Photography is All About Exploration!

You might not have been aware of it, but ever since the first moment you thought about getting into photography, you’ve been an explorer. And ever since the first time you put that camera to your eye, you’ve been exploring science and mechanics, physics, emotions, the psyche, yourself, and you probably didn’t even know it. And it’s this exploration that brings us all the rewards that communicating with our fellow man can bring and it’s a lot. And as with any form of communication, sometimes the message doesn’t quite get across the way we intended. This sends us back to looking for more answers, exploring still further with our camera. I can think of no grander pursuit!

How can I, a fellow explorer, help you on your journey? The pressure is on, to write a post that accomplishes more than just fill a web page. It’s really no different than the pressure of when you put your camera to your eye and you go click (we all know that one). The quest for perfection is an awfully powerful one. It pushes our explorations probably more than any other factor. The funny thing to me is I’ve never seen a definition for the perfect photograph. I have for good ones, bad ones, great ones, favorites and especially those that suck. But I’ve never seen one for the perfect photograph. That begs the question then. What are we striving for in our photographs? Where are our explorations supposed to take us in the end? I’m literally starting my 31st year today being behind a camera full-time and I’m just as scared, excited, curious and in love today as I was my first year. And that’s all because as any explorer will tell you, a map is only as good as the person who drew it. Problem is, we have no map or it’s inaccurate so every day is an adventure!

When it’s a cloudy, rainy day, the one thing we tend to long for is the sunshine. (I firmly believe some of the worst weather brings out some of the best photography.) During a power outage, our instinct is to instantly grab a flashlight and turn it on. We make fun of moths heading to the flame and going down in flames in the process, but we’re not so different. We love and are drawn to light in all its shades, colors, emotions and complexities. It’s a science we explore (and at times curse) every bloody time we pick up the camera. And it’s an aspect of photography that requires a lifetime of exploration to master. There is no easy answer when it comes to light. More than a meter, a histogram, a curve can read, light is something that you first have to feel deep inside to begin to bring it out in your photography. (You might wanna check out my book Captured, which has a chapter on just this topic.)

That feeling then must be translated with the science of exposure so it reaches out and grabs the viewer of your photograph. The problem with the science of exposure as I’m sure you’ve experienced is it often leaves us flat. At the very least, it can take the fun out of photography thinking about all that Clipping and Zones and stuff they say you are supposed to worry about. Perhaps putting a mood to exposure might make it simpler and your photography more meaningful. Exposure = emotion, no matter how you clip a highlight or bury a shadow, if you expose to evoke a feeling, can you really go wrong? Sure you can, hence the perfect exposure eludes us some of the time because emotion is something we tend to keep buried deep inside of ourselves, safe from others. We put labels like “blown out highlights” or “lost in the shadows” when a photograph’s exposure doesn’t work, but to the lay person who doesn’t know these terms, they simply have either a positive or negative reaction to our photograph. Tap into the viewer’s emotions and your exposure will always be as perfect as we can get! Most photographers don’t learn this until way too late in their explorations, which means you might wanna try it sooner rather than later.

Still the second most commonly asked question I receive is, “What’s the best f/stop?” I liken this question to “What’s the best adjective to describe a great photograph?” The answer to both questions is whatever fits your style of communication best. But there is no map taking you to that answer for your photography. You have to explore for a long time to find that answer. I’ve been doing this photography thing for a while now, so I have explored long enough to know that for birds, I’m going to be at f/8, wide open for big game, and for landscape, whatever best brings the eye to the subject. What if you don’t know that?

Whenever your mind says, “What IF?” pull on that thread to see where it takes you. If you wonder what f/stop is best, shoot a test! Put your hand in front of your lens and take a picture of it. Just like in the movies, your hand acts like a clacker and tells you a test is coming. Now shoot the photo with all the f/stops available with you. The last frame should also be a picture of your hand to signify the end of the test. Once back at the computer, put all of these tests in a folder labeled “Photo Explorations” and refer to it often. Soon you’ll learn what f/stop is the best, for YOUR photography. But there’s the rub to that knowledge. It might take a turn tomorrow if your new explorations completely change those numbers. And that’s OK!

