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Death Valley
Photographer's Guide


 
 
What kind of camera?

Every photographer has had the experience. A new acquaintance sees your work and says, "Wow, these are great photos ..." You feel your self-esteem rising, a deep sense of satisfaction and pride, knowing someone appreciates your creativity, your originality, your technical expertise, your sense of color, design, and composition, all the intangibles that make up what photographers call your "eye." And then you hear the rest of the sentence: "... what kind of camera do you have?"

You wish you had a clever answer; maybe you think of the old (and probably apocryphal) story about Jack London and Arnold Genthe ...

When London arrived at Genthe's San Francisco studio for his now-classic portrait, the great writer was full of praise for his friend the artist. "You must have a wonderful camera ... It must be the best camera in the world ... You must show me your camera ..." After the work was done, Genthe returned the compliment: "I have read your books, Jack, and I think they are important works of art. You must have a wonderful typewriter."

But, since you asked, I'll tell you a little about the equipment anyway.

I started using Nikon 35mm cameras and lenses in the mid-seventies; in 2005 I made the transition to digital, and now use Nikon DSLRs. (If you want to argue about which is better, Nikon or Canon, you’ll have to argue without me; they’re both excellent. I stay out of the Mac vs Windows vs Linux debate as well.)

The lens I use most is a 105mm macro; also in my camera bag are a variety of zooms and fixed focal length lenses ranging from 10.5mm to 400mm.

I always carry a couple of collapsible reflectors (I like Photoflex Litediscs) for filling in shadows and reducing excessive contrast. When I need more light, I use a Nikon Speedlight (in the field) or Norman strobes (in the studio) in a variety of softboxes and umbrellas.

The most important factor in wildlife photography, though, isn't the equipment — it's how well you know your subject's behavior. No matter how good your equipment, you still need to know where to find the animals and how to approach them. And I can't even begin to explain that; I've been chasing after lizards all my life and I'm still trying to figure it out.



So how did you shoot that?
Mojave fringe-toed lizard, Uma scoparia. One of my favorites from an especially productive Death Valley trip, this is a good example of what I try to do in my photography — it shows the lizard in its natural habitat, but it's much more than a simple mug shot in a field guide. The late afternoon light, minutes before sunset, gives the dunes a warm glow and brings out the texture of the sand.
Desert iguana, Dipsosaurus dorsalis, climbing a creosote bush to eat the tender new leaves. Another favorite from the same trip. Adult desert iguanas are nearly impossible to approach when they're feeding, but this little guy let me shoot a couple of rolls as long as I moved slowly and pretended not to be too interested.
Gray rat snake, Elaphe obsoleta spiloides, drinking water. This is a studio shot; I arranged the set so the snake was boxed in behind the log, and let it decide for itself when to come out. When it started to move there was only one place it could go — over the top of the log toward the camera, where it would find a pool of water.
Mojave patch-nosed snake, Salvadora hexalepis mojavensis, Joshua Tree National Park. This shot, unlike the one above, is completely "natural." The snake and I spent about an hour staring at each other while I did my best to look like a rock.
Desert tortoise, Gopherus agassizii. If you approach a tortoise too closely, it will pull its head and legs into its shell; when that happens, the only thing to do is back away and leave it alone. But if you approach it slowly and patiently, you can get closer without disturbing the animal. For this shot, I used a small piece of aluminum foil as a reflector to light the face and add a catchlight to the eye.
Desert spiny lizard, Sceloporus magister, Joshua Tree National Park. The light can be pretty harsh in the desert at mid-day, and that's when many lizards are active. Framing the shot with vegetation creates a much softer feel.
Corn snakes, Elaphe guttata guttata, hatching from eggs. The baby snake will sit like this, peeking out of the egg, for 24 to 48 hours — and then usually decide to make a run for it when the photographer is eating dinner. These are studio shots, lit with one flash in a small softbox.
Desert night lizard, Xantusia vigilis, Joshua Tree National Park. These guys are really small — this one's an adult — but it's hard to know that from a simple close-up of a lizard on a branch. The quarter makes it instantly clear just how small the critter is.
Sacred datura or jimson weed, Datura wrightii, blooming at sunset, Mojave Desert. Daturas bloom after the sun goes down, and are pollinated by sphinx moths. For the sunset shot, I used a flash with a small softbox, metered on the sky near the sun, and bracketed like hell. For the series below, shot on assignment for Pacific Discovery magazine (now called California Wild), I used a flash in a 24" umbrella and took one shot every two minutes. This series is one of my best sellers.
Yosemite toad, Bufo canorus. Currently listed by the state of California as a Species of Special Concern, it probably belongs on the endangered list because of its limited range and threatened habitat — a handful of pristine, high Sierra meadows. The exact location of this one is a secret.
Tadpoles of California red-legged frog, Rana aurora draytonii, a federally listed Threatened Species. Tadpoles will cluster together like this for a few days after hatching; once they get a little bigger they'll disperse. Shot from directly above, looking down at the water, with a flash held low at the side.
Black widow spider, Lactrodectus mactans. Another popular photo, shot in the studio with a flash and a couple of reflectors. I used direct lighting — no softbox or other diffuser — to emphasize the shiny surface of the spider's exoskeleton.
Daddy long-legs or harvestman, Phalangida sp. Shot in the back yard, with a hand-held flash directly to the left to show the veins of the leaf and highlight the extended foreleg against the dark background.
Pacific chorus frog, Hyla regilla. The adult at left and the transforming not-quite-a-frog below were shot in the studio, with a photo of authentic frog habitat as the background. The eggs and tadpoles were shot in an aquarium. Photos from this series have appeared in several textbooks and field guides.



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Dan Suzio Photography
P.O. Box 5803
Berkeley, CA 94705
510-548-8157
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