Formalized Portraits

General Thoughts
Five Baby Carrots

Five Baby Carrots

Last summer I began using a simple background of very inexpensive black foam core for some sunflower images (click here) to some success, and followed up with some flowered vase still lifes (click here) later as fall approached. During this past winter, I used the same technique on tree trunks of various species (click here), combining the two or more images while holding the foam behind either side of the trunk to block out the clutter behind them. I’ve heard of using black velvet as a background in such cases, but it needs to be hung from something, or at least held with two hands, which means either having an assistant or not having a hand left over to trip a wireless shutter release needed since you are away from the camera while the shutter is tripped.

One evening, while helping with dinner preparations, before peeling some carrots, I placed them on the foam core and shot straight down on the arrangement of five carrots before they became part of the meal. The blank, black background really sets off the subject, no matter what it is, and gives the “portrait” a sense of formality. And since everything is completely still, with the camera locked down on a tripod, excellent sharpness can be achieved with low ISO’s, small apertures and long exposures allowing colors and textures to really “burn-in” without concerns of distractions in the background. No additional light source is needed other than the natural light from a window, an overcast sky, or in the evening when there are deep shadows or the sun has already set, leaving the subjects in much more even lighting.

Tulip No.1 - Duke Gardens, NC

Tulip No.1 – Duke Gardens, NC

A few days ago I visited the lovely Duke Gardens in Durham, NC with my son on a cloudy day, and found the tulips were definitely past their prime, which sometimes gives them a bit more character than a perfect specimen, and luckily the black foam core was in the car. I used the same technique for a few single flowers using a 70-200mm lens with a +1 close-up filter attached to allow closer focusing of the tulips. All that was needed was to find an interesting subject close enough to the edge of the planting beds to get into position without trampling any of the flowers. There was one tulip similar to the one on the left below in that some of the petals had already fallen off revealing the pistils. But the remaining petals on that flower really caressed the pistils more so than in the image here. However, as I set up for the shot, a gentle breeze came up and the last petals fell off right in front of me!! But it was a great way to spend an hour or two, and an easy way to formalize a flower.

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A Rare Find

General Thoughts
Dune in Morning Light - Pea Island NWR, NC

Dune in Morning Light – Pea Island NWR, NC

Sand dunes have always had an appeal for me, with their supple curves formed over time by the wind into sensuous shapes and swirls, with the added visual interest of ripple patterns stretching out into the distance. In most cases though, dunes along the coast are piled up high, generally parallel to the shoreline and are not mostly devoid of vegetation as these were. Barrier dunes usually have quite a bit of growth and therefore do not exhibit the same visual appeal that the dunes I recently found along the North Carolina coast had because they were not as tall. These appeared more desert-like than along the coast, and since they were shorter, did not obstruct views without having to climb to the top. This dune in particular had an awful lot of appeal for me. It was sheer happenstance to have come upon it since if I were walking in a different direction or alongside it, I might never have seen the beautiful s-curve formed by the crease in the dune and the ripples running along its surface. The angle of light was just right to accentuate the textures with the added bonus of the clean area in the center mimicking the dune’s shape and the circular shadow caressed by the crease certainly added quite a bit to its appeal, and I knew immediately this dune was special among the abundance of beautiful dunes there that morning.

By the time this photograph was made, the sun had climbed a bit above the horizon and any sunrise color was gone, but I lingered and wandered among the dunes hoping to find something that would be an exciting foreground for a view toward the ocean and the blank, cloudless sky. As disappointed as I was at not having any clouds for the sunrise, the same sky provided a clean backdrop to keep the attention on the dunes and their myriad intricate, discoverable attractions. This photo is of the type generally described as having taken itself. All that was necessary on my part was to have wandered by it. The s-curve slapped me in the face, so it was hard to miss, and it was already facing toward the ocean, so all I needed to do was plop down the tripod, accurately meter the scene and trip the shutter. The only conscious effort on my part was to place the top of the singular dune between the two dunes in the middle distance to achieve better balance and provide some separation. It reminded me of a quote attributed to Ansel Adams who once said:

“Sometimes I arrive just when God’s ready to have someone click the shutter.”

That was the case for this photograph for sure. It was to be a black and white image from the beginning, as are so many images that are more about nuanced light, shapes and lines rather than color; and dunes definitely lend themselves to very graphic designs, especially if using a telephoto lens to narrow the field of view and abstract small areas of interest. But this was not one of those as the 17-35mm lens was set at 25mm. Luckily, there was not much in the way of wind and even though it was exposed at f/16, 1/13-second was sufficient to stop any movement in the slender stems at the top of the dune. I certainly wish every photo was this easy, but then I suppose there would be no challenge in finding these special locations and happening upon a rare find.

To see an older post from two years ago with the barrier dunes, click here.