Behind the scenes: The making of the Hundred Acre Woods dog birthday photo shoot


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Curious what it looked like behind the scenes of our photo shoot? Here's everything that went into making our Hundred Acre Woods party happen, from start to finish! 

Scouting

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Natalia knew of a great place that fit the description I gave of my ideal setting. She knows the hills around the Bay Area like the back of her hand and picked a hillside that was perfect. We got together to scout out exactly where we would set up and what time of day would be ideal for the kind of light and mood we wanted to capture.

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Niner and Willow had to test out a few trees and give their input, because of course tree climbing would be part of the fun on party day. We saw so many extraordinary oaks, but there was one in particular that stole my heart. Huge, ancient, with branches coming out every which way, it is one of those trees with stories to tell.

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Once scouting the perfect tree was done, we had to have a bout of the zoomies to blow off steam.

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And of course we had to check with the locals to make sure they were alright with us setting up a party and photo shoot on their turf. They seemed to be alright with the idea.

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Gathering and Making Props

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The next step was making a list of what props would be needed, including what I had, what I needed to make and what I needed to buy. The details are what make a photo shoot come together, so I tried to think of everything that could make the shoot extra special. This is where Pinterest really came in handy. I created a board that had all my ideas in one place so I could see how everything would look together.

I found a dog-sized picnic table, and a tablecloth. Sweet little party hats, a chalk board and slate board, and cupcake papers with candles. I sewed together a simple burlap pennant banner, and wrapped empty cardboard boxes with brown paper and string. I baked up pupcakes from a recipe I used awhile back, and even made little flag picks with each dog's initial on them. 

Everything was placed in a box and checked off the list the morning of the shoot. Also packed was my shot list, which had 7 or 8 photo concepts I really wanted to capture during the shoot and a handful of reminders for the details and basic images I wanted to be sure to get.

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Setting Up

On the day of the shoot, we planned plenty of time to set up before the light got to where we wanted it to be for shooting. Natalia put her amazing drawing skills to work creating a gorgeous sign on the slate board. Niner checked her work just to be sure it was exactly right.  And it was.

Bill set up the table, arranged the packages, and hung the banner. I added in a few extras like mason jars filled with treats. I frosted the pupcakes with liver paste and put a few candles in them.

And of course the dogs helped too. With their expert stick-removal skills they cleared the area for us.  And they made sure the sign was hung nice and crooked (while holding tails, because they love each other that much!).


The Shoot

When everything was set up, the real fun began. As dog lovers, having canid subjects in and of itself is sheer joy, but getting to work with three of our favorite dogs in the world makes it extra special. We know these three dogs inside and out, and it was easy to get them into position for posed shots as well as let them run around to capture the silly spirit of the day. It was, after all, a pawty!

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We all had a great time, and even when it was over,  none of us were truly ready to call it a wrap. Especially Corbin.

This isn't to say the day went off perfectly. It didn't. We changed locations last minute. Niner rolled in cow poo and had to be rinsed off with water from the creek. I forgot to set out some of the props I'd made. A couple times we had to stop everything while random dogs hiking with their humans crashed the party and took their sweet time exploring our set. I didn't pull off some of the images on my shot list because I was distracted with what was evolving in front of me -- which really was more important anyway. So many little things happened that reminded us that even the best laid plans are just plans, and you have to be ready to roll with whatever happens. Especially when working with animals.

But that doesn't mean the planning phases can be skipped. In fact, Photo Lab Pet Photography wrote up a great list outlining how to plan and execute a themed photo shoot. I highly recommend reading through it if you're interested in pulling off your own conceptual shoot.


The Final Cut

All of the work that went into planning and shooting this special birthday party was well worth it. The final images from the afternoon are absolutely priceless to us. They are something I'll cherish not only because they celebrate a special dog in my life, but because it was a collaboration with two photographers I deeply respect and admire, who are also people I feel grateful I get to count as friends. We got to see the shoot from each others' eyes as we swapped images, and we sent countless texts laughing over bloopers and silly moments during the post-processing. I really couldn't possibly be happier about the collaboration and I am certain it is one of many in our future.

To see many of the photos that made the final cut for this shoot, check out "This birthday party has gone to the dogs! The Hundred Acre Woods-style pawty for the pups" blog post! e sure to visit Photo Lab Pet Photography's Tails from the Lab to view Bill and Natalia's favorites as well!

This birthday party has gone to the dogs! A Hundred Acre Woods style pawty for the pups



To celebrate Niner's 4th birthday, I wanted to do something extra fun. A few ideas came to mind, including a picnic, a hiking trip, a play date with friends, a special portrait to mark the day. And then I figured, let's do all of them!

I decided on a party, something with the feel of being in the Hundred Acre Woods among best friends, soft golden sunlight, oak trees and green grass. Then I called up my dear friends and extraordinarily talented photographers Natalia Martinez and Bill Parsons of Photo Lab Pet Photography, who also are the parents of Willow and Corbin, two dear doggy friends of Niner's.

When I asked if they would be interested in pulling off this project -- a picnic party plus photo shoot -- they were more than game. The resulting collaboration is something that had all of us laughing during the shoot, and sighing or squealing at the photos that came of it. Both the photos and the joyful experience of the afternoon are something I'll cherish forever.

These are just some of my favorites from the day. Be sure to visit Photo Lab Pet Photography's Tails from the Lab to view Bill and Natalia's favorites as well!

Niner and Willow hung the party sign with care, making sure it was perfectly not-straight.

Niner and Willow hung the party sign with care, making sure it was perfectly not-straight.

Natalia put her amazing drawing skills to work creating this beautiful chalk sign. It turned into one of my favorite props of the entire day.

Natalia put her amazing drawing skills to work creating this beautiful chalk sign. It turned into one of my favorite props of the entire day.

I baked up dog-friendly pupcakes, and layered liver-paste frosting on top. The dogs were great about waiting until the 'okay' from us before diving in.

I baked up dog-friendly pupcakes, and layered liver-paste frosting on top. The dogs were great about waiting until the 'okay' from us before diving in.

After the table was set up, the three dogs were let loose to go check it out! They were more than ready to get the party started.

After the table was set up, the three dogs were let loose to go check it out! They were more than ready to get the party started.

Corbin likes to sport a jaunty look and set his party hat at a rackish angle. He's just bursting with cute.

Corbin likes to sport a jaunty look and set his party hat at a rackish angle. He's just bursting with cute.

Willow loved her party hat but what I love most is that her ears are almost as tall as the hat itself!

Willow loved her party hat but what I love most is that her ears are almost as tall as the hat itself!

Corbin, Willow and Niner were all smiles when it came to party time. But first... presents.

Corbin, Willow and Niner were all smiles when it came to party time. But first... presents.

We let the dogs play with the presents and they set off with them. Willow ended up running joyfully all over the countryside with a box in her mouth. But finally Niner got a hold of one.

We let the dogs play with the presents and they set off with them. Willow ended up running joyfully all over the countryside with a box in her mouth. But finally Niner got a hold of one.

The pride with which Niner trotted back with a box in tow is just too much.

The pride with which Niner trotted back with a box in tow is just too much.

Presents, he thinks, are awesome.

Presents, he thinks, are awesome.

But after presents, the dogs were eyeballing that stack of pupcakes. It was time for the feast to begin.

But after presents, the dogs were eyeballing that stack of pupcakes. It was time for the feast to begin.

Each dog was given a cupcake and the go-ahead to enjoy. It's not every day you get to eat your fill of such big treats!

Each dog was given a cupcake and the go-ahead to enjoy. It's not every day you get to eat your fill of such big treats!

Willow thinks that frosting-first is the only way to eat a cupcake.

Willow thinks that frosting-first is the only way to eat a cupcake.

In an eating contest, Willow and Niner competed to see who...

In an eating contest, Willow and Niner competed to see who...

...could get the most frosting on their nose...

...could get the most frosting on their nose...

...and lick all of it off first. It was pretty much a tie.

...and lick all of it off first. It was pretty much a tie.

But the winner of who could knock over the most cupcakes seemed to go to Niner, who enjoyed every minute.

But the winner of who could knock over the most cupcakes seemed to go to Niner, who enjoyed every minute.

And once the cupcakes were done, they remembered that they each had a jar of treats to enjoy as well.

And once the cupcakes were done, they remembered that they each had a jar of treats to enjoy as well.

Going for consistency in knocking things over,  Niner dove into his treats as well, with Willow looking on and politely waiting for an in.

Going for consistency in knocking things over,  Niner dove into his treats as well, with Willow looking on and politely waiting for an in.

Overall, I think the birthday boy had a great party.

Overall, I think the birthday boy had a great party.

The dogs looked on at the wreckage of the party and seemed pretty satisfied with it, but...

The dogs looked on at the wreckage of the party and seemed pretty satisfied with it, but...

... had to make one last check for crumbs.

... had to make one last check for crumbs.

And there were some to be had.

And there were some to be had.

I think we'll do it all over again next year.

I think we'll do it all over again next year.

Get a peek behind the scenes and see what went into the planning, preparation and posing for this shoot! You can see the collaboration from my end in this post, and also learn the things you need to consider to pull off your own conceptual photo shoot. I can't wait to work with this amazing duo again.

A beautiful (and very up-close) moment with a bobcat


A young bobcat sits in a meadow, listening for the tiny, soft sounds of rodents. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A young bobcat sits in a meadow, listening for the tiny, soft sounds of rodents. © Jaymi Heimbuch


Every so often, wildlife makes things easy for you.

Early one morning at sunrise I headed up to photograph some river otters. Or at least I'd hoped to. They were a no-show that morning. It seemed like most everything was a no-show. Some mornings are just annoying like that, and there isn't much you can do to fix it except recognize you're getting skunked and go get a cup of hot coffee. So, I was driving back out to head home when a shape walking across a field caught my eye. A gorgeous young bobcat was strolling across a meadow.

I stopped a little way up the road and opened the car door and paused to make sure I didn't scare her off. She didn't even acknowledge me. I got out, grabbed my camera and walked back toward her. She paused to look at me but didn't change direction at all, and a second later resumed her stroll.

The bobcat walked slowly across the field, pausing every so often to have a listen and staying entirely unconcerned about the photographer tagging along behind. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The bobcat walked slowly across the field, pausing every so often to have a listen and staying entirely unconcerned about the photographer tagging along behind. © Jaymi Heimbuch

I followed, moving mostly parallel to her, pretending I wasn't looking or paying any attention to her, and slowly closed the gap between us. When she paused, I paused, and the little game of shadow went on for a few dozen yards until she stopped to sit and listen to the ground for any sounds of potential brunch.

When she stopped, I stopped, maintaining a distance far enough that I wouldn't put any pressure on her to move away. Turns out that distance wasn't much. This cat's personal space bubble was practically nil. © Jaymi Heimbuch

When she stopped, I stopped, maintaining a distance far enough that I wouldn't put any pressure on her to move away. Turns out that distance wasn't much. This cat's personal space bubble was practically nil. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Ultimately, she let me come to within about 15-20 feet of her and it felt like, had I wanted to, I could have walked up and plunked down next to her to enjoy the morning together. She was so calm, so confident, so unconcerned -- so everything cat.

In this particular park, wildlife is fairly habituated to humans. People pour onto the trails in the afternoons and on the weekends. There had also been road construction in the area recently which, rather than driving wildlife away, seemed to make them even more used to the presence of people and noise. But habituated or not, wild bobcats don't typically let people walk right up to them as if it's nothing. This was a really amazing moment. I knew it, and was doing all I could not to spoil it.

After a few minutes of half-hearted listening to the ground, she decided this was a good spot to just rest awhile. She settled down in a little ball and her eyes drooped, and drooped some more, until she rested her head on the grass for a solid snooze. I took a few photos but when I'd click, her eyes would open slightly. Not wanting to bother her more when she was resting, watched for just a couple minutes more before I quietly backed away and headed to the car, my stomach in a tight knot holding in a squeal of joy.

Eventually, the bobcat decided it was time to stop hunting and take a nap. She curled up in the grass, head up for awhile until her eyes drooped shut and she settled down to sleep. I took my last couple shots and then left her to catch 40 winks in peace. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Eventually, the bobcat decided it was time to stop hunting and take a nap. She curled up in the grass, head up for awhile until her eyes drooped shut and she settled down to sleep. I took my last couple shots and then left her to catch 40 winks in peace. © Jaymi Heimbuch

It's been said to the point of cliche, but it's a beautiful cliche so I'll say it again -- it is a profound honor to have a wild animal be calm and comfortable enough to let you get close, to let you be around to watch as it goes about its business. But to let you be around as it falls asleep? That's really something special.

Related posts:
A nod to nene: How Hawaii's native goose is returning from near extinction
The epic flight and worrying plight of monarch butterflies
An animal of extremes: How the northern elephant seal barely dodged extinction
River otters and their incredible comeback in California's Bay Area

How to use the Brenizer method in pet photography for extra impact


This shot is 28 images manually blended together. Each frame was shot with a 50mm lens at f/1.6, but the final image has the appearance of being shot with the equivalent of a 20.4mm lens at f/0.65. The Brenizer method allows you to create images that look like they were taken with lenses that don't actually exist. © Jaymi Heimbuch

This shot is 28 images manually blended together. Each frame was shot with a 50mm lens at f/1.6, but the final image has the appearance of being shot with the equivalent of a 20.4mm lens at f/0.65. The Brenizer method allows you to create images that look like they were taken with lenses that don't actually exist. © Jaymi Heimbuch


Back in 2008, an extraordinarily talented photojournalist and wedding photographer named Ryan Brenizer was off traveling and wanted to create a landscape shot while isolating some of the elements in the scene, the way one can with the shallow depth of field offered by a fast portrait lens. He figured that if he used his portrait lens and manually plugged in his settings and focus, then shot pieces of the scene wide open, he could stitch them together and get the look he wanted. And it worked.

The technique, now known as the Brenizer method (or bokeh panorama or bokehrama), provides a wide-angle image with an extremely shallow depth of field, isolating the subject from the background in a dramatic way. It basically creates the look one can get with a medium format camera but it can be accomplished using a regular old portrait lens on any old camera. The finished photograph can look like it was shot with a 20mm lens at f/0.6, or maybe an 18mm lens at f/0.7 -- in other words, it looks like it was shot with a lens that doesn't actually exist anywhere in the world. The technique has become popular among photographers mostly for wedding and engagement portraits, and other artistic and unique portraits of human subjects.

I found out about the technique randomly about two weeks ago and did a search for its use. Interestingly, I haven't really seen it used in animal photography or even pet portrait photography. In the past I've seen some stitched images in wildlife shots (some that are extremely good and award-winning) but these are only two or three images stitched together -- a far cry from this purposeful panoramic stitching technique that can use as many as 50 or 60 images to capture the scene. My only guess on why it hasn't been used much in professional animal photography is because it's helpful to have a subject that holds relatively still in order to capture  shots to overlap in post-processing, and that can be difficult to get with an animal. Difficult... but not impossible.

I decided to test it out and gather up some tricks for pulling it off with pets and hopefully encourage pet photographers to try out this fun and interesting technique. Plus it is useful to have in our hip pockets for photo shoots when we want to get a shot with a little extra oomph. Any dog with a solid stay command -- or any calm cat, bird, horse and many other pets -- can potentially be a great subject for photos using this technique. And the results can be absolutely stunning. It is a great tool for photographers who want to minimize how many lenses they use on a shoot, but maximize the variety of images they create.

To try out the technique and figure out some best practices, I created three images with my own dog. I quickly became intrigued with it, so I roped in some friends to let me use their dogs as models to test it out more. I'm now entirely smitten with the technique but admit that it is certainly something that takes time in post-processing while you get used to it, and has a learning curve for really nailing it. Let me say now, I don't claim to be any sort of expert in the technique (yet) -- I've only tried it out for a week. But there are some strategies specific to working with pets that I think will be helpful for anyone wanting to use it with animals, and I cover everything I've learned so far.  At the end of this tutorial, I link to excellent resources that will help you master using it. So here we go.

This is the very first image I tried using the Brenizer method and proves why I became so infatuated with it. The image is the final product of 28 frames manually blended together. The frames for this were shot with a 50mm at f/1.8, but the bokehrama is the equivalent to shooting with a 19.8mm lens at f/0.7. © Jaymi Heimbuch

This is the very first image I tried using the Brenizer method and proves why I became so infatuated with it. The image is the final product of 28 frames manually blended together. The frames for this were shot with a 50mm at f/1.8, but the bokehrama is the equivalent to shooting with a 19.8mm lens at f/0.7. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Capturing sweet yet brief interactions between owner and pet is entirely possible, as long as they stay in one place and the "action" part of the moment can be captured in a single frame. The kiss was caught in a single frame and the rest of the pose and scenery was captured in separate frames, stitched together and blended manually. This photograph is comprised of 27 images shot with a 50mm lens at f/1.6, yet it has the appearance of being shot with a 21.5mm lens at f/0.7. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Capturing sweet yet brief interactions between owner and pet is entirely possible, as long as they stay in one place and the "action" part of the moment can be captured in a single frame. The kiss was caught in a single frame and the rest of the pose and scenery was captured in separate frames, stitched together and blended manually. This photograph is comprised of 27 images shot with a 50mm lens at f/1.6, yet it has the appearance of being shot with a 21.5mm lens at f/0.7. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Capturing a great expression is the heart and soul of portrait photography. Though a subject needs to stay in one place for the photographer to pull off the technique, they don't need to be statue-still. In this tutorial I go over how to capture both expression and movement while still getting the overlap needed for stitching. This photograph is 29 frames shot with a 50mm at f/1.6, but has the equivalent look of a 21.8mm lens at f/0.7. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Capturing a great expression is the heart and soul of portrait photography. Though a subject needs to stay in one place for the photographer to pull off the technique, they don't need to be statue-still. In this tutorial I go over how to capture both expression and movement while still getting the overlap needed for stitching. This photograph is 29 frames shot with a 50mm at f/1.6, but has the equivalent look of a 21.8mm lens at f/0.7. © Jaymi Heimbuch

What you'll need:

  • A location where elements in the background will provide the impact for the depth of field. Having foreground objects as well as and background objects is a great way to provide extra contrast. Locations such as like a trail or path, trees in a forest or park, crop rows, city streets with buildings in the background, or even a living room with furniture will all work.
  • An animal that will hold a sit-stay, down-stay or stand-stay in one place 10-15 seconds or longer.
  • Light that isn't changing. You want your exposure to be the same in all frames so you don't want clouds moving across the sun as you shoot, trees blowing in the wind and shifting the light on your subject, and similar issues.
  • A lens with manual focusing or a camera with an autofocus lock button.
  • A portrait lens that is 50mm or longer, with an aperture of f/1.8 or faster.  An 85mm f/1.2 lens works really well, as does a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens zoomed out to 200mm. I used a 50mm f/1.4 lens for all images in this article.

