A Matter of Minutes

General Thoughts
Dawn at Jordan Lake, NC  © jj raia

Dawn at Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

The forecast for the morning indicated some fog again this weekend, so I made a point of setting the alarm, but turned out it wasn’t needed. Peeking out the window showed only clouds and no fog, so I forgot about it for a few minutes. Not falling right back to sleep, a bit later I thought I would look out again, thinking that somehow all the predicted fog would magically appear on cue at 6am. Still no fog, but there was an opening in the clouds to the east, and I decided to head out ASAP because sunrise was less than 30-minutes away. Putting on some real clothes (rather than leaving the pj’s on) before dashing out the door would be the preferable type of attire just in case anyone else happened to be around while I was taking some photos. Drove as quickly as possible, managing to avoid so many bicyclists riding in the near dark of the back roads to the bridge overlooking Jordan Lake, just 13-minutes away from home. Arriving, things looked pretty good but with absolutely no time to waste getting the gear out and on the tripod with a split ND filter, and managed to knock out the vertical, 7-panel, panorama that appears at the top. It was 6:44am when the last panel was taken. There really wasn’t any time to get into the “best position” for the shot, so getting it all in was preferable, just to get something before the light was gone. As it turned out, those seven panels created an image in a 5:4 ratio without any cropping, so none of the additional information creating a panorama was lost…therefore extra detail for the individual spring leaves of the tree in the foreground and those along the line of trees further away.

Sunrise at Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

Sunrise at Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

In just 4 minutes, much of the illumination, in the clouds was gone since the sun had risen above the small opening in the clouds along the eastern horizon. The pink color had also morphed into mostly yellow with a tinge of magenta, but basically, the sunrise was already over. Had I gotten there a bit earlier, there may have been some extra time to get another shot with the better light, but I can’t complain.

These two images really illustrate just how fleeting the sunrise, or sunset color can be. Even though we may read about that fact, we really have to be cognizant of it and work as quickly and precisely as we can. As it was, after the first pano, I wanted to take some auto-bracketed photos for a possible HDR image, but screwed it all up forgetting almost instantly that was what I wanted to do, since the default for me is to just change the exposure manually. That’s what caused the delay in getting the second image seen here with the previous better light. What happened was I recently saw on You Tube about a way for my camera to automate the bracketing process by tripping the shutter only once and let the camera automatically take the prescribed number of brackets, so there would be no touching the camera and less of a delay between shots, and I wanted to try that method. But flipping through the menus after setting the camera to auto-bracket, I got lost in the moment, not being able to find what I needed immediately, and went back to the usual manual method, even though the camera was still set for auto-bracketing. Needless to say, there were many “wrong” exposures, but luckily I managed to get one that I was able to coax into a better reality.

Afterward, I drove around to various areas of the lake searching for any elusive fog, but it was all in vain and did nothing but waste some gas.



Chaos – Structure – Landing Zones

General Thoughts
Maple Buds in Fog at White Oak Marsh — Jordan Lake, NC

Maple Buds in Fog at White Oak Marsh — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

As the forest begins to wake from the deep sleep of the winter months with fresh buds of spring, when we photograph these trees, whether a larger area of forest or smaller details, the photos seem to fall into two separate and distinct types. One type is what can be called structured, where there is an easily identifiable, singular focal point or area that immediately attracts the attention of the viewer, while the other exhibits a randomness, a kind of chaos with the apparent haphazard placement of leaves, branches, limbs or trunks. And so it came to mind whether the tried and true “rule” to have a specific focal point, is in fact, necessary for it to be a successful image?

Wild Wisteria and Maple Buds — Jordan Lake, NC

Wild Wisteria and Maple Buds — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

Probably the most difficult aspect in taking, not just this subject, but any subject, is separating out what you wish to fall within the frame from the entirety of what lays before you. What may help to “see” a possible image, is to have a small piece of cardboard, mat board, or foam core with a rectangle cut out from the center in the shape of your particular camera’s sensor aspect ratio, either 2:3, 5:4 or square. By placing it at about arm’s length, you can see what falls within the cut out as though viewing through a telephoto lens; while moving closer to your eye will reveal a scene seen through a lens with an increasingly wider angle of view. As experience is gained, the aid will no longer be necessary, and you will “see” things as areas of rectangles or squares of varying size depending on what it is you wish to include, and therefore get a good idea which lens is needed to achieve that framing. And, once you selectively narrow down your view of what is to be included within the frame, the next question is whether your selection contains a singular focal point, or if not, can it stand alone simply as a random grouping of “things”. This process can be used for almost any subject, no matter how minimalist or intricate it may be.

