Fading Light

General Thoughts
Afternoon Light- Three Trees — Jordan Lake State Recreation Area, NC

Afternoon Light – Three Trees — Jordan Lake State Recreation Area, NC

Lately, because of a lack of rain recently, nearby Jordan Lake’s water level had dropped to a point lower than I had ever seen in the 7+ years in the area, and I took an opportunity to go out late one afternoon to visit this “new” landscape. It was a completely cloudless afternoon, and as the sun was approaching the horizon, I took several meaningless…very meaningless images. And I began to question why I had even gone out that afternoon with such uninspiring conditions and leaving myself almost no time to acquaint myself with the conditions before the sun went down.

It has been my experience that it seems to take quite a while to get fully immersed into a landscape, and to immediately take “portfolio worthy” images right after mounting the camera to the tripod, is the exception rather than the rule. For that to happen, the conditions usually dictate that result. That is why it is vitally important to arrive early, or pre-scout a location beforehand, to get a sense of the spot, to see how the light will lay across the scene. On long photo trips to unfamiliar places, I have often felt that it actually takes a few days to really get into the photography, to begin to “see” more possibilities. It is for that reason that, for a distant trip, two weeks seems to be the minimum necessary to allow those few days to get fully engaged, to do nothing but photography, to think of nothing but what to put in front of the lens, and have a decent amount of time during the trip to be in that frame of mind, before returning home.

Large format (8X10 film) landscape photographer, Ben Horne explains it very well on one of his many, many video/blogs that you can see here.

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The Elements of Majesty

General Thoughts
Autumn Reeds — Heart Lake - Shasta Trinity Nat. Forest, CA (1 of 1)

Autumn Reeds at Heart Lake — Shasta Trinity Nat. Forest, CA

During this last trip to California and Oregon, most of the focus was on landscape images that contained a long view rather than the more intimate, “shorter” scenes. But successful images of the longer views are inherently a bit more difficult, because they are so dependent on the current conditions while you are there. As you may already be aware, there were hardly any clouds during the trip, so dramatic skies were few and far between. As a visitor, there is never the luxury of being able to return when conditions are exactly as you had hoped for, and it is always with sadness that you leave knowing full well that this was your single opportunity, and it was a failure. The shorter scenes are generally not dependent on dramatic skies or lighting, but rely more on the graphic structure of what is contained within the frame, or what you decide to extract from everything that is within your view. William Neill once called this type of image: “natural extractions”. They are mostly the portraits of something that has unexpectedly garnered your attention; things that are never on any list you may have compiled prior to venturing out to photograph, whether nearby or far afield. But when you happen to come across one of those scenes, they stop you in your tracks.

Mt. Shasta from Heart Lake, CA

Mt. Shasta from Heart Lake, CA

The circumstances whereby the photograph at the top came to be were not unusual by any means. I had done quite a bit of research to find the location of a dramatic shot of Mt. Shasta from distant Heart Lake I had previously seen. It was a broad, afternoon vista from a bench overlooking Castle Lake, of the side lit and snow-capped mountain with a dramatic sky that kept driving me to see the scene for myself (above). And even though there were no clouds in the sky that afternoon, I trudged up the 1.5-mi. trail, to the overlook at little Heart Lake. And I’m sorry to say that the drama in the sky never improved as the afternoon progressed. But it is always the unexpected, small scenes that can also move me to photograph them, because they are often overlooked when such awe-inspiring scenery overpowers everything nearby. I had passed this branch and reeds on the way to the overlook a short distance away, and after seeing the uninspiring conditions, returned to make the photograph at the top of the post. I suppose it was the gentle s-curve of the branch and the cohesiveness of the reeds that really intrigued me, and with the reflection of the cliff beyond the still waters of Heart Lake, all the graphic elements seemed to come together. For me, this little vignette was as majestic as the nearby long view.

HDR vs. HDR

General Thoughts
Early Morning — Muir Woods NM, CA © jj raia

Early Morning — Muir Woods NM, CA © jj raia

As is usually the case, going through the images from this most recent trip to California for the fourth time, I found a series of exposures that held promise as an HDR. During the trip, there were many times that a series of photos were taken at varying exposures in anticipation of combining them in software later to properly reveal the wide range of tonality. But it was discovered with thisimage, it may not be as simple as originally thought; namely, select the images and export them to your HDR software, make a few adjustments in Lightroom, and like magic, the scene is properly revealed as it was seen. The image above at Muir Woods is an example. The sunlight on the branches of the redwoods was extremely bright which left most of the dark trunks in shadow. The dynamic range was way beyond what the sensor could properly record, so a series was taken of about three-stops. After they were combined and adjustments made in Lightroom, it seemed unsatisfactory (see comparison below). Some blown out highlights still remained and when I tried to darken them with an adjustment brush, they just became grey and lifeless.

