Bob answers a few of the questions he gets asked most often as a photographer:
What is your age and where you are based?
72. I have been making photographs for more than 50 years. My studio and home are on the Rivanna River outside of Charlottesville, Virginia.
How did you first start to photograph seeds and when?
I published a book with Timber Press in 2011 called Seeing Trees. I wanted to learn about the life of trees, so I began studying them closely. I would bring parts of the tree like leaves, flowers, fruit, and seeds into the studio and photograph them on glowing light tables. The images were reminiscent of 18th- and 19th-century botanical paintings.
What initially piqued your interest in seeds?
There are 240,000 flowering trees and plants in the world, all of which have flowers, fruit, and seeds. From studying trees I went on to publish another book called Seeing Flowers. The flowers would attract pollinators and then drop the petals and construct seedpods, usually bearing no resemblance to the flower. I studied the seeds and realized plants all have a plan to produce offspring.
I became very interested in this transformation and created with Timber Press another book called Seeing Seeds.
Can you talk me through your photography technique?
Some seeds are very small, so getting the whole specimen sharp is a challenge. I make a series of photographs, as many as 100, each at a different focus point. I start at the top and move downward to the bottom. It works sort of like a MRI. I then take all of the images and load into software (like Zerene Stacker or Helicon) and they get stitched together, using the sharp parts into one image that is infinitely sharp.
Roughly how many kinds of seeds have you photographed to date?
I have over 1,000 seed images. We selected from those to create the book.
How do you source your seed and decide on what kinds to photograph?
Most of the seeds I collected myself. I really like having a project where you collect things. It changes how you see the planet. I still see seeds everywhere. Most seeds are hiding in plain sight. Many we eat. Some came from Whole Foods. Many gardeners knew about my project and would give me specimens.
What are your plans with this series and style of photography going forward?
After my close up look at the life of plants, my publisher, Timber Press, teamed me up with Joan Maloof, a scientist and biology professor, to create a book called The Living Forest, which was just released in October 2017. So I spent two years looking and photographing all of the plant and animal life in the forest. I saw how interdependent everything was, and went deeper into how seeds play a role in the forest for the plants and the animals and did more of the close seed work.
I photographed the seeds from a new point of view. Every plant and animal in the forest has a plan to create offspring. Often the plans depend on each other. Humans have a plan also — marriage leading to offspring.
So, after that book I decided to go even larger and look at the whole planet we live on and the rise of humans. I am currently calling it the Orb Project, since we live on one floating in vast space spinning 17,000 miles an hour. For a very long time I have been collecting things that support the project, including spheres, circuit boards, bones, seeds and other plant life. I also have fossils, early human artifacts and metal machine age parts.
I assemble many objects into single “landscapes” and photographing them, each with a symbolic view of life on Earth and Humans on Earth. Seeds play a pivotal role in life on Earth. Dinosaurs were cold blooded and ate gymnosperm plants — low energy conifers.
Out of that evolved the angiosperm plants. Angiosperm means “encased seed”. Inside the case is starch and protein, which gave rise to warm blooded mammals including Humans. Humans depend on seeds for life.
What time of day is best for photographing outdoors?
I don’t think there is a best time. You can make a photograph no matter the time of day or the weather. Some say you cannot make good photographs at noon on a clear day. Well actually if you look straight up you can find, say, an awesome backlit forest canopy. Some photographers only go out in first light or last light. So you get maybe fog and red skies.
I like to go out in what people call “bad” weather. Rain, snow, freezing rain, fog, wind, clouds. Whatever. Play the conditions as they say in sports. The landscape changes with the weather and seasons. The Norwegians say “there is no bad weather, only bad clothes.”
What kinds of tips and tricks can protect my expensive camera from the elements?
I use an umbrella. I have many. All different sizes. I can put them on a stand or over my shoulder or down my coat in the back so my hands are free. I almost always use a tripod.
Because of wind, don’t tie the umbrella to a tripod. I also bring lots of towels. A clear dry cleaning bag can be useful. I know they make cases to go on cameras and lenses that are waterproof. I change lenses so often they are not good for me. They are good if you shoot wildlife and you are sitting in rain all day with a long telephoto lens, waiting for wildlife to appear.
How do I capture photographs of wildlife?
Sit in the rain all day and wait for wildlife to appear. Actually except for puppy dogs and kitty cats, although I am not sure about all the cats, animals do not like humans and will run away or bite you.
Real wildlife photography is an enormous skill that I greatly admire. It usually requires thousands of dollars in big telephoto lenses. Remember, they don’t like you, so you need to be far away.
You may have to wait days to get the image you want. You may wait days and get nothing. I have done some images of animals in captivity. I do not harm them. Try getting really close to a woods mouse. Having said all that, go into the wild and see what happens. What finds you.
And be ready. You may only have a moment.
Are there photo composition strategies that are especially good for landscapes?
I have heard there are rules of composition. My personality does not resonate with rules. Go out and see what calls out to you. It will wave, “over here, do me”
The test is would it hurt if you left it? Then explore it with your camera, with no idea what the image will look like. Make lots of images. You learn from each one. And you grow. The one you will like the most is the one you could not have possibly imagined.
Be wild. Be bold.
Do the “elseness exercise”. What else is it? What else is it? What else is it? Lie on your back. Crawl on you belly, etc. A photograph has a frame with things inside and outside. Make sure there is nothing inside you do not want. Things at the edge create tension. Things in the middle create calm.
As Ansel Adams said, “there are no rules, just good photographs.”
What should I take with me for a day of shooting in nature?
A camera. Actually, any will do. You can make great photographs with your telephone. The iPhone has a great camera for the size of the sensor. In fact, the small sensor gives you amazing depth of field.
Depending on where I am going, I bring a wide selection of lenses, from 14mm to 1000mm. I make lots of photographs (remember “elseness”) I shoot most photographs with a good tripod. I have a really heavy one for windy days. I think the tripod is a two-edged sword. It does steady the camera for sharp images.
I even make several frames at different distances and stitch them together in the computer for more sharpness depth.
I handhold the camera to frame what I want and then I move the tripod under it. There is a school of thought that handholding a camera gives you way more freedom to explore and see new things. It is also good if you like backgrounds out of focus. The downside is that your photographs may not be real sharp. Most unsharp images come from camera movement during the exposure. Human error. Oh, that beating heart.
Actually, there is one animal in the forest that really likes humans. Ticks. They will bite you. Very, very dangerous wildlife. Wear repellent. Put it on everything, even clothes. I have a small blanket treated with permethrin that I use when I want to be on the ground.
Lastly bring more batteries, water, food, towels, and clothes than you think you will need. Bring a phone for emergencies.
How do I make my images stand out from everyone else’s?
Do not make any photographs that look like everyone else’s. If it looks familiar it is not new. You want to make “new”.
“Wow” is the word that humans utter when they have seen something new. Go for “wow”.
Anything else you wish to add?
I think photography is an awesome way to explore Earth. You need to decide what you want to put in the frame and what to leave out. This changes how you see everything — a new window to the world.
For my photography there are no bad subjects, no bad light, no bad weather (but maybe bad clothes). There is always a way to make it work.
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