PPD Master Series: David Akoubian's Natural High

By Jeff Wignall   Thursday December 8, 2016

Looking at David Akoubian’s work, it’s quite apparent that he has great skill in capturing whatever he sets out to photograph. It’s also pretty obvious that while he photographs many different subjects, his heart and his cameras are most alive in the natural world. “Although I consider myself a photo generalist, my specialty and passion are with nature,” he says. “Landscapes and wildlife are my favorites.”

In fact, Akoubian’s entire life is pretty highly attuned with nature since he and his wife live in an area where they are engulfed by it. “We live in the first set of mountains in the Blue Ridge Mountain range. From our mountain we can see Atlanta 60 miles to the south. We live in bear country as well as with many birds,” he says. “Within a half mile there are five or so waterfalls. It’s the perfect environment for a nature photographer.” Akoubian’s business,Bear Woods Photography  is also named after the area.

While Akoubian has been a photographer for more than 40 years and he has been shooting professionally since 1992, his love of art and nature began much earlier. “My father was an amateur photographer. He spent many hours in the darkroom in our basement and when I showed interest in his passion he embraced it and was happy to share his love and knowledge of the art with me,” says Akoubian. “I started my life in art as a painter, but didn’t have the talent or patience for it,” he says.

Early in his career Akoubian was lucky enough to learn from, and shoot beside, many of the greatest names in nature photography. Some of the best advice he ever got, in fact, came from the legendary wilderness photographer Galen Rowell. “Back in the days of the Great American Photography Weekends, Galen and I had arrived about a week early to shoot and relax. We were driving up the road on Mt. Evans when I spotted a full moon rising over some bristlecone pines,” he recalls. “When I slowed down a little, Galen opened the door, while the vehicle was still moving, rolled on the side of the hill with his camera and tripod toward the scene. I was terrified that I could have been involved in his demise since he was “in my care” at the time. I was very relieved when he popped up and ran down the hill to capture the light. I did mention my near heart failure when I met him after parking the car. He laughed and said, ‘If you have to go, let it be in great light.’ I believe he lives in every great sunset I see to this day.”

Akoubian’s work has been featured in galleries, calendars, magazines and textbooks. His client list includes:  Blue Ridge Country magazine, Nature Photographer magazine, Birder’s World, PNC Bank, Scholastic Books, The Mountain Conservation Trust of Georgia, Vanguard Photo, and Tamron. His work has been used in advertorial pieces as well in Outdoor Photographer, Audubon Magazine, and Shutterbug magazine, an others.  

Akoubian, who is a Tamron Image Master, spends a good part of each year lecturing and leading photography workshops and tours across the United States. I recently talked to Akoubian about his love for nature work, a recent shooting trip to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and his passion for Tamron lenses.

PPD: Your photographs cover the gamut of nature subjects from animals to landscapes to macro. Is there are particular subject that you like shooting more than the others?

DA: I go through moods where I like different subject matter, and it will vary with location as well. I always enjoy all three but find landscapes fulfill the painter side of me that creates grand scenes, while wildlife, especially birds have been a passion of mine since I was very young. Macro has always been something I have used to work on my creativity. I think of macro as a miniature landscape and apply the same rules as I would on a grand scale. Plus with macro the idea of abstracts make me see things completely differently.

PPD: Are you a compulsive shooter, is a lot of your time spent in the field shooting?

DA: I do my best to shoot at the minimum one image per day. In doing so I also process that image to keep my skills sharp. I would venture to say though less than 10% of my time is spent shooting unless I am traveling, then it can be as much as 90%.

PPD: You mentioned the Great American Photography Weekends, what exactly were those and how did you participate?

DA:  The Great American Photography Weekends were the creation of Bill Fortney. He came up with the idea of having a big name speaker for a weekend workshop. On Friday nights the star would lecture, then they would give out a roll of film to each of the participants, usually between 150-200 people. Saturday you shot that roll of film in the morning and early afternoon. You could shoot in the area or with the Pros that were there. You would turn in the film, hear more lectures on Saturday night. On Sunday you would get your slides, pick out up to 2 and enter them into a contest. The Pros would narrow it down and the Star would pick the winners.

I participated in a workshop in Gatlinburg, TN with John Shaw as the star speaker. After the workshop Bill asked me to join them as an instructor/pro. The selling point for me was as we drove from place to place, I picked the people's brains in the car, as well as in the field. I would spend days, weeks and even months with some of them. They were huge influences on my life both professionally and personally.