I decided to try a group of three photographs of the same scene, this time without the brightest exposure and try to eliminate those offending highlights. Instead of using the default HDR combination, the “dark” option was used and the final process eliminated those bright highlights.

Early Morning — Muir Woods NM, CA (first attempt)

Early Morning — Muir Woods NM, CA (first attempt)

Early Morning — Muir Woods NM, CA © jj raia

Early Morning — Muir Woods NM, CA © jj raia

The first attempt (top) was darker and lifeless, with the hideous highlights. The second attempt revealed more detail in the massive trunks and showed the sunlit needles more accurately. The color overall was much more accurate as well. A few minor adjustments in Lightroom, mainly darkening the shadows beyond the sunlit branches, and the image was done. So it was simple, but only after first failing miserably.

I suppose the take away from this is to make sure you have sufficient images of varying exposures to properly record the entire range of light values within the frame so you have at least one frame without blown out highlights and another without blocked up shadows. Then, if after your first attempt at combining all these exposures is not satisfactory, it may be necessary to try again eliminating some exposures that may ultimately improve the final HDR image.

Reliving the Trip – Part 11

General Thoughts
Naked Ladies, Goat Island — Sonoma Coast State Park, CA © jj raia

Naked Ladies, Goat Island — Sonoma Coast State Park, CA © jj raia

There is only one main thought that goes through my mind during these trips, and that is photography. I’m not very concerned about where the next meal will be (I have meals with me), or where I will stay each night since I’m driving in my hotel/camp site. This frees me from any concerns outside photography and keeps me focused on traveling to or scouting locations and just thinking of things to put in front of the camera. As the trip progresses, it becomes easier to leave the “normal” life you had with each passing day and function as a fully independent entity whose purpose is strictly in search of natural beauty and other things you may encounter that intrigue you enough to break from the original purpose. Since the main focus is the landscape, many times those “other things” I photograph are flowers, and this year was no different. I came across one specific type throughout northern California that I had never previously encountered and found out they were called Naked Ladies, an unusual plant that seems to shed its leaves as the flowers bloom, leaving only a single maroon stem and a beautiful, pink flower. They were in many locations, but they seemed to be in cemeteries especially, and I spent some time in a few with some very old headstones. I suppose clear skies helped pave the way for that as the prospect of a good sunrise was minimal with those conditions, and the west coast is more aligned for sunsets. It was at Point Arena where the flowers originally brought me into a cemetery, but it was this particular gravesite that really struck me, overgrown with grasses, and faded plastic flowers rather than the living Naked Ladies that adorned many of the others. The words our daughter really brought home the grief of parents at the loss of a child.

Our Daughter - Cape Arena Cemetery © jj raia

Our Daughter – Cape Arena Cemetery © jj raia

Reliving the Trip — Part 10

General Thoughts
RAW 1/40-sec @ f/8 ISO 400

RAW 1/40-sec @ f/8 ISO 400

Another of the “non-negotiable” places on my list to visit was, after some research to find its location, along the south/east shore of Lake Tahoe. Bonsai Rock was in a small cove that was supposedly easily accessed, but not able to be seen from the highway. I found exactly how far it was from a landmark, to the tenth of a mile, and thought it might be easy to find, and gave myself a lot of extra time to get there by sunset. However, single lane construction made it impossible to even attempt to locate it after several tries, so I ended up spending the late afternoon at Sand Harbor State Park, just to the north. After running around the small  park searching for a good location, the sun was getting ready to drop behind the Sierras to the west and I had to settle on this tiny cove before it set completely. As seen in the RAW image at the top, it was pretty windy, with choppy waters and another blank sky, and to make matters worse, some smoke from the wildfires north of San Francisco created a haze that dulled the intensity of the sunlight, although it did add a bit of color (see the top right corner). It was, simply put, a very uninspiring afternoon. For the photograph, to stop the movement of the trees from the wind near the top left corner, I needed a high (for me) shutter speed, but that ended up also freezing the motion of the water, and an uninspiring image was the result of that attempt.