“Happy Trees”

General Thoughts
Fairy Tale Forest - Original Raw FIle

OMG!! – ORF!! —  (Original Raw File)

Whenever we go out on a photo shoot, no matter the subject matter, the usual course of events afterward is to download the images onto the computer, and sift through them all to find the very best ones to process into a final image that meets your original intent in taking the photo in the first place. Whatever the vision in your mind was when you tripped the shutter, will hopefully be fully realized after the file is tweaked, using every bit of your skills in the software you use, along with some imagination to overcome any problems the file may exhibit. However, sometimes we are faced with complete and utter disappointment upon first viewing the files. You might even ask yourself, “How did I screw that up so badly??!!” What was I thinking?? Probably something other than photography!! So on occasion, probably more often than we would like to admit, we get it all wrong. It happens to all of us because no one gets it all right every single time. It may be the exposure is way off, the balance is bad, the sun is shining into your lens, stray objects intrude along the edges of the frame, aliens, or so many other things that can go wrong with a photo, usually do. What happens when there is a bad image in my latest batch of photos? In Lightroom, it is assigned an “X”, and after all the bad ones are identified, they are all trashed. Later on, in a few months or years, I may go through the files again and decide to trash more photos, trying to keep the space they occupy on any hard drives, external or internal, is kept to a minimum.

Of course, I would never have taken a photo like the one above, but for some odd reason,  it was among all the other photos I took that day of the spring buds at White Oak Marsh on the edges of Jordan Lake. Having nothing else to do that day but contemplate my navel, I opted to not “X” it out and take on the challenge to salvage the image, utilizing some new options I came across recently having to do with split toning, and the “Orton Effect”. I had heard of each in the past, but never bothered to really look into them until recently when I found a video by Mark Denney (click here to see the video) that explained, in simple terms, split toning and it’s possible uses, and another by Matt Koslowski (click here to see the video) with a pretty comprehensive explanation of several ways to create The Orton Effect in both Lightroom and Photoshop.

Split Toning Finally Understood

General Thoughts
Dogwood and Redbud in Spring - Jordan Lake State Recreation Area, NC © jj raia

Dogwood and Redbud in Spring – Jordan Lake State Recreation Area, NC © jj raia

Split Toning has always been something of a mystery to me. I’ve understood some of the basics, but never really used it much; usually just adding a bit of warmth to the highlights of an image, but nothing more than that. But I found a simple explanation by North Carolina photographer Mark Denney this morning, and you can see his video explanation here >> (Mark Denny – Split Toning).

I’ve been waiting patiently to retake an image I took a few years back of some dogwood blooms and a redbud tree in the forest around Jordan Lake. The original image was taken in the morning after the sun had risen and a few shafts of sunlight filtered into the scene, and I hoped to retake it when there was only the light of the clear blue sky either before sunrise or after sunset. Last year and the year before I never saw the blooms and wondered if the trees had died. But this year, when I passed the spot, I saw the redbud and a few dogwood blooms and I hoped to get to it before the flowers were gone. I got over there last evening and, continuing to get acquainted with the new 70-300mm lens, I retook the shot (testing the lens performance at higher f/stops) even though the dogwoods were not anywhere near as prolific as the previous image. The image wasn’t what I’d hoped for, but I figured I would put the split toning information I gathered from the Denney video to the test with yesterdays take.

It always helps to add a little color separation in the image if there is flat lighting, as this situation was, for some added depth that it would otherwise completely lack. Cool colors tend to recede while warmer colors come forward. So, by adding warmth to the highlights and blue to the shadows with the use of split toning, it created a bit more separation of the elements within the frame, and a bit more three dimensionality. It’s a very subtle difference, but it is a good post processing tool to have at your disposal to improve any image when you come across a situation without much in the way of shadows.

If you find Denney’s video helpful, please share it and help a fellow NC photographer.

