Today’s interview with Greg Basco is one of the finest interviews I have ever conducted. It’s full of professional tips, thoughts, and experiences. Greg hasn’t held anything back, making it an exceptionally useful interview for every one of us.
Since the entire interview is around 4,300 words, I have split it into 2 parts. Check out the part-I of the interview with multiple award-winning photographer and conservationist from Costa Rica – Gregory Basco.
Today you’ll learn about several exclusive tips and techniques about:
- Flash photography techniques, which Greg specializes in.
- How to combine Flash with Slow shutter speed to get creative results.
- How to get out of the up, close, and personal framing to make something more compelling and unique.
- Some of the professional nature, wildlife, and bird photography tips.
Let’s jump right in…
Prathap: I must say you have mastered flash photography to a great extent. Very few photographers have such mastery.
I am sure my readers would be very interested to know few basic tips about flash photography. And also, it would be great if you point us to the best resource to learn about flash photography.
Greg Basco: Well, I’m always learning with regard to flash, but I do feel that, because I’ve had lots of practice, I’ve become pretty proficient with it. I’ll admit that I actually enjoy the technical challenge of using flash but I got started on flash simply because it’s such a necessity in the tropical rainforest where you very rarely have great natural light. But, once you come to understand flash, you quickly find that it opens up new worlds even in wide open places with plenty of light.
For instance, here’s a shot I took recently in the Atacama Desert of Chile at the end of the day. Even though the environment couldn’t be more different from the tropical rainforest, flash still helped me to improve the photo by allowing me to fill in shadows on this lone flamingo.
With flash, I would offer three basic tips.
First, understand that flash does not harm our subjects. Even nocturnal subjects will suffer no permanent harm from flash. There is a great article on the NatureScapes photo forum, written by a human and a veterinary ophthalmologist, that discusses this. But, there can be behavioral effects on our subjects, say scaring a bird off a nest or temporarily disrupting a frog from its routine activities. So, whenever you use flash, use it responsibly (and don’t work a subject too long!) and in accordance with the rules of the areas in which you’re photographing.
Second, using flash doesn’t mean that the picture will look flashed. If you can tell a photographer used flash for a picture, they haven’t used it well 🙂 Using flash well means using it in low doses and/or getting the flash off-camera and diffusing the light source. Note that this also corresponds to minimizing the potentially disruptive effects of flash on our subject.
Third, many photographers think that flash is used as a crutch by those who aren’t good photographers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Understanding flash will actually help you to understand natural light better. Photographers who claim to only shoot natural light as if such a restriction were a badge of honor are simply admitting that they don’t know how to use one of the main tools in photography!
I always instruct my workshop clients to shoot first with no flash. For fill-flash, understanding how to best expose the important parts of the picture (highlights on the top of a bird’s head for instance or the background) is essential. The resulting picture is then your guide for what you need your flash to do. If the light is good, you may not even need flash. But if you do, remember, you want to fill in shadows but not eliminate them. Killing the shadows in your photo is what makes a picture look flashed. And when using flash as the main light source, always try to position your flash(es) to create natural looking shadows.
The ebook The Guide to Tropical Nature Photography (which I co-wrote with my friend Glenn Bartley) has a very nice chapter on the use of flash for nature photography 🙂
Prathap: Would you like to talk about combining slow shutter with the flash? It’s kind of interesting to understand this particular flash photography technique.
Greg Basco: Sure, while the chance to apply it doesn’t come along often, it’s a technique that I really love as it’s a unique way of portraying motion. Basically, what you’re doing is intentionally creating an ambient ghosting effect while at the same time adding a quick burst of flash to freeze the subject. Put differently, this technique is effectively a double exposure in-camera – your subject is exposed via ambient light for, say 1/30 of a second and exposed by flash for say 1/10,000th of a second.
One way to do this is with a flying bird where you pan along with the bird while autofocusing (just as you would for a sharp bird in flight shot) but you use a slow shutter speed to produce some wing and background blur. You then add a pop of flash to gain some additional sharpness. It’s best to use second-curtain sync in this situation. This is exactly what I did with the Scarlet Macaw picture below.
A second way to apply this technique is with a subject that is staying in the same place but is moving part of its body. For me, a hummingbird hovering near a flower is a great example but you could also do this with a bird shaking water off its feathers after a rain. The hummingbird picture below is one example. I used a slow shutter speed but a very low flash power, which means a very short burst of flash.
Prathap: While almost all the bird photographers are trying to avoid the distractions, you seem to be using it in a rather pleasing way. It’s one of the many reasons, why I love your work so much!
Greg Basco: Thanks very much for that compliment! Yeah, I’m not a huge fan of posterboard smooth backgrounds. I don’t mind them for some images but I think a portfolio needs to have some diversity to keep it from getting boring to viewers. I prefer to try to look for background and surrounding elements that work together to add to the composition and to hint at the habitat of a subject. Obviously, this can be tough as things can easily become too distracting. When I’m out in the field and have a chance to position myself where I want in front of a subject, I’ll look first for some added elements. That can mean a background with some definition to it and/or leaves or branches that can frame my subject.
Prathap: And then, when every bird photographer wants to go up, close, and personal, you are taking it easy. You are perfectly fine to make the bird a smaller part of the composition and emphasizing on the background. The photograph below is an excellent shot where you have intentionally brought out the texture in the background.
Can you tell us more about how one can try and see things in new ways?
Greg Basco: Of course, though I wouldn’t say I’m taking it easy 🙂 I’m just kidding as I know what you mean. But, it is actually much more difficult to make a photo with multiple elements and strong composition than it is to simply buy an expensive long lens and then fill the frame with a bird and have a smooth out of focus background.