RAW 30-sec @ f/8 ISO 500

RAW 30-sec @ f/8 ISO 500

I really wanted to have some motion in the water, so I brought out the 10-stop ND filter to necessitate a longer (30-seconds) shutter speed. The RAW image seen here was the result of that attempt; but the trees and bushes were nothing but blurs. Another uninspiring image with additional flaws. By then the sun was drifting behind the mountains and there wasn’t much else to do there. I cursed the construction that blocked my attempts at getting to the bonsai rock, but thought that maybe the two images could be combined when I got home in Photoshop by replacing the blurred trees from the longer exposure with the sharper ones from the shorter exposure. A simple use of layers and “erasing” the blurred trees of the top layer in the inverted (black, Command-I on a Mac) layer mask with the brush tool (using white as foreground color), revealed the sharp trees from the image on the layer below. After some post processing in Lightroom, it was still not a super shot, but the result was much better than either image alone. Something to keep in mind even when the scene is spectacular.

Lake Tahoe — Sand Point State Park, NV © jj raia

Lake Tahoe — Sand Point State Park, NV © jj raia

Reliving the Trip — Part 9

General Thoughts
Surf at Sunset — DeMartin Beach, CA © jj raia

Surf at Sunset — DeMartin Beach, CA © jj raia

As is the usual case, the first go round of processing is followed by a second round where images that did not seem to hold much promise, ultimately revealed something that at least brought back memories of the day. As mentioned earlier, the main point of this trip was to see the ocean and sea stacks along California’s northern coast, so in going through the files again, I wanted to give each sunset a bit more effort to produce something that gave some idea of that particular evening’s location. Since I bought some boots at Walmart early on, each time I wore them to avoid getting my feet wet was a complete and utter failure. It just seems that the waves along the west coast are a bit different from the Atlantic in that all the waves seem to have the same force, except for an occasional one that carries much greater force than the others, traveling much further up the beach. And at least once each evening, one managed to climb over the top of the boots. It wasn’t that there weren’t any other rogue waves, but for many of those, I grabbed the tripod and managed to out race it. But for the marginally big waves when I stayed in place, I paid the price. But it was a small price to pay since it only involved drying my feet afterward, a dry pair of socks and a change of pants. At least my shoes stayed dry in the car.

Surf at Little Corona Beach, CA © jj raia

Evening Light at Little Corona Beach, CA © jj raia

Little Corona Beach is part of the larger Corona del Mar, which is where I visited with Denis, the photographer I met on the month-long trip in 2014. This was his home turf, and he knew the area well, well enough that he didn’t even bring his camera because of the lack of clouds and that he had already gotten some unbelievable shots from here. But I clicked away as we dodged all the other folks that were there, either just playing in the water, or the several family and engagement photo shoots going on. The main effort was to keep the shutter speed long enough to blur the surf as it came in and drained to the other side of the big rock. It was interesting there because, depending on the wave action, the water flowed left to right or right to left! Since this was not the usual remote area void of civilization as most other locations on the trip were, I had to clone out a speeding boat that crept into the frame while the shutter was open, and while I was at it, a buoy that I hadn’t noticed in the heat of shooting. Why is it that when taking a slew of photos in order to capture the best wave action, it never fails that something happens to mar, just a little, the image that is judged the “best of the lot”?

Reliving the Trip — Part 8

General Thoughts
Owens Valley Sunrise near Bishop, CA © jj raia

Owens Valley Sunrise near Bishop, CA © jj raia

One of the amazing sights that the clear skies afforded, was the first rays of sunlight hitting the peaks of the Eastern Sierra. The color was amazing, and it was first witnessed from Schwabcher’s Landing on last year’s trip to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. To see that post, Click Here.  I had hoped to see the same light at Crater Lake or Lassen, but it didn’t happen because of the storm at Crater Lake and smoke from the wildfires near San Francisco being the reason for Lassen. But along the eastern Sierra, the smoke had cleared and I had two opportunities to see that magical light again. The first was outside Bishop where I found a solitary rabbitbrush in bloom against a boulder with the light beginning to hit the peaks. The other was in the Alabama Hills just west of Lone Pine where the light hit Mount Owens and Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the continental United States. To get a large swath of the range into the frame, I shot a panorama with a 70-200mm zoom set at 70mm to capture the scene with the proper perspective, while also increasing the resolution that several frames stitched together provide. I’m sorry I didn’t have more time to spend there to explore the various canyons that lead into this beautiful mountain range, but I certainly had plenty of time to explore the whole state, if even in a way that only scratched the surface and season.

