Archive for April, 2011

Smoke On the Water

Often when I post photos of moving water looking all smooth, silky or smoky I get comments asking how I achieve that result.  So I decided to write this post using my latest batch of images to illustrate things (and give you a couple of Lightroom tips in the bargain).  Don’t say I never gave you anything.

First you’ll need a tripod.  If you don’t have one buy one.  If you don’t have money, borrow one and save up.  It’s a necessity not just for this, but for a lot of other types of pictures, too.  I’m not a wicked tripod snob, for these shots I used a small Slik model that only weighs a couple of pounds.  It is plenty stable for my camera and lens.  Sometimes I drag my ancient Bogen with me because it’s taller and more robust, but if I’m hiking I take the little Slik.  For some helpful ideas on buying a tripod, check out Marko’s latest podcast on

Second stay out of the direct sun.  Get up before it does or go on an overcast day.  Chance the rain.  It’s the only way to get light that is even enough to keep you from blowing the highlights while keeping detail in the darker areas.  There’s enough dynamic range in fast flowing water as it is, don’t make it worse by going in bright sun.  Yes, recently I caught some sunlight in a waterfall, but it was early sun and angled very low to the ground so it worked.  Overhead sunlight is a real pain, so avoid if you can.  I walk away from waterfalls on a hike if it’s sunny; I know the results will be crap, so I don’t even bother.

Third use filters – a polarizer at least and a neutral density filter if you have one.  A polarizer filter helps to cut the glare and reflections on the water, but also on vegetation which really makes the colors pop (especially useful if the leaves are wet, which brings up the color, but also reflections).  A neutral density filter is like sunglasses for your camera.  It cuts the available light and allows for longer shutter speeds which is exactly what you need to give the water that smooth, silky look.  They come in different densities that reduce the exposure by a set number of stops.  I think I’ve got a 4 or 5 stop.  Combined with a polarizer it gets me good results.  A polarizer will generally cut 1-1 1/2 stops by itself.

Now, a lot of people think you need a long time, say 30 seconds or even more for shots like this, but I don’t go nearly that long.  I stay anywhere from 1 to 5 seconds generally at ISOs 100 and 200.  Here’s one from yesterday that’s 1.3 seconds at f10.

Lower Purgatory Falls

The big secret is to expose for the highlights!  It is REALLY easy to blow the whites in a waterfall.  That and the wrong white balance are my biggest pet peeves because both are easily avoided.  Watch your histogram or the high/low blinkies in your LCD screen…a little clipping is manageable, but a huge area is not.  Don’t worry that the rest of the shot is dark, you can correct for that in post processing.  Use spot metering if you have it and put it on the white water.

Another reason I don’t use very long exposure times is that I like being able to see the bottom of the stream and that often floating bubbles and debris will leave long trails in the photo as they pass by.  This shot was only 1.6 seconds at f9 and I love that you can see the rocks in the stream bed.  If I’d let it go longer, there’d be more distracting streaks.

Purgatory Brook and Mountain Laurel

As it is you get a sense of motion and of stillness.  I twisted the polarizer to full on to cut the glare on the leaves and bring up the richness of the green.  Ditto for the reflection of the sky in the water – it’s gone!

If you do blow more highlights than you intended, don’t worry too much.  You can use the adjustment brush in Lightroom (or similarly robust editing package) to correct those areas and bring the exposure down.  Providing you have some detail left and didn’t clip the water entirely, this can work and help give a more even exposure appearance.  I did that with this next shot because try as I might I just couldn’t get it right since the sun was almost overhead.

Looking down Purgatory brook

Just like I described in Black and White Photography 201, I used it here to bring down the exposure just a little.  For most of my work I turn the auto mask on so that it doesn’t leak the adjustment area out of the highlighted pass I make with the mouse.  Use an appropriate brush size (I always make mine a little on the large side) with a good amount of feather zone, flow and density.  It took me a lot of practice (do-overs) to get a feel for the tool, but now I use it a lot to manage the light and dark areas of my images.