Steps for taking the image:

The most important step for getting started on your shot is composing the image in your mind. You want to know where the corners of your image will be so that you know how far around your subject to shoot. It's easier than you think to not shoot enough of the background and you end up stitching together a photo with a whole corner missing. Even if it means bringing along an 8x10 matting to hold up so you can more easily visualize your composition, take the time to know where the four corners of your final image will be before beginning.

Select your manual settings. Set your aperture at wide open or just one or two stops down. The wider the better, but be sure it's an aperture where your camera is sharpest, which is often one or two stops down from wide open anyway. If you're using a telephoto zoom, such as a 70-200mm f/2.8, use it fully zoomed out for the most minimal depth of field. Then select your ISO and shutter speed for the best exposure.

Maintaining an even white balance is also important. You can do manual white balance on location, but I've found it easier to just sync the images with the right white balance in Lightroom during post-processing.

Get your focus using either manual focus, or dialing in with autofocus and pressing the autofocus lock button on your camera if you have one, and holding it down as you shoot.

The distance between you and your subject is up to you, depending on the composition and the effect you want. I've found I get the best results when my subject's face fills a good portion of the frame.

The easiest way to capture images is, as Brenizer says, to start with the moving parts first, which means starting with your subject. So, once all your settings are complete and you're ready to shoot, lock in your focus and shoot for the expression you want in your final image. It's okay if this means taking a handful of photos of your subject until you have just that perfect look for your final image.

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After nailing that perfect eye contact or head tilt, start to move around your subject, capturing the scene in a systematic way moving outward so you know you have everything. I found it easiest to start with my subject's face, then move to just above the subject's head and begin a clockwise expanding spiral, overlapping the images by 30-50 percent.

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Once I had the eye contact and expression I wanted captured, I began working in an expanding clockwise circle to capture the rest of the landscape. This photo is 39 frames manually stitched and blended. It was shot with a 50mm at f/1.6, but has the equivalent look of shooting with a 21.8mm lens at f/0.52. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Once I had the eye contact and expression I wanted captured, I began working in an expanding clockwise circle to capture the rest of the landscape. This photo is 39 frames manually stitched and blended. It was shot with a 50mm at f/1.6, but has the equivalent look of shooting with a 21.8mm lens at f/0.52. © Jaymi Heimbuch

While you don't need to overdo it with the number of frames you take, be sure to get plenty of overlap -- it would be frustrating to find out in post-processing that you're missing a portion of the scene that you can't stitch, and you have a blank spot in your image that may not be fixable. For the image example above, I visualized where I wanted my edges to be, began shooting the frames, and went a little bit beyond where I wanted to end just so that I was sure to be able to get the crop I wanted after stitching.

If the animal moves their head or feet around a bit while you're photographing the overlapping parts of their body, don't worry about it. It doesn't necessarily mean you have to start again. Just know you'll probably have to manually blend the layers rather than using Photomerge to be sure you get all the right pieces in the frames for their natural body. On the other hand, if the animal completely shifts position while shooting their body, well, there's no fixing that. You'll want to start over. However, if you already have all you need of the subject and you've begun working to capture then scene, and the animal moves or even gets up and leaves the shot, then just make sure they're fully out of your scene and keep shooting what you need of the edges. They wouldn't be in these frames anyway so it's no big deal.

Again, I can't stress enough to remember to photograph the full scene, especially the top corners.  You'll want to crop down the image later and you need to have enough material to work with. The image below was my third try at the technique and realized after stitching with Photomerge how much of the scene I didn't capture when I thought I did. It's not that I needed it for the final crop that I wanted, but I thought I shot it and didn't. What if this happened and the image was for a paying client with expectations? So, consider your edges a safety net.

This image is 38 photos stitched together using Photomerge. You can see how much of the scene in the upper left side wasn't captured. This is why you shoot more of the scene than what you think you want, so that you have plenty of room to crop a final image that looks perfect.

This image is 38 photos stitched together using Photomerge. You can see how much of the scene in the upper left side wasn't captured. This is why you shoot more of the scene than what you think you want, so that you have plenty of room to crop a final image that looks perfect.

The frames for this image were shot with a 50mm at f/1.6, but the final photo is the equivalent of shooting with a 20.5mm lens at f/0.65. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The frames for this image were shot with a 50mm at f/1.6, but the final photo is the equivalent of shooting with a 20.5mm lens at f/0.65. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Shooting plenty around the borders of your composition also simply gives you choices later on for how much of the scene to leave in and how much to crop in to your subject depending on the look you want. For example, here is a complete image image on the left, using 29 images and getting the full scene as I envisioned it on location. On the right is a cropped-in version that uses only 9 frames. Because I shot more than enough, I was able to decide in post processing how much of the scene I really wanted after all. That kind of flexibility is invaluable. Think of it like writing: It's easier to edit down a too-long first draft than to build up a too-short first draft.

This photo is 29 stitched frames and includes plenty of background for that unique bokehrama effect.

This photo is 29 stitched frames and includes plenty of background for that unique bokehrama effect.

This photo uses only 9 of the frames taken and brings the focus more to the dog's eyes than to the scene.

This photo uses only 9 of the frames taken and brings the focus more to the dog's eyes than to the scene.

The effect works best when close to your subject, filling the frame with their face. But you don't have to strictly follow this guideline. If it is easier for you to be at a distance from your subject, or if you just want to get more of an environment shot, stand back as far as you want. Just know that the dramatic isolation of your subject that this technique is famous for happens best when you are close. Here is an example of when I stood about 15 feet back from my subject.

I stood well back off the ledge where my subject was posed. The first frame of the shot captured the entire dog plus some surrounding scenery. I worked out from there, overlapping each frame by about 50 percent.

I stood well back off the ledge where my subject was posed. The first frame of the shot captured the entire dog plus some surrounding scenery. I worked out from there, overlapping each frame by about 50 percent.

I adjusted the images in Lightroom, unifying the white balance and removing vignetting, then used Photomerge in Photoshop to blend together the 73 photos to create the full scene.

I adjusted the images in Lightroom, unifying the white balance and removing vignetting, then used Photomerge in Photoshop to blend together the 73 photos to create the full scene.

I then cropped down to just the part of the scene I thought made the best composition. The down-side of staying so far back with a 50mm lens is that the effect of isolating the subject isn't as strong. Had I used something like an 85mm lens at f/1.2, the isolation would have been more dramatic while still capturing just as much of the surrounding scene by standing so far back.

I then cropped down to just the part of the scene I thought made the best composition. The down-side of staying so far back with a 50mm lens is that the effect of isolating the subject isn't as strong. Had I used something like an 85mm lens at f/1.2, the isolation would have been more dramatic while still capturing just as much of the surrounding scene by standing so far back.

Another thing to note is that you don't have to take 50 or 60 images. Start small with 9 or 12 images as you get the hang of the process. My first attempt was 28 frames, then 39, the 73. I was a little over-exuberant and learned after a bit that you can often get the same interesting effect with just a dozen or so images while cutting down your work time significantly. The more of the scene you want to capture, the more images you'll take, but the more time and effort you will have to spend mucking around in Photoshop. So start small, get a handle on it, and expand from there.

Steps for readying your images for stitching:

Once you have all your images, the real work starts. There are many ways to do this and a lot of software options you can utilize including programs dedicated to stitching panoramic photos. Here's just one option for how to get your final image.

Put all the frames you'd like to use in a single folder and upload the folder to Lightroom. Select the first image. In the Develop panel, check the "Enable Profile Corrections" box in the Lens Corrections tab. Make sure that it is recognizing the lens you used. Also, adjust the vignetting slider to remove any vignetting. For my Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens, I usually slide this to about 120 or so.

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Then go up to Basic adjustments and adjust your white balance. These are about the only adjustments you'll need to make at this stage, though if you need to adjust exposure or something else, go for it. Just don't worry about in-depth adjustments quite yet.

Select all the images in the folder and hit the "Sync" button at the bottom of the Develop panel. This will apply your adjustments to every image in the folder.

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I like to export these images at the highest quality so I can use the final stitched image for large prints, but I also need images small enough to work with in Photoshop without making my computer slow to a crawl. The happy medium for file size for me seems to be to export them as jpgs in AdobeRGB at 300ppi and 100 percent quality, and resizing them to be 1500 pixels on the long edge. Then I export the batch to a new folder.

Next up, Photoshop.

Steps for stitching:

Stitching can be a breeze, but often it isn't. Photomerge is an incredible tool in Photoshop and I adore it. But that said, it's not perfect. There will most likely be layers that don't blend quite right and you'll be going in to do some clean up. The amount of clean up needed can make Photomerge your best friend, or completely not worth it. So I'll go over steps for automating but also steps for manually blending images.

To use Photomerge, select File -> Automate -> Photomerge.

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In the Photomerge window, select the "Reposition" option. Add the images you'd like to use in the panoramic. Then click OK.

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Photoshop will then start working on automatically layering your images based on content, and then blending your images together. The results can be, um, mixed. Sometimes it works like a dream, and sometimes there are some wonky errors. The errors happen especially when you have multiple images of the subject when the subject has moved positions (so the legs, ears, face and so on don't align), and when you have straight lines such as trees or railings.

For example, in the image below, Photomerge worked almost perfectly. There are only a couple places where the tree trunks don't align. I can simply go in and select the specific layer or layers that are showing for these areas and either adjust the masking on them, or delete them and add the frame I want to use for that area as a layer and manually blend it to correct the problem.

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But sometimes, Photomerge just looks janky. Below is an image that that was blended together and makes little sense. There's an entire chunk missing from it because the images weren't blended quite as intuitively as one might hope. When something like this results, your best option is to manually add each layer, mask, blend, and add the next layer. While this is certainly more time consuming, it gives you complete control over what is shown from each layer and you can make the scene look exactly how it is supposed to look. I trashed the Photomerge file below and started afresh, and my result was the image up toward the top of this post, an image with which I'm extremely happy. It took awhile but it was worth every minute.

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To use manual blending, all you need to do is create a new canvas (depending on how many 1000x1500px frames I'm using, I start out with a canvas between 4,000 and 8,000px square) and open your exported images. Drag and drop you first image, the one of the subject's face with the perfect expression. Then drag and drop the next frame of your subject, the ears or whatever it may be. Mask and blend that, and continue to build out from there, dragging the next frame, masking, blending, and dragging in the next frame. I layer in the same expanding clockwise circle in which I shot to make things easy.

Like I said, it is time consuming but you have total control of your image and frankly, sometimes it's the only way to get a decent result. For instance, the photo at the very top of this post was virtually impossible in Photomerge -- there's too much going on with the rocks at different angles and different depths, the trees, the twigs that are in focus on the right of the subject and so on. The only way to get everything to align properly was to do it by hand, frame by frame. But when I finished it, printed it and handed it to the dog's owner, the smile on her face was worth every minute spent squinting at the screen.

Once you have your final image completed in Photoshop, save it as a psd (because you'll inevitably find little mistakes and micro-adjustments later on that you'll want to fix), and then save it as a jpg. I then import the jpg to Lightroom and make my adjustments for print, deepening the blacks, bumping up the vibrance or whatever is needed to make the complete whole. And there you have it: a unique photograph with a stunning look that you couldn't have captured with any lens available on the market.


I'm excited to get out and test this technique not only with more pets but also with wildlife. It will be interesting to start with calm elk or deer that will stay put for at least a couple seconds while I'm relatively close and see how it goes. And of course getting more practice and learning more tricks for when this technique is used to its best effect, and how to make post-processing more fluid, will be fun.

Ultimately, I hope it will be a technique that I can use every so often when I come across the perfect scene and subject that will benefit from this super-shallow-depth-of-field-wide-angle goodness that Ryan Brenizer was kind enough to bring to the world's attention.

While I've included all I know up to this point -- and I will continue to add more as I experiment and have advice to share -- you can learn so much more about perfecting this technique by watching this video. And there are of course about a bazillion articles on how to pull off the technique and you can learn countless tips and tricks from the internet at large. I found this video from Adorama and this tutorial from PhotographyLife helpful in getting started. There is also a handy dandy calculator for figuring out the lens you "used" for your shot. It not only is interesting but also gets you really excited about the notion that you just shot a photo with a lens that doesn't even exist.

If you try out the Brenizer method (aka bokeh panoramic, aka bokehrama) in your animal photography, please share your work in the comments! I'd love to see examples of it used for pets and wildlife, and learn more from you!

This image is comprised of 40 images manually stitched and blended. The frames were shot with a 50mm lens at f/1.6, but the final image has the appearance of being shot with an 18.5mm lens at f/0.6. © Jaymi Heimbuch

This image is comprised of 40 images manually stitched and blended. The frames were shot with a 50mm lens at f/1.6, but the final image has the appearance of being shot with an 18.5mm lens at f/0.6. © Jaymi Heimbuch

This simple photo uses only 8 layers stitched together manually. The frames were shot with a 50mm lens at f/1.6, but the final image has the look of being shot with a 32mm lens at f/1.0. © Jaymi Heimbuch

This simple photo uses only 8 layers stitched together manually. The frames were shot with a 50mm lens at f/1.6, but the final image has the look of being shot with a 32mm lens at f/1.0. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Danny takes the spotlight on a foggy San Francisco morning


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It was still dark out when I strolled across the wide lawn of Crissy Field in San Francisco and saw the silhouette of someone with a dog standing on the path. I was to meet Danny, a handsome senior dog, and his two humans, Meredith and Larry, for a sunrise photo shoot -- which was turning out to be more of a fog-rise photo shoot. No matter; we were all ready to enjoy watching the day unfold in front of the Golden Gate Bridge.

I walked up and met Danny for the first time, who greeted me with tail-wags right away. It was simply a sign of how easily he wins hearts.

Meredith had never planned on having a dog , and had started out simply fostering Danny. But as the months rolled by while Danny waited for suitable applications from forever homes, Meredith realized that she was completely in love and couldn't imagine Danny going to another home. They call these "foster failures" but really they are simply foster stories with happy endings, just not the ending that was predicted. After a couple years, Larry entered the scene and the family was complete.

As Danny headed into his senior years, he began to have a few health scares. And Meredith decided it was time to get portraits done to have beautiful visual memories of Danny for posterity.

I couldn't have been more happy when Meredith and Larry contacted me about portraits for Danny. As I've discussed before, one of my very few regrets from my first dog was not having professional family portraits taken during the decade we spent as a family. Many people realize only later in a dog's life that they want to have these special photographic memories of four-legged companions. No matter how long they live, it is never long enough. Capturing them throughout their lives and especially in their prime and senior years is an invaluable investment. Meanwhile the joy I and other pet photographers have in capturing the bond between human and animal, in catching the heart and soul of our subjects in an image, is a joy that is difficult to describe in words.

I am so grateful for the hour I spent with this family. Danny easily won me over with his kind glances, and how clear he made it that Meredith is his most favorite living being on the planet. She is his as much as he is hers -- there were several jokes made about who was the favorite when Larry and Danny were posing for their portraits together and Danny constantly kept an eye on where Meredith was standing. Despite a little favoritism, the three of them together make a beautiful, utterly devoted family.

Here are some of my favorite highlights from the morning. 

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River otters and their incredible comeback in California's Bay Area


Sutro Sam swims in the glassy water of the Sutro Bath ruins in San Francisco, California. His temporary return to the city marked the first river otter spotted in the city in over five decades. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Sutro Sam swims in the glassy water of the Sutro Bath ruins in San Francisco, California. His temporary return to the city marked the first river otter spotted in the city in over five decades. © Jaymi Heimbuch


In early October of 2012, someone spotted a ripple of water in the Sutro Bath ruins at the northern end of San Francisco, a ripple made by an unlikely visitor. A North American river otter had traveled to and set up camp in San Francisco for the first time in over 50 years.

The otter was soon nicknamed Sutro Sam, and drew in legions of curious onlookers as he caught and chomped down fish, gathered reeds for bedding, and groomed or sunbathed on the concrete wall separating the baths from the beach.

Sutro Sam stayed for several months, until he had devoured all the big carp that had, until his arrival, called the baths home. He hunted in the ocean for a bit (which many people including me are surprised to learn river otters can do) but finally moved on entirely. Still, even though his stay was relatively short, he made an incredible impression on city residents, many of whom had never seen a river otter before outside of the zoo — not because they aren’t a locally native species, but because their numbers had dramatically declined over the last half-century to the point that they were rarely ever seen anywhere in the Bay Area.

The status of river otter populations in the Bay Area is largely unknown. The River Otter Ecology Project is working to provide the first solid statistics on river otters in the area. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The status of river otter populations in the Bay Area is largely unknown. The River Otter Ecology Project is working to provide the first solid statistics on river otters in the area. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Yet today, there are river otters in waterways throughout the area and their population is once again on the rise. It sounds like an incredible comeback, but just how much of a comeback is it, and where are we in the return to historic numbers? Frankly, we don't know. There aren’t records to show what populations once were, nor when or how quickly they began to decline.

Megan Isadore, the Executive Director and Co-Founder of the River Otter Ecology Project (ROEP),  a nonprofit studying and tracking data on the river otters of the Bay Area, tells me, “We discovered trapping records in the Bay Area before 1962, when otter trapping for fur was banned. However, there was no indication of their abundance, and there are no baseline population abundance records at all. Ours is the first on record. We do know that by 1995, California Department of Fish and Wildlife maps showed no river otters in most of the San Francisco Bay Area. I suspect there were some by then, but river otters are elusive and difficult to spot even when you’re looking for them, so until we began a concerted effort to find them, there were no records.”

River otters declined due to fur trapping during the mid-century and due to the effects of polluted waterways. Both problems were addressed when fur trapping was banned in 1962 and the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. © Jaymi Heimbuch

River otters declined due to fur trapping during the mid-century and due to the effects of polluted waterways. Both problems were addressed when fur trapping was banned in 1962 and the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. © Jaymi Heimbuch

While we don’t know when or how many, we do have a good idea about the why behind the decline. The bay area has been heavily developed on all sides of the bay, stripping habitat away from river otters and myriad other riparian and wetland species. Fur trapping was alive and well until 1962, and river otters have a luxurious coat that was sought after by trappers. Meanwhile, the Clean Water Act wasn’t passed until 1972, and as BayKeeper.org notes, before the CWA, “In the 1960s and early 70s, San Francisco Bay just plain stank. Raw or partly treated sewage entered the Bay in 83 places. Refineries, smelters, pesticide manufacturers and other industrial facilities pumped their waste directly into the Bay.”

Polluted waterways cause a range of problems for river otters, including a loss of fish and other aquatic prey, exposure to toxins, and the bioaccumulation of heavy metals and other toxins in the body through consumption of contaminated prey. As Isadore notes, “Even if these don’t kill them outright, they can have deleterious effects on reproduction and survival of young.”

In short, river otters all but disappeared from the Bay Area. And while we don’t know exactly what the population curve looks like, we do know river otter numbers took a dramatic dip and are thankfully now on the rising end of the U curve.