“Which lens is the best lens?” That’s right up there with which f/stop and is such a valid and important question to ask. That is, of yourself! The physics of how glass bends light and delivers it is so bloody amazing and cool and complicated and of course, sexy. No wonder this question comes up. But it’s how a particular lens bends light that makes its selection so important to each individual photographer. So the question still remains, what is the best lens? And to that question I don’t have the answer for folks. If you watch My Camera Bag on my website, you’ll see I’m lookin’ for that answer for myself as it’s in near constant flux. Right now, I feel the best lenses in my bag are:

600 f/4VR AFS

200-400 f/4 VR2

70-200 f/2.8 VR2

24 f/1.4 AFS

The reason this is for all of us is because our photographic explorations are not on some straight line progression but rather a very windy road. Each curve requires its own set of tools to take that turn and while we might have most of the tools to make that curve there are times we need a better one. For example, I prefer 800mm for birds, but no such lens is made any longer by Nikon, so I work with the 600VR with the 1.7x most of the time. The road bump for most is first determining they need that one focal length and then acquiring it (which makes renting such a great thing). That’s probably why this question hangs so often in discussions. Rest assured that just like the perfect photograph, the perfect lens is just as elusive.

With every new camera that comes along, the promise of our photographic life being made simpler is presented us. Be it from personal experience or reading on the web, we all know that right out of the box no camera body takes the perfect photo. It requires input from us to make that investment sing our tune. Some of that input is mechanical, but that has a limit. To get beyond that and to really make our photographs our own, the input has to come from the heart. What “feel” do we want in our photographs? When we take that heartless machine and insert our heart is when our photography goes to a whole new level and our explorations and visual communication starts grabbing other hearts. What I love best about this step in one’s photography is that the mechanical tends to start fading in importance. Gotta have it to start with, but sure don’t need it to continue to move forward.

What do you need to move your photography forward? It’s the same thing any of the greats in any profession will tell you is a must. Passion for what you’re doing! Our history is stuffed with tales of great explorations going down in flames. It is just as stuffed with amazing stories of incredible discovery. Sure, there was some science, mechanics, physics and of course luck, moving these success stories to a happy ending. But connecting all those dots so there was success was heart, emotion, passion, whatever you want to label it, what we are all capable of digging down deep and pulling out from within us. The great photographs come from all those “parts” that are the photographic process only when they are brought together by the heart. And with that knowledge and ability, we start our photographic explorations all over again because we never know where the heart will take us. Fun is the heartbeat of passion and it is from that where longevity in photography is constantly reborn.

You’ve gotta turn your photography upside down at times! Marching down the same path no matter who you are can take the pleasure out of the journey. I’m notorious for hating macro photography, sticking my butt up in the air to take a picture just isn’t natural for a Moose. Still, there are times I have and even once, for a small critter that’s now extinct. There are so many possibilities, genres in photography you could try it’s what I think makes photography such an amazing pursuit. Many know that along with my wildlife photography, I’m now pursuing aviation photography. Other than the correlation that birds fly and planes fly, these are pretty much opposites in genres of photography. I know a lot of wedding photographers who shoot aviation and catalog shooters who do wildlife. I started out in fashion photography, but obviously I didn’t stick with that. The simple act of trying something new is often the genesis of a great adventure!

The more you explore photography the more you’ll know that it is not cut and dry. There is no one answer, no one path, but rather a huge world of possibilities that will light up your passion. Tap that and then make 2011 the year you spread it around. Take that photograph and share your exploration with someone else and put a smile in their heart. It does make the world turn! I leave you with this thought, something a wise man shared with me after reflecting on something I had written. “A good photographer makes an image by holding the camera to his eye, but the great photographer makes an image by holding the camera to his heart!” May 2011 bring you amazing explorations with your camera!

You can keep up with Moose at MoosePeterson.com and WarBirdImages.com

About The Author

47 Comments

  1. Moose Peterson, simply the best wildlife photographer that ever got to hold a Nikon camera…. You make it sounds like if anyone could do it, and in the digital days, most of us can.

  2. Interesting…reading Captured right now, and the writing style is noticeably different. Tone, presentation and style aren’t the same. Good read though regardless, and would still love to hear your thoughts on techniques for shooting from as opposed to of rotary wing aircraft…(did one from a helicopter recently, and with an f2.8 and pretty solid shutter speeds, got some camera blur…)

  3. Hello Moose,

    That was definitely an interesting read. I’m no professional photographer but I do believe that putting your heart into what you do will always go to a whole new level and your explorations and visual communication will definitely start grabbing other hearts.

    Keep up the great work.

  4. I have your new book & I check on your site each day and now I have joined Kelby Training. All I can say is thank you for sharing your skills and your family life.
    Thank You From All Of The White Family Queensland Australia.