Lastly, try to match your white balance to the scene.  If you go on an overcast day choose the cloudy or shade setting, they usually match pretty close (or a custom white balance if you’re feeling super techy) .  I’ve found that leaving it on auto often renders things much too cool and makes the water blue.  I hate that.  Sorry if you like it, that’s just me.  I’m kind of a realist when it comes to my nature photography and unless the water really was blue, it shouldn’t look like that in a picture.  Fix it in post if you don’t get it right in the camera.

Here’s a quick summary –

  1. Use a tripod
  2. No direct sun
  3. Use filters – polarizer and/or neutral density
  4. Expose for the highlights (spot metering helps)
  5. Use the adjustment brush or similar tool in post processing
  6. Use an appropriate white balance (no blue water!)

So that’s it.  After a while it becomes second nature, but at first you’ll probably have to practice a bit. Believe me, my first waterfall pictures are AWFUL.  I like to think I’ve improved.  At least a little.

My Other Other Blogs

You’d think I’d have my hands full with just this blog, but no.  Not me.  I also write for two others and I thought I’d let you guys know about them.

The first is the blog section on  The most recent article is Bokeh Baby!  It’s the third one I’ve written and there will be more to come.  I’ve tried to confine myself to a single aspect of photography, but fell off the wagon last month.  If you scroll around a bit you’ll find it.  Who else would write about cemetery photography?

Basically this gig came out of my participation in the forum which after lurking in others became an obvious breath of fresh air.  No gear bashing, technique glorifying, nasty-for-the-sake-of-it criticism, and most of all no preaching.  If you’re sick of that at other photography fora sites, check it out.  And bookmark the blog, too.  All kinds of useful and fun information pops up there and other forum denizens also write about their photography, so it’s a great mix.

The second one is The Backside of America; a blog devoted to abandoned places and urban decay, but with a slightly different take.  We’re not all about secrecy, trespassing, avoiding the cops and rappelling off roofs.  It’s a little more intimate; documenting the mundane, but fading aspects of America and how it changes.  Places and things that once had vitality, but are now forgotten, buried and somehow shameful to the people who once valued them.  I owe Dave an article so I’ll wrap up.

Before I do though, I’ll share a photo I took in the woods while on the mill quest from the previous post.  A fleck of blue in the leaf litter drew my attention.  Boy was I surprised at what it turned out to be –


Isn’t that the weirdest thing?  Both in terms of what it is (a crayfish claw presumably) and the color.  Blue crayfish.  I knew lobsters sometimes turned up blue, but crayfish too?  Huh.  I spied this on the trail that was some yards from the brook and mill pond, so I assume it came from there; dropped by a bird or raccoon.

So that’s it for now.  I may go try to check on some waterfalls later on…if the weather holds.  Knowing me I’ll be caught in a downpour.  Yay for Goretex!

Obsolete Technology – abandoned mills

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you probably noted my love of abandoned things and the woods.  Well lately I’ve been able to combine them in a really excellent way – mill ruins!

I went walking in some nature trails in Hampstead the other day and found three old mill sites in as many (or even fewer) miles.  Granted, it was one of the reasons I chose these trails in the first place, but I had no idea they’d be so cool.

Big Mama

Unfortunately I couldn’t find any information about the mills on this brook, or even the name of the brook (it’s probably something lame like Mill Brook or Mill Creek).  Most likely I’d have to hit up the local historical society to find out any info specific to these mills, but I’m lazy so continued to google.

I did find out that most mills built in New England between 1630 and the mid-1800s were done by individuals, sometimes millwrights proper, sometimes just by a guy with some know-how.  Usually the fees commanded by a millwright were pretty steep – up to 1/4 of whatever the product was.  Mostly that was flour or lumber because people needed those most and they were the most labor intensive to produce so people paid up.  Because the grinding was relatively slow, many mills were built to serve a very local community.  They were so important that mills were often the first thing built – before churches and schools even.