River otters are apex predators in riparian habitats. Their presence symbolizes a balance in an ecosystem, and a habitat healthy enough to support top carnivores. © Jaymi Heimbuch

River otters are apex predators in riparian habitats. Their presence symbolizes a balance in an ecosystem, and a habitat healthy enough to support top carnivores. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Isadore states, “As far as we know, river otters were first noticed again in Marin in 1998 in Walker Creek in Marin County (personal anecdote from Rich Stallcup, founder of PRBO and well-respected scientist and naturalist). I personally began seeing them in Lagunitas Creek in Marin in 2002, and sightings became more and more common. That’s why we launched ROEP, to find out what their status is in the Bay Area.

"At this point, having placed cameras at, as well as mapped latrine sites and dens over about 100 miles of coast, river and bayland in Marin County we know they are here and reproducing. Our citizen science project has found river otters all over the San Francisco Bay Area, with the exception of the San Mateo coastline.”

Sutro Sam was anything but shy. More than happy to pose for onlookers as he went about his business, he was the star of Sutro Baths for several months. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Sutro Sam was anything but shy. More than happy to pose for onlookers as he went about his business, he was the star of Sutro Baths for several months. © Jaymi Heimbuch

That’s one of the reasons why Sutro Sam was extra special. He unwittingly became the host and guest of honor at the welcome-back party for river otters in the Bay Area. His appearance sparked a new level of awareness both for what we had lost and what we are gaining back. This charismatic, charming species is a sign that the waterways are restored to the point of supporting apex predators, and when an ecosystem has apex predators, we know it is in balance.

“What interests me most of all about river otters and about all life,” says Isadore, “is the intricate and beautiful web of interactions that each species takes part in to complete the whole wild planet Earth. For example, river otters eat salmon; they follow them upstream when they come up rivers to spawn. However, river otters also hunt in the eelgrass beds of our local bays, which serve as nurseries for all sorts of small fish, including salmon. When river otters hunt in the eelgrass beds, they frighten away the larger fish that prey on the small nursery fish. Thus otters both prey on and protect salmon. That sort of elegant detail about river otters and all life fills my soul and makes my job endlessly fun, interesting and complicated.”

River Otter Ecology Project continues to track river otter populations in the Bay Area through noninvasive methods, including scat collection and camera traps. © Jaymi Heimbuch

River Otter Ecology Project continues to track river otter populations in the Bay Area through noninvasive methods, including scat collection and camera traps. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Sutro Sam undoubtedly made Isadore’s job that much more busy. Because Sutro Sam set up home in a place popular with tourists and locals alike, he drew an incredible amount of attention that spread across the country. Isadore became both Sutro Sam’s public relations representative and the spokesperson for otters in the Bay Area. But she of course has no qualms with this.

Isadore tells me, “Sutro Sam was a wonderful ambassador for river otters in general, and a great educator! Because once the word got out that this very unusual visitor was living at Lands End, part of the [Golden Gate National Recreation Area], people flocked to see him, many bringing their dogs and kids, some even bringing him offerings of fish. This excited human behavior gave us and the National Park Service a great educational opportunity. We had our ROEP staff as well as Park Service rangers out to educate the public on safe viewing of wildlife, river otters and the importance of healthy watersheds to otters and all of us who live here.”

Sutro Sam admires himself in the mirror-calm water. He ate most of the large fish that lived in the baths, and snagged a few water birds as meals as well. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Sutro Sam admires himself in the mirror-calm water. He ate most of the large fish that lived in the baths, and snagged a few water birds as meals as well. © Jaymi Heimbuch

When Sutro Sam left the baths, there was a noticeable drop in excitement around the area. Though the fish, ducks and coots may be cheering, the area seems just that much less complete. Sutro Sam is hopefully off being his rambunctious, otter self somewhere, and hopefully has made friends with some lady otters, helping to boost numbers even more. But his fans in the city miss him.

Isadore says, “Right now, there are no known river otters living on the coast of the San Francisco peninsula, and very few have been spotted on the Bay side.  However, there are many in the East Bay and they’re spotted from time to time in the South Bay, so there is no reason to believe they won’t, in time, spread out toward the coast.  We’ll be watching!”

Slowly but surely, river otters are returning to the rivers, streams, and lagoons (and bath house ruins ) throughout the Bay Area. Whatever the U curve looks like, their comeback is incredible.

The return of river otters to the Bay Area is additional motivation to be stewards of the land and waterways, keeping them clean and healthy for all the species that call this place home. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The return of river otters to the Bay Area is additional motivation to be stewards of the land and waterways, keeping them clean and healthy for all the species that call this place home. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.

How to break creative blocks through photo essays


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One of my favorite things to do is take my dog to the beach at sunrise for a run. And more often than not, the camera comes with me. However, I’ve been finding myself shooting the same old shots: Dog running with ball. Dog running in water. Dog running in water with ball. And if I'm bored of these shots, how can I expect an audience to endure them? And more importantly, how can I expect to grow as a photographer if I'm not trying new things during these personal shooting opportunities?

While I’ve recognized for awhile now that I needed to push myself during these morning outings, I only recently made a resolution to truly take advantage the fantastic creative freedom I have every time I head out the door with my camera, even if it is a rather routine trip to the same old beach. But how? What was I going to do differently?

The very same day I made the resolution, something serendipitous happened. I launched a video of a Creative Live course I'd bought a little while ago, a course on conservation photography by Cristina Goettsch Mittermeier. And I came away with a solution to my problem.

In her course, Mittermeier talks about storytelling and the six types of images required to fully tell a story. She points out that you need:

1. The iconic image: an image that can act as the cover of the book, or the two-page opening spread in the magazine. It’s the image that becomes the face of the story, the one visual that pops into someone’s head when they think of the topic. For instance, when you hear the words “Dust Bowl” you probably think of Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother” photograph. Or when you think of the Hindenburg, in your head you probably see the photo of the airship crashing into the tower and exploding into flames. The odds of actually creating a shot that becomes a culturally iconic photograph on this level are of course slim, but your goal is always to create at least one image that when someone thinks of your story, they see that image in their head.

2. A sense of place: where are you in the world? It’s so easy to focus on the up-close subjects in the story that it’s hard to remember to step back and provide context. It may be a landscape or aerial shot, it may be a photo that covers an entire street or city block. Whatever it is, or however you decide to shoot it, the image should help people put the story on a larger map in their mind. It provides a forest for all the many trees in your photo essay.

3. The portrait: an intimate image of your main character(s). Who or what should the audience care about most in the story and how do you want your audience to feel about them? That’s what your portrait shot provides.

4. The overall view: an image that provides additional context or a summary of the story. For instance, when I think of a providing the overall view for a story on overfishing the ocean, I think of a photograph that shows a wide-angle view of a trawler from above, with fishermen standing on deck around a net filled to bursting with fish, and the shutter clicked just as the net is opened and the catch spills onto the deck. It’s a shot that if someone takes a quick glance at it before reading the text, they know what the text is going to be about.

5. The details: an image that brings the viewer into the underlying layers of the story. These are the shots that have the chance to tell pieces of the story that are important and too easily overlooked, or that make viewers feel like they are right there in the location with you. They create an emotional bond to the subject and the story through the level of closeness the image provides. There is no story that is complete without the details that stick so solidly in an audience’s memory.

6. The action: nothing in this world is static, and a complete photo essay must bring forth the activity around which the story revolves or which is inherent in the subject you’re capturing. What story of a working ranch, for instance, is complete without a cowhand galloping on a horse, or roping an animal, or tossing a bale of hay down from a stack? The action shots bring a level of immediacy and reality to a story. A viewer can play out what happened before and what happens after the moment based on how much action you put into your image, as if they have a video player in their heads. The world is constantly on the move, and the action shots ensure your photo essay represents that fact.

I can’t even explain the relish with which I absorbed this section of Mittermeier's lesson. This was the key to what I was looking for, the tools to get out of my rut. Here was an assignment with a to-do list. Each item on the list was a box that I could fill with whatever I wanted, but at least I had those boxes to both guide me forward and keep me on track.

What better way to break out of a routine than by being handed six threads with which to weave a new cloth?

So I began.


On a regular basis, I'll pull out books and pull up websites to study the images of other photographers, looking for things to try out myself, for new ways of seeing a scene, for anything that might inspire. I also use it as a practice to remember who I am, what I like and don't like, how far from my own style or habits I want to venture and what I want to retain. So for a couple hours the night before my next beach run with my dog, I looked through the images of pet photographers whose styles I admire and which speak to me. I focused on which aspects of their styles that I recognize in me but have not so far incorporated in my own work. What settings or compositions have I not yet experimented with? What rules have I been clinging to that maybe I need to give myself permission to break?

Armed with an assignment, fresh inspiration, and a new lock on what of me I want to keep and what of me I want to push forward, I headed out. For two mornings, I shot with purpose. While my dog did pretty much the same thing as usual — run at full speed for two hours — I looked at everything we usually do together during our runs with an eye for how I would capture images for each of the six categories of photos in an essay. How would I tell this incredibly simple story, and how would I do it in a way that doesn’t feel old to me?

I had the same ingredients as always: a few miles of empty beach, an ice plant-covered cliff lining one side, the ocean lining the other, a morning that shifts from black to purple to grey and pink, a neon green tennis ball, and a dog with endless energy. What of this story have I not photographed before? What have I photographed that I can do differently? I approached every photograph with more analysis, and the more I did that, the more inspired and excited I became.

Some shots worked, some didn’t. Many fell into the “been there, done that” category. But overall, I felt like I’d ripped through a thick wall that I’d been lounging against for too long.


Out of all the images from two morning shoots (don’t even ask how many), I narrowed it down to 115 to work on, then whittled that pile down to 58 after the first sort, and a few less after the next, and so on. I separated the images into which category I’d shot them for, then went through each category again and again always keeping in mind: “Does this tell the story? Is it a part of the story I've already told before?”

The words of colleagues echoed in my head: You are judged by the worst photo in your portfolio. With that in mind, I had two questions to ask during final sorting: Which photos truly tell the story and fill it out or continue it forward; and which photos am I clinging to for emotional reasons but they really don't have a place in this story?

My goal was to whittle it down to 12 images. As you can see, I (cough) kept in a few more than that (cough). But, the process is more important than the finished product in this case and my reluctance to slice out images I’m attached to is a skill I can polish at a later time. I'm sure in one month, two months, three months, I can come back to this and more easily pull out the images that basically amount to over-sharing. Time and distance are, after all, two of the best tools for editing.

So, did I succeed with this piece? Well, that is ultimately for viewers to decide. But I know that this self-assigned photo essay helped me break through a creative barrier, hone important skills to use in shooting, storytelling, portraiture and editing, and provided a boost of joy and confidence in my personal projects. So that counts as success for me.

I didn't stop shooting dog-with-ball and dog-in-water, but I shot things differently, and I looked around for what more would help viewers see our mornings as I and my dog see them. Plus, there are dozens of images I kept out of this essay, images I really love but whose role isn't quite right for this story. That means I have lots of fresh, valuable material to use for future projects. Always a bonus.


Now, without further ado, that photo essay I talked so much about -- and below this, I've jotted down seven steps for giving yourself your own photo essay assignment that will help you push into new levels of creativity.

Sand, Salt, and Sunrise

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Suggested steps in assigning yourself a photo essay as a way to break a creative barrier:

1) What is one of your most boring routines or scenes? Select something that seems like there’s hardly anything to photograph, or that you’ve photographed extensively already, as your new assignment.
2) Decide on what you like about your existing photos from the location, and what want to push forward about your images. Also decide on what angle you want to take in your photo essay. What story do you want to tell?
3) Make a rough shot list. Write down any ideas that pop into your head, and add them to one of the six categories of images that form a photo essay. If it helps, use more than just words and sketch out photo ideas as drawings.
4) Shoot with your list in mind. If you find yourself working in an overly familiar way, stop and ask yourself what you can change about the shot you were just taking to make it more creative. Don't leave until you think you have at least two solid images for each of the six categories.
5) Narrow down your images until you have 12 or so that tell the story of this place or routine. Place them in an order that tells your story in a logical way.
6) After a few days, return to your photo essay and study it. What strategies or new techniques worked for you, and what didn’t? How might you do a better job of shooting an image for a particular category of the essay? Are there shots that still feel a little routine and maybe you want to re-shoot in a fresh way? Get nitty-gritty but be sure to leave your study session thinking about everything you did right during your assignment, and revel in all the ways you got creative, experimented, and pulled off images you really love.
7) Rinse and repeat as needed.

 

Related posts:

How to value content over quality in your photographs
What to do when your photo goes viral
4 reasons why sunrise photo walks are worth the effort
5 days of thinking in black and white

Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.

An animal of extremes: How the northern elephant seal barely dodged extinction


A male northern elephant seal throws his head back in a roar, warning other males from his section of the beach. These marine mammals spend the vast majority of their lives out at sea, diving to extraordinary depths for their meals. Just as fascinating as the lives they lead is the story of their recovery from near extinction only a century ago. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A male northern elephant seal throws his head back in a roar, warning other males from his section of the beach. These marine mammals spend the vast majority of their lives out at sea, diving to extraordinary depths for their meals. Just as fascinating as the lives they lead is the story of their recovery from near extinction only a century ago. © Jaymi Heimbuch


Among the countless stories of species disappearing into the mists of extinction, there are a handful of stories about species that nearly slipped away and miraculously (or tenaciously) managed to come back. The northern elephant seal is among this number.

The northern elephant seal is the one of the largest of the true seals, second only to the southern elephant seal. The females grow up to 10 feet long as weigh as much as 1,300 pounds. Meanwhile, males grow as long as 13 feet and can weigh an incredible 4,500 pounds. Much of their bulk is made up of blubber, the insulating layer of fat that keeps them warm during deep dives in frigid water. And it is this blubber that nearly sent the species into extinction.

In the early 1800s as whales became more scarce, hunters seeking sources of oil turned toward elephant seals. A single large bull could provide nearly 25 gallons of high quality oil, so they were an appealing alternative. It is unknown exactly how many elephant seals existed at the species' peak but estimates are in the hundreds of thousands. When hunters aimed their harpoons at elephant seals, it didn’t take long to decimate those numbers. By the 1860s, over 250,000 had been killed. And by 1884, the species was declared extinct.

However, a tiny population of eight elephant seals was discovered just eight years later, hauled out on Guadalupe Island off of Baja California, Mexico. In a rush to have the last individuals of the species as specimens in their museum, a Smithsonian team killed seven of the eight seals. It seemed like the absolute end of the species. But somehow, a tiny population of somewhere between 100-1,000 elephant seals persisted, hidden from the sight of hunters (and museum collectors).

Because elephant seals dive to the pitch-black depths thousands of feet below the ocean's surface, they have several adaptations for finding food. This includes sensitive vibrissae that help them feel out prey hiding among rocks, and eyes that give them exceptional vision in the dark. Northern elephant seals have a far greater range of pupil size than any other seal or sea lion, and it is 25 times that of humans. They see not only better in the dark, but can adjust to darkness quickly. They need only about three or four minutes to go from daylight to their maximum vision in darkness, compared to the roughly 24 minutes that humans need to adjust. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Because elephant seals dive to the pitch-black depths thousands of feet below the ocean's surface, they have several adaptations for finding food. This includes sensitive vibrissae that help them feel out prey hiding among rocks, and eyes that give them exceptional vision in the dark. Northern elephant seals have a far greater range of pupil size than any other seal or sea lion, and it is 25 times that of humans. They see not only better in the dark, but can adjust to darkness quickly. They need only about three or four minutes to go from daylight to their maximum vision in darkness, compared to the roughly 24 minutes that humans need to adjust. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Perhaps it is due to the fact that the seals spend the majority of their lives at sea and do not depend on hauling out on a regular basis, keeping them safe from humans for most of the year. Perhaps it is due to too few seals remaining for continued hunting even on a seasonal basis to be worthwhile. Whatever the reason, the last of the northern elephant seals refused to die out, returning to the rookery on Guadalupe Island each year for molting, breeding and pupping.

When it was known that some elephant seals still survived, Mexico granted the species official protection in 1922. The elephant seals began to recover and within a few years, individuals spread north onto beaches of the United States. The U.S. then followed Mexico’s lead and granted protections to the newly returned elephant seals. And so began the species’ recovery.

Elephant seals often throw sand on top of themselves to help cool off, but they also do it when stressed. This female elephant seal was quite close to giving birth, and let the world know how uncomfortable she was feeling. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Elephant seals often throw sand on top of themselves to help cool off, but they also do it when stressed. This female elephant seal was quite close to giving birth, and let the world know how uncomfortable she was feeling. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Sometimes, all a species needs to return to full health is for humans to quit killing them. That’s all northern elephant seals seemed to need, as the protections provided by the two countries helped them make a dramatic come-back.

By 1955, the first northern elephant seal was documented at Año Nuevo State Park, south of San Francisco, and the first pup was born there in 1961. Within decades, the area became one of the largest breeding grounds for elephant seals with thousands of pups born there annually.

California’s northern elephant seal population continues to grow and has even spread to areas that were not historical colony locations, perhaps finding new mainland beaches because they no longer face predation by grizzly bears or humans.

The pink "chest shields" of scarred and toughened skin is apparent on these two battling males. Despite the extra protection, the sharp canine teeth of opponents can still cut through, leaving the bloody marks you see on the necks of both males. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The pink "chest shields" of scarred and toughened skin is apparent on these two battling males. Despite the extra protection, the sharp canine teeth of opponents can still cut through, leaving the bloody marks you see on the necks of both males. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Today, there are somewhere between 120,000-150,000 elephant seals — a number likely close to their historic population. They have long since been removed from the endangered species list, though they are still protected in the U.S. by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. However, being reduced to such a minuscule breeding population a century ago caused problems for the species that persist today.

As the beaches become crowded with more and more arriving elephant seals, there is less and less opportunity for personal space. The occupants have to snuggle up to one another. It is lucky we can witness such packed rookeries these days, as northern elephant seals return to historic breeding locations and spread to new locations. © Jaymi Heimbuch

As the beaches become crowded with more and more arriving elephant seals, there is less and less opportunity for personal space. The occupants have to snuggle up to one another. It is lucky we can witness such packed rookeries these days, as northern elephant seals return to historic breeding locations and spread to new locations. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The genetic bottleneck has made northern elephant seals more susceptible to certain diseases, including skin disease and lungworm among others. The biggest challenges they face today include disease, pollution and marine debris, extreme winter storms and loss of beach front habitat due to climate change, and of course the challenge of finding food in an over-fished sea.

Even so, they are here. Thankfully, they are a thriving species once again. And what a miracle of evolution elephant seals are. The species is one of the most extraordinary mammals on the planet.

