Sharpness

General Thoughts
Burned Forest at Dusk — Lassen Volcanic National Park, CA © jj raia

Burned Forest at Dusk — Lassen Volcanic National Park, CA © jj raia

It’s been about 5 months since I completed my three-week trip out to California, yet I still find hidden gems that had slipped my mind since then. It was the glorious pastel sky in the fading light just after sunset that caught my eye as I drove past the huge area of a recent burn and skeleton trees. There wasn’t any place to park the car nearby, so I ended up having to hoof it quite a way, lugging my gear and trying my best to get there as quickly as possible before the light was gone for good, yet not so fast as to bring on a coronary event. At the time, there was a slight breeze causing these blackened, slender snags to sway a bit, so a rather high ISO was needed (800 instead of the usual 100) just to be sure there would be no movement, yet a small enough aperture (f/11) to assure sharpness in these foreground trees, the hillsides in the middle ground and mountain in the distance. Luckily, the 50mm that is attached to the camera when it’s in the bag was all that was needed to get the right composition, so no time was lost changing lenses. If I hadn’t boosted the ISO, the shutter speed would have been 1-second, much too slow to stop any movement and maintain the sharpness in all the branches, without which, the image just wouldn’t be useable later on. There were so many spots along the road I could have placed the tripod, but it was the singular drooping branch toward the center that stands apart from all the other branches which caused me to finally settle on this location. And I made sure that it didn’t intersect with the trunk just to its right. The tripod placement here also allowed that each tree had almost complete separation so there were no “clumps” of branches to compete with that singular drooping branch. For those of you who have followed this trip last fall, it was later on during this night that I acquired my traveling companion in the car: Micky (or Minnie) Mouse.

Fogbank at Sunrise — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

Fog bank at Sunrise — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

More recently in February, I was out at nearby Jordan Lake and witnessed a great sunrise. Although I didn’t get a very good image from that sunrise, except for the panorama above, I had noticed a fog bank on the eastern side of the lake and headed that way after the color had left the clouds. I began searching the roads that would lead me to the fog and some additional compositions before the fog dissipated, when I turned onto a road I had never gone on before and discovered a line of very interesting tree combinations.

Young Winter Oak — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

Young Winter Oak — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

The sunlight was filtered by the fog not too far off, and cast a beautifully soft illumination on the trees that made me stop and get the camera out. Any composition I considered seemed lifeless though, because I was unable to find something that would stand out as a singular focal point amid the vertical young tree trunks. So I began to walk along the road further and further until I came upon this solitary young oak still holding tightly onto its leaves from autumn before they are pushed out in the coming weeks by the new spring growth. That was what the image needed, and I utilized the markings on the barrel of the old 80-200mm f/4 AI-s I used for a hyper-focal distance to make sure the small clump of grasses before the line of trees was also in focus. If they were in any way blurred, either being out of focus or from movement, they would have been a distraction, ruining the interconnectedness of all the various textures and muted colors that held the scene together. This image really illustrates just how sharp this lens can be (shot at f/16), and I’m glad I read the review of it in Ken Rockwell’s blog for “Nikon Cheapskate Lenses” that lead me to search Ebay to get my own.  At the time I bought it, I had just switched to digital photography and didn’t have much money left over for lenses after plopping down a chunk of change for a Nikon D800. But it has served me very well and continues to be one of my workhorse lenses proving you don’t need to spend an inordinate amount of money to achieve exceptional sharpness. In fact, I also bought the 50mm f/1.8 from the list of suggestions even though it wasn’t the fastest lens available, mainly because it had the advantage of an additional small aperture (f/22 vs. f/16) than the faster lenses, as well as barrel markings for hyper-focal distance focusing. But different types of shooting lean toward specific types of gear, where a street shooter may opt for the faster speed of a lens rather than the increased depth of field landscape shooters may need.

One note on the composition, I moved the camera’s location from side to side several times before tripping the shutter after finally deciding on the placement of the grasses within the frame. The final choice seen here, places the trunk of the young oak within the small gap in the clump of grasses to make sure as little as possible was obscured by them. A few inches left or right would have covered the bottom of the trunk, losing its connection to the ground. I just wish it were leaning into the frame instead of right to left. As much as I tried to keep any sky outside the frame, there will always be a few spots that peek through, but they were easily fixed in Photoshop and/or Lightroom, as well as a few  stray leaves from a neighboring tree residing on the frame’s edge. After this shot of the young oak, it was off to find something with the fog before it burned off.

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