There are many, many times when out searching for photographs, that I am stopped dead in my tracks at seeing something extraordinary, whether a grand vista, an intimate view or a tiny bit of beauty patiently waiting to be discovered and recorded for the first time. Locations need not be exotic, far away places that are meccas for tourists and photographers, but can easily be found literally in our own yard. A few years ago in late summer, when working in the yard, I noticed that some hens and chicks plants we had in our garden had been adorned from above with the falling pink/raspberry flowers of a crepe myrtle. The color and the patterns of the hens and chicks with these flowers made me grab my camera and focus in on the details of what inspired me then.
Recently, as I do each year during the winter months, I trim back several of the deciduous trees in my yard. But it wasn’t until this year that I really looked at the bark. I immediately decided to photograph the cherry tree in our front yard, but wanted the final image to appear more like a formal portrait and adapted a method I used a few months back creating a few still-lifes of dried flowers in vases with a black background. Sunlight on the bark probably wouldn’t work, so I opted for early morning on a clear blue sky day when the trunk would be in shade and the blue from the sky would be reflected by the luster of the bark. A polarizer was used to control the amount of reflected light, and a large piece of black foam board was placed behind the trunk to create the background.
Two frames were needed to have the black background on either side of the trunk that would be merged together later in post processing. The tricky part was focusing to get the sharpest image possible without having to use a small aperture (f/22) and risk diffusion, or slight blurring of the overall image inherent at very small apertures. It was situations such as this, where focusing is critical for front to back sharpness that, when I switched from medium format to digital, I purchased an older 50mm prime lens with markings on the barrel to use for hyperfocal distances. Since I was using manual focus and an aperture between f/11-16, the initial focus was on the closest part of the trunk. Then that point on the focusing ring was moved to line up with the f/11 point on the barrel thereby expanding what would be in sharp focus to include that part of the trunk furthest from the camera. It was critical that the left and right edges of the trunk were in sharp relief against the black background, as well as everything in between be as sharp as possible to reveal all the intricate tonalities, patterns and textures throughout the bark.
After the cherry tree bark “portrait”, I thought to try some river birches with their peeling bark, and see how that worked out and found I had possibly begun a new project! Not all bark is photogenic, but in the coming months, I will be on the lookout for subsequent “models” to put before the lens. Luckily, these models do not require the added expense of any special lighting gear, make-up artists or hair stylists.