The Flow

Mostly they were undershot wheel mills or tub mills because both types could operate in shallow streams and rivers.  They produced mostly around 4-5 horsepower, but could go higher, especially during spring run off.  One of the mill sites I visited seemed to also have a spillway made by splitting off part of the stream to power the wheel and leaving another part to regulate the flow – water could be diverted to manage the power to the wheel, probably mostly used during spring run off.  The earthworks looked man-made and very deliberate to me –

Forest Flume

While I spend time photographing these ruins, I often find myself wondering who built them and what they made.  I recently heard about one in another town that was a potato starch mill.  I’d never have thought of that in a million years.

Photographing these is challenging.  Mostly it’s the terrain which can be steep, rocky, unstable and wet.  For this last one I had to wedge myself in the fork of a tree and lean out to get that long diagonal line.  Definitely not a tripod friendly position and so the fast(ish) shutter speed.  I think it emphasizes the speed of the water though.  The middle one was a more relaxed shoot – I just stood on the opposite wall with the tripod and camera pointed downward.  It’s my favorite of the bunch I took because I love the perspective and the trees growing in and near the far wall.  The first shot was taken from a bridge where the millpond ends; I balanced the camera on the railing and with a little Lightroom magic, I think the photo works pretty well despite the lighting conditions.  Most of these sites don’t allow for much clean up or beautification and so they look really messy and disorganized, but that’s how it is when humans give up and nature takes over.

10 Things I Love About Photography

I have a cold.  And when I have a cold I get cranky.  Inspired by a silly blog post about the 10 things someone hates about photography (and it was a stretch…color management?  really?  You hate color management?  You need a life, buddy.) I decided to do 10 things I love about photography.

  1. It feeds my solitary nature.  I’ve never been uncomfortable with just myself for company.  Sure, I love getting together with other photographers, it’s fun and I look forward to our meets every time, but photography is basically a lone occupation.  If you can’t hack being alone, photography is probably not for you.

  2. Fuels my appreciation for the outdoors.  My mom taught me that nature is glorious and wonderful and I’m so glad she did.  When I escape the sound of humanity, I feel better.  When I find some creature or scene to spend time with, I feel wonder and joy.  What’s better than that?
  3. Allows me to see what’s hidden in plain sight.  One of the reasons I do microscapes and macros is to see what goes unseen.  What other medium could do this?
  4. The sound of my OM-3 shutter release.  Sexy!
  5. My E-30.  Yes, even I am susceptible to Gear Acquisition Syndrome, but I shot with an OM-1 for 10 years without buying anything else.  Finding a well of satisfaction with your gear is something everyone should do.  And not just about cameras – other stuff too.  I’ve got a couple of cars one 23 years old, the other 13 and I love both, neither are going anywhere for a long time.  So technology changes, that’s the nature of it.  Learn when to say enough is enough.
  6. My OM 90mm f2 – I first lusted after this lens in the late 80s, but no way could I afford one.  Around 2000 I finally bought one and every time I use it, I fall in love all over again.  Probably the last lens I’d part with.  Sorry 12-60.
  7. Documents the impermanence of things.  The world changes so fast that a person can get dizzy.  Seeing how things used to be is a good place-holder for progress.  Showing how things were brings perspective that not everything lasts.
  8. Solidifies memories.  I have a REALLY bad memory.  To the point where stuff disappears. Whole events, years, decades, people just gone.  I think it’s something physical.  But when I have pictures things solidify in my brain and I retain some memories, flickering alone in the emptiness of my past.
  9. Makes me happy.  When I’ve nailed it I get this lovely glowing feeling of satisfaction.  Even when it’s an accident.  When other people say they like something I’ve done, that’s pretty cool, too.
  10. It’s completely up to me.  I shoot when I want to.  I stop when I don’t.  The trick is to not force it.  When I do, I take crappy pictures and who needs that?  Am I taking up too much time with photography?  I dial it back.  The fate of the world does not hinge on whether I get the shot or not.  If I think I’m being obnoxious on vacation or on a hike, I ask my companions and act accordingly.  No big deal.

So there negative guy.  This is why I keep doing what I do.  It’s why I always have.  It’s why I always will.

Not your typical wildflower

Let the microscapes begin!