Parenthood is short-lived for northern elephant seals. Mothers nurse their pups for only around a month before weaning them, mating with the dominant male and then returning to sea. Still, in those four short weeks she manages to nurse her 75-pound newborn to a 300-pound weaner. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Parenthood is short-lived for northern elephant seals. Mothers nurse their pups for only around a month before weaning them, mating with the dominant male and then returning to sea. Still, in those four short weeks she manages to nurse her 75-pound newborn to a 300-pound weaner. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Elephant seals spend as much as 80 percent of their lives at sea. Of that time at sea, as much as 90 percent is spent underwater in deep dives. Day after day, month after month, elephant seals dive, come up for a couple minutes to take a breath of air at the surface, then dive again. One researcher tracked a female northern elephant seal for 34 days and found that she dove almost continuously, staying at the surface for only three or four minutes to rest. Some researchers believe that elephant seals nap on their glides down to the depths where they hunt — and they would have plenty of time as the depths are extreme.

Northern elephant seals dive as deep as 5,000 feet to hunt, with the deepest dive recorded at 5,788 feet, well over a mile below the ocean’s surface. Their dives can last as long as two hours. However, this is on the far end of their dives. Males typically dive 1,150-2,600 feet with a dive duration of 21 minutes, while females swim to 1,000-1,950 feet with an average dive duration of 17 minutes. For comparison, harbor seals dive only as deep as 650 feet, and the deepest dives for walruses is a mere 260 feet.

The elephant seal has special adaptations allowing it to reach such depths, including a large amount of blood with a larger proportion of oxygen-carrying red-blood cells, as well as areas in its abdomen that can hold blood during dives. Oxygen is stored in the blood rather than the lungs, and elephant seals actually exhale before diving. This allows the body to compress as the weight of thousands of feet of water presses in from all sides. The elephant seal also slows its heart rate as it dives. Though on land its heart may beat anywhere form 55 to 120 times a minute, when it dives, its heart slows to an amazing 4 to 15 beats per minute. Blood flow is reigned in, with less going to its extremities so more can go to the brain and vital organs. All of this and more allows the seal to be one of the most extraordinary divers of all mammal species.

A juvenile male elephant seal shows off the beginning of what will become a sizable schnoz. Male elephant seals don't have their full-sized nose until they reach sexual maturity at about seven years of age. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A juvenile male elephant seal shows off the beginning of what will become a sizable schnoz. Male elephant seals don't have their full-sized nose until they reach sexual maturity at about seven years of age. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Another noticeable trait in the elephant seal is their namesake nose, that elongated proboscis. It is particularly pronounced in males, whose noses grow to about eight inches past their lower lips. This adaptation allows the males to make exceptionally loud roaring sounds, and when it comes to vying for territory and females on a beach, the louder the better.

However, there is a second purpose for elephant seal noses, both for males and females. It acts as a sort of "rebreather," absorbing moisture from exhalations which then helps minimize how dehydrated a seal gets while hauled out for months during the breeding season.

Once males reach sexual maturity, they will need their enlarged proboscis as a tool for warning off other males from their turf on the beach. They inflate the nose and vocalize into it in a series of "clap-threats" that sound a bit like a deep, roaring drum-beat. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Once males reach sexual maturity, they will need their enlarged proboscis as a tool for warning off other males from their turf on the beach. They inflate the nose and vocalize into it in a series of "clap-threats" that sound a bit like a deep, roaring drum-beat. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The elephant seal is the only mammal that has two annual migrations, and is the only mammal to travel over such long distances, clocking in between 11,000-13,000 miles annually.  The seals come to shore once during the summer for their catastrophic molt, when they shed their old coat all at once. The second migration occurs in the winter for birthing and breeding. It is during this migration that they draw the most attention from human onlookers, who enjoy both the incredible sight of huge males clashing in the surf and the sigh-inducing cuteness of the newborns.

Northern elephant seals are born with a black coat. They become more of the signature sausage shape as they nurse on their mother's fat-rich milk, and eventually when they are weaned, they lose their dark coat of thick fur and have a silver-colored sleek coat. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Northern elephant seals are born with a black coat. They become more of the signature sausage shape as they nurse on their mother's fat-rich milk, and eventually when they are weaned, they lose their dark coat of thick fur and have a silver-colored sleek coat. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Northern elephant seal females give birth to one pup a season. Twins are exceedingly rare. Because pups require so much nursing, and females lose as much as a third of their weight during the five or so weeks they are on land for the season, it would be impossible for a female to nurse two pups and provide enough nutrition for them to survive. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Northern elephant seal females give birth to one pup a season. Twins are exceedingly rare. Because pups require so much nursing, and females lose as much as a third of their weight during the five or so weeks they are on land for the season, it would be impossible for a female to nurse two pups and provide enough nutrition for them to survive. © Jaymi Heimbuch

In late December, the rookery beaches along the coast begin to fill with northern elephant seals. First the males arrive, followed shortly by the females. A hazy morning at Piedras Blancas shows the beach just beginning to get crowded. © Jaymi Heimbuch

In late December, the rookery beaches along the coast begin to fill with northern elephant seals. First the males arrive, followed shortly by the females. A hazy morning at Piedras Blancas shows the beach just beginning to get crowded. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Each December, males begin arriving on beaches and sparring for their section of the beach, and thus breeding rights to any of the females that come ashore in their area of the beach. Males are equipped both with size and with a thick layer of pink keratinized skin around their chest which protects them from the bites and blows delivered during fights — and it is appropriately called a “chest shield.”

As territory is established, males maintain their hierarchy through stares, roars, charging at encroaching males, and of course through often bloody but rarely lethal clashes.

From the moment males arrive from their months at sea, their primary goal is to claim a section of beach -- and therefore mating privileges with all the females in that section -- and to hold that territory against any other competing males. © Jaymi Heimbuch

From the moment males arrive from their months at sea, their primary goal is to claim a section of beach -- and therefore mating privileges with all the females in that section -- and to hold that territory against any other competing males. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Much of the time, males can warn off other males by posturing and vocalizing. But when two males of similar size and status come together, a physical clash usually happens. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Much of the time, males can warn off other males by posturing and vocalizing. But when two males of similar size and status come together, a physical clash usually happens. © Jaymi Heimbuch

After what is typically a short fight, one of the males beats a retreat. He may try his luck farther down the beach against another, hopefully smaller rival. © Jaymi Heimbuch

After what is typically a short fight, one of the males beats a retreat. He may try his luck farther down the beach against another, hopefully smaller rival. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The "beach masters" are males who have hit their prime in size and fighting prowess, usually between 9 and 12 years of age. Younger males may avoid a fight by sneaking in to mate with females while the dominant male is distracted with defending his turf. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The "beach masters" are males who have hit their prime in size and fighting prowess, usually between 9 and 12 years of age. Younger males may avoid a fight by sneaking in to mate with females while the dominant male is distracted with defending his turf. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Males aren’t sexually mature until they are about 4-6 years old, but spend the first part of those years figuring out how to earn and keep a spot on the beach. They hit their prime between 9 and 12 years of age, and typically only live until around 15-17 years old if lucky. With a life of such extremes and so much fighting every season, they certainly end up looking worse for the wear.

The older males who have passed their prime years lounge on the beach knowing full well they aren't able to fight for a section of the beach. Still, by sheer size, they make their presence known. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The older males who have passed their prime years lounge on the beach knowing full well they aren't able to fight for a section of the beach. Still, by sheer size, they make their presence known. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Shortly after the males arrive on the beaches, the females arrive. Within two to seven days after coming ashore, they give birth to a four-foot-long, 75-pound pup coated in black fur.

An onlooker can tell when a female is about to give birth in part because the female becomes agitated, roaring and tossing sand with her flippers. But another clue is watching what the gulls are doing. The gulls have a sense about when a birth is eminent and begin to gather around the female — not to act as comforting midwives but to be in a good spot for feasting on the placenta.

Once the birth begins, it moves quickly, lasting only a few minutes. Afterward, the mother turns to get to know the baby she's been carrying for the last year, and the gulls begin their clean-up duty.

This female's labor lasted longer than the actual birth, which was over within just two or three minutes. © Jaymi Heimbuch

This female's labor lasted longer than the actual birth, which was over within just two or three minutes. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The pup arrives on the beach looking calm and a bit dazed, while the female seems both relieved and indignant. The gulls, on the other hand, are just impatient for the arrival of the afterbirth. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The pup arrives on the beach looking calm and a bit dazed, while the female seems both relieved and indignant. The gulls, on the other hand, are just impatient for the arrival of the afterbirth. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The gulls make short work of clean-up duty on the beach. Nothing is left after a minute or two of their feasting. The sand is cleaned and the birthing ward ready for the next female elephant seal who will arrive and go into labor. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The gulls make short work of clean-up duty on the beach. Nothing is left after a minute or two of their feasting. The sand is cleaned and the birthing ward ready for the next female elephant seal who will arrive and go into labor. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The female and pup get to know each other in the minutes after birth through both smell and the sound of their vocalizations. The pup will do its best to stick with the mother over the next few weeks, both for food and for protection from being accidentally squashed by other, far larger residents of the crowded beach. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The female and pup get to know each other in the minutes after birth through both smell and the sound of their vocalizations. The pup will do its best to stick with the mother over the next few weeks, both for food and for protection from being accidentally squashed by other, far larger residents of the crowded beach. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The fat-rich milk of the female allows the pup to grow by 10 pounds a day. By the time they are weaned, pups weigh around 300 pounds. They need all the weight they can get because they are weaned when they are only about one month old, and have to rely on their stores of blubber for the two months they spend learning to swim and feed before heading out to sea to begin their life of adventure. Meanwhile, the females mate within a few days of weaning their pups and then return to the ocean.

During the short breeding season, life on the beach is filled with constant activity. Large males are busy clashing while females are busy nursing their pups and protecting them from the constant crush of other seals, and meanwhile fending off overly amorous young males that try to sneak in under the radar of the beach masters. There is a constant shuffle of seals jostling for room, the cries of young pups hungry for more milk or who perhaps lost their mothers, the roar of seals vying for some personal space, and there is also the constant tussling of young juveniles play-fighting with each other, honing their strategies for when they need to fight for real as a matter of passing on their genes.

Within minutes after giving birth, this female had to warn off an overly-amorous young male. It is this kind of character that is chased off by the dominant male as soon as he notices the interloper. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Within minutes after giving birth, this female had to warn off an overly-amorous young male. It is this kind of character that is chased off by the dominant male as soon as he notices the interloper. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Northern elephant seal pups and mothers recognize each other through both scent and vocalizations. This allows a mother and pup who are separated during upheaval on the beach such as a storm, rogue waves, or through seals rushing to get out of the way during a territorial dispute between large males. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Northern elephant seal pups and mothers recognize each other through both scent and vocalizations. This allows a mother and pup who are separated during upheaval on the beach such as a storm, rogue waves, or through seals rushing to get out of the way during a territorial dispute between large males. © Jaymi Heimbuch

There is always someone making noise on the beach in an elephant seal rookery. Pups call for moms, moms warn away other seals, males warn away other males. They aren't exactly the most quiet of species. © Jaymi Heimbuch

There is always someone making noise on the beach in an elephant seal rookery. Pups call for moms, moms warn away other seals, males warn away other males. They aren't exactly the most quiet of species. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Juvenile males play-fight and learn strategies for when they get older. Mostly it consists of just leaning on each other and seeing who can be the tallest of the two. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Juvenile males play-fight and learn strategies for when they get older. Mostly it consists of just leaning on each other and seeing who can be the tallest of the two. © Jaymi Heimbuch

As juvenile males get older, the play-fighting gets more serious, with real competition sparking up between well-matched pairs. © Jaymi Heimbuch

As juvenile males get older, the play-fighting gets more serious, with real competition sparking up between well-matched pairs. © Jaymi Heimbuch

When I stand along the edge of the beach watching the commotion that is breeding season, watching the constant drama of life and death at work for this species, sometimes I find myself in anxious awe that this scene was a knife's edge away from not existing, from being erased from the planet and human memory entirely. The near-extinction of northern elephant seals is frightening to think about -- how very close we came to it!

The story of northern elephant seal is a lesson for us humans, as we seem so intent on wiping out other species that are too useful to us, or too useless, or too in the way, or too invisible. We have an abundance of stories about species that only our grandparents or parents can remember seeing, and are no more. We have a dearth of stories about realizing a species is so close to the edge, and figuring out what to do to keep them here with us, to bring them back to abundance so that we and our children can look upon them with amazement, and so that the species can continue fulfilling its long-evolved niche in the ecosystem.

Bald eagles and condors, humpback whales and sea otters... these are conservation success stories we must take note of and set as the bar, stories where we recognized our role in their disappearance and reversed it. Let's not see wolves, elephants, lions, sharks and so many other species we know full well that we are responsible for destroying disappear forever. Let us instead recognize how capable we are of standing back, seeing the long-term value and importance of species living out their roles in nature, and altering our behavior so that species can persist.

There is so much wonder in the world; let's spend our time being amazed at it, rather than missing what we've lost.

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Here is a fantastic video that explores the natural history of the northern elephant seal. Enjoy!

Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.

4 reasons why sunrise photo walks are worth the effort


The hill behind my apartment offers one of the best views of the sunrise over the San Francisco bay. I'm lucky to live a couple minutes walk from such a scenic peak. Winter mornings make the steep walk well worth it. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The hill behind my apartment offers one of the best views of the sunrise over the San Francisco bay. I'm lucky to live a couple minutes walk from such a scenic peak. Winter mornings make the steep walk well worth it. © Jaymi Heimbuch


There are two reasons I love the winter for photography. One, the sunrises are more spectacular. That's not just me saying so, either. Science says so too. And two, you don't have drag yourself out of bed at 5 am to be able to enjoy them. In fact, I barely have to drag myself out of bed at 6:00 to have plenty of time to get dressed, make a cup of coffee and head out the door. That hour can be a luxury, even for those of us who love mornings.

I've always been a morning person, wide awake before the birds start chirping. If I slept past sunrise, I felt like I'd wasted part of the day. Indeed it is as if the whole day speeds by faster when I get up after the sun. As I've gotten older, that bright-eyed-bushy-tailed part of me is slipping away just a little. It's more work to get up in the cold, dark morning. I require more inspiration and reward. Fortunately, the sunrises themselves usually offer both in spades. Even just running up the hill behind my apartment with my dog in tow to watch the sun hit the water of the bay and bounce off millions of windows is a treat for which I am grateful.

What makes sunrises so invigorating and rewarding? Here are my four best reasons for crawling out of the warm covers and into a cold pair of jeans and hiking boots, leashing up my dog and walking into the chill of the morning, camera in hand.

Even my always-energetic dog needs a little time to get the sleep out of his system on some days. But we both love running around in the lavender light of pre-dawn too much to stay in bed. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Even my always-energetic dog needs a little time to get the sleep out of his system on some days. But we both love running around in the lavender light of pre-dawn too much to stay in bed. © Jaymi Heimbuch

An appreciation of brevity

Light is the lifeblood of photography. Capturing a moment brief and unrepeatable is its purpose. No matter what you are aiming at, you capture both at sunrise because of the rapid change in quality of light.

The variety of light -- the color, how it shifts, how it surges with vibrancy and diminishes into mute tones, the brief appearance of each hue and the mood it creates -- lasts only seconds. Ephemeral is a word that runs through my head often as I stand, staring, wondering if I can notice the gradual shift as it happens if I look carefully enough.

These twilight times underscore how a photo is a single moment never to be seen again. If you ever want to feel just how rapidly time slips by us, watch a sunrise with mindfulness. Sunsets often offer the same drama of light, but the world wakes up much faster than it settles down. A hushed and dark morning shifts to a bustling day in a snap, but a warm afternoon slips into a night that is still buzzing with activity and, in a city, still plenty of light. Time itself, the passing of it, is felt more easily felt at sunrise.

Being part of and recording pieces of a sunrise is a beautiful exercise in remembering the power of photography to use light and time to encapsulate emotion. You have a just a second or two, and then that orange, that pink, that violet is gone.

The only thing I regret about this particular morning is not setting up a time-lapse to capture how much the sky changed as the sun came up. The clouds turned more colors than I could count, each lasting just long enough for an admiring look and a sigh before changing yet again. © Jaymi Heimbuch.

The only thing I regret about this particular morning is not setting up a time-lapse to capture how much the sky changed as the sun came up. The clouds turned more colors than I could count, each lasting just long enough for an admiring look and a sigh before changing yet again. © Jaymi Heimbuch.

I love to use my dog as my model on sunrise hikes (obviously), and it is truly amazing the difference in mood based on oh-so-soft pre-dawn purple light, the pinks and oranges as the sun inches level with the horizon, and the gold that spills out over the landscape as it rises in the sky. All are equally beautiful in amazingly different ways.

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Play Time With Just Us

The area where I live is very dog-friendly. So dog-friendly that it's hard to find some wide-open space where it can be just my dog and me, with no worries of running into other folks and their off-leash dogs. Dawn is just about the only time we can get out and be assured an hour or two where we're just focused on each other.

We will get to the beach while it's still too dark to see the tennis ball and walk until there's enough light to let the neon-green ball fly. He will do sprints over and over while I keep an eye out for sand dollars.

Having that time alone is precious. I have a feeling I'm not the only introvert animal photographer. It's much more comfortable to be the only human around for awhile, and your companions are creatures of other species whose language is spoken through the wag of a tail, or the twitch of an ear, or the flit of a wing. It feels good to speak in body language. There is far less translating of subtext to have to do, and far less energy that has to be put into your end of the conversation.

Though sunrise is of course not the only time of day when you can be alone in the company of animals, it does feel, for me, the best time for me to bond with my dog, to get on the same page as him, to take a long deep sigh and smile as I see his eyes light up with the sheer joy of running free on the beach at low tide.

Plenty of people are willing to postpone dinner to catch the sunset. Far fewer are willing to wake up early and postpone breakfast to catch the sunrise. And we are deeply grateful for that fact.

Whether you have a companion animal to spend the morning with or not, getting out for that in-between quiet time where the vocal chords aren't necessary is a great way to recharge the batteries and refresh your skills in reading the language of the animals with whom you're sharing space.

We are lucky to live near a beach that is wide, has soft sand and is miles long. We go while it's still dark and play until the sun comes up and other people begin showing up. It's darn cold, but that's what jackets and a fur coat is for! © Jaymi Heimbuch

We are lucky to live near a beach that is wide, has soft sand and is miles long. We go while it's still dark and play until the sun comes up and other people begin showing up. It's darn cold, but that's what jackets and a fur coat is for! © Jaymi Heimbuch

Fetch is the game of choice for sunrises. It's great that tennis balls come in neon green as it makes them much easier to spot in dim light! © Jaymi Heimbuch

Fetch is the game of choice for sunrises. It's great that tennis balls come in neon green as it makes them much easier to spot in dim light! © Jaymi Heimbuch

There is always time for a game of stalk-and-zoom! There seems to be boundless energy when you're enjoying your favorite time of day. © Jaymi Heimbuch

There is always time for a game of stalk-and-zoom! There seems to be boundless energy when you're enjoying your favorite time of day. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Grandeur Without Pressure

I've found that when I get out for sunrise often enough, I sink into a comfortable place where the incredible beauty of a day unfurling is a familiar comfort. I lose (at least to a degree) that feeling of urgency that I need to be in a perfect spot with camera, tripod, filters, and whatever else to frantically capture every second before it disappears.

