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Rod Planck Nature Photography Class

April 20, 1997, Columbus, OH

reviewed by Glen E. Johnson for photo.net


Rod Planck did the photography for the book entitled Nature's Places. He is a dedicated nature photographer, and makes his living from his work in this field. In addition to his photographic work, he also serves as a guide. His passion is natural history, and photography is his way of sharing his love for the natural world with others. Rod lives with his wife, Marlene, in Paradise, Michigan, in the upper peninsula. In addition to one day workshops which travel from one location to another, he also offers field workshops in such locations as the Hiawatha National Forest (in Michigan), Badlands National Park (in South Dakota), and Capitol Reef National Park-Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (in Utah). He also has numerous tours to Antarctica under his belt, and travels there yearly. Rod can be contacted at (906)492-3444.

The workshop in Columbus was in the usual slide show format, but Rod made more effort to present specific slides to show the effect of various differences in methods and techniques than I've seen in other workshops. For example, he spent more than an hour teaching how to expose slide film with average and spot type meters. Many of the illustrations that he used were specifically designed to make exposure concepts clear to novice photographers. His techniques identically match the methods that Philip, Bob Atkins, and I have outlined in the Q&A forum here on Photo.net. People who are having trouble with transparency exposure would benefit from Rod's workshop. As is often the case, Rod is another photographer who does not promote the idea of bracketing. In fact, he repeated the admonition from both Maria Zorn and Sam Abell, that with live subjects, if you bracket, the frame that has the best composition and subject expression is likely to turn out to be incorrectly exposed. You really aren't in control of your medium until you can leave the crutch of bracketing behind.

Rod spent quite a bit of time discussing equipment. There were no surprises. He uses Nikon, Canon, Bogen, Gitzo, Kirk, Kaiser, and other brands of equipment that are often recommended on Photo.net. He says that there is absolutely no advantage to using light tripods or ballheads, and he recommends that you select heavy gear for its superior ability to reduce vibration levels. He suggested that your tripod should be the largest size that your spouse can carry :-).

At one time he had extensive collections of lenses for both EOS and Nikon. Because Canon did not have a long focal length macro lens (until recently), and because this lens is his primary lens for close-up and macro photography, he ended up selling most of his EOS gear a few years ago. He did keep his tilt shift lenses and a body to use them with, but aside from the tilt shift lenses, the rest of his lenses were Nikkors. Since Rod had spent so much time on issues related to exposure, I asked him after the seminar if the F5's color sensitive CCD cell was smart enough to meter things like snow correctly. He said that in two weeks use earlier this year, he had found that the CCD color sensitive meter was smart enough to recognize that snow needed more exposure, but not smart enough to provide enough exposure to make it white instead of gray. In other words, if you use the CCD color sensitive meter, you will have to develop new compensation strategies compared to those that you already know for spot metering or center weighted metering. He also commented that he intends to buy an F5 soon, and will probably continue to use center weighted and spot metering. He will probably sell his F4 and buy two F5s, since "working with the F5 is more like working with an EOS 1N than like working with an F4." He said it was hard to go back and forth between the F4 and F5, and that another famous nature photographer whose name has been mentioned from time to time on photo.net had also indicated that he was going to have to sell his F4s and replace them with F5s because of this mismatch. He said that this is the first Nikon camera that didn't feel like a Nikon to him.

They gave out a lot of door prizes during the day, including several $50 gift certificates from Kirk, large reflectors and diffusers, books, clothing, camera bags, and other useful items. Probably 25% of the attendees won some kind of door prize. Everyone received a free postage paid mailer good for processing one roll of E-6 compatible film at Corporate Color in Grand Rapids, MI. Rod highly recommended them, and had several prints on display that had been made from transparencies by Corporate Color using a 4x5 internegative process. The prints were as good as any that I have seen that have come from transparencies.

Rod's primary film is Velvia, although he also uses the new Kodak E100 films, as well as several other films depending on what the situation calls for. As for filtration, he is a minimalist. He sometimes uses the 81B and the B+W KR3 (warming filter with some magenta to subtract green). He also occasionally uses a polarizer to get more saturated colors. Interestingly, while many people recommend the use of the warming filters to warm up cool tones, he does not recommend them for this purpose. He recommends using warming filters (81B or KR3) on subjects that are already warm tones. He is of the opinion that cool tones should be photographed to maintain their cool character.

Rod does not work with captive or tame subjects. All of his subjects are photographed in their natural habitats. He had the most beautiful fishing brown bear photographs that I have ever seen, and his Antarctic bird photographs were also of exceptional quality, rivaling the best that I have seen published in magazines.

Rod is a very good teacher. Each participant gets a 28 page set of notes so that they can pay attention to the slides and the lecture, instead of writing things down during the seminar. He brings his own equipment, including the projection screen, so that the show runs pretty smoothly. Several sponsors participate in the seminar, but only on the periphery. Aside from the acknowledgement of the sponsors of the various door prizes, the seminar was pretty much free of commercials. A representative from M&M (a NY mail order house that Rod recommends) stayed the whole day, showed equipment, and answered questions during breaks. Rod's wife also sold accessories and books during the breaks.