Alabama Hills and Sierra Crest at Dawn © jj raia

Alabama Hills and the Sierra Crest at Dawn © jj raia

 

Reliving the Trip — Part 7

General Thoughts
Detail - Charred Redwood Interior — Humboldt Redwoods State Park, CA © jj raia

Detail – Charred Redwood Interior — Humboldt Redwoods State Park, CA © jj raia

I have always been attracted to the designs in nature and many times those designs are in the form of abstracts that can test the viewer’s imagination and ability to determine the actual subject. One particular abstract during the trip stands out in my mind as being memorable in the design, color and unique location and how much my knees ached afterward from crouching within the interior of a redwood tree in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. I had seen many charred trees in Sequoia and other parks in the north, but since this one was almost completely enclosed with only a small opening through which to crawl, it was a very different experience in photographing it. There were many spots within the vast interior that were interesting, so I spent a long time inside this tree changing compositions. But it was the directional light from above that really made the images three-dimensional, and the long exposures (30-seconds) really allowed the color to burn into the sensor. It reminded me of some of the very long exposures I took that seemed to be etched onto film back when film was the only option.

Buttress Tree — Sequoia NP, CA © jj raia

Buttress Tree — Sequoia NP, CA © jj raia

But there was one particular abstract that I wanted to revisit after having photographed it over 30 years ago. It was the roots of a fallen sequoia that had such a wild design it intrigued me even then and was probably one of the very first abstracts I’d ever taken that was dubbed an “art photo” by one of the first to view it. I had no problem finding it on the park map and made sure I photographed it before moving on to Yosemite, but it seemed that while the design still remained, much of the color had been bleached out during the intervening years by the weather, so it was a bit of a disappointment.

Reliving the Trip — Part 6

General Thoughts
Breeze Ripples on Mono Lake at Dusk, CA © jj raia

Breeze Ripples on Mono Lake at Dusk, CA © jj raia

Many times, especially when faced with an empty sky that was the recurring theme on this trip, the tendency is to minimize that area and emphasize the land within the image. But it is the simple, graphic nature of a scene when a large portion of the frame includes the sky, that can make it striking, and losing a sense of scale, can increase the awareness of the vast expanse contained within the scene. I opted for a different view of Mono Lake far from the famous tufa columns that I’ve visited on previous occasions, but never with such a flat, reflecting water surface. There were many similar images taken of Mono Lake (above) that evening, as the ripples from gentle breezes continually changed shape and location; this arrangement of them seemed to form a path which the viewer’s eye can pass through. And the same holds true for the image below. The winding stretch of water is the path to travel to reach further into the scene. But if a small element can be included that defines the scale, as with the swimming duck and flying bird below, then that sense of scale can be brought back into the image.

Lake Almanor, CA © jj raia

Lake Almanor, CA © jj raia

I saw this scene while driving along the highway, I jammed on the brakes, sending a lot of things sliding through the car, and when I backed up along the shoulder, I was again watched over by just missing a steady wire for one of the power line poles that ran parallel to the road. It would have caused considerable damage to the car and could have been a disaster. But as I set up for this shot and clicked off a few shots for proper exposure, I noticed this duck swimming toward my location way off to the left, outside the frame. I quickly shifted to a higher ISO in order to freeze the motion a bit, but never saw the flying bird until the file was on the computer screen in a much larger size than the back of the camera. I’m still conflicted as to whether it should remain in or cloned out since it may compete with the swimmer. Incidentally, the haze was the result of the horrific wildfires north of the San Francisco area, over 200 miles away! Something that hung around for several days, even obscuring the opposite side of Lake Tahoe.

Reliving the Trip — Part 5

General Thoughts
Moonlight at Olmsted Point Pano — Yosemite NP, CA © jj raia

Moonlight at Olmsted Point Pano — Yosemite NP, CA © jj raia

Although there have been continued complaints on my part about the clear, cloudless skies for most of the trip, those same skies allowed for star or moon lit night photography that, of course wreaked havoc on sleep patterns, and at times, perpetuated picture-taking almost around the clock. In fact, during one night, I took Milky Way shots at Yosemite’s Olmsted Point before the moon rose, and then returned a few hours later to do some moonlight photos before it began to get light out…which, of course was followed by sunrise photos and then travel to another destination. While most times when I photograph, I prefer to be alone, nighttime in remote areas can be a bit disconcerting and the preference would be to have others, or at least one other along. But I’ve found that once you are immersed in the photography, you do lose that sense of being alone, a little. Though occasionally, there are times when the hair raises up on your neck and you think, hopefully wrongly, that you are not alone.

The image above is actually a moonlit three-panel, vertical panorama in order to include the long line of the intrusion in the granite without using a vertical orientation which would have required a much smaller aperture to keep everything in focus because the camera position would have had to be close to the ground. But because of the bright moonlight, I was able to keep the camera at eye level using a 17mm at f/3.5 to keep most of the foreground in focus, and using a lower ISO (1600 rather than 6400), reduce any noise in the sky produced by the 25-second exposure. The panels had to be manually stitched together though, because for some reason, the software was unable to do so. But it turned out not to be very difficult.