Archive for May, 2011

Strange Photos from the West

To paraphrase Clutch a bit.

I’m back.


Challenging was the watchword for this vacation.  Between the weather and the accessibility issues, my photography skills were put to the test.  Sometimes I passed, sometimes I failed, but overall it was a good trip.  I just heard a weather update for the Eastern Sierras and the mountains got another 6 inches of snow the other day.  Mammoth got 55 feet so far this season.

55.  Feet.

Of.  Snow.

They probably won’t close the mountain at all which is saying something for a ski resort that typically stays open through the Fourth of July.  For an easterner, it was pretty amazing.  You gotta really love winter to live in Mammoth.  This year, that’s all you’re probably gonna get.

So I’ve sorted through my 849 photos and set 241 aside for further investigation.  Some will (and already have been) be published to flickr, some will just be for me as a reminder of my trip.  Here’s one from Bodie, the Disney World of ghost towns.


The light was the biggest problem.  High desert light is harsh pretty much all the time –  from 9 am until a couple hours before sunset.  Given that that time is the most active for us humans, most of my photos are really just for me and aren’t all that great.  Sometimes that light worked with a subject (like the burned area of desert right outside Mono Lake), but that was pretty rare.  Most of the time it was awful and unworkable with washed out colors, compressed tonal ranges and big shadows.

The next biggest problem was accessibility.  Google maps and Photographer’s Ephemeris can only do so much.  When you show up to a location to find a locked gate, a 5-foot snowbank  or a river in the shackles provided by the Los Angles Water Department, you can either give up or try for second best.  I lost a couple sunrises and sets due to this.  It’s tough not being a local.  Trying to find somewhere decent for civil twilight is a bitch.

Then there was the weather.  Overall pretty good, but a couple days were so windy down in the Mono Lake basin that you couldn’t stay outside of shelter for long.  I think I ate a half-pound of sand during the day.   And damn if the camera wasn’t filthy after that.  Bah.  Couldn’t use the tripod much either because I took the little one, not the one that weighs 8 pounds.   In South Lake Tahoe we had wind and cold temps, so I didn’t shoot much at all.  The wind off the lake is enough to freeze your fingers off.  Hard to believe it’s the end of May.  I guess complaining about New England springs is out, huh?

Creatively speaking, I wasn’t on my game.  Most of my shots are pretty average.  I stopped to take enough pictures to feel guilty about it so after a while I didn’t so much and then didn’t spend much time being creative at each location.  Part of the compromise of not being on assignment for National Geographic, but on vacation.  Basically I’ve got a lot of documentary stuff and not specifically created images.  Again, it’s a bitch not being a local.

So by now you’re wondering if there was an upside?  Yeah, there was.  Gorgeous scenery.  Seriously, I sometimes wonder why I live in the east (then I remember there’s no weather here that will destroy my house).  But for vacations, I love going west.  The sheer vastness is refreshing.  You can see so far.  And the mountains are so amazing.  Plus I love the desert and all that it holds – like the amazing wildflowers.  We climbed old volcanoes.  Witnessed a great sunrise at Mono Lake.  Drove some death roads.  Saw lots of snow.  And cows.  Oh and we went to a pumice pit – something we’re going to keep laughing about for a long time.



More Microscapes

Been working on my microscapes this year.  Experimenting with light mostly.  Including dappled sunlight, trying for some drama and separation.  That’s what the sunlight does in the woods, it highlights certain things and shadows others.  It’s some of what makes the woods magical, at least to me.

Here’s one of a medium-sized painted turtle I found on a trail the other day.  Boy was it feisty.  Raring to go.

Eastern Painted Turtle

It was cooperative and surprisingly unafraid (compared to the Blanding’s turtle this one was posing!) so I carried it to a disused trail I knew to have a large vernal pool next to it.  Before letting it go I had a little portrait session, deliberately putting the turtle in the shade with some sun to highlight the top of the shell and that great curve.  It took a few minutes because try as I might, that turtle just wouldn’t take direction.  Then it just stopped and gave me the stink eye.  Perfect.

This next one is kind of fun.  I love ferns as you’ve probably noticed, and these Christmas ferns are no exception.  I found them on a trail that I took by mistake.  Aren’t happy accidents great?  The sun lit them up and I thought of seahorses.  Someone else suggested dragons.  The sun moved fast though and the shots I took right after this (I mean seconds after) don’t have that great highlight on the new fronds.  It really was right place, right time.  I copied the leading fern from last year from another shot I took earlier in the month that didn’t work out well.  This time I think it does.