PPD: You recently returned from teaching a workshop at the Festival of the Cranes at Bosque del Apache. Have you been there often and were you there mainly to shoot or teach or both?

DA: This was my second trip to Bosque del Apache, last year being the first time. This year I taught 6 workshops and classes, roughly 50 hours of teaching, in the 5 days I was there. I tried to spend most every minute I wasn’t teaching out shooting. I was in Birder heaven with all the birds!

PPD:  Can you set the scene a bit and talk about what the refuge is like and perhaps its impact on you emotionally?

DA:  Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is about two hours south of Albuquerque, NM, and covers about 57,000 acres. When you arrive in the dark, you hear long before you see. During our visit, there were roughly 7,500 Sandhill Cranes, 10,000 Snow Geese and 15,000 ducks. You hear the chatter as you approach the ponds, then as light approaches the horizon you see movement. The white Snow Geese and gray Sandhill Cranes waking up, moving like a large flock in the water.

They stay in the water at night for protection and fly off at sunset to the fields to feed. As soon as light is enough to navigate, the Snow Geese lift off in unison, the wing beats are deafening, then the "honks" come. Each and every time I see it I get goose bumps, no pun intended. Then the prehistoric chatter of the cranes start. They lift off in family groups but it is just as spectacular to watch. I will literally find myself having to take a break and catch my breath after it is all finished. Nature at its best.  It is one of, if not the most spectacular single location for the birds I have ever been to in my career.

PPD: One of the topics of your workshop there was photographing birds in flight, correct? What is the toughest thing about shooting birds in flight and have advances in focus tracking made that job easier?

DA: By far, photographing birds in flight is the most challenging type of photography I have ever done. Predicting when a bird will fly, which direction and at what speed is challenging. In most recent years the focusing tracking of cameras and lenses has increased the keeper ratio substantially. AF in continuous focus and in one of the zone selection systems seem to work best for me.

PPD: What sorts of tips can you offer for increasing the percentage of good in-flight shots?

DA: I think of photographing birds very much like a bird hunter looks at his target. I recommend a zone which covers about 15-20 percent of the viewfinder, much like a hunter uses a shotgun. Increase your chances of getting the subject in your frame. I recommend you look "through" the camera, almost over the top when panning with birds. This allows you to get a better rhythm for the movement. The mirror going up and down can almost interrupt the flow so looking over or beyond the lens helps. It is a technique that takes time but once it clicks it makes it easy.

PPD: Among the lenses that you shot with was the new SP 150-600mm Di VC USD G2, correct? What is your overall impression of the lens and what did you particularly like about it?

DA: I shot the G2 exclusively out in Bosque del Apache and was super impressed with it. I found that the focus locking on was incredibly fast and the tracking was fantastic. The edge to edge sharpness was great. I shot roughly 12,000 images and focus was perfect in a very large percentage, the only times it seemed to miss is when the photographer behind the viewfinder, me, wrongly predicted the direction the bird would turn.

PPD: On your blog you talk about using the panning mode of the Vibration Compensation feature of the Tamron SP 150-600mm G2 lens (with the Tamron 1.4x teleconverter). Could you talk a little about that mode and how you used it?

DA: I shot about 75 percent of the time using the panning mode, or mode 2 as it is on the lens, and found this year vs last year my keeper ratio was increased several 100%. Even when panning on a tripod and gimbal head the bird can make subtle flight changes that result in slight rises and drops in its pattern. The Vibration Compensation made for quick adjustments as I kept up with those movements allowing me to have smooth backgrounds when the shutter speeds were slow. I also found that using the 1.4x teleconverter did not affect either the speed or sharpness of the image. Having the teleconverter designed specifically for the lens keeps the quality of the image and speed at the level expected.

PPD: I noticed that you shoot in several formats: full-frame, APS-C, and that you use both SLRS and mirrorless cameras. Do you find yourself leaning toward one particular format?

DA: I joke that I suffer from CCI, or Camera Commitment Issues since I shoot Nikon, Canon, Sony an
d Olympus. I tell people I have seen two different therapists, but one shot Canon and one shot Nikon so I am still in the same spot. I like the convenience and size of mirrorless but I feel it still is lacking in the speed needed to capture wildlife. I like the APS-C bodies for wildlife simply due to the added reach of the crop factor. I rarely use the mirrorless now but like the changes they have made in the industry.

PPD: Care to make a prediction about the future of camera formats?

