One morning earlier this year, after shooting a sunrise and seeing a fog bank in the distance, I headed in that direction in hopes of finding some more photos before the sun burned off the fog. Heading toward a small bridge over a marshy area, I found the sun showing through the fog and reflecting in the still waters, but really struggled as to how to frame the scene. A wide-angle zoom set toward the normal view of 35mm still showed too much blank sky and wasted half of the sensor’s pixels, so a normal 50mm was tried, and that also seemed inadequate. It was my own indecision about what to put in the frame that caused the indecision on what lens to use. After trying in camera 3:2 and 5:4 crops with the 50mm, the framed options still did not appear pleasingly balanced, so out came the 70-200mm. There were no other lens options left in the bag, and after still not being satisfied with any single framing, the only other tool left was a panorama. The image at the top encompassed the entire scene including on the right hand side, part of the railing of the bridge from which it was taken, which was eliminated with a slight crop on the right side. The idea was to record everything the scene had to offer and make cropping decisions afterward when all the panorama panels were stitched together and post processing was completed. So the camera was placed vertically on the tripod and the panels recorded.
Rummaging through and trashing many photos from a 2014 trip out west to clear up hard drive space, I came across a sequence of images that were intended to become a panorama, but had never gotten around to processing them. They had subsequently been forgotten as the days passed, quietly remaining hidden among the thousands of images residing on my hard drive. As time went on, more and more photos were taken and processed, sending them even further from memory, until I happened upon them yesterday, almost four years later. They turned out to be difficult to merge together as I had just begun to take panoramas at the insistence of a photographer I met in Canyonlands National Park a few days earlier, and probably didn’t take a sufficient numbers of overlapped panels moving across the scene. There were only three images when I should have taken more, and subsequently, the software merged only two, leaving the third image of the right side out altogether! So I tried to merge the two with the third for a second time, and although the software did merge them, the sky was horrible at the seam where they were “blended” together. But through the magic of Photoshop’s clone tool (it’s inventor should be canonized) and quite a bit of perseverance, the sky was finally blended seamlessly.
The reason why the scene called for a panorama was that even though I could use a very wide angle lens (17mm), it was still unable to incorporate the tree and the entire sky since I couldn’t back up much further because of a drop-off. In addition, the cliff on the right would appear more distant, with less prominence and not be the supporting element needed within the scene to help balance the tree on the left connected by the blazing clouds. By zooming in a bit to 26mm for the three panels, it brought the cliffs closer, appearing more as they were.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.