Rather, I begin to get a feeling that I am not there to record the landscape, but simply to be part of it. It is during these stretches that, should something particularly pretty happen, my iPhone is good enough. I can pull that out from my back pocket and use it to calm that "must click shutter!" urge when the scene is just that amazing.

But overall, it becomes less essential to make a beautiful image. It becomes more essential to just witness it all, to smell damp leaves, to feel cold air, to hear the crunch of dirt underfoot as we walk. 

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That transition might not seem particularly helpful for photography. At least not at first. Transitioning from carrying a camera with purpose to whipping out an iPhone on a whim isn't exactly great practice. But it is great process. When I am lucky enough to have a small stretch of sunrise hikes on the same trails, I recognize more about the location -- where the light hits when, and how to predict what the light will do based on cloud cover and haze. I've used that a few times to be able to go out for a hike and hit spot after spot after spot at the right time to get amazing light for photos.

In the meantime, I've enjoyed quite a few stress-free mornings with absolute splendor laid out in front of me (and more than a few blurry iPhone photos to remember, "Oh yeah, that was really was one special morning..."):

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Quiet Moments

After quality of light, the most noticeable thing to me about sunrises is the opportunity for quiet.

Granted, if you're trying to practice mindfulness, then there isn't a time of day that lacks opportunity for meditative moments. But I'm not exactly someone who is good at sitting still, nor hushing my brain. Nor am I someone who is likely to put effort into the practice. But at sunrise...I don't know if it's the changing of the light, the softness of it, the beginning of birdsong, the air warming up... I don't know what it is about this transitional time from night to day but there's something special about it that allows for moments of calm without effort, without having to consciously say, "I'm going to have a mindful moment now... aaaaand start!"

It just happens.

I'll look up at the clouds and realize that they were the only thing in my brain for a full ten seconds. (Ten seconds is a long time to think about one thing, by the way.) Or I'll find myself just watching my dog wander around smelling the rocks and shrubs and realize that for a couple minutes, there was nothing going on in my head except watching him.  And it will feel refreshing.

Just this is worth getting up early every day, heading out at twilight, and walking along a trail. Just for those moments of quiet.

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Those are my four main points that I'd use in any conversation trying to convince a sleeps-in person that they should give sunrise a try. But if that doesn't convince them, I'd fall back on one nearly fail-proof argument: Look at all the pretty colors!

Blue

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Red

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Purple

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Green

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Silver

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Gold

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Tell me, are you a sunrise or a sunset person? What's your reason?

High fives for early risers!

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Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.

The epic flight and worrying plight of monarch butterflies


The number of monarch butterflies returning to over-wintering sites has dropped dramatically in recent years. The loss may mean the iconic butterfly will be added to the endangered species list. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The number of monarch butterflies returning to over-wintering sites has dropped dramatically in recent years. The loss may mean the iconic butterfly will be added to the endangered species list. © Jaymi Heimbuch


It is an amazing experience to look up into what should be an evergreen only to find its branches covered in brown leaves. Then you realize, each of those brown leaves is actually a monarch butterfly. And just as you realize this, a beam of warm morning sunlight shifts onto the bows, orange and black wings open, flex, and then suddenly hundreds of butterflies take flight like a long, colorful sigh.

This is an experience visitors to the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove enjoy every winter, and visitors to monarch groves throughout California and Mexico. People arrive in droves for the annual spectacle of over-wintering monarchs, one stage in the multi-generation migration that happens each year.

The butterflies know to return to the exact same groves, even the exact same trees, that their great grandparents sheltered in the year before. Yes, great-grandparents. The single annual migration takes four generations of butterflies to complete. Exactly how the butterflies make their way back to the same locations is still a mystery to scientists. Humans trek to the locations every year as well, to witness the arrival of these beautiful creatures, to stand among them, looking up and seeing the trees and sky filled with flitting color.

The annual arrival of monarchs may be a scene perhaps only one or two more generations of people will witness. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now considering the species for inclusion on the Endangered Species List.

Monarch butterflies fill the branches of cypress and eucalyptus trees in the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove. Many visitors will look up asking where the butterflies are, until they realize the leaves they are looking at are really the wings of resting butterflies. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Monarch butterflies fill the branches of cypress and eucalyptus trees in the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove. Many visitors will look up asking where the butterflies are, until they realize the leaves they are looking at are really the wings of resting butterflies. © Jaymi Heimbuch

When pondering butterflies, there are usually two words that come to mind: beautiful and fragile. But for the monarch there needs to be a third word: epic.

The overused word is actually deserved when it comes to this species, which partakes in a 3,000 mile migration every year that requires four full generations of butterflies to complete. Monarch butterflies are the only insect species to travel thousands of miles from the cooler north to the warmth of southern regions where they overwinter, returning to the same groves of trees for months at a time before taking flight back up north to start the cycle again.

Each spring, monarchs that have sheltered in California and Mexico move north, finding milkweed on which to feed and lay eggs. Milkweed is essential to the survival of monarch butterflies. When the eggs hatch, the caterpillar feeds exclusively on milkweed for about two weeks until it is ready to weave a cocoon and begin its transformation into a butterfly. The milkweed not only sustains the species but also protects it. By eating the plant, the caterpillar becomes toxic to predators like birds, which will avoid eating the caterpillars and the adult butterflies. Indeed, the strategy is so effective, another species, the viceroy butterfly, has evolved to mimic the monarch in appearance to protect itself from predators.

About 10 days after weaving a cocoon, the newly transformed butterfly emerges and continues north as the first generation of the year’s migration. This generation then lay eggs that hatch into the second generation of monarchs, which emerge in the early summer months of May and June, and which in turn lay the eggs that will hatch into the third generation during the height of summer in July and August.

Four generations of monarch butterflies are needed to make the 3,000-mile migration every year. The generation that over-winters in California and Mexico has the longest lifespan, living for six to eight months. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Four generations of monarch butterflies are needed to make the 3,000-mile migration every year. The generation that over-winters in California and Mexico has the longest lifespan, living for six to eight months. © Jaymi Heimbuch

These first three generations of butterflies live only from a few weeks to two months. But the fourth generation, the generation born in September and October, will live as long as six or eight months because it is the generation that makes the miraculous return to the same groves, the same trees even, to ensure the species survives the winter.

Let's take a moment to let the mystery of how monarchs return to the same locations every year fully sink in. Many animals return to the same location after a long time away. Sea turtles will return to the same beach where they were born even after years of being at sea. Laysan albatross will return to the same location, sometimes within feet of the nest cup in which they were born, five or more years after fledging. But these animals were born in that spot, and had a chance to imprint on it, to somehow memorize the magnetic field and thus the coordinates to which they will return later. Monarch butterflies, on the other hand, don't have this advantage. They some how know to continue on the migration's path despite never having visited the place to which they are traveling. They are removed from it by several generations. Yet they know. Theories exist but no one understands for sure how they manage it.

Butterflies gather in clusters, filling the branches of trees. Scientists have a few theories as to why they gather so closely together. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Butterflies gather in clusters, filling the branches of trees. Scientists have a few theories as to why they gather so closely together. © Jaymi Heimbuch

When the monarch butterflies arrive in their wintering groves, they cover branches of trees in great clumps. The Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove explains, "The butterflies form dense clusters with each one hanging with its wing down over the one below it to form a shingle effect. This provides shelter from the rain and warmth for the group. The weight of the cluster help keeps it from whipping in the wind and dislodging the butterflies... There are no definitive answers to the question of why they [form clusters]; they could either all be attracted to the same conditions that exist in a particular spot, or they could benefit from being a group. Possible benefits they could gain from being together include protecting themselves from the elements and/or overwhelming predators."

The two specific needs for monarch butterflies — milkweed and familiar forests — are the reason why the species may be making the unfortunate change in status from near-threatened to endangered.

Monarch butterflies rest on the branches until the sun warms them enough to move around. They need a body temperature of at least 86 degrees in order to fly. Once the morning sun provides enough heat, they become active and fill the air between the trees. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Monarch butterflies rest on the branches until the sun warms them enough to move around. They need a body temperature of at least 86 degrees in order to fly. Once the morning sun provides enough heat, they become active and fill the air between the trees. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Because monarchs take refuge in specific groves, they are vulnerable to legal and illegal logging. Not only does logging eliminate the trees where the butterflies prefer to rest but the loss of trees surrounding their preferred groves exposes them to cooler temperatures which can kill them. Meanwhile, monarchs searching for milkweed during summer on which to lay their eggs are having a harder time finding it due to the expansion of farmland and use of herbicides to kill off the plant. The loss of milkweed means the loss of the only food source for monarch caterpillars.

The combination of threats is taking a serious toll. Though there has been an uptick in the number of sanctuaries in California and Mexico to protect overwintering monarchs, there is still the looming problem of our industrial farming practices.

In September of 2013, the Associated Press reported, "A new study of the Monarch butterflies' winter nesting grounds in central Mexico says small-scale logging is worse than previously thought and may be contributing to threats facing the Monarch's singular migration pattern. The reserve's 33,482-acre core zone lost 41 acres of pine and fir trees so far in 2013, about half of that because of illegal logging... The Monarch migration is under serious threat. A report in March said the number of butterflies making it to Mexico this year had dropped 59 percent, the lowest level since comparable record-keeping began 20 years ago. It was the third straight year of declines for the orange-and-black butterflies. Six of the last seven years have shown drops, and there are now only one-fifteenth as many butterflies as there were in 1997."

However, SciDev.net reported in November of 2014, "Illegal logging in Mexican forests, where the monarchs hibernate during winter, has traditionally been to blame. But large-scale logging by companies appears to have been halted. And now small-scale logging by local people for firewood and timber — a 'growing concern in 2013' — has also stopped, according to a study published last month (27 October) in Biological Conservation."

Monarch butterflies have been hit with a one-two punch of losing the trees where they spend their winters as well as the milkweed on which the caterpillars rely. While the problem of logging has decreased, there is still the looming issue of industrial farming practices that clear away milkweed from the land. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Monarch butterflies have been hit with a one-two punch of losing the trees where they spend their winters as well as the milkweed on which the caterpillars rely. While the problem of logging has decreased, there is still the looming issue of industrial farming practices that clear away milkweed from the land. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Even with this mildly good news that logging has decreased, there’s still the problem of the sheer scale of farming in the U.S. and the practices used to grow mile after mile of monocrops. Changing how we grow food is a lot harder than ending illegal logging practices, both politically and economically. It is, after all,  a question of what goes on our dinner plates and at what price.

National Geographic reported, "Milkweed is the only plant on which monarch butterflies will lay their eggs, and it is the primary food source for monarch caterpillars. Despite its necessity to the species, the plant decreased 21 percent in the United States between 1995 and 2013."  The decrease is primarily due to the use of GMO "Round-Up Ready" crops that can survive being sprayed with herbicides which kill off milkweed and other plant species.

If the monarch butterfly makes it to the endangered species list, the species will receive federal protections. If that happens, it could mean not only the survival of the species but also a potential change in how we view farming, perhaps leading to a more universal recognition of the ecological impact of our practices and a shift to methods that bolster biodiversity rather than encourage monocrops to the demise of plant and animal species.

Though monarch butterflies have only a 4-inch wingspan, they can travel between 50-100 miles per day. That's how they're able to travel such long distances during their annual migration. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Though monarch butterflies have only a 4-inch wingspan, they can travel between 50-100 miles per day. That's how they're able to travel such long distances during their annual migration. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The timing for the USFWS considering the monarch butterfly for inclusion on the endangered species list couldn't be more critical.

Reuters recently reported both good and bad news for monarch butterflies. The bad news is that new estimates from the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation show that monarch populations have dropped by as much as 90 percent in the last 20 years. “An estimated 1 billion monarchs migrated to Mexico in 1996 compared with just 35 million last year, according to Marcus Kronforst, a University of Chicago ecologist who has studied monarchs.”

The Center for Biological Diversity, the Center for Food Safety, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and Dr. Lincoln Brower have together filed a petition requesting federal protections for the species. The monarch has no legal protection in the United States, but after about a review process that lasts about a year -- or four generations of monarchs -- that could change.

Because monarch butterflies need a body temperature of at least 86 degrees to fly, they will sit in the sun or flutter their wings back and forth in order to warm up. If you see a butterfly on the ground "shivering" its wings, it is likely trying to get warm enough to fly. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Because monarch butterflies need a body temperature of at least 86 degrees to fly, they will sit in the sun or flutter their wings back and forth in order to warm up. If you see a butterfly on the ground "shivering" its wings, it is likely trying to get warm enough to fly. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The USFWS website states that the service's first steps in the review process to see if a change in status is warranted is to begin a 60-day public information period during which data will be gathered, including:

  • The subspecies’ biology, range and population trends, habitat requirements, genetics and taxonomy;
  • Historical and current range, including distribution patterns;
  • Historical and current population levels and current and projected trends;
  • The life history or behavior of the monarch butterfly that has not yet been documented;
  • Thermo-tolerance range and microclimate requirements of the monarch butterfly;
  • Past and ongoing conservation measures for the subspecies, its habitat or both;  and,
  • Factors that are the basis for making a listing determination under section 4(a) of the ESA;

If you have information about monarch butterflies that you think could benefit the USFWS in making a decision, send it in before March 2, 2015. The site states, "To view the notice and submit information, visit www.regulations.gov docket number FWS-R3-ES-2014-0056."

With luck, and plenty of help, the species may continue on so that one day, we might uncover the mystery as to how a butterfly can find the same tree that its great grandparent rested in the previous year.

Though logging and loss of milkweed are two big threats, monarch butterflies face a third threat: climate change. Climate change brings the possibility of wetter, colder winters. Because millions of butterflies can be found in the same grove of trees, a cold snap in that area can mean a massive hit to the species' population. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Though logging and loss of milkweed are two big threats, monarch butterflies face a third threat: climate change. Climate change brings the possibility of wetter, colder winters. Because millions of butterflies can be found in the same grove of trees, a cold snap in that area can mean a massive hit to the species' population. © Jaymi Heimbuch

If monarch butterflies are in your area, you can support now them by growing milkweed plants in your garden. Monarch Joint Venture provides information about where to get seeds and how to grow the plants.

You can also help monarch butterflies by making a donation to support one of the several sanctuaries set up for them in California and Mexico which help ensure the butterflies have somewhere safe to overwinter before beginning their incredible journey north again.

You may not think that planting milkweed in your garden will be of much help, but a little bit goes a long way. If every yard had just one or two milkweed plants, monarch butterflies would have plenty to survive on. Your yard is the perfect place to start! © Jaymi Heimbuch

You may not think that planting milkweed in your garden will be of much help, but a little bit goes a long way. If every yard had just one or two milkweed plants, monarch butterflies would have plenty to survive on. Your yard is the perfect place to start! © Jaymi Heimbuch

Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.

How to value content over quality in your photographs


When these young racoons emerged from the thicket early in the morning, I caught a moment that looks as if one is saying hello to the sunshine. When editing the images from this outing, this photo was nearly tossed. But every time I look at it, I feel the joy of a morning warmly greeted. So, here it is to stay. These are the kinds of editing decisions photographers are faced with every time a new batch of photos is imported: which images hold enough emotional value to be considered a keeper.

When these young racoons emerged from the thicket early in the morning, I caught a moment that looks as if one is saying hello to the sunshine. When editing the images from this outing, this photo was nearly tossed. But every time I look at it, I feel the joy of a morning warmly greeted. So, here it is to stay. These are the kinds of editing decisions photographers are faced with every time a new batch of photos is imported: which images hold enough emotional value to be considered a keeper.


When is a flawed photo a keeper?

This is a question asked while evaluating every single frame before hitting the delete button. It’s built into the workflow; what stays, what goes, and why. What merits being flagged as a winner in spite of, or because of flaws and how do you recognize it?

There are dozens of pieces to the puzzle that, when put together, form an amazing image. The direction and quality of light, the composition, the focal length, aperture, shutter speed, movement of the subject and so on. But it isn’t simply the act of putting together perfect pieces that creates a perfect whole. A photo is always, always greater than the sum of its parts. It is the impact, the power, the beauty of that whole image that makes the perfection of each piece worthwhile, or the imperfections of each component forgivable. Noise, blur, lens flare, composition that cuts part of the subject out of the frame, over-exposure or under-exposure, and other flaws can be overlooked or even used as a bonus if they are part of an image that has a soul. A body can have all the right parts — limbs, eyes, ears, heart and brain — but that doesn’t make it a living being. It takes everything working together, plus something unexplainable, some spark that gives it life. No matter how pretty the parts, there has to be that touch of magic to make it work. And so it is when creating a photo that touches viewers.

How do you know when your image has that spark? That’s the challenge brought to each and every editing session.

There are two ways to measure the success of an image. If it sings to you, and if it sings to others. The first is easy to know. You recognize it when you see it, a gut feeling. Even when sorting through the images that just miss the mark you were originally aiming for in composition or quality, they might still have hit another, more emotional target, and you end up walking away with a winner anyway.

The second is a little more difficult to gauge and to predict. Sometimes photos are a complete success and everyone seems to love it. But there have been many times where an image I thought was nice but not exceptional was still a favorite among viewers, while another that ranked as one of my favorites from a trip was given just a shoulder shrug from others I showed it to. But I believe there’s value in that as well — in having an image that is just for you, that it is still important even if only you really appreciate it. It’s a question I raised to National Geographic underwater photographer Brian Skerry in a recent conversation, and he had a wonderful example of why a photographer should keep a photo that has particular meaning or merit to them, even if it isn't publishable.

But let’s back up just for a moment, to the original question of how you recognize that spark that makes an image worth keeping, when you know you should value the content of the shot over the quality. It’s a deeply personal process on one level, and yet completely universal on another. A good photo is a good photo, after all.

A pair of white terns reunited on a branch in an ironwood tree. These beautiful birds are like something out of a fairytale with their large black eyes, pure white feathers and impossibly sharp bills. They way they can hover and flit is magical in the golden light. Though this frame is imperfect, it perfectly captures that dreamy, airy aspect of the species for me.

A pair of white terns reunited on a branch in an ironwood tree. These beautiful birds are like something out of a fairytale with their large black eyes, pure white feathers and impossibly sharp bills. They way they can hover and flit is magical in the golden light. Though this frame is imperfect, it perfectly captures that dreamy, airy aspect of the species for me.

