun 2013 21:23:16 GMT