David Liittschwager: Tide Pool Portraits
If it seems a long way from Madison Avenue to the Honolulu tide pools, Liittschwager — a National Geographic contributing photographer who won the 2008 World Press Photo Award Winner for nature stories for his article on Marine Microfauna — the path, he says, is straighter than it might seem.
Liittschwager turned from advertising to nature photography after taking an assignment to help photograph endangered species for the California Nature Conservancy in 1986. “The agenda was conservation and education, but to me it was quite like advertising—in the good sense, if one wants to draw those distinctions”, he says. “It was very interesting to sit with experts and then try to show and communicate about creatures that people didn't know very much about”.
For the last year Liittschwager has used iWeb to help identify creatures he shot but didn’t recognise by making protected sites of his images available to many scientist colleagues all over the world. There they can comment until they reach a consensus on the identity of the exotic species.
“I use Aperture a lot because I rarely actually know the full species name of the creature in the field”, he says. “That has to be confirmed by an expert. Every group of pictures gets its own little web page to confirm the species ID. And because I use a MobileMe account that's password protected, only the people I want to see it can”.
After Aperture names and organises his shots according to his presets, Liittschwager adjusts the images depending on the requirements of his client. For National Geographic, which does not allow retouching, he can only make colour and contrast adjustments in Aperture, or fix exposures.
“It is not appropriate to turn things green that aren't”, he says. “Basic colour correction is used only in order to overcome the shortcomings of the photographic process and make things appear as they do in reality”.
What is always allowed, and always necessary, is sensor dust removal. “I use a 1DS Mark II that is supposed to be a pretty well sealed machine”, says Liittschwager. “I have taken the camera into the field and worked with it for a week without removing the lens, and yet there's stuff on the sensor after a week that wasn't there at the beginning. I don't know how it got there but it must be gotten rid of, and Aperture's retouch tool is very good”.
Although his parameters for adjustments are strict, Liittschwager adjusts within them as necessary to properly make his pictures of subjects that can be as canny as they are shy. “For creatures whose principal form of camouflage is to be invisible, in certain parts of the contrast range you have to exaggerate”, he says. “Like in the highlights, I need a little more contrast there, so I use those adjustments to achieve that. As I’m shooting I’m just making sure that the image is close enough, because I know what Aperture’s tools can do”.
At the tide pools, Liittschwager shot “a few thousand” images of about a hundred representative creatures. “We only had four days”, he says. “So we were not going to deliver an encyclopedic record. You could spend a month every day at those tide pools, and you wouldn’t finish”.
After adjusting his images, Liittschwager made a MobileMe Gallery of all the images and another of just his 80 selects, which he colour balanced and corrected for exposure and contrast within Aperture. Of those, the magazine eventually selected about 15 to use in the article.
“I use all of Aperture’s metadata tools so that the editors can see all the information they need when it travels with the RAW files”, he says. “So from the first time they receive the material it has all of my information already in it. The name of the species, how big it was, the magnification, the location, the contact information for the scientist that helped confirm the ID of that particular species”.
Liittschwager also sets Aperture to automatically generate low-res versions of the photos that are also embedded with metadata. “I can take a picture and also have Aperture generate a medium/low resolution preview version of it that's the colour and contrast that I intend. The metadata and those little preview-size images are what gets used for editing”.
Although Liittschwager seems to have been everywhere in the world and photographed everything, he says his subject wish list is still quite long and no less challenging.
“I'd very much like to take a formal portrait of a dismal swamp shrew, standing up, regarding the camera in a very formal, straightforward way”, he says. “Because the shrew is hyper, with a completely cranked metabolism, it would have to be photographed without touching it. It's going to have to walk into the "studio" on its own, because if you get a shrew in your hand, it’s going to expire from fright. That, to me, is an interesting subject”.
How he will get that photo, he hasn’t a clue. “I thought years ago that maybe I'd have this bag of tricks that had five or ten items in it”, he says. “And I thought that'd pretty much take care of it. But it doesn't, you know, because the thing is, it's always different”.