I’m also always looking for branches that make the bird part of a composition rather than the star of the show. Sometimes focusing only on the beauty and detail of birds can make for a nice image but more often than not, I like to hint at the habitat of a bird. I’ve always enjoyed looking at botanical illustrations and bird illustrations such as those of Audubon. These show-off plants and birds in a stylized way that places them in context. I really enjoy trying to get that effect through the camera.
To do this, you need to really think about compositional rules such as the placement of the subject in the frame and the size relation among different objects in a photo. I think the brown-hooded parrot photo above that you chose to feature is a good example of both. You’ll also want to think about the depth of field. I actually stopped my aperture down more than normal for this photo so that, instead of completely blurring the background, I was able to bring out some definition in the palm leaves in the background.
One added note, white backgrounds can be particularly effective when you can find a graphic composition. Many photographers hate white backgrounds but I find they can simplify a composition and, in a tropical cloud forest, a white background is totally natural because you are often literally in the clouds! The same goes for black backgrounds. These also can add to the graphic feel of a strong composition and can be totally natural for nocturnal subjects or even daytime subjects inside a forest where dappled light can produce strong shadows.
Prathap: Greg, before we finish, it would be great if you can give us some of the professional nature or wildlife or bird photography tips. It will prove precious to our readers.
Greg Basco: I think any nature photographer looking to make their photos stand out from the crowd should do four things.
First, try to really understand how your camera works and gain an understanding of the basics of exposure. Making the technical aspects of photography second nature will allow you to concentrate on light, composition, and behavior.
Second, study painting to gain a foundation in composition and the interplay between light and shadow. I don’t mean for this to sound pretentious but I really think that studying the great artists will help any photographer to develop a better eye. There are tons of resources online related to the great painting masters. Those are the western artists of course, but I also enjoy looking at a more ethereal style that’s typical of eastern watercolors. Studying these paintings is something that I enjoy doing during my free time.
Third, I urge people to learn how to use flash. As we discussed above, the flash will open your eyes to a whole new world of possibilities.
And fourth, try this little exercise. Take a subject common to where you live that’s been photographed a lot and try to come up with a photograph of that subject that’s totally different than what you’ve seen before. I did just that a few years ago for the photo below (it’s a single in-camera exposure) of the famous red-eyed tree frog, which has been photographed a million times. I wanted to photograph it in a fresh and interesting way and in a manner that was appropriate for a nocturnal frog in its rainforest habitat. It ended up being the cover of my recently released coffee table book on Costa Rica’s natural wonders.
I actually have a little free e-book on my website called Top 11 Tips for Eye-catching Nature Photos [Enter the site and Scroll to the bottom to download the eBook] that covers these and other ideas for making photos that stand out from the crowd. You can download the e-book at my website www.deepgreenphotography.com.
Prathap: You conduct several nature photography workshops every year. And it seems that they are booked well in advance. Can you tell our readers the benefits of attending your photography workshops?
Also, let us know how our readers can keep up to date with your work.
Greg Basco: I lead workshops through my tour company Foto Verde Tours. My specialty is Costa Rica, where I’ve lived and worked for a long time, but I also lead tours to Ecuador, Peru, and Chile, and I’ll be adding some new South American destinations in the coming years. I work very hard during my workshops to take clients to the places that I love and to help them improve their photography skills. I take very few pictures during a workshop. People aren’t paying me so they can watch me take pictures. They’re paying me to help them take better pictures! I think my reputation as a workshop leader who always puts clients first and is a good communicator is the big reason that I’m fortunate to be able to sell my tours well.
The best way to keep up with me is to visit my website Deep Green Photography and subscribe to my newsletter. That will keep you up to date on new tours, blog posts, photo tips, and other news. You can visit www.deepgreenphotography.com to subscribe. It’s free and confidential.
You can visit the Foto Verde Tours website (www.fotoverdetours.com) to see the full descriptions of all of our photographic tours, including the ones I lead.
And of course, you can follow me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/deepgreenphotography/. Be sure to give me a like!
Prathap: Greg, I know it’s been a very long interview. But I had to ask you these questions as I feel our readers would love to know about your unique talent. I hope you didn’t mind.
On behalf of our readers, I would like to thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and photography tips and techniques. It was a real pleasure talking to you.
Greg Basco: Likewise, Prathap, the pleasure was mine. I appreciate the opportunity to share with your readers. And congratulations again on your blog. It’s really becoming a great source of information. All the best to everyone out there. I hope to meet you in the field sometime!
Thank you once again! Greg, for an eye-opening and thought-provoking interview. We’ll surely meet soon.
Don’t forget to download Greg’s eBook Top 11 Tips for Eye-catching Nature Photos [Scroll to the bottom of the website to download the eBook]. It’s one of the best free eBooks on the subject. Greg’s straight from the heart explanation and his mind-blowing photographs are worth a ton.
Meanwhile, if you are not aware, this September I am taking just 4 photographers to Masai Mara, Kenya for 8-days. It’s an exceptional photography trip designed to witness the great migration. I have listed out the 5 KEY REASONS why you should go with me to Masai Mara this year. Click here to find out more.
I hope you all had a great time learning from Greg. Please feel free to ask questions, if you have. Or, share your thoughts about the interview. It’s always a pleasure know your thoughts.
I would greatly appreciate if you let more and more people to enjoy this interview, by sharing it on your favorite social media. Or, send the link to the interview via e-mail.
That’s all for now. Have a great time!