God Beams — Blue Ridge Parkway, NC © jj raia
On either side of winter are probably the two most anticipated seasons for photographers. And for good reason. The wild colors of autumn or the buds and flowers of spring make for visually appealing imagery, while milder temperatures make photography a bit more comfortable than the frigid weather in winter and sweltering summer. But even more specifically, within those seasons, there are times when trees show their bones while still retaining a few leaves in the fall or before they have leafed out in the spring. The visible branches and trunks add a level of character that fully leaved trees generally lack, and if buds are just beginning to sprout, then it’s icing on the cake. These are the times I try to be out shooting. In the hardwood forests of the east, it’s almost a toss-up on which season is better, and in some respects, spring can easily be as colorful as autumn. I recently spent a few days along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina and came away really loving the spring. There are so many different flowering trees and bushes at various elevations along with what seems like an endless variety of flowers carpeting the forest floor. The trees themselves can be beautiful in full sunshine as well as cloudy weather and the flowers on the forest floor can be photographed early or late in the day when in shade, or use a sunshade (umbrella) or reflector if they are in sun to cut down the contrast. Although the forest colors can really come alive just after a rain, unfortunately there was none during my short time there. It can also become very mysterious when cloaked in fog and if the breezes are gentle, it can be magical. Again there was none. But sunshine can also be your friend. By using the sun to backlight the spring buds, and using an opposite hillside in shade as the background, the light is nothing short of amazing. On the clear days of this trip, I did a lot of driving to find these spots but by mid-morning, most everything was in sun and more difficult to find. That’s a good time to scout sunset/rise locations with a compass, have lunch or take a nap to revive after getting up very early to catch a sunrise. Then as the afternoon progresses, more locations open up for these backlit situations. Some spots that were front lit in the morning will now be backlit, so even if you follow the same road in the opposite direction you traveled in the morning, an entirely new world of possibility opens up.
Soco Gap — Blue Ridge Parkway, NC © jj raia
One thing to keep in mind when composing an image of the “chaos” within a forest: try to include something that will immediately attract the eye of the viewer first before exploring whatever else is contained within the frame. Without that focal point that grabs their attention, the viewer’s eye will wander helplessly, searching for something on which to rest their gaze. You must determine what you want the viewer to see first, and then afterward, direct them through the frame. What you choose to include or exclude will help the viewer explore your photograph as you intended. This point is clearly illustrated in the image from Soco Gap. The three evergreen trees are what draws the eye immediately before going to the larger deciduous trees nearby, and then beyond to the more distant hillside trees. Throughout the hillside are worlds to explore as you examine them more closely. This is where the added detail of panoramas can play an important role.
With the addition of panoramas in the toolbox, you can really enjoy the possibilities of using long swaths of a hillside or a forest detail to create ultra-high resolution images that can be printed in very large sizes while maintaining a sharpness that would not otherwise be possible. The panorama technique can also be used to simply create a normally cropped image from several individual shots. For a horizontal image, simply flip the camera into the vertical or portrait position and combine two or three images across the scene to create a single high-res photo later on your computer. You’ll have at least twice the information available to create a print that could have been done with one horizontal shot.
Cherry Gap – Blue Ridge Parkway © jj raia
The same for a vertical image: flip the camera to the horizontal or landscape position and take a few shots panning up or down. I’ve found that if you use a normal or longer lens for your particular camera (full frame or crop sensor), there is no need for any special tripod head. In fact, I’ve found that going through all the work of precisely leveling the tripod was more trouble than it’s worth because even with the camera level as per the horizon leveling option on some of the cameras today, as the head rotates or pans, it drifts either up or down. So if you have a ball head, just set up the first shot and take it, loosen the head and rotate while using some mark within the frame to overlap about a third and to be in the same relative position from the top or bottom of the frame and you’ll be fine to stitch them together in Photoshop or whichever software you use to do so. Using this technique has most times created very little in the way of those curved “lost areas” that stitching sometimes produces. Those small blank areas can then be filled in easily by either distorting the image or, in the case of something like the continuous tones of a sky or still water, filling them in with the clone tool.
The practice of using multiple images to create one final shot really helps when trying to capture fine detail, whether it’s the brilliant colors of each autumn leaf, the buds of a forest in spring or anything else that benefits from the added detail. And it can be used during any season you decide is your favorite…which for me, is usually the last one I photographed.