  5. I am speechless or rather wordless to type much. A guest post which ranks one of the top in guest blog section for me. Very very motivating.

    Other than the last sentences one that really inspires would be,

    “Fun is the heartbeat of passion and it is from that where longevity in photography is constantly reborn.”

  6. Dear Moose Peterson,

    Thank you for this because this really touched my heart. Now I know why I enjoy photography and I am ready to explore for rest of my life. I recently started photography and I can’t keep my mind away from the camera. I don’t know where life will take me, but where ever this place is, I am going to be ready. Ready to explore the world with my heart. This finalized my decision of continuing and majoring in photography in college. I am ready to follow my passion

    In Pursuit,
    Ritvik Dhavale

  7. I get as inspired by your pictures as I do your writings. Here’s hoping you have another 31 behind the lens doing what you love!

  8. What an incredible Guest Blog by an incredible photographer. Moose is an inspiration and outstanding teacher for everyone of us who ever picks up a camera and goes exploring and truly seeing the planet we live on. Thanks Moose and thanks Scott!

  9. HI Moose, thanks for all your inspirational words and work. In an effort to stretch my creative juices, I’ve got away from my ‘zone of confort’. I’ve experimented with bird photography this past year and I’m having a load of fun!
    Highly recommended to every photographer or artist, regardless of their status.
    best
    rui

  10. Nice guest blog! I especially like Moose’s photo of a Moose :) Sorry, I had to :)

    I like the images. I guess I’ll have to check out the book now.

  11. Wow Scott, how could you do this to the rest of your guest bloggers for the rest of the year? ;)
    Moose, I really enjoyed reading your post, your book “Captured”, the one issue of “BT Journal” that I have in my possession. However, the main thing that I get from meeting you, shaking your hand, and listening to your spoken word is that you really want to “HELP” others learn from your mistakes.
    Thanks for the lessons 30 months ago on our 7 days of adventure. Thanks for the hours spent together in Vegas on the Photo Safari.
    I am working extremely hard to hone my photography with the lessons you have provided me. At least I know how to hold my camera when taking pictures ;) thanks to your hounding me on those 7 days of yesteryear! As each day passes, my anticipation grows for the 2011 Vegas Photo Safari that I’ve already paid for.
    Thanks for all you and Scott do for helping all of us who are willing to listen “Learn”
    Mike

  12. Great post Moose!
    You’re a real inspiration, even to guys like me: the only WILDlife I’ve shot pictures of was a squirrel… Anyway, hope you have a wonderful 2011!

  13. Moose, that was a very inspiring post. I’ve been trying what to explore more in photography, there is a lot for me being an amateur. I looked back on my photos and the best shots were those that I shot with my heart, just not my eye. Of course, those were few and far between, but after reading your post I’ll will strive to do more heart seeing than just eye seeing. Thank you Moose for your love and dedication to such a wonderful art.

  14. Moose, your words are inspiring, indeed. I feel the passion — I just wish I had the nerve to quit the day job and pursue the passion full-time. I hope to make the jump in a couple of years, when I retire from the corporate world.

    Thanks for being a guest blogger. Thanks to Scott for inviting you.

  15. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the post! Thanks for articulating so well the point that experience and technological expertise may get you to good but only shooting with your heart will get one to a true level of excellence.

  16. Moose, what an awesome blog! Instead of thinking there is a right road or a wrong road on a journey, you have shown us there are many roads and all are worth traveling. Thank you for challenging me to keep trying different ideas. Scott, you did it again, another great guest !

  17. Moose, what an awesome post. This so reminds me of the several days of inspiration you instilled in us during the workshop in your home. I have gone back and pulled out my notes again. Since that time spent in Feb 2009 with you and RC, I have been able to take your inspiration and launch my own photography to new levels, but having posts like this, sure helps the motivation flow again, not to mention just feeling your passion. Thanks again and look forward to seeing you again.

  18. I remember seeing your work at the Digital Photographers night at Photoshop World and feeling each image as well as seeing it. You are as much a poet as an image maker. Thank you so much for sharing your insights with us.

  19. Funny how you are the guest blog post this week. I just posted on Facebook last night how when I grow up I want to be like you and Scott Kelby. Mostly I would love to be able to communicate through photography like the both of you.
    I love your pictures of Yellowstone! Most people don’t know or understand how beautiful our national parks are. I have been to Yellowstone and Yosemite as a child. I would love to be able to go back and take photographs of it as an adult.