Spring Continues

General Thoughts
Spring Buds at White Oak Marsh - Jordan Lake, NC

Spring Buds at White Oak Marsh — Jordan Lake, NC

The new 70-300mm lens has been a bit tough to determine whether it was working properly since it first arrived. Originally, it was a camera firmware update that was the culprit for the lens and camera not “talking” to one another, and then I found that the old polarizer I had left over from the “film days” did not provide the sharpness I would like (maybe I’m too critical), so I ordered a circular polarizer and determined it was a bit sharper. However, while testing it, I found that after several shots, the wireless remote failed to trigger the shutter. At first I thought it was the original focus problem resurfacing, but instead, it seemed that the remote shutter release battery had failed, and when it was replaced with a spare from my bag, it began to fire again. Since I only needed a few more frames for the testing, I figured the problem was solved. But I wanted to give it another try out in the field the next morning with everything working properly to ensure there were no other issues that would impact the lens itself. With firmware and circular polarizer in place, along with an operating remote release, returning to the White Oak Marsh, I took three shots with the remote, and it again failed to trigger the shutter!! Now I was feeling really frustrated, but in one last attempt to get things working properly, I replaced the battery in the remote again with one I had placed in the bag for a spare…and it began working again. I figured that I had probably replaced the battery once before, put the old battery back in the bag and had forgotten to replace it with a new, fresh battery. I had replaced the dead battery the day before with another dead battery!! So now, with everything working as intended, I could concentrate on the spring buds at White Oak Marsh again without any distractions from the equipment. Finally, it seemed the lens worked fine without any reservations.

Morning Mist at White Oak Marsh - Jordan Lake, NC

Morning Mist at White Oak Marsh – Jordan Lake, NC

I was glad to get the remote working again because I found during the last fiasco that even tripping the shutter with the self-timer caused a bit of blur when zoomed out to the full 300mm. Using a remote release with the mirror lock-up keeps things razor-sharp, and that is the preferred method with every shot, no matter what lens is in use. With the mist rising from the marsh waters as the sun came up over the far tree line, it was backlit by the sun and keeping it out of the frame eliminated the need for two or more differently exposed frames because of the tonal range being too great to capture in a single frame; and since there were no clouds in the sky, the sun would detract from the focus on the rising mist.

Change of Plans

General Thoughts
Filtered Light — Jordan Lake State Recreation Area, NC © jj raia

Filtered Light — White Oak Marsh, NC © jj raia

Last Saturday night I checked the Clear Outside App for the cloud cover forecast at sunrise the next morning, and since it predicted about 35% high cloud cover, I intended to head out to Falls Lake in hopes of some dramatic sunrise light. So, as is usually the case, the alarm went off at O-Dark-Thirty, quietly got dressed and gathered all the gear, but had second thoughts. The lake really didn’t offer many differing opportunities other than just the water hopefully reflecting the beautiful sky. But if that didn’t materialize, it would most likely be a zero. So I thought about taking a shorter drive to the bridge over Oak Creek Marsh which, at this time of year, should have the sun coming up beyond the water there. It has quite a few standing snags, stumps and other things of interest, rather than simply the large expanse of water at Falls Lake. Of course, if things fizzled out at the marsh, I would be kicking myself for having changed my mind!!

Sunrise at White Oak Marsh © jj raia

Sunrise at White Oak Marsh © jj raia

Arriving with just a hint of light on the horizon, it appeared the sun would rise close to the stretch of water that flows through the marsh, so that part of the equation worked out. As for the sky, I don’t know where the other 30% of the clouds were, but they weren’t there. I suppose they left town early. The sunrise had some color, but not much in the way of clouds. I managed to gingerly make my way down from the road, through the jumbled rock pile to the water’s edge for a single shot before the color began to disappear. But it was not a very clean image, with too many distractions along with many of the elements blended together in large dark areas without definition. If I had stayed up on the road, I would have seen more of the water further into the scene, but lost some of the reflections of color, and would have had to shoot through some trees, further filling the frame with black shapes. Moving over toward the bridge would have a clear view, but the reflection of the sunrise colors would have shifted over the land and been lost all together. There were options, but none of them great.

Deeper into Digital

General Thoughts
Basket of Roses and Shells BLUR  © jj raia

What Kind of Lens Would Take This?   © jj raia

There hasn’t been a new piece of equipment added to my camera bag since the purchase of my first (and only) DSLR back in 2012 when I finally left the world of film behind and never looked back. So I was a little excited when a replacement for an old manual focus 80-200mm lens arrived. The main drawback of the lens was, of course, the manual focus; but also the lens rotates as you focus, meaning the polarizing filter that was always attached, altered the image as it was rotated. So when it was focused, the polarizer needed to be adjusted, which sometimes rotated the lens a bit, so another slight adjustment to focus was needed. With my eyesight not what it once was, I figured it was finally time for an auto-focus lens. Another lovely perk of my continuing advancement in age, I have found I can no longer hand-hold the camera steady enough to maintain sharpness, and I’ve always wanted a bit more reach than the 200mm end provided. So I opted for a right-out-of-the-box, brand, spanking, new 70-300mm lens with the accompanying bells and whistles of some new fangled auto-focus motor (with corresponding switches), vibration reduction (also, with corresponding switches) and quite a few rave reviews for sharpness, figuring this leap in technology was about to make my photographic experiences that much easier and more fruitful. Just a few simple tests to determine everything was fine and I would be off to the races with the new addition.