“I don’t believe there are any right or wrong answers,” says Skerry. “I firmly believe photography for the most part is subjective. Understanding light, how light works, and how you can use it as a photographer, understanding composition, knowing that 50 photographs with the subject smack in the middle like a bull’s eye isn’t particularly interesting. Understanding the fundamentals of photography is essential if you want to be a serious photographer. Knowing those essentials means you can also break them.”

I asked a few more folks for their take on this question. Melissa Groo, a conservation photographer, tells me, “I used to be much more concerned with the perfection of my images. A super clean and out-of-focus background, lack of graininess, a subject sharp from stem to stern, with the light perfectly falling on it, and an ideal head angle to the camera sensor — these were my principles. This was partly due to the fact that I was spending a lot of time on an online nature photography forum that preached these as necessary elements of any truly good image of wildlife. I began to realize that stringently conforming to these principles was stifling my creativity. That I was missing out on truly exciting and authentic moments as I was too consumed with the devil of the details.

“Now, my attention to the action in front of me takes paramount importance. And occasionally I come up with images that aren't perfectly lit, that lack perfect sharpness, that may have visible noise. What I've learned though, is that sometimes it's these images that are the most powerful for me, both in my eyes and the eyes of the viewers, as a quintessential moment in an animal's life has been captured, a moment that enriches our own lives. For me, capturing that behavior often trumps the flaws. Rules are good to know about, and are an important foundation for any developing photographer, but don't let them trip you up and stand in the way of your own creativity.”

On a very foggy morning just before sunrise, I hid myself in the reeds on the shore of a lagoon and waited for a family of four river otters to approach. As they made their way along the edge of the water, chomping on crabs and fish, a couple hopped up on this rock for a brief moment while another hunted around the edge of the rock. The low light, the distance, the mist in the air between me and the dark subjects all added to the difficulty in getting a perfect shot. But the playful behavior and curiosity of these animals in their habitat is summed up in the image, which is just what I wanted to capture.

On a very foggy morning just before sunrise, I hid myself in the reeds on the shore of a lagoon and waited for a family of four river otters to approach. As they made their way along the edge of the water, chomping on crabs and fish, a couple hopped up on this rock for a brief moment while another hunted around the edge of the rock. The low light, the distance, the mist in the air between me and the dark subjects all added to the difficulty in getting a perfect shot. But the playful behavior and curiosity of these animals in their habitat is summed up in the image, which is just what I wanted to capture.

Gaston Lacome, a documentary photographer, has a similar sentiment, that the focus should be on the message of an image rather than the settings, “As a photographer, it bugs me to no end when someone asks me: ‘What was your shutter speed on that?  What was your depth of field?’  The little hairs on the back of my neck raise up in irritation, and I have to remind myself that for some people these technical details seem very important.  I usually answer: ‘I don’t know, I would have to check,’ but what I really want to say is: ‘Does that matter?  Can’t you see the photo for what it is?’

“When I lift the camera to my eye, I do think of course of my shutter speed and depth of speed, otherwise I wouldn’t be a photographer.  However my main concern does not lie in the numbers, but in the artistic intent.  I ask myself: “What am I showing here?  How does this tell a story?”  As a conservation photographer, my most important measure of success is to know that an image is conveying a message effectively, and that often means ignoring technique, settings, and rules, and just getting lost in the moment.  An editor I’ve worked with once said: 'Let your photos get dirty.'

“Letting my photos get dirty however does not mean letting them get sloppy.  Clicking the shutter carelessly will not push my story forward.  Rather, I interpret it as embracing the imperfections that make my photos unique.  Motion blur can bring a more dynamism.  Dirt and water on the lens can bring more intimacy and immediacy.  Lack of focus can bring mystery.  Uneven color balances can bring artistic toning.  I don’t usually seek imperfection in my images, but when it does happen, I’ve learned to consider how it makes me feel, or react, before I discard it outright.”

Rather than being a problem for an image, blur can bring a wonderful sense of motion to a photo, and give the viewer a feeling of being there in the action. There is, of course, blur that is effective and blur that is just plain old blur. If you manage to pull off the former, then your image has that much more impact. If you get the latter... well, get out there and try again.

Rather than being a problem for an image, blur can bring a wonderful sense of motion to a photo, and give the viewer a feeling of being there in the action. There is, of course, blur that is effective and blur that is just plain old blur. If you manage to pull off the former, then your image has that much more impact. If you get the latter... well, get out there and try again.

Tin Man Lee expands on this idea, that flawed photos can sometimes have the farthest reach, much more so than “clean” images. “So many times I have seen pictures that go viral in the internet that have poor image quality but have special meaning. And I have seen numerous technically perfect images — right angles of light, perspective, sharpness and no noise — that didn't stir any emotion in viewers. Content is always the most important.

"As a photographer, I strive to find the good light, composition, etc, to accompany a special moment. I think we are all storytellers. To tell a good story, it needs mood and emotion. Mood is the light, the composition, and may be about sharpness, noise. Emotion is the content. When mood and emotion come together, its a good story. To present the emotion perfectly, photographer's task is to reduce distractions and add the mood. Distraction reduction is to look carefully in the viewfinder to move to a spot where the background is less distracting, try to maximize the sharpness with lowest noise. All these are secondary, but help with bringing the emotion to a new height."

On a cold and drizzly morning, I was lucky enough to watch a female northern elephant seal give birth. The distress of the female during her labor and her clear relief at its conclusion, the calm bewilderment with which the pup seemed to enter the world, and the hovering gulls waiting to dine on the afterbirth were all elements of the scene that stuck in my memory. If there's one image that encapsulates the entire event for me, it's this one.

On a cold and drizzly morning, I was lucky enough to watch a female northern elephant seal give birth. The distress of the female during her labor and her clear relief at its conclusion, the calm bewilderment with which the pup seemed to enter the world, and the hovering gulls waiting to dine on the afterbirth were all elements of the scene that stuck in my memory. If there's one image that encapsulates the entire event for me, it's this one.

Robin Moore tells me about getting started on the editing process, both looking at quality and content at once. "The first thing I do after a shoot is a quick first edit to cull my images down to a manageable selection. This initial cull will be largely based on a gut reaction to the images. It is really the content that I pay most attention to here. If the first thing I notice is that it is out of focus or grainy, then it can’t be a very strong image, and so it goes. If an image doesn't speak to me on this first pass, no matter how sharp the focus or low the noise, no matter that it conforms nicely to the rule of thirds, I will cull the image. I think I have become more ruthless in this regard over the years - I used to place more emphasis on technical prowess, as if I had something to prove, but I have found myself focusing more and more on content and story. The words of Ansel Adams, 'There's nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept' echo in the back of my head as I am editing. If all an image conveys to the viewer is that I have a nice camera or that I know my way around the f-stops, then I have failed to connect with that viewer on any meaningful level."

But being tough in editing can backfire, especially when it comes to questioning the value of a photo at first glance. Moore continues, "What resonates with me one day may also be different from the next, and this can make my editing process somewhat inconsistent. I recently went back through an old shoot of mine from Colombia, and recovered an image of a glass frog peering through a leaf that I had culled the first time around. I have no idea what was going through my head when I culled it, because it was a strong composition, an interesting and beautiful subject and tack sharp. In theory all the elements were there. I suspect I was influenced by other, similar images, in my shoot. When faced with a couple of thousand images to edit I was ruthless in cutting this down to a manageable and representative selection. But in doing so I got rid of one that, upon recovery, has become one of my favorite frog shots - and my most popular image on Instagram. I now keep my 'almost' shots backed up because I never know when I could view them with different eyes and decide they are, indeed, a winner."

When I spotted river otters near a bridge in a shaded valley just after sunrise, I decided to see how far I could push my camera's ISO to get images. The dark subjects and extreme low light were a challenging combination, but it was fun to push the camera's limits. Not ideal light, not ideal settings, but the results were certainly what I wanted. Several of the technical issues such as noise were easily fixed in post-processing, so it was worth taking advantage of the opportunity.

When I spotted river otters near a bridge in a shaded valley just after sunrise, I decided to see how far I could push my camera's ISO to get images. The dark subjects and extreme low light were a challenging combination, but it was fun to push the camera's limits. Not ideal light, not ideal settings, but the results were certainly what I wanted. Several of the technical issues such as noise were easily fixed in post-processing, so it was worth taking advantage of the opportunity.

There’s the rub. Even the photographer can see something worth keeping one moment, and nothing the next, then back again.

I've found great value in going easy on editing sessions, doing four or five sessions with a more forgiving eye when narrowing down a group of photos, rather than one or two sessions that ruthlessly delete anything substandard while zeroed in on a high bar in technical quality. This gives me the chance to see the same group of images while I'm in different emotional states. Eventually, only the images that speak to me on every level, in every mood, stay. Those are clearly the most powerful. But I also know I have reduced the odds of deleting a great photo just because it had some blur or lack of sharpness that overall may not matter so much.

One of my tricks that I stumbled into accidentally and now view as a great strategy is to use my backup system as a safety, just as Moore does. I always back up everything on at least two hard drives. I dump all images into both drives but just work from one, narrowing down and deleting images from the single drive. And just in case, I have all the images on another drive. More than once, I've looked through those "deleted" images that still exist on the second drive and found a couple I changed my mind about, that I wanted to keep and work on. Eventually, I have my winners from the batch, and I back up just the final keepers on both drives. But at least during the editing process, I had that safety net of getting an image back that I failed to see the power of the first time around.

Can the viewer have the same experience? See an image once and be unimpressed because of technical flaws, but again in a different mood and be moved by the same photo's content? Or vice versa? Subjective. Oh, so subjective.

Mulling over just how subjective photography really is brings us back to the earlier question of gauging success based on if an image sings to you and if it sings to others. Brian Skerry has just about the best story I've ever heard on this topic. His most recognizable photo nearly never saw the light of day because one editor didn't care for it.

"Probably my most iconic picture is of the southern right whale and the diver. I was down in the southern Antarctic in winter time on an 80-foot sailboat for three weeks, dealing with all kinds of bad weather and diving in a dry suit. These whales had never been photographed before. It was a very speculative trip; the Geographic really rolled the dice when I convinced them to charter the boat and send me down there. I had this new experience, I had all these whales around me and I had these great pictures. I came back to the main island of New Zealand after three weeks and I had to fly to Honolulu where I was doing a three week reef expedition, so I was in my hotel room getting ready to leave for the boat. I got an email from my editor who said, 'So Brian, how did you do with the whales?' I was all proud of myself, and wrote  back, saying I think we did really great and we have stuff that’s never been seen before, and I attached a jpeg of that picture with the diver and the whale. I needed to check out of the hotel and get to the boat but I was very anxious for this email that I was sure was going to come back with just heaps of praise telling me how great I was and how wonderful it all was and I was the greatest thing to ever happen. And I got back this cryptic sort of reply that just said, 'What else do you have.' That was it. Five words. I was crushed.

"That photo has since become a life of its own. They made a little video about it that’s on YouTube that’s had 23 million views. Geographic has used it on their flag, they’ve used it in their exploration issue years after it was published. But I had to lobby when I was doing layout with [my editor] and the layout designer to get that picture in there. Fortunately, the number two person at the magazine in charge of layout loved it and he said, no that’s got to be in the magazine. But the point of the story is that my editor, whose opinion I value so greatly — she’s a dear friend and a wonderful, wonderful editor, and in 17 years of working with her I’ve maybe once or twice had a disagreement about a picture — but there was a picture that was my most iconic, most famous picture of all time and it almost didn’t get into the magazine because she thought it was redundant and she liked another one that I had that was similar that was just the whale by itself. It is very subjective."

Though they look quite comical waddle-running and flapping to take flight, for a Laysan albatross, getting off the ground no laughing matter. It requires a significant amount of energy to get up into the air. I wanted to show some of the earnestness of the endeavor, and some of the grace that albatross show once they're in flight. This is an image I've come back to multiple times and it has become one of my favorites from the morning of watching the "runway."

Though they look quite comical waddle-running and flapping to take flight, for a Laysan albatross, getting off the ground no laughing matter. It requires a significant amount of energy to get up into the air. I wanted to show some of the earnestness of the endeavor, and some of the grace that albatross show once they're in flight. This is an image I've come back to multiple times and it has become one of my favorites from the morning of watching the "runway."

A common thread from the friends I talked to on this topic is that we all think that following the rules is important, up to a point. But we can’t let the rules get in the way of what’s real. The emotion, mood, circumstances… the reality of the instant in time that we captured is more important than if the light is coming from the right direction or if it comes out a bit grainy. If the content holds up, a viewer will most likely look right past those imperfections. A winning photo comes down to the emotional reaction it draws from viewers. Full stop.

Skerry says, “You know I used to believe when I first began that a picture had to be perfect. The fish had to be within the four borders of the frame and I couldn’t cut off a tail or I couldn’t cut off a fin. I’ve learned that those things are less important in terms of a good photojournalistic picture if the photo has energy, or if there’s some grace or gesture in the picture. If it speaks to you or it speaks to people then it’s okay if you don’t see the whole animal, if the tiger is cut off and you only see a blur of him running through a field or something. Those things are alright because it’s about that energy. Photography is about truth to a large extent, it’s about your experience out there in nature in the wild and if a shark kicked up a bit of sand as he swam over and it’s off to the side of the frame or wherever it is it’s alright. We publish those pictures all day long because it’s real, its the way it happened. It is about content over quality."

Pulling into the parking lot of the trail head about 15 minutes before first light, the car's headlights illuminated this coyote drinking water from a pothole. With extraordinary luck, and patience on the part of the coyote, he stuck around until twilight so I could capture a few frames. They're noisy shots, but keepers, meaningful to me because of the memorable encounter.

Pulling into the parking lot of the trail head about 15 minutes before first light, the car's headlights illuminated this coyote drinking water from a pothole. With extraordinary luck, and patience on the part of the coyote, he stuck around until twilight so I could capture a few frames. They're noisy shots, but keepers, meaningful to me because of the memorable encounter.

So, say a photo speaks to you and only to you. It summarizes everything you felt and saw during that moment when you clicked the shutter, and every time you look at it you're transported back to that experience. But it isn't something you can or will publish. It's just not an image that is going to go the distance with an audience. Then what?

These images that are entirely and completely for you are of profound value. Just because they aren't to be published doesn't mean they aren't worthy of keeping and displaying. It is these photos, after all, that feed the creative spirit and fuel the drive to go out and photograph again and again and again.

“The guy that brought me in to National Geographic, I idolized him for a long time," says Skerry. "His name was Bill Curtsinger. He was an underwater photographer at National Geographic for over 30 years and he did these sort of more elusive underwater stories — did cold water in polar regions and did big animals like whales before anyone was doing it — and when I would go to his house, he would have these little prints in the bathroom or on the wall somewhere. It was just a little 5x7 or 4x6 print of maybe something that mattered to him, something that spoke to him. It wasn’t a picture that appeared in a magazine, it wasn’t in any book, but it was something that he liked. Sometimes he would do them in black and white and sometimes in color, and he would put a little mat around them and hang it on a wall. Again in those days I was of the mind that every picture had to be perfect, and I was only going to publish or print and hang on my wall the most beautiful images. But I learned from Bill that it isn’t about that. There are those pictures that are going to be published and seen and ooh-ed and aahh-ed over by the general public, and then there are pictures that matter to you. And you need both."

I definitely connect with this strategy. I have quite a few framed photos on my wall that aren't of interest to anyone but me. Even my wife silently questions what's so great about them. But when I look at them, I get a little thrill up my spine, my shutter finger twitches a bit, and I think, "That's why I pick up my camera."

Cropping in for a good composition is one of those things that makes many photographers cringe, myself included. I much prefer to get the composition right in camera. It leaves so much more room to edit an image and be able to display it large. However, sometimes the subject is just too far away, yet the shot is so pretty it's worth cropping in so you can keep it. Such is the case with this red-tailed tropicbird coming in to land on Midway Atoll. It was high above me and I had a short lens, but with the early morning sun turning its dazzlingly white feathers to gold, I had to take a shot. I think of angel wings every time I see it, and it's so worth it to me to crop in so I can enjoy its beauty.

Cropping in for a good composition is one of those things that makes many photographers cringe, myself included. I much prefer to get the composition right in camera. It leaves so much more room to edit an image and be able to display it large. However, sometimes the subject is just too far away, yet the shot is so pretty it's worth cropping in so you can keep it. Such is the case with this red-tailed tropicbird coming in to land on Midway Atoll. It was high above me and I had a short lens, but with the early morning sun turning its dazzlingly white feathers to gold, I had to take a shot. I think of angel wings every time I see it, and it's so worth it to me to crop in so I can enjoy its beauty.

"I think at the end of the day the reason that we pursue photography is that it is something that speaks to us," Skerry tells me. "It is some internal desire to produce images and record a moment in time that is fleeting; it’ll never happen again, it’s just that moment. For those of us who are pursing professional photography, to some degree we have to care about what other people think about the photos or else we can’t make a living. But you can’t get so hung up on that — if you're producing good work and people like it then that’s all well and good, but ultimately at the end of the day it has to please you. Otherwise, what’s the point?"

I've heard many photographers go on at length about how important it is to shoot below a certain ISO to keep noise low, to always use a tripod to minimize any shake, to zoom in to 100 percent to make sure an image is truly tack sharp. But I've found that when I need a high ISO to get the shot, when a tripod is holding me back from moving quickly enough to follow a subject, when a photo is fuzzy at 100 percent but prints just fine as an 8x10, then I'm more than okay with that. It is more important to me to have an image that feels right. Because without that nameless spark, that hint of magic that brings a photo alive, that allows a viewer to connect on a wordless, instinctual level, then having all the technical elements be perfect doesn't matter in the slightest.

There's a lot you can fix in post-processing — you can reduce noise, bump up the clarity and sharpness, bring up the shadows and restore the highlights. But there is no slider for increasing the soul of a photo. I choose to focus on that, to hone my skill in this most important area, and let the technical prowess follow in the practice.

The reality, especially in wildlife photography, is that subjects are not always going to set themselves up in the perfect place with the perfect light and give you time to adjust to the perfect settings to capture the scene. But what is always there is a moment, a fleeting look or turn of the head or interaction that is worth capturing no matter what. Looking for that, identifying it and being ready to record it as best you can should always be the primary goal. Even if the technical details aren't ideal, having that fraction of a moment captured is of great value.

The reality, especially in wildlife photography, is that subjects are not always going to set themselves up in the perfect place with the perfect light and give you time to adjust to the perfect settings to capture the scene. But what is always there is a moment, a fleeting look or turn of the head or interaction that is worth capturing no matter what. Looking for that, identifying it and being ready to record it as best you can should always be the primary goal. Even if the technical details aren't ideal, having that fraction of a moment captured is of great value.

Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.

Why indulging in family pet portraits is a smart move


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There are some things that may seem extravagant at first, but become more valuable than we can imagine when we look back on the purchase years later. Having professional photos done with your furry family members is one of those things.