Early Riser (skunk cabbage)

Not the most beautiful or delicate of wildflowers, but one of the first to appear.  I went wandering in one of the many nature preserves in Andover, Massachusetts the other day and one section of the swamp was covered with skunk cabbage.  I read that they can come up so early because they actually generate heat with their cellular respiration and can melt snow.  Amazing.  Oh and I just saw the photo on the wikipedia page – creepily similar to mine.

I found this one just off the wooden walkway and was struck by the excellent mossy foreground.  I’d been scanning for a plant to photograph and none looked so well-situated.  The big tree as background and the afternoon sun lighting up the flower itself were perfect to help this shot work.  I debated whether to leave last year’s flower in or not, but since I’d already tidied up the scene by removing some distracting twigs, I left it.

I didn’t see the spider thread when I shot it, but I like it now I do.  Ditto for those tiny sprouts near the main plant itself.  Amazing what is revealed in these kinds of photos and one of the reasons I keep doing them.  This one I basically handheld, but kept the lens hood on the moss itself to anchor the camera.  My husband looked on bemusedly.  He’s used to it.

Mining Bee Macro

A follow up to the last post, I went out back to the carpet of whitlow grass again and found it buzzing with tiny mining bees (1.5 cm or 5/8 in).  The sun being strong, but slightly diffused by clouds I went back in for the camera.  So glad I did –

Pollenator (E-30 | OM 90mm f2 legacy macro | ISO 200 | f5.6 | 1/1250 | handheld)

Isn’t she sweet?

Even though I’m out of practice with this lens, I got a decent shot.  Basically I have to shoot with the lens stopped down which darkens the viewfinder making it harder to see to compose and focus.  Luckily the light was strong and the wind marginal.

I’m always amazed that little creatures like these can make a living this time of year.  It makes these seemingly insignificant little weeds all the more important.  Oh and while I was hunched down there shooting, I noticed the whitlow grass has a most wonderful scent – like tulips.  It was very strong, but so welcome after the long winter.

Spring has Sprung

Remember that scene in The Jerk when Martin ran all over yelling “The new phonebook’s here!  The new phonebook’s here” ?  Well I felt like doing that about spring today.  This is what tells me it’s arrived –

First blooms (E-30 | OM 90mm f2 legacy macro | 25mm ext. tube | f11 or 16 | ISO 100 | 1/30th)

It’s whitlow grass and there’s a big patch of it in my backyard.  They’re the very first flowers to bloom after the snow melts.  I found them covered in frost this morning and when the sun came up, the frost turned to water droplets.  Each plant is 1 inch high right now (some smaller, some taller) and the closed blossoms are 3-4mm.  Tiny, but the early insects are buzzing around them already (they opened when the sun got higher).

I love the light in this one, but it was SO HARD to frame and focus in.  If I didn’t have a live view screen that swivels and tilts I couldn’t have shot it.  Ditto the zoom feature, so critical for macro focusing.  I’m pretty excited to be back in macro season.  Winter is so difficult for that kind of thing.  With new growth and life returning, I’m sure my pursuit of the microscape will go back into full swing.  I tried making a few this winter, but they didn’t work too well.  Not much poked up above the massive amounts of snow we got, and the light just wasn’t right.  But now spring has sprung, I’ll have more success.

The Art of the Do-Over

The nice thing about shooting my local area is that I can have do-overs.  My friend and fellow photographer Jeff and I have had conversations about this and although I stress over choking on vacation shoots, I don’t worry so much about local stuff.  I’m not going to steal Jeff’s thunder with this post since I know he’s planning to write about the same thing, but suffice to say that on my 3rd trip to Cold Brook and Senter falls, I finally got a shot that’s eluded me.


Try as I might I’ve just never come away of a good image of this section of the falls.  Today though I found a composition that works.  I had to shoot fast because that beautiful sunlight was getting away from me.  Too little and the scene is flat.  Too much and there’s blown highlights all over the place.  I’m pretty satisfied with the results.

I chased the light further up the falls and after some trial and error I got this –


I hadn’t caught light in the falls before and was so excited to try and capture its glow.  I think I did.  Was a little nerve-wracking though.  I wasn’t sure if I was stepping onto a snow-covered boulder or just some snow between boulders and I’d slam down and break my ankle.  Luck held though and even my ancient tripod made it through the ordeal.