    Thank you so much for this post.

  20. As if I could be any more excited for the DLWS adventure in May, this great guest post comes up.

    ~Kristina

  21. Words of wisdom! Thank you:)

  22. Moose,
    It’s funny to read you don’t care much for macro photography. I’m a huge fan of macro and most of my work is in the small details. I will admit I’ve come to not only admire your style, but try to include techniques of yours into my macro work. This is a great post. Thanks for sharing here and on your regular blog.

    Travis

  23. What a great read, Moose! Really inspiring words, along with terrific photographs to emphasize your points. I haven’t picked up your Captured book yet, but I plan to this year. Great point about how the best pictures come from the heart. I took some wildlife photos about 5 years ago when I got my first digital camera (after years away from film). Had a basic understanding of the settings and controls, but I got a few pictures of hummingbirds in the wild that I thought came out pretty good. I guess someone else did too, as I sold some prints of those photos recently.

    I feel I’m a better technical photographer now (with better equipment and experience), but I find that most of the work in my portfolio is from those earlier days, when I shot more “from the heart” than making sure I had the proper lens, exposure or f/stop (and possibly missing the shot!).

    Scott, let all your guest bloggers know that Moose has set the bar for Wednesdays in 2011!

    –John

  24. Moose,

    Great blog, great images, but this is really a wonderful and inspirational quote:

    “A good photographer makes an image by holding the camera to his eye, but the great photographer makes an image by holding the camera to his heart!”

    Thanks for all three!

  25. Dear Moose,

    Great article … I always enjoy reading your blogs. Also, I’d like to thank you for a personal signature in the copy of your great new book “Captured”. I was ecstatic when I found that Santa Claus (aka my girlfriend) left a copy under the tree this Christmas.

    May I also wish you and yours a happy new year and all the very best for 2011.

    Christian Groh
    Leeds, UK

  26. Thanks Moose, very inspirational…..outstanding post..

  27. Moose, awesome blog today. As I read it I could hear your voice!
    I call shotgun on Safari bus! :)
    KT

  28. Right on Moose, you have the glass and patience of a Jedi. I love your work!

  29. Great post. From spending time listening to you at one of your workshops in Yellowstone, I benefited the most from the idea that the better you know your subject, the more interesting the story that your photograph tells. Like you, I love photography because there is always something new to explore/learn!

  30. Thanks, Moose. You have inspired me to get out and photograph again. I get burdened down with the technology and give up. My best shots were back in the film days. I will have to join on of your adventures so I can ask the questions instead of giving up.

  31. Moose
    Awesome as usual! Your enthusiasm has impacted so many lives. Thanks. My personal passion leaped after my first DLWS event. My third leap will be in wine country with you. Thanks for the passion, the works, the advice, the example and most importantly the images!

    Jim

  32. What a great post, Moose. Love the perspective and thanks for the reminder that the joy of photography is the exploration.
    Scott, mark this guest-blog down now for Best of 2011.

  33. I really appreciated that post Moose. Thank you.

  34. Great read and great advice, Moose. You’re a multi-talented guy, while most of us aspire to one talent. The bravery to pursue your passion is as impressive as your photography!

  35. I remembered your photo presentation at PSW2010 Orlando last year, before that I’ve seen you a few times on PSUTV. I’ve been a fan, reading this I get to hear your voice, I’m more of a fan, I love your work and you’re down to earth as it gets and that’s why I like all friends of Scott!

    Great post Moose!


    DT.
    @DwayneTucker
    Miami, Florida | Nassau, Bahamas

  36. Thanks again, Moose and Scott, for another great blog post. I completely agree that experimentation and trying new things are at the heart of photography.

  37. Moose, I have seen a few of your videos on Scott Kelby Training, and really love them. You have inspired me further into landscape photography. Many years ago, I did a lot of work in this medium while in the navy flying around to various parts of the world.

    I also see that you have many photos of all kinds of aircraft. I too am interested in aircraft and flying, as I have done so in the past as a career naval aviator. I currently work for a major air carrier, and would love know how you got those amazing shots of all the different types of modern and vintage planes, both on the ground and inflight.

    I am setting up 2 sites to showcase some of work, both from the ’70s & ’80s as well as newer shots from the past 3 years I have been back into photography.

    Thank you for sharing your expertise to all of us who have watched your training videos and especially for me. You have heightened my ability to see and capture better images.

    Bill W.
    http://www.billsphotoimaging.com
    http://www.billwimages.photoshelter.com

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