Both shots were done with my standard Zuiko Digital 12-60mm lens and both had some work in Lightroom done with the adjustment brush and the graduated filter tools.  As I worked the fern image I realized the color version wasn’t cutting it.  It had no punch unless I slid the saturation slider to ludicrous.  So I switched to monochrome and yeah, baby, that was it.  A little work with the color level sliders and I had what I wanted.  I think it brings up the texture and shapes more than the color one does and that was what caught me in the first place.  That and the ferns themselves all lit up.  Ah spring, it is magical.

On the vacation side we’ve got a few more details buttoned down.  Driving from Reno to Bishop on Sunday.  I’m sure we’ll stop A LOT along the way.  Highway 395 through there is supposed to be one of the most beautiful drives in the country.  I read that another photographer tried to get to a trailhead outside Bishop the other day and was stopped by a 7-foot wall of snow in the road.  It will definitely be an adventure.  We’re going to try for Convict lake and canyon at any rate.  Then a day at Mono Lake (OMG!!!) and some time a Bodie the preserved mining town.  We’ll be a day in South Lake Tahoe and the options there are almost mind-boggling.  Whatever we do I’m sure it will be great and I’ll try not to be an obsessive photographer.

Spring Beauties

Back to your regularly scheduled program.  More nature stuff.

I am a bit bummed at the moment because I came upon a very active great blue heron rookery the other day and my old 300mm lens isn’t up to the task.  Most of my old legacy glass is still very good when paired with a digital body, but not that one.  I kind of knew it going in since it’s not a high-end lens to begin with.  My 180mm would probably give better results, but it doesn’t have nearly the reach I need.  So I’ll just go there and watch the birds instead of photographing them.  There are probably 30 nests with sitting birds all in one tight little area.  Strangely it’s not noisy except for the grackles.  The herons make those croaky noises when mates greet each other at the nest, but that’s it.  The babies are barely old enough to stretch their heads up to be seen, but when they’re older they will probably be noisy.  Here’s a semi-ok shot if you don’t look at it much larger than this.

Nesting great blue herons

There’s always next year when hopefully I can afford a decent long lens.

Wildflower season continues to be productive although I my patience is really being tried by the black flies and mosquitoes.  Why oh why do bug season and wildflower season have to coincide?  Many times I bail on a little scene because the bugs drive me out.  Once while photographing my first ever coltsfoot and that was really a bummer.

Fringed polygala are one of my favorite wildflowers. I used to pick them as a kid and give them to my mom along with many other ragged little offerings.  In this little scene they look to be playing a game of Blind Man’s Buff.

Fringed Polygala (ZD 12-60mm f2.8-4)

Another pink beauty is bog laurel.  With a name like that you wouldn’t think it, but look how lovely it is.  The blossoms are very much like sheep laurel, but the leaves are different, they remind me of rosemary.  From observation it seems they start out a more intense pink and fade as the blossoms age.

Bog Laurel (ZD 12-60mm f2.8-4)

This next one I’ve never photographed before and these were the only blooms I saw all day.  I’ll try for something better when they are more abundantly blooming.

Yellow Clintonia aka Bluebeard Lily (ZD 12-60mm f2.8-4)

Both painted and purple trilliums were out yesterday, but mostly painted.  Here’s a couple at different stages along their life cycles.  Lately I’ve been working in more dappled sunlight to my wildflower shots and I like it a lot when I can pull it off.  Part of what makes the woods magical is that dappled sun winking in and out of the undergrowth.  As the trees move into full-leaf, it will be even more spotty.  I like the sun on the petals and the shadows.  The second one was in full shade, but the way the wilted petals drooped so perfectly, I just had to stop and bear the bugs until the breeze died down.

Painted Trillium (ZD 12-60mm f2.8-4)

Wilted painted trillium (ZD 12-60mm f2.8-4)

And a shot of rhodora in the afternoon sun.  While waiting for a particular heron’s mate to return to the nest, I shot these gorgeous little flowers in dramatic lighting.  They’re so primitive yet intricate.  Like little explosions; fireworks in the form of flowers.  They don’t bloom long though.

Rhodora (ZD 12-60mm f2.8-4)

And so you don’t think I’m all flowers all the time, here’s some fungus –

Tiny mushrooms (OM 90mm f2 legacy macro)

This last one was really fun.  The largest of these is 1cm across (3/8 inch) and so delicate I hardly dared breathe on them.  There were hundreds on a stump in the woods and their intensely cheery color just drew me to them.  My friend Melissa and I get trapped by time-sucking mushroom logs quite frequently and this one was no exception.  I did have to wait a bit for the sun to pass and create shade with my hands, too, but it was worth it.