Rod encourages people to tape record the voice portion of the program if they wish. Camcorders are not allowed. The parts of the program that deal with exposure and equipment would be of greatest interest to beginning or intermediate photographers. The parts that deal with composition would be of interest to photographers at all levels.

A sample of some of the useful information contained in the seminar notes is the hyperfocal distance table presented below.

Hyperfocal Distance in Feet

lens\aperture

f/8

f/11

f/16

f/22

f/32

20mm

7

5

3.5

2.5

1.7

24mm

10

7

5

3.5

2.5

28mm

13

10

7

5

4

35mm

20

15

10

8

5

50mm

42

30

21

15

10

If the lens is focused to the hyperfocal distance, the field of "acceptably sharp focus" is from one half of the hyperfocal distance to infinity.

 

Some other teasers that I will pass along from the workshop are listed below.

  • Find a subject, pick a lens, place the camera. Any other order for these activities makes no sense. Find the spot to place the camera by exploring with the camera in your hand. When you have the right camera placement, then get out the tripod and mount the camera.
  • You can make your own test target for testing lenses by sticking low cost postage stamps in a pattern on a sheet of white card stock. Postage stamps have fine detail, and will show off the sharpness characteristics of your lenses. Rod recommends the use of an 8x or higher power loupe for evaluation of the sharpness of slides. He uses the Schneider 8x loupe and a color corrected light table to evaluate his own work.
  • Did you know that Kirk makes L shaped brackets (BL-1 for cameras with battery packs and BL-2 for cameras without battery packs - either for $110) that allow you to swap to vertical format with lenses that do not have tripod collars while maintaining the weight of the package over the center of your ballhead? This is a neat accessory, and Rod says that it definitely helps maintain stability for vertical format shots when the body has to be mounted on the tripod head instead of the lens.
  • A step ladder is a great photo accessory for landscape photography. If you can locate your camera at a higher position, you can achieve less standard, more interesting views. If you are going to do this, you have to have a tripod that will go tall enough to support your camera at the higher vantage point.
  • Tele-converters are better for making close subjects larger on the film plane than they are for making distant subjects larger on the film plane. Tele-converters, extension tubes, and close-up lenses can be combined to make even larger close-up and macro images. Among the various close-up lenses, Rod recommends the double element lenses made by Canon (250D in 52mm and 58mm and 500D in 52mm, 58mm, 72mm, and 77mm) and Nikon (3T, 4T, 5T, and 6T). In the Canon system, the 250D is optimized for best performance with lenses that are shorter than 100mm, and the 500D is optimized for best performance with lenses that are longer than 100mm.
  • If you are going to buy extension tubes, shorter ones are the most useful. Extension tubes longer than about 30mm aren't really very useful. You may want to buy several shorter tubes and stack them when you need a longer extension. Within the EOS system, two EF-12 tubes would be cheaper than an EF-12 and an EF-25, and would be equally useful.
  • If you can't afford to buy a 400mm telephoto from your camera manufacturer, Rod believes that the Sigma 400mm f/5.6 is an acceptable option. He also recommended the manufacturer's 300 f/4.0 coupled with a 1.4X tele-converter. He said that he used this combination as his long lens combination for many years before he could afford to buy his 500mm Nikkor.
  • If you are going to use tele-converters, Rod recommends that you maintain at least an f/8 capability in bright lighting situations, and at least an f/5.6 capability in low light situations. In other words, if you have a 300 f/4.0 and you stick a 2X tele-converter on it, don't expect to use it in low light. If you have f/5.6 lens and you stick a 2X tele-converter on it, don't expect it to be acceptable in any lighting situations.
  • Rod offered two sets of key words on composition. The first set was of general value: "compose to obtain simplicity, balance, and harmony." The second set was of special interest in tele-photo compositions: "compose to isolate, simplify, and define." Both of these sets of key words were clearly illustrated via numerous example slides. Rod made excellent use of "before the advice" and "after the advice" images to illustrate his points throughout the workshop.

I thought the workshop was worthwhile. Rod is a personable guy, and quite well disciplined. He has some beautiful slides, and the fact that none of them are "staged" is impressive. He stayed in the room from before the 9:00 AM start time, until nearly 7:00 PM, with only a very short break for his own lunch. He answered every question, and interacted with all comers. Even though the formal program was over by 6:00 PM, he stayed until the curiosity of the last attendee was sated. I would recommend the one day workshop, particularly for novice and intermediate photographers, and for persons who just want to spend a day looking at some of the nicest nature slides that can be seen anywhere.


Copyright 1997 Glen E. Johnson
gjohnson@engr.udayton.edu

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Walt Schumacher , May 18, 2001; 04:58 P.M.

Just wanted to add: my wife and I just attended the Rod Plank workshop in Detroit, and it is (still) all that the others have mentioned, and more. He has really inspired us to "turn up the quality" in our photography, and it is really paying off. We were reluctant to break out the tripods at first, but we have found them to be an invaluable tool. Thanks, Rod, for sharing your inspiration for nature, and excellent photography.


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