DA: In 1999 I stood in front of my students and predicted, with conviction, “don’t fall into this digital craze, it is a passing fancy.” I think I have gotten better about predictions since that point in my career. I think DSLRs will be the main format for at least several more years, but I think as newer photographers come into the business, mirrorless will gain some more momentum. Cell phones are so common place now, but those that pursue photography are still springing for traditional cameras whether they are DSLRs or Mirrorless. I also think the Full Frame cameras will still be used especially for landscapes but the advancements in the sensors and how they handle noise are helping APS-C cameras keep a strong grip on the market.

PPD: What Tamron lenses do you use most frequently? Any favorites?

DA: I tend to use four lenses the most. For macro the Tamron SP 90mm is my favorite. My first Tamron lens was a 90mm almost 40 years ago and it sold me on Tamron lenses. For wildlife the Tamron SP 150-600mm G2. For most of my landscapes I prefer the Tamron SP 15-30mm lens. I don’t typically leave my house without a camera and the lens usually has a Tamron 16-300mm lens unless I am shooting something particular.

PPD: Do you have a particular lens that you like to use for macro work?

DA: Definitely the Tamron SP 90mm macro is my favorite. It allows me to shoot 1:1 without any additional accessories like an extension tube or diopters. It is incredibly sharp edge to edge and compact as well.

PPD: Many of your landscapes have very broad views and extensive depth of field. Do you prefer shooting landscapes with wide angle lenses and do have any particular lenses that you rely on for your landscape work?

DA: The Tamron SP 15-30mm F/2.8 VC (full frame) lens is my favorite. Having studied under Galen, John Shaw, and Art Wolfe, the wide-angle landscape has always attracted me. Using an ultra-wide lens allows me to create tension in the image and design an asymmetrical image. The imbalance seems to get the viewer to study the image more and my goal is to keep their attention and interest as they study it.

PPD: I really love your night sky work—is that something you’ve done for a long time?

DA: Thanks for the kind words! I really only started doing night skies in the past few years. The advancement of sensors in recent years has made it possible. Back in the film days only a small handful of folks were doing it. As sensor technology has improved, noise has been reduced and night sky photography has flourished.

PPD: What gear are you using for those shots? (You can talk about whatever gear you’re using, Tamron would be nice lol, but anything. I’d love to know what tripod you are using, etc.)

DA: I shoot almost every image with the Tamron SP 15-30mm. The sharpness of the lens is unmatched. The lens needs to be focused on Infinity and I see people struggle with that in the field. That lens is perfect set to the center of the Infinity mark. A sturdy tripod is essential of course. I use Sirui products. My favorite is the N3204X tripod, then I switch heads when needed. My ball head is the K30X and the Gimbal Head is the PH20.

PPD: What are the typical exposures for night sky shots?

DA:  I have a simple starting formula: Manual Exposure mode, 30 seconds, ISO 3200, manual focus set to infinity and back just a smidgen. I use a cable release, but the self timer can be used as well. I make adjustments to exposure depending on the image that pops up on the LCD. WB is usually somewhere between 3250-4000K depending on the area of the country you are shooting.

PPD: Q: You’ve worked with a lot of other photographers like Galen, John Shaw, and Art Wolfe. Are there specific reasons that you think photographers should value working alongside a very accomplished and talented photographer in a workshop?

DA:  The benefit of doing workshops beyond simply going with someone who knows the place is to see how they "work" a scene. The biggest thing I would do when I was learning was to first look at the scene and sort of get into my mind how I visualized it. Then I would ask the person I was with, why they approached the scene the way they did? I wanted to know the why, not the how. Galen looked often at the future light, Art look at the elements and how they fit in together, John was a master of detail as well as composition. Every scene I approach, I walk through my vision as well as theirs. I think the value of going on a workshop is to learn the "why" a scene is captured the way it is.

PPD: Do you have any advice to offer someone starting a career today?

DA: Never give up, but be realistic. As Mike Rowe says, “don’t chase your passions, but never leave home without it.” I have always taken that to mean, live within the limitations of what you are doing. John Shaw used to tell people, “don’t quit your day jobs until it is costing you money to go.”

My personal outlook on photography and life in general has been that as bad as a sunrise or sunset can be, make sure you see them the next day, they could be the best you have ever seen and you want to be there to experience it.


No comments yet.

Sign in to leave a comment. Don't have an account? Join Now

Pro Photo Daily