App Review: Field Guide, Tips For Photographing The American Wilderness

Noted national park photographer Ian Shive has come out with an iPad app for photographing the outdoors that offers more than you might think.

Buying the best camera gear on the market will not turn you into the best photographer on the planet. It will move you in that direction, but if you don't alter your thinking when framing pictures, you'll remain lost in the void.

That, in short, is the essence of the message noted national parks photographer Ian Shive shares in his first app for the iPad, Field Guide: Tips for Photographing the American Wilderness ($3.99).

"For a nature photographer, story is equally important but often overlooked, a fact that makes many images lackluster," says Mr. Shive. "I often hear a lot of photographers who share their work with me say, 'I've done everything right, the depth of field is perfect, focus is sharp and exposure is right on...why doesn't this photo work?'

"The reason often is that the photo does not tell us a story. It does not engage the viewers' imagination or give the viewer new information or a new perspective about the subject matter. Simply getting your photos 'right,' technically, is not enough. You need more, you must dig deeper."

That's both a simple, and a highly complex, answer to give someone with a camera in hand. The answers, both written and displayed in his images, are laid out by Mr. Shive in this app. And to show that he's as human as the rest of us, he recalls some of his early days as a professional photographer struggling to tell stories with his images.

In short, he learned to look at his subject(s) from many different angles before pushing the shutter release on his camera. Again, that might seem to be a simplistic answer. He fleshes it out, though, in explaining how he handled his first assignment from a big league magazine, one that involved photographing wildflowers in Northern California.

"...I shot flowers growing along the side of a road (and even in the middle of it.) I shot flowers along and under trees. I photographed the animals that ate flowers and the insects that lived on their petals. I joined a couple botanists who were studying the landscape's recovery from the previous season's wildfires and lo, wildflowers were blooming everywhere. I climbed high and crawled low. I shot flowers as though another flower-friend in the patch had made the photo. In the end, the story was a success and I had my first images published in the magazine.

"The story was subtle, but it was there: Wildflowers persevere, even in the most unlikely places, and this is a banner year."

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That story, explains Mr. Shive, played out in a series of photos. But how do you tell a story with just one image?

"In nature photography, it's OK to ask questions we may not know the answers to. That is the beauty of photographing the wild parts of our world -- it is meant to be an exploration of what we don't understand, but seem to feel so familiar."

That is just a snippet of the explanations of how best to capture outdoor photography that are woven through this app, which, by the way, will continue to grow as Mr. Shive updates it with additional chapters pulled from his experiences in the field.

Of course, as the saying goes, a picture speaks 1,000 words. And so to buttress his insights, Mr. Shive displays some of his images to show you how pictures can tell stories.

* There's a shot of a line of climbers arriving at the 9,500-foot camp on Mount McKinley in Denali National Park in a whiteout...the line of climbers, roped together, fades into the whiteout.

* A snow-covered boardwalk at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park leads your eye down through snow-cloaked trees.

* There's a beautiful night-time shot of a sequoia tree, shot from the ground level following the trunk up into the starry sky, the shutter speed just off enough to blur the Milky Way ever so lightly.

* Another shot shows a Yellowstone coyote seemingly in the hunt.

* And, perhaps my favorite, is the shot of a mountain goat on a rocky knob overlooking Hidden Lake in Glacier National Park, with crags rising up around it.

Each image tells a story.

To give you a more technological appreciation of how he accomplishes his images, Mr. Shive presents a series of photos, from El Capitan in Yosemite National Park and the Cholla Cactus Garden in Joshua Tree National Park to underwater seaweed beds at Channel Islands National Park and that goat overlooking Hidden Lake, and lays out the camera settings used to nail the shot, any filters he might have used, and pairs those details with the approach he took to photograph the setting.

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Beyond the field guide, the app contains a photo journal showcasing some of Mr. Shive's images from a trip to India, a Pack Your Bags page that lays out essential gear that he takes into the field with him, and allows you to create a checklist of what you have, and what you need to get; a section on Wilderness Diplomacy in which Mr. Shive views wilderness as perhaps a "common ground" that could be used to "open a dialogue with people to find ways to work together in an effort to find peace," and; a series of photo stories he's compiled through the years, from one revolving around national parks and one on coral bleaching in Micronesia to another on touring Tuscany and one on the things that come to life when vernal pools fill.

Now, unless you have a 3G iPad and a signal, you won't be able to open the Field Guide section of the app in the field. That's because some of the bigger files associated with the guide are stored on a server so your iPad's memory isn't sucked up by the app.

However, you can work around that. For instance, if you're in Joshua Tree and plan to shoot the Cholla Cactus Garden, you can make a screen grab of the page with the camera settings Mr. Shive used at that location. To make that grab, open the page with the settings on it, then push the "home" and "power" button at the same time to grab the page, and the image will be stored in your photo album.

For the price, it's hard to beat this app. The fact that it will continue to grow in the years ahead with new entries is a bonus.