70-200mm Manual Focus Lens

70-200mm Manual Focus Lens

But I have to gripe a minute or two here as there is one feature the old lens had that I will truly miss. Almost all lenses today are auto focus, and therefore do not have external focus rings (most are now internal) with distance markings, or f/stop markings on the  lens barrel as older prime lenses did, and in some cases, even zoom lenses as this one. My new, super-duper-techno lens has neither, not even a little window to see at what distance it is focused. There is no sure fire way to set the focus for hyper-focal distances whereby you can immediately determine what would be in focus for your chosen f/stop simply by reading the markings on the focus ring and barrel of the lens!! In the picture above, the old (outdated?) lens is set at  the blue f/22, with the corresponding f/stop under the black dot. By setting the focus ring as seen here, using the corresponding blue lines, the infinity marking lines up with the blue line on one side, and the 5-meter mark on the opposite side of the center white line. So you would then know that everything from about 15ft. to infinity is in focus. Done!! Simple and Easy!! Nothing like it on the new lenses for that determination!! But I digress.


General Thoughts
Faded Panel No.4 — Rocky Mount, NC

Faded Panel No.4 — Rocky Mount, NC © jj raia

It is not a revelation that revisiting a specific location under differing conditions of light, time of day or year, or different weather conditions, can produce different photographs from the previous visit. But the simple fact of being there again also allows you to capture things that may not have been seen initially. This is especially true for the natural landscape, but can be equally true when wandering around an urban landscape as well. During a visit to Rocky Mount, NC early last November under a cloudless, blue sky, most of the images I photographed were of subjects that fell in the shade at the time, with a few areas even enhanced with some reflected light that is often sought after in the “natural” landscape. A more recent visit a week ago to the same block under overcast skies was a completely different experience from the one in November. Of course, some of the reflected light was missing, but the entire area was now under even light. Harsh light was not an obstacle to overcome as it was in the first visit, and the only restriction was what to put within your frame. Everything you could see was a possible photograph unrestricted by the lighting from the sun. One image I wanted to take in November was ruined by the shadow of overhead wires falling across the image above, and even though I took the shot, the shadows were too much of a distraction. But this time, I was free to utilize the entire board in any way to create something from the chaos of swirling colors and fading paint. There were countless options unhindered by the shadows.

Yellow Wall — Rocky Mount, NC  © jj raia

Yellow Wall — Rocky Mount, NC © jj raia

While some photos are more easily photographed with the even light of an overcast sky, they may lose some of the texture and character. Although I had shot this yellow door in November with the advantage of the sunlight raking across the surface of the wall and enhancing the textures (below), as a way to illustrate the difference the light can make, I shot the image above under the overcast light a week ago. It resulted in a completely flat and lifeless image compared to its sunlit counterpart. Sometimes the light can be an advantage as it is here, but if it were only few minutes later as the sun moved across the sky, the wall would have fallen in shadow and been rendered as lifeless as the image above.

Yellow Brick Wall - Rocky Mount, NC  © jj raia

Yellow Brick Wall – Rocky Mount, NC © jj raia

Some possibilities throughout the area as I wandered were textural, with or without an implied subject or focal point, utilizing the swirling patterns of a painted plywood panel (top), or the strict geometry of a garage door and concrete wall (below).

Faded Black Patterns — Rocky Mount, NC

Faded Black Patterns — Rocky Mount, NC © jj raia

Sometimes, it is not only the flaking and peeling paint that creates the interest, it may be more about the harmonious colors that wander around the frame. The blue sky reflections on the door handle below, in a minor way enhances the harmony of color that would have been lost on the overcast day. And shooting in the shade with a blue sky above will usually give an overall blue cast to your image which you can use to your advantage, eliminate in post processing, or artificially add it in post processing to an image that otherwise lacks that blue cast.

Door Detail - Rocky Mount, NC  © jj raia

Door Detail – Rocky Mount, NC © jj raia

Some photos might depict an implied history beyond the eroding paint or graphics, while others may simply be an exercise in texture and/or shapes. But it certainly is fun to lose yourself in the past, whether it is the more recent, where time is measured in decades, or the more distant past, where it is measured in millenia.

White Wall — Rocky Mount, NC

White Wall — Rocky Mount, NC © jj raia



Wake Up!!!

