Outside to Inside

General Thoughts
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Azalea Movement no. 1 thru 5

For the most part, I consider myself a landscape photographer. Inspiration usually comes from being out in those landscapes, which usually revolves around trips to distant destinations throughout the US or, under certain circumstances or weather events, closer to home. For the few folks who actually follow this blog, you’ll realize that some other things have fallen in front of the camera of late. Recently, I was inspired by a friend’s photo of a small sculpture at a nearby museum for which, he moved the camera while the photograph was taken to blur the image. (Normally, I would put a link here to his website, but unfortunately, he has yet to create one so that many of us can see and enjoy his wonderful work. I’m sure he will soon).

2014 WEST Trip-1196

Gene Davis Aspens – Rio Grande National Forest, CO © jj raia

I’ve created photographic blurs for a long time beginning over ten years ago when I got my first point and shoot digital camera. It was difficult then, because there was basically no control over shutter speeds. The best I could do was to set the camera to “fireworks” to get a little longer shutter speed. I blurred some azaleas at a nearby park, and then played with the hue sliders in Photoshop afterward to create several variations that you see at the top. Back in 2014 on my first major trip out west with my recently acquired digital DSLR, I spent quite a bit of time blurring the autumn aspens (above) in Colorado and Arizona. (See the aspen blurs here)

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No Time Limits

General Thoughts
Facing the Sunrise - Dorothea Dix Park, Raleigh, NC

Watching the Sunrise – Dorothea Dix Park, Raleigh, NC © jj raia

A while back I viewed a video of a talk given by Scott Kelby of the Photographic Industrial Complex, and found one of his pronouncements a bit disturbing. He was talking about editing your work after you’ve taken some shots, whether just from a session, day or an entire trip/vacation. In basic terms, he said that if you spend more than ten minutes post processing a single image, it’s probably not worth the effort and you should just move on to another photo. I suppose if you’re trying to pump out as many photos as possible and keep churning locations and photo ops, the more photos you put out there, the more opportunities it might sell, inspire someone to take one of your workshops or hire you to create a personal portrait or product photo. You’re always trying to keep your work fresh for all the folks that see your web site and want to hire you, whatever the reason.

But there might be another way to look at the dilemma of selecting photos worthy of further processing. And how long the necessary post processing takes should never be the determining factor on whether an image is, or is not worthy of your time. I took a photo of Jordan Lake back in late 2014 that I thought was a “keeper” and began working on it as I usually do, and after zooming in to 1:1, I discovered literally hundreds of tiny bits of crud on the surface of the water that I hadn’t seen while I was there. They were too small to notice, but as Clem Kadiddlehopper once said:

in the mind’s eye we see only what we wish, but the camera records everything else as well….

Well, it took me two days to eliminate each and every one in Photoshop using the clone tool! The photo from that post is at the bottom.

From Here to There

General Thoughts
Doorway - NCMA, Raleigh

Doorway (original) – NCMA, Raleigh

On a recent trip to the North Carolina Museum of Art to view the “You are Here” exhibit of light, color and sound experiences, I found myself inside a large darkened room with two huge television screens back to back in the middle of the room, showing very, very slow motion videos. One showed fire while the other showed a man walking toward the viewer until he was obscured by water cascading down from somewhere above. I immediately saw a photo in my mind that would have a silhouette standing in front of the cascading water, surrounded by absolute darkness. But I wanted to have the water blurred necessitating a very slow shutter speed for the already slow motion water. But a long shutter speed would probably blur any person in front of the screen as well since hand holding the shot would have been next to impossible. Tripods were not allowed. But when a little boy stood alone in front of the screen, I had to at least give the idea a try. With the ISO at 800 and set at 1/40th second at f/4 (17-35mm set @ 35mm), and in the short time he stood there, only one frame showed a little separation between both the boy’s arms and body, without which, the silhouette would have been a bit lifeless. Of course he was somewhat blurry since he was moving slightly, and there was no blur in the water. I chalked it up to a failed attempt. I figured it might have been a good idea, but just not workable considering the circumstances of an uncontrolled situation. So there was a bit of disappointment at not having been able to fulfill the idea to conclusion since a solution to overcome the two main problems (blurry child and only slightly blurry water) seemed beyond my capabilities. So the file languished within the depths of computer memory. But about a week later, an idea popped out.

First, the problem of the few people and the ceiling on the edges of the frame that the camera was able to record in the near darkness, were easy to eliminate through the use of the clone tool in Photoshop. The big question was blurring the water as would normally be done with a long shutter speed on a tripod to blur water in a river, stream or the waves along the ocean. The use of a motion blur (filter>blur>motion blur) could be used! So, in a new layer, I adjusted the angle of the blur to 90º to flow up and down instead of across (0º is the default), and adjusted the amount of blur with a slider. But naturally, the use of the motion blur affected the entire frame, so adding a layer mask filled with black (command-i for invert) blocked the blurred layer altogether. Brushing over the water with a white brush (instead of the usual black brush with a white layer mask) allowed the blurred water to show through. Lowering the opacity of the brush where the cascading water fell onto whatever it was it fell onto, allowed the splatters, to be more visible, although they are still somewhat blurry. Some clone tool work was also done on the splashes to even out the tonal values so there were no distracting bright or dark spots.

The blurry boy was repaired back in Lightroom using a very tiny brush, with the feather set to zero and set at -1.00, tracing around the outline of the boy (basically in black) to make him sharper than he was in the original image. A little rotation in the Lens Correction Panel saved a less than perfectly perpendicular shot.

Doorway Blurred - NCMA, Raleigh

Doorway as Envisioned – NCMA, Raleigh

All in all, it was a fun exercise in using a few of the tools available in post processing to achieve the final image. But, as in most cases, the process begins before the shutter is tripped.

 

 

Options

General Thoughts
Oak Creek Marsh in Winter Fog (Full Pano) — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

Oak Creek Marsh in Winter Fog (Full Pano) — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

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.

Forgotten

General Thoughts
Sunset Panorama — Capital Reef National Park, UT © jj raia

Sunset Panorama — Capital Reef National Park, UT © jj raia

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.

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.

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.

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.

Discoveries

General Thoughts
Hens and Chicks © jj raia

Hens and Chicks © jj raia

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.

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.