This month I had a chance to photograph a friend and her pack of dogs for their holiday cards. She wanted something that showed her family off in a fun way, and something better than the usual point-n-shoots that fill up the storage space on smart-phone cameras. We met at a park where she hung baubles and a banner, and of course brought bows for each of her dogs. We played around for awhile with different poses and different locations and had a wonderful time.

Afterward, we went on a hike and I learned so much more about the history of her dogs, and how they've formed a deeply bonded unit. Listening to her talk about her dogs, about how they've changed over time and their different quirks, got me meditating on the amount of emotional connection a person can have with their companion animals.

To so many of us, pets aren't just animals we live with. Rather, they carry as much influence and importance as our human best friends, siblings, even children. To many people, a companion animal is who centers them in the world, who is a constant, steadying presence in the busy, stressful, often turbulent days we live through.

My friend is someone who has countless photos of her dogs. She snaps photos every single day and so many of the images are absolutely adorable. But there's something different about having a professional portrait session done, particularly when you are included in the shoot. It is an opportunity to capture that intensity of emotion, of the connection that you feel with your pet. Professional portraits are a chance for someone else to reflect back to you the bond you have with your companion. And you get to keep copies of that reflection and hang them on the wall, to look at the visual evidence of that bond and feel it again every time you see at the photo, even when years or decades have passed by.

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Years ago I had a black Labrador retriever named Topper. My wife and I adopted him when we were very young, 18- and 19-years-old. It was an impulsive decision, but that's how teenagers are. We went into the local animal shelter and saw him curled in the back of his kennel, his deep brown eyes looking up at us with confusion and kindness. He was nine months old, dropped off by a family who said he'd destroyed too much furniture to be worth keeping. We looked at each other, figured we had nothing valuable anyway so that wasn't a problem, and said he was coming home with us.

We had Topper for 10 years, and we filled that decade with countless adventures and misadventures, hikes and road trips, laughter and stories. Some of the best memories of my life so far include that dog at my side. But what I don't have from those years are quality portraits of him, of us as a family. We had Topper well before I learned to be proficient with a camera. And while we have hundreds of photos with him, photos that I cherish, they don't quite have that intimacy that comes with professional portraits -- the candid affectionate glance, the sudden burst of laughter, the light that flashes in their eyes when the words, "Let's go!" are said. These are things so difficult to catch, and impossible when you are the one behind the camera.

When Topper passed, one of my biggest regrets was not having polished portraits of us as a family. Something beautiful to frame; something that was both our family at our best and a work of art. So, when I adopted my current dog, one of my priorities in the first couple years was scheduling a family portrait session with a pair of pet photographers who are incredibly good at what they do. We set up a session at sunrise and my dog, my wife and I played on the beach as the sun came up, the light all pink and gold, while the two photographers worked their magic.

Needless to say, I was ecstatic when we got the images back. I was positively giddy at the ordering session while looking over the proofs, seeing what they managed to capture. Everything I feel about my little family was there, in those photos. Everything that was in my head and heart was actually printed on pieces of semi-gloss paper.  These are photographs that even now I simply could never capture myself because I need to be in them, to be in sync with my family rather than directing where to stand and getting the dog to hold a pose while I trigger the camera's shutter.

I could go on with more stories, but I will just say this: Since having those personal experiences, and since being part of those experiences as the photographer, I couldn't recommend more highly taking advantage of the opportunity to hire a professional for a portrait session with your pet. Especially now, during the holidays when everyone is thinking about family, love, and of course personalized gifts, it seems like a wonderful chance to remember the importance of quality portraits as an experience and indulgence worth having.

Whether it is to celebrate the arrival of the newest family member:

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Or honor the years of joy brought by the oldest family member:

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Whatever the occasion, or no occasion at all, I promise you will have no regrets about creating beautiful, intimate photos to look back upon, and that help to trigger joyful memories. There are talented photographers all over the place, and I encourage you to look up who is local to you, strike up a conversation, and see about setting up a session with them. You'll be happy you did.

Many thanks go to Pe'ahi, Leilani and Nalu for being such adorable and festive models.

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Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.

5 days of thinking in black and white


Coyote, Canis latrans © Jaymi Heimbuch

Coyote, Canis latrans © Jaymi Heimbuch


A friend recently tagged me on Facebook to take part in a 5-day black-and-white photo challenge. The premise is simply to post a new black-and-white photo each day, but what you choose to do with the opportunity is up to you. You can show off some of your favorite images again, or you can create a new photo each day specifically for the challenge. I did something in-between. I searched through my archive for photos that would really stand out in monochrome, and I focused on wildlife species most meaningful to me.


Day One:

Just before dawn, I was up on top of a hill looking down at a lagoon searching for a group of river otters that I know live there. I spotted them at one corner of the lagoon and so drove down the hill to where they were. When I came around a bend in the road, a gorgeous coyote was standing in the middle of the road. She (or he) was smelling the air and getting a whiff of the ducks and great blue heron that I knew were at the bank just below a drop and out of sight. Cool as a cucumber, she just glanced at me in my car, barely caring I was there. I, on the other hand, had a rush of adrenaline burst through my veins, since the coyote is my number one favorite species and every sighting of one is exciting to me.

I opened the door to my car and pulled out my camera. The sun had barely come up and we were in a shaded valley so there was hardly any light, and my lens had trouble focusing on her. She crossed the road and went under a barrier to a grassy area, and knowing I was a road hazard, I got back into the car to go find a safe place to park. She went off down between some scrub and I walked another way around the area with the hopes of spotting her again.

As I came down a little way off the trail, up popped her head from behind the bushes. She gave me about 45 seconds of her time, before having enough of me and disappearing into the scrub. With weak early-morning light, and hand-holding my 500mm, I didn’t get many frames but it was a wonderful moment with my favorite species.

Coastal brown bear, Ursus arctos horribilis © Jaymi Heimbuch

Coastal brown bear, Ursus arctos horribilis © Jaymi Heimbuch

Day Two:

There was that one time when a curious grizzly got so close he filled the frame, and kept on coming. I'm not someone who gets nervous easily, especially around wildlife. Animals are fairly predictable; follow some basic rules about body language and respecting distance, read the cues and know how to respond, and you're usually safe(ish). This gorgeous grizzly never gave me a reason to fear, but did give me a reason to second-guess.

There seemed to be a bit of a lull in the number of fish coming upstream while our small group was watching the bear go about catching lunch, and so he turned his attention to his audience. He lumbered past us, perhaps 30-40 feet away from our small rain-soaked huddle with cameras pointing out at every angle. Then turned, and decided to take a closer look.

It was awe-inspiring to watch this huge bear amble toward us, no concern and no threat in his body language, but enough curiosity for me to watch carefully. When he kept walking directly toward us, filling my frame to the point that I stopped bothering looking through the camera, I turned to the guide just to see what he thought about this approach. He gave me a head-nod meaning, "We're still good, stay chill." So, I just stood there watching one of the greatest predators on the continent walk a matter of yards past me, small black eyes roving over our group with interest.

Then, in a thankfully anti-climatic end to the moment, he plopped down on the beach, yawned, and drifted off into an afternoon doze. I’ve chalked this up as of the best moments of my time among wildlife so far.

Laysan Albatross, Phoebastria immutabilis © Jaymi Heimbuch

Laysan Albatross, Phoebastria immutabilis © Jaymi Heimbuch

Day Three:

Though the Laysan albatross may be a far cry from coyotes and grizzlies, this bird is dear to me in many ways.

A couple years ago I had the extraordinary opportunity to go to Midway Atoll. While technically on assignment for the environmental website I was writing for, I was there entirely for me. I’d pitched the trip, pushed to get it approved, and finalized plans to travel to one of the most remote places I’d ever had the honor of visiting. I was told that Midway would change me, but I figured that was just poetic talk from people who wanted to build up the place. By the time I left a week later, I realized how right those people were. The tiny atoll in the middle of the Pacific ocean really had altered who I was as a person and my heart expanded to include two bird species that I will always think of as magical. One of them is the Laysan albatross.

By turns elegant, comical, stoic, clumsy, romantic, and feisty, this species is always one thing: extraordinary. Laysan albatross go from sitting for months in a single place as chicks to taking flight and staying on the wing for five to seven years before returning to land to begin the many-year process of finding a life-long mate, a process that requires learning a complex courtship dance and searching out the one partner with whom they dance best.

I could say so much about these pixar-film-worthy characters, but I'll save that for an upcoming blog post. Instead, I'll just say that hearing the calls and bill-clapping of Laysan albatross in videos transports me right back to that small rise of sand in the middle of the ocean, and with it a deep longing to be there again.

North American river otter, Lontra canadensis © Jaymi Heimbuch

North American river otter, Lontra canadensis © Jaymi Heimbuch

Day Four:

I spent an hour or so on the morning of day four looking through photos of Sutro Sam. This North American river otter made a splash in 2012 when he took up residence in the ruins of the Sutro baths on the northwest edge of San Francisco for about 5 months. The fascination with him came from the fact that he's the first river otter to be spotted in San Francsico in about five decades, and his arrival is a sign that the conservation efforts that have been going into restoring the bay area's watersheds are working.

Sutro Sam’s temporary return -- he likely came from and returned to Marin -- had people visiting the baths in droves for a chance to spot him, and he wasn't shy. He had a knack for posing for the cameras, and was by turns curious about and oblivious to his adoring fans. This made him perfect to watch since he wasn't easily scared off. However, the interest had its downsides. People have a way of loving things too much, ignoring posted signs as well as common sense about watching wildlife. In this case, onlookers did everything from stomping down the reeds along one of the banks (read: destroying habitat) to actually letting their dogs interact with the otter. Thankfully, advocates did a great job reminding overenthusiastic visitors to keep their distance and respect the creature they were there to see.

In March, Sutro Sam left the baths for good, most likely heading off to find a mate. In his brief stay he was a fantastic ambassador for the species and an opportunity for people to learn about river otters and, hopefully, appropriate ways to view wildlife. He also was the first river otter I'd ever seen in the wild, and I've been fascinated by and in love with the species ever since.

White terns, Gygis alba © Jaymi Heimbuch

White terns, Gygis alba © Jaymi Heimbuch

Day Five:

This 5th and final photo in the 5-day black and white challenge is dedicated to Brian Skerry who solidified my confidence that I picked the right image for the day.

In searching for my last photo, I knew I wanted to post something on white terns since my theme has been species that are special to me. These birds are so full of vim and vigor; they're loving and tender, elegant and playful. I searched through all the shots I have of this species, trying to find one image that would show the personality, the spunk that I think of when I think of these terns. I had a handful of great portraits, and a couple pretty shots in flight, but nothing that showed who they are to me and that was also a perfect shot. There was always a problem -- a stray branch here, or a wing clipped out of the frame, or too much blur. I finally decided on this shot, which is imperfect in ways but is still a keeper to me because it speaks to how I know the species. I edited it and saved it to post in the morning. It's not perfect, but it's right.

Before posting it that morning, I had a call with Brian to talk about weighing content versus quality, on knowing when an image is worth keeping despite (or because of) flaws. During the conversation he told a story about evolving from wanting the ideal shot of a fish entirely in frame with perfect light and without any particles and so on, to understanding and using the impact of noise, grit, blur, cropped out portions of the subject and other things that might break rules but in fact make art. When he talked about this, I thought of my choice for this last photo. Despite what I may want to change to make it a technically perfect shot, I'm still really happy with this image because it speaks to me about who these birds are, not about how they were posed.

If you take part in this 5-day challenge, please let me know about it with a link in the comments. It would be great to see what everyone else posts!

Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.

Model behavior: The joy of photographing well-trained dogs


Ruby, a Belgian Malinois, Cybil, a Dutch shepherd, and Cash, a pit bull, pose together in the training field of Tug Dogs in Sacramento, California. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Ruby, a Belgian Malinois, Cybil, a Dutch shepherd, and Cash, a pit bull, pose together in the training field of Tug Dogs in Sacramento, California. © Jaymi Heimbuch


A little while back I had a wonderful afternoon photographing the dogs of Tug Dogs, a boarding and training facility in Sacramento. The owner and lead trainer is one of those people who just has a way with dogs. They simply want to listen. While you know it mostly comes down to years of experience and practice in reading and using body language and energy to keep a dog's interest and lots of techniques to keep up obedient behavior, it still looks like magic when she turns toward a room of barking dogs, says "Enough," and they actually quiet down.

In my volunteer work photographing shelter dogs up for adoption, I come across a wide range of personalities and behaviors. I only have a few minutes, maybe 30 minutes at the most, to spend warming up to a dog and getting portraits to use in adoption profiles. The purpose of the portrait is to draw in potential forever homes, and the more effectively we play match-maker using love at first sight, the more dogs can be homed. So it is important to capture a dog at their best, highlighting their heart and soul in a single photo. When a dog is nervous, over-stimulated, shy, or just plain doesn't have any commands down yet, it can make the session a bit difficult.

Sometimes I have a string of dogs who want nothing to do with me out of nervousness or boredom, or won't stop moving long enough to pose. While I enjoy the challenge of capturing a dog at their best despite the constant movement or lack of eye contact, it also makes me crave time with dogs that have basic commands down, or better yet, who know much, much more than the average dog. I got that in spades with my session at Tug Dogs.

The group of trainers and their dogs met me and my own dog in Old Town Sacramento for some fun group shots. We drew plenty of stares from onlookers not only because we had a motley pack of nine adorable dogs trotting around but because those dogs did a great job posing in groups on railroad tracks, benches, crates and pretty much anything we pointed at. Each of them worked well on their own and as a group, even though several had never met one another before, and there were five different handlers and a photographer all milling around. It was sheer joy to come up with an idea for a group shot, get all the dogs situated, and have them hold the pose until we got a good image.

After our in-town session, we headed back to the training field and photographed everything from agility to protection work, from playing fetch and tug to balancing on barrels, from leaping fences to leaping over each other. Seeing what dogs are capable of in the hands of people who want to train them, who want to keep their brains engaged and interested, who want to help them work through whatever behavior issues they're having, is endlessly inspiring. This photo session was a blast, but more importantly it renewed my patience with other dogs I work with. It reminded me that their hearts and minds are made of gold and we just need to wipe off the grime.

As an extra special treat at the end of the afternoon, we all got to enjoy the cuddles from a new litter of Belgian Malinois puppies. Just weeks old, the little tumbling, tottering, playful pups joined us on the grass for a romp. Knowing these pups' parents and the trainer who would raise them and place them into homes, there was little doubt when looking at each of them that they would have a big future ahead of them -- filled with plenty of joy and training! Spending time with these cuties was the perfect way to end an afternoon spent with an amazing group of dogs.

Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.

A nod to nene: How Hawaii's native goose is returning from near extinction


A pair of nene, the Hawaiian goose and state bird, forage in the grass near Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A pair of nene, the Hawaiian goose and state bird, forage in the grass near Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. © Jaymi Heimbuch


Driving through the misty rain and afternoon sun, that rainbow-making combination that makes Kaua’i such a well-loved place, the color contrast between the lush green grass and damp red dirt lining the roadside is striking. Moving at the border between these two contrasting colors is a small group of geese, equally striking in their contrasting colors of black and buff. Slowly making their way down the edge of the grass on the road leading to Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, plucking here and there at the ends of the tallest blades and stripping seeds from stalks, five nene wander the shoulder of the road. I pull over about 20 yards up, grab my camera, and watch the meandering flock as they approach.

This is one of the few times I’ve seen nene, the goose species unique to the Hawaiian archipelago. During my two previous trips to the island I had spotted one or a couple here and there near the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. This time, however, I spied twos and threes along roads, on levees, on hillsides and in the skies. The species holds a few titles; it is Hawaii’s state bird, but it is also the most endangered goose species in the world and the sixth most endangered waterfowl species in the world. And yet, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. At least, it doesn’t have to be. The fascinating evolutionary history of the nene is rivaled by another story, that of its return from near extinction. This species was a mere 30 individuals away from being known only through the fossil record, and yet it is now poised to possibly return to self-sustaining numbers, and Kaua’i has been the place where numbers have been rising the fastest.

I sit down in the grass, my shoulder angled and eyes averted enough to encourage them to keep moving on their path toward me. Only one shows nervousness and takes a longer route around me, stopping for long moments to stare quizzically at the clicking noises I’m making as the mirror flips and the shutter flaps inside my camera. The other geese continue as if I weren’t there. I listen to them talk, making soft nasal sighs at each other, what I’ve come to call a goosey cooing. Calm and confident, they continue their grazing in the deep, lush grass.


Nene have a vocalization that sounds similar to their relative the Canada goose, but it is softer, almost more like a moo. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Nene have a vocalization that sounds similar to their relative the Canada goose, but it is softer, almost more like a moo. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Unlike the typical experience you might have with geese at the park or a barn yard, who move with a wariness that always borders on aggression, the nene move with a self-assured gentleness that comes with not being harassed or preyed upon for millennia. Evolving on an island chain that lacks predators results in a calm demeanor, though one that can be a species’ demise when predators do arrive. But we’ll get to that later. While the nene look so unique from other goose species, they have an ancestor who is abundant and familiar to anyone in North America.

Somewhere around 500,000 years ago, a group of Canada geese took wing and headed south and west. During their flight they spotted a small chain of islands, one of which was only just born. Here they landed, perhaps to rest, perhaps to breed. Whatever the reason, they stayed, and they began that relentless and beautiful procession of evolving to fill a niche in one’s new home.

Because there are hardly any wetlands on the Hawaiian islands, the geese evolved away from living around the edges of marshes and lakes and instead took to the grasslands and shrub-covered hills of the rocky isles, even thriving up on the rugged and rocky sides of volcanoes.

Nene forage everywhere from coastal lowlands to rugged hillsides. Their preferred habitat has an abundance of native plants and grasses. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Nene forage everywhere from coastal lowlands to rugged hillsides. Their preferred habitat has an abundance of native plants and grasses. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Over centuries and millennia, they became smaller and their wings shortened since they had no need to make long migration flights to warmer or cooler climes depending on the season, nor did they have much need to fly to escape land-based predators since none existed on the islands. Meanwhile, their legs lengthened and the webbing of their feet shrank as they swam less and scrambled over lava rock beds more. Perhaps the most notable change is their coloration. Doing away with the all-black neck and hood, the nene evolved a signature buff-colored neck with a black stripe down the back and deep furrows of black within the buff along the sides of the neck.

The unique markings of nene make them easy for anyone to identify in an instant. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The unique markings of nene make them easy for anyone to identify in an instant. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The signature markings of nene include a buff-colored neck with deep furrows revealing black underneath. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The signature markings of nene include a buff-colored neck with deep furrows revealing black underneath. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The nene was not the only goose species to evolve from the Canada goose ancestors. Several other species evolved, though they went extinct quite some time ago. The nene is the only species left to demonstrate what has occurred in the half-million or more years since those ancestors landed on the archipelago. Now, it is the most isolated, and one of the most threatened of all waterbirds.