For comparison and other views of the falls you can check out This Post and Flickr.

That’s about it.  Oh and one other tip for the field – if you’re setting your tripod down in mud, water, snow or something kinda mucky, slide the lowest section down first even if you don’t extend any other sections.  Yeah, I know this is contrary to popular tripod technique of extending from the top sections down, but this way keeps the wet stuff out of the leg locks.

Anyway, that’s it for now.  The first part of the week looks to be crappy weather-wise, so I’m not sure I’ll get out again soon.  Cheers!

The Intimidation Factor

Finally we’ve decided on where we’re going on vacation in May.  We’ve booked the airline flights and have a general idea of where we’ll go when we land.  Unfortunately it’s only one week, but we’ve had great vacations before with only a week.  So, where are we off to?

Eastern Sierras!  Mono Lake!  Mountains…desert…wide open spaces.  I can’t wait.

Pretty much all our vacations are out west.  Montana (four times).  Washington (twice).  Colorado (once).  California (half-dozen times or so, I lose count).  Utah (once).  Oregon (once).  Arizona (once).  The farthest east we’ve done is a week with friends in Marathon key and when we drove around Lake Superior.  Oh and Cape Cod.  There’s just something about the west that we love.  Certainly a lot of it is just the country itself.  The week we spent in Death Valley is probably my favorite vacation so far, followed by Utah and Colorado.  Our time in California is usually spent around Monterey, Big Sur and Paso Robles.  We’re big wine nuts and go to our favorite wineries every couple of years or so to taste new stuff, see what’s going on and pat the dogs.  Between tastings we do some hiking and exploring around and generally have a great time.

Photographically I’m not always on.  Some vacations I just blow it.  Like in Utah.  Overall I’m REALLY not happy with my output from that time.  I think it was because I hadn’t been doing a lot of photography and I lost my instincts.  Also, I fought the light and tried to shoot like it was perfect.  Resulting in really crappy photos.  Ditto the Lake Superior jaunt.  Crap piled upon crap.   My Colorado trip in the mid-90s produced some good work, but Montana was hit or miss.  In Washington, I did much better.    Unfortunately I was also suffering from Achilles tendinitis in both ankles and couldn’t hike at all.  Luckily I was healthy for our last trip to Big Sur and I got some terrific shots in Pinnacles, too.  But I’m not consistent.   Overall I can’t say I’m thrilled with my vacation photography at all.

So that’s why I’m intimidated as hell by the prospect of Mono lake.  And the Sierras.  And the desert.  I’ve been to each of those types of places before and have shot well from time to time, but this time I’m highly aware of myself as a photographer and am conscious of the fact that I have a tendency to fold under pressure.

The fact that I can’t be a total selfish ass is also part of the equation.  My husband is extremely patient and has never once given me a hard time about dragging him to weird places, getting up before the sun, stopping every five seconds to take yet another photo of yet another flower or being asked to hold a lens/filter/tripod/lens cap again.  Not once.  That’s one of the reasons I adore him and one of the reasons I restrain myself photographically.  We’re on VACATION.  It’s not an assignment for National Geographic.  I have to be really mindful of that.  He knows a lot of what we do is driven by my photography, but I never allow it to take over completely.

And back to intimidation.  Mono Lake.  Uttered by photographers with reverential tones of awe, it is definitely a place I can’t screw up.  I know it’s ridiculous to feel pressure, but I do.  And my trip is still over a month away.  And I have skills.  I just worry I’ll get overwhelmed and forget everything I know.  I’ve done it before.  But I’ve also done well on vacation and have to keep my head on straight so that I add this trip to my good list.

Anyway, that’s what’s been on my mind lately.  Today it’s snowing again so my spring shooting will have to wait some more.  I haven’t picked up the camera in a week and it feels weird.  No wonder I can only think about California and all that awaits.  Hopefully it’s just a phase and I’ll go out there feeling serene, confident and at ease with myself.