General Thoughts
Christmas Cactus  © jj raia

Christmas Cactus © jj raia

The new year has not begun on a very productive note, especially in light of the fact that I have barely taken my camera out to photograph anything. I haven’t gotten my self up to photograph a sunrise and have been generally uninspired to tackle anything photographically. I suppose nothing sparked my imagination; nothing to get my mind working in any direction artistically, and I didn’t seem particularly interested in even trying. It wasn’t any kind of “block” that I imagine only writers have; it was simply nothing happened that brought on any artistic movement within me. I didn’t think anything of it, although I have been itching to get out and shoot something…anything. But an object at rest, namely me, tends to remain at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. So I was simply exhibiting a simple law of physics as stated by Sir Isaac Newton in what I believe was his first law. So the first 6 weeks of the year have been a steady diet of nothing.

Over the course of the winter, we had some pretty heavy rain, and a Christmas Cactus we had in our screened porch, unknown to us, had been sitting in a tray of water for quite some time, and since discovering this, it has not been seen to revive in any way. Many of the “branches” lost much of their color, laying in a limp lump, and it appears the plant will not be coming back to life any time soon. Yesterday, my wife picked up one of the branches off the floor of the porch and placed it on the coffee table and it was like I was slapped in the face. WAKE UP!!! I immediately saw it along with some of the other branches, either in or through the throes of death, in an arrangement on the black panel of foam core I use from time to time as a still life background. My wife and I collected a few more of the branches and began playing with various combinations until we were satisfied with the arrangement you see above. I brought the grouping inside and placed them on the black board on a table by a bank of windows. I got out the tripod, used a polarizing filter to cut the glare from both the foam core and the branches to deepen the color and contrast. The windows were the only light source which I helped a bit with a small piece of white foam core to reflect the window light back into some of the shadowy areas. It wasn’t very difficult to get the proper exposure since I’ve done this procedure quite a few times by now ( -1 stop is a good starting place). The meter tries to overexpose the image by making the black into a brighter tone toward middle gray. Compensating one stop lower brings it back to the very dark value it is. I had to use a pretty high f/stop to keep everything tack sharp without focus stacking, which unless absolutely necessary, I try to avoid. A low ISO (100) to keep noise to a minimum and some cleaning up in Photoshop with a bit of work in Lightroom brought out the colors and textures of the plant and made the background completely black.

I hope this winter’s photographic hibernation has been broken and more inspiration slaps me in the face soon.




Final Fotos of 2018

General Thoughts
Chinese Lantern Tree No.1  © jj raia

Chinese Lantern Tree No.1 © jj raia

Trees have always been a prime subject for my photography, in all seasons and in all shapes. But during a recent first visit to the annual Chinese Lantern Festival in my hometown just before Christmas, I was a bit surprised that there were a couple of trees included among the varied and wonderful light sculptures. I had never visited the Festival before, and really didn’t know what to expect; but what I saw was truly amazing. I can’t imagine all the tedious work that must have been involved in making each of these displays of shapes formed with wire and wrapped with a thin, almost silky fabric, but see through enough to allow the varied colored lights inside to make the sculptures glow in the night.

Photographing them did present a few problems to overcome, mainly the throng of people, literally shoulder to shoulder, wandering throughout the festival. Backing up to include an entire sculpture was out of the question since people would then fill the space in front of you, thereby blocking the photo. And it was extremely difficult to isolate an individual sculpture from the myriad of others so closely spaced in the area. So for the image above, I opted to take a horizontal, two panel panorama taking the top first and then the bottom, and also keeping in mind the constantly changing colors of the lighted balls throughout the scene to match how were at one particular moment. As it was, there was an extra bit of work involved in post processing to eliminate some things in the distance that proved to be distractions, and in keeping with my photographs of real trees, I tried to be faithful to the main subject, and to display it in all its glory as it was.

Chinese Lantern Tree No.2  © jj raia

Chinese Lantern Tree No.2 © jj raia

I was truly amazed at the intricately twisted and gnarly tree with all the panda bears “playing” on and around it. The “flowers” were constantly changing color and I found that if I timed it right, I could capture the change of colors and not have all the flowers identically colored. However, a second brighter image was needed to bring out the dark textures of the trunk and limbs to make them stand out against the black background. The two frames were easily merged in layers with a layer mask in Photoshop.

Swans at the Chinese Lantern Festival  © jj raia

Swans at the Chinese Lantern Festival © jj raia

Of course, there were plenty of other sculptures throughout the grounds, including dragons and swans, but they were a bit difficult to capture, and I did the best I could considering the crowds. But any subject always seems to look more dramatic with a black background.