While the nene evolved on an archipelago that was free of land-based predators, that Eden didn't last. Eventually, humans discovered the islands. Though the people who became native Hawaiians did hunt nene to some extent and introduced predators including dogs and pigs, it is estimated that the nene still numbered around 25,000 on the Big Island alone when Captain Cook landed in 1778. But when the westerners arrived, hunting and egg collection, as well as even more introduced predators including cats and mongoose, all took a devastating toll. Hunting nene was finally banned in 1907, but the damage was done. By the time conservation efforts began in earnest, there were only around 30 nene left in the entire world, all on the island of Hawaii.

The number of nene left in the world dipped to a low of 30 individuals before measures to protect the species were implemented. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The number of nene left in the world dipped to a low of 30 individuals before measures to protect the species were implemented. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The captive breeding program began in 1949 when the last 30 wild nene were captured, representing the only hope of the species’ survival. However, the program focused primarily on breeding and release, and not on habitat restoration and protection. It is difficult to find success with the former if the later is neglected. So, the nene released back into the wild struggled to thrive. After several decades, more research was focused on figuring out how to help the nene become self-sustaining once again.

Looking into issues of habitat degradation, food shortages, predation by non-native mammals, and other factors all helped the captive breeding program identify strategies for success in later years. Since the breeding program began, over 2,800 nene have been released on four islands. Some populations still require supplemental feeding to get through the lean times, but the population of nene on Kaua’i — accidentally released there after Hurricane Iwa in 1982 — have found particular success, thriving in the lush lowlands and on the edges of pastureland where they enjoy plenty of food and far less pressure from predators.

Wild and captive nene are banded to allow easy identification by biologists. This allows researchers to know where the geese originated and track the movement, health and behavior of individuals. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Wild and captive nene are banded to allow easy identification by biologists. This allows researchers to know where the geese originated and track the movement, health and behavior of individuals. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Though more than 60 years have passed since captive breeding programs began, and nene now number around 2,500 total, the nene living wild on the Hawiian islands are still not self-sustaining. New individuals born in the breeding programs still need to be introduced to the wild to keep populations on the rise. However, there is encouraging progress being made in recent years. The nene may have the smallest range of any living goose species, but it is beginning to make use of that range once again. Not only is Kaua’i showing a rapid growth in numbers, but for the first time in 300 years, a pair of wild nene have nested and hatched young on the island of Oahu.

In March of 2014, news broke that a pair of nene set up home at the James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge, and successfully hatched three of their four eggs. The mild-mannered pair were first spotted in January hanging out at the 5th hole at a golf course, wandering up to visitors close enough for their bands to identify them as K59 and K60, which means they are from Kaua'i. By mid-March, they revealed their three goslings. It was expected that when the goslings were big enough to fly, they would likely return to Kaua'i. But they provided high hopes that wild-born nene will return permanently to Oahu, coming back after centuries of extirpation. 

Nene eat a variety of vegetation, including leaves, seeds, fruit, flowers and grasses. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Nene eat a variety of vegetation, including leaves, seeds, fruit, flowers and grasses. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Hawaii has a long history of non-native species displacing native species, and this is true with the grasses and plants that nene have evolved to eat. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Hawaii has a long history of non-native species displacing native species, and this is true with the grasses and plants that nene have evolved to eat. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Food shortages are a primary problems for establishing a toe-hold in historic ranges. Because the Big Island offers habitat primarily up in the high elevations where food is less abundant, nene come down to the lower grasslands to feed and nest, but this makes them more susceptible to predation. Kauai’s nene population is the exception. It is growing the most rapidly and it is likely due in large part to the abundance of grassland and the fact that the island is mongoose-free. Predation on the islands is most serious for goslings who cannot fly until they are several months old, while car-strikes of adults feeding along roadsides is one of the biggest threats to adult nene.

Because the species survival is so tied into the availability of grasses — which is affected by human development as well as the spread of non-native species choking out the native grasses and plants — and predation, conservation efforts still need to revolve around protecting prime habitat, making it safe for nene geese to nest and providing plenty of food for foraging.

Currently, the only wild nene on the archipelago are found on the islands of Hawaii, Maui, Kaua’i and Molokai -- and of course the pair that showed up this year on Oahu. Perhaps, with time and continued dedication, more than the single breeding pair will return to Oahu while numbers of nene thriving in the wild on their other native islands continue to rise. 

One of the biggest threats to adult nene is being hit by cars. Frequent mowing along roads attracts nene as it provides easy foraging, but it makes them more likely to be hit by vehicles. © Jaymi Heimbuch

One of the biggest threats to adult nene is being hit by cars. Frequent mowing along roads attracts nene as it provides easy foraging, but it makes them more likely to be hit by vehicles. © Jaymi Heimbuch


A pair of nene break off and cross the road to forage. I quietly follow them, staying a good distance away but in the direction they are traveling, and sit down in the grass. They wander closer, pulling at the blades of grass left and right and making their low calls to each other. The calls sound like they swallowed a harmonica and are softly sighing through it. They eventually get within about ten feet of me, to a spot where the grass is low and thin. They take turns resting and grazing. One hunkers down and naps while the other keeps watch, nibbling on grass or stretching. Then the one that was resting rises, coos at the other a few times and begins to graze, and the other lowers itself down to the ground for its turn at 40 winks.

Though these nene are well habituated to humans, it still feels like a small honor to be trusted by them enough to have them nodding off next to me, taking long yoga-pose stretches with their back legs and talking softly to each other without a care in the world. We sink into a meditative calm together. A familiar honking sounds in the distance and gets closer, and the two geese cock their heads to look up, watching a flock of five nene fly overhead. The pair vocalize, talking to each other with a little more excitement about whoever just flew by above us. Which of them are related, which are youngsters and which have been here for a decade or more? To think all of them came from some 30 or so individuals captured around a century ago, the last of their kind brought into safety with the hopes that they would once again thrive across the Hawaiian islands. To think, they are on the cusp of returning in earnest, and these geese on Kaua'i show the most promise for the species as a whole -- a species perhaps, just maybe, saved from extinction. In an era with few success stories, the nene offer us a truly special dose of hope.

Their gossiping done, the two geese settle down again, eventually both of them lying down to take an afternoon nap. I replace my lens cap, and leave them to their quiet island paradise.


This pair of nene approached me, then settled into the grass for an afternoon nap. © Jaymi Heimbuch

This pair of nene approached me, then settled into the grass for an afternoon nap. © Jaymi Heimbuch

From 30 individuals back up to more than 2,500, the conservation efforts to bring nene back from the brink of extinction are hopefully reaching a tipping point, where wild nene will once again thrive on the main islands of the Hawaiian archipelago. © Jaymi Heimbuch

From 30 individuals back up to more than 2,500, the conservation efforts to bring nene back from the brink of extinction are hopefully reaching a tipping point, where wild nene will once again thrive on the main islands of the Hawaiian archipelago. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.

What to do when your photo goes viral


jaymi-heimbuch-birthday-dog

I mean that as a question. What to do when your image goes viral... What to do, what to do? I've had to ponder this recently, and I think I have my solution.

It happens sometimes that a photo becomes so widespread that tracking use of it is an exercise in futility and frustration. This photo is my first experience in it. Sure I've had photos used without permission quite a few times in the past. You can't put something online without running that risk. But they are usually one-off instances. This photo, though, has been another thing entirely.

I photographed my dog for an article with recipes for baking a dog birthday cake. We went down to the store and picked out party favors for decoration, and he got to dive in to a couple pup-cakes. I posted the photo along with some others on Instagram and included them in the published article. And off it went.

It ended up being submitted by random people (representing it as their own) to some major animal social media accounts for Facebook and Instagram. It took off like wildfire, being shared all over the place, being uploaded to blogs and websites and people's personal pages. It has ended up everywhere from tech blogs to cute-overload-style sites to a producer working with MTV asking me to use the photo (of course, when I gave him the link to license it, I never heard back). My wife even saw it printed out as a birthday card on a co-worker's desk. When she asked how they got a photo of her dog, they said they just Googled "birthday dog." And yep, sure enough, this photo is at the top of the Google search results.

I have not made a single penny off of this photo. There is a decent chance I will never make an income from it, not with people able to save it or print it for free after finding it in a two-second Google search. I also could never possibly hope to contain all the misuse of this image anymore. But I can stop it when I see it. Or can I?

When I see someone using a photo of mine, I look at whether or not they are using it commercially and if there is credit. If credit is given then I usually write it off. If it is on a non-commercial website, or is not being used for branding or drawing in new users to a site and so on, then I write it off. But if a site is using it without credit and for gain or for branding, then I feel justified in asking for it to be taken down.

Much of the Internet, however, doesn't agree. Most people seem to think that anything on the Internet is theirs to take and use. But it isn't. So often I hear, "Once it's on the Internet, just expect it to be stolen." Well, yeah. To an extent. But it is never okay. Or worse, I hear, "You should watermark it," or, "You should disable right-click-save." Yes, these are mildly helpful deterrents but it puts the blame back on the photographer if their image is stolen, not on the person who took without asking. And none of these perspectives mean a photographer shouldn't stand up for their rights as the creator and owner of a photo when it is taken.

Fitting a request to take down an image in 140 characters on Twitter looks like this: "Hi. Your profile photo is a copyrighted photo that I took. I have not given permission for it to be used. Please remove it." The second warning looks like: "Ur profile pic is my copyrighted pic.Using it violates Twitter's TOS & my rights.Pls remove it so I don't have to report it." Pretty average language requesting someone stop using my photo as their profile photo or background photo (as in, using it for their branding). I could go straight to Twitter or whatever social media site and submit a report of copyright infringement. But it's nicer to ask first before putting someone's account at risk.

Yet that simple request has earned me backlash, especially with followers of one of the people whom I have pinged. Their profile said they were 96-years-old -- and I thought it was a character, an act. Nope, turns out she really is a 96-year-old woman (go figure, some unbelievable Twitter bios are actually true. Makes me wonder about that Bronx Zoo snake...) and with a mini army of followers ready to hate on anyone who isn't perfectly kind to her. And apparently sending a take-down request is beyond the pale. Well, that one was a whole can of worms. Had I researched the account and back-story first, I probably would have put two or three pleases in there rather than just one. But frankly, why would I research every person using my image before sending a calmly worded take-down request? After figuring out she was a real person (and a total sweetheart, hence the angry horde ready to overreact on her behalf) who recently had a scary experience thanks to social media, I told her she can go ahead and use my image for free.

Anyway, age aside, it's the same story: If the site or account responds (and often I am completely ignored), they typically take it down while saying they didn't realize it shouldn't be used.

I just don't get this. It seems so simple. Is it yours? Do you know whose it is? Did they say you could use it? Just like with every other thing in this world, if the answer is "No" to these questions, then you probably shouldn't use it. Sharing is one thing; linking to a source and sharing a photo, video or article via social media is of course desired. You're sharing the source of the photo and providing credit that way. I'm not knocking that. But uploading an image and using it for anything, from a birthday card to a profile photo, without permission is another thing entirely. Then it's not hard to stop and ask those three questions, to consider that someone spent time and energy creating that image and perhaps their income relies on sales of their work. If you can't find who created the image, it still isn't yours to use as you wish.

But too many people don't stop and think about this. So what happens when your photo goes viral? For me, in this case, the answer I've landed on is: donate it.

See, it's not just my photograph but also my dog. My fur-kid. It's jolting to see his face somewhere I didn't authorize it to be, especially a profile photo. The sheer number of times this photo has been taken without permission, without credit, has sapped the joy out of it for me. What do you do when you don't want something taken from you? You give it away.

So, I'm donating this photo to nonprofits who want to use this image for fundraising. If you are with an organization, from animal welfare groups to health awareness organizations to child welfare and anything in between, please contact me with a link to your nonprofit's website, a description of the work you do and how you would like to use the photo. I will donate a high-quality print-ready file to your organization. I will also provide design work if you want your logo or message on the image. You can use it for anything from marketing material to cards to calendars to key chains.

For the most part, I can't control where or how people use the images that have gone up already. But I can at least improve the quality of the photo when it is used. Perhaps that will bring back some of the joy I had in making and looking at this photograph.

So, if you're wanting to use this photo in a real way to do some good in the world, then please get a hold of me so I can get you set up with a free high-quality file.

And if you're a for-profit business or website who wants to use (or has used) this photo on your site, or if you're someone who wants prints or a license for personal use, please throw us a bone and license the image from here or email me to order prints. It's not only the right thing to do but also we'd literally be able to buy more bones. This little guy loves them.

jaymi-heimbuch-birthday-dog
jaymi-heimbuch-birthday-dog
Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.

A study of jellyfish in black and white


jaymi-heimbuch-jellyfish

There is something deeply meditative about watching the jellyfish tank at an aquarium. I have two favorites: Monterey Bay Aquarium (at which the jellyfish exhibit is, understandably, the most photographed exhibit at the aquarium) and the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

I could spend hours in front of these tanks, watching the slow, graceful, swirling motions of the purple-striped jellies and sea nettles, or the comical but determined pulsing flutter of the blubber jellies as they cycle around the tank. It's clear I'm not the only one, too, since the Monterey Bay Aquarium has launched a Jelly Cam, letting people watch sea nettles from 7 am to 6 pm every day. Nice.

Their dance-like movements, especially as they twirl around each other, their tentacles seeming like they should become impossibly knotted but never do, is as fascinating as it is beautiful.

Jellies are amazing creatures and their ever-changing shape is a joy to photograph.

Though the exhibits have striking blue backgrounds that set off the pinks, golds, reds and other vibrant colors of the jellies, I like best to focus on their shape, on the movement they convey even in a frozen image. So, I most enjoy processing images in black and white. Black and white is perfect for pulling away the distraction of color and zeroing in on the meditative, contemplative mood that watching jellies brings me.

Calling to my mind both a dream-like surrealism and a reminiscing of our primordial beginnings, jellies will always fascinate me.

Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.

Modeling Ruffwear gear above a San Francisco sunrise


My heeler's heart is as light as the sun when we're on the trail together having fun. ©Jaymi Heimbuch

My heeler's heart is as light as the sun when we're on the trail together having fun. ©Jaymi Heimbuch


While I was writing an article about how to train your dog to wear a backpack, Ruffwear sent me a fantastic pack test out with my dog, Niner. The company makes great gear that is well-designed and durably constructed, and we were thrilled to get a new pack to put through its paces. So, we woke up one workday morning, waited impatiently for first light, then booked it out the door and up to a little preserve near our apartment, which gives a gorgeous view of the bay and San Francisco at sunrise.

It is a bit of a hike to get to the top of Corona Heights, but the view is well worth it. © Jaymi Heimbuch

It is a bit of a hike to get to the top of Corona Heights, but the view is well worth it. © Jaymi Heimbuch

One of the greatest parts about this tiny preserve, apart from the view, is the rocky outcrops. They afford the opportunity to get some exercise and balancing practice while scrambling around on them, as well as that "I'm the king of the mountain" feeling that come with standing atop them and getting a 360-degree view of the city.

We love to watch the sun as it rises up over the east side of the bay, and washes the water and city of San Francisco in pink and gold light. © Jaymi Heimbuch

We love to watch the sun as it rises up over the east side of the bay, and washes the water and city of San Francisco in pink and gold light. © Jaymi Heimbuch

After pausing to take in the extraordinary sunrise -- well, Niner enjoyed the view while I enjoyed shooting in the pick and purple light -- we got down to work and focused on why we were there in the first place: showing off the goods.

We got down to work, first making sure Niner's Ruffwear pack fit properly © Jaymi Heimbuch

We got down to work, first making sure Niner's Ruffwear pack fit properly © Jaymi Heimbuch

We love that the Ruffwear pack comes with collapsible water bladders so we never have to worry about how to bring along water. © Jaymi Heimbuch

We love that the Ruffwear pack comes with collapsible water bladders so we never have to worry about how to bring along water. © Jaymi Heimbuch

We also love that this model is removable from the harness. Easier to put it on and take it off during breaks. © Jaymi Heimbuch

We also love that this model is removable from the harness. Easier to put it on and take it off during breaks. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Scrambling around on the rocks to figure out new shots is always a bonus. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Scrambling around on the rocks to figure out new shots is always a bonus. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Just when we thought the light couldn't get prettier, pink gave way to brilliant gold and orange. Sunrises often pack a colorful surprise. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Just when we thought the light couldn't get prettier, pink gave way to brilliant gold and orange. Sunrises often pack a colorful surprise. © Jaymi Heimbuch

When we had enough shots for the article, we started a game of chase up and down the rocks. There's always time for a game of the zoomies. © Jaymi Heimbuch

When we had enough shots for the article, we started a game of chase up and down the rocks. There's always time for a game of the zoomies. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Something that has evolved from this partnership of a dog-centric photographer and a really smart heeler is that Niner has learned how to be an ideal model. He's learned how to strike a pose, hold a pose, take commands from a distance so I can get him in a good position for a shot up on a hill or even in a tree, and he looks right at the camera when he hears "focus."

We've worked together on tricks specifically for modeling, such as targeting, bowing, and holding or balancing objects. When he knows he's earning treats, he has extraordinary patience with staying in one spot until released. And he certainly earns plenty of great treats. How could he not? I mean, look at that face:

Over the years, Niner has learned just how to model, looking right at the camera and holding a pose. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Over the years, Niner has learned just how to model, looking right at the camera and holding a pose. © Jaymi Heimbuch

It has helped to teach my dog to take directions at a distance, so I can compose a shot with him a ways away. © Jaymi Heimbuch

It has helped to teach my dog to take directions at a distance, so I can compose a shot with him a ways away. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A great recall has two benefits: getting my dog back at my side, and getting a shot of him with that joyful face. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A great recall has two benefits: getting my dog back at my side, and getting a shot of him with that joyful face. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Watching the sun rise, scrambling over rocks, sprinting through puddles, and climbing in trees -- there's not many better ways to start a day. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Watching the sun rise, scrambling over rocks, sprinting through puddles, and climbing in trees -- there's not many better ways to start a day. © Jaymi Heimbuch

I think that photography has in some ways helped increase our bond. He loves to work, I love to photograph him, and we both love being out on a trail together, starting out the day with a hike just us together. Whether it's a tiny trail in the middle of the city or driving out of the city at 5 AM to get to the hills on the other side of the bay for sunrise, it is time that we spend deeply aware of the other's presence. Photography adds in that extra element of paying attention to each other. I'm constantly inspired by him to create new images, which leads to even more time logged on trails and walking paths, which leads to even more quality time together.

He has taught me a lot about patience, creativity, sensitivity to a dog's mood, and how to roll with whatever happens because you never know what will lead to a beautiful shot you didn't plan for. I cherish these opportunities with him, whether work-related or not. Three cheers for sunrises in nature with your four-legged best friend!

I get so much joy from seeing a happy smile on my dog's face. © Jaymi Heimbuch

I get so much joy from seeing a happy smile on my dog's face. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.