So that’s it probably for a little bit.  We’re leaving for California on the 21st and I’m still nervous that I’ll choke at Mono Lake and at Bodie the famous ghost town.  But I’ll give it my best and hope for it as well.  It will be a break from New England woods and wildflowers at least.  Mountains here I come!

Out of My Head

Just a quick post of some more unusual shots I’ve taken lately.  No, I haven’t abandoned my hyper-literal, documentary style, but I had some fun and thought I’d share.

Death Can Dance (dead trees reflected in a forest pond)

Spring in Abstract (blurred leaves in fg and a reflection of more in a vernal pool)

Tamarack Pine with its bog in the bg

It’s sometimes VERY hard for me to see in abstract.  My brain’s not wired that way, but I sometimes go out of my head.

Are we blind?

So I’ve been taking a lot of pictures lately. Every week for the past couple of years pretty much.  Lately I’ve seen an improvement in my work and it’s gratifying.  Not that I’m trying to toot my own horn or anything so arrogant, it’s just something I’ve noticed.  Pretty much at the same time I’ve also noticed that some people just never seem to get better and I wonder why they are photographers at all.

For me at least, photography is about improving the way I see.  Observationally as well as critically.  Both can apply to what’s around you and the decision making process of producing a photograph, and to photos after they’ve been captured and you’re deciding what to do with them.  As an extension, I also include looking at other people’s work.  If you’re like me you participate in online forums and follow people on flickr and other hosting sites.  There’s one of these that I’ve been a part of for quite a few years, participating off and on since my film days.  Lately I’ve noticed that some of the other folks just haven’t improved.  The photos they submit in threads are at best nice snaps and sometimes downright terrible.  Some of them have been photographing in this way for years and it makes me wonder, why do they bother?  Can’t they see?

Some of the blame I think has to be that on most forums people are either discouraged from or afraid to give really harsh criticism.  I’m guilty, too, because I don’t want to make people feel bad, I don’t want to be a jerk, I don’t want to get bounced out of a forum and I don’t want the backlash that comes (flamewar).  Even in “critique” forums I tread lightly, offering what I hope are constructive ideas with a dash of praise.  Strangely I don’t offer much up to other’s review because I know how confining it can be distanced from the photographer and the situation when the image was made.  So how the hell can I be so chickenshit and yet claim to have improved?  Well, let me show you an example using the same subject.

This is Tucker falls in early December 2009.  At the time I was pretty proud of this and my technique.  It’s an OK shot, but I can see a lot wrong with it now.  The highlights are blown in the water and in the trees.  The colors are flat and the foreground is pretty dull.  I can’t remember if I used a polarizer or not, but I stopped the lens down to an extreme (f20) so I doubt I used one.  The poor thing could stand a bit of contrast and curves adjustment.  Also it’s a jpeg file so is somewhat limited as to processing options.  I do like the touch of sun on the tree trunks just above the water, but I didn’t do anything with it.  Probably because I didn’t ‘see’ it.  Oh and dig my crooked horizon (that oak on the left doesn’t really tilt like that).  Sigh – you gotta start somewhere, right?

Let’s move to a shot I took yesterday at the same location.  Granted it’s a different season, but I don’t think that matters.

Now that’s an improvement.  No blown highlights in the water, just a very few in the center of the trees above.  The composition is much more compelling with those logs lined up that way.  The colors POP like they did to my eyes…spring greens and muted sun.  Some of that is processing, but for me that’s part of my skill as a photographer.  Aligning a RAW file with my vision and intent are no less important than framing, composing and exposing the thing in the first place.  Also I used a polarizer to minimize reflection and glare and didn’t choke the lens down, instead keeping it in its sweet spot for maximum sharpness (f14 this time).

Is it the most amazing picture ever?  Nah.  Will this stand as one of my best photos a year from now?  Maybe, maybe not, but I hope I will have made another step toward being a better photographer in that time.  That will include continuing to evaluate my previous work and finding ways to advance my skills.  It will include studying other people’s work and discovering new ways to view scenes or process images.  It will include taking risks and trying out new things (future post alert!).  It will include failing and crappy pictures, too.  If I’m lucky and diligent, hopefully fewer of those, but I’m sure I’ll still take them.

So what do you think?  Am I nuts?  Am I still taking shitty pictures?  Has there been any discernable growth?  I’m not fishing for compliments, really.  It’s tough to stand outside your own head sometimes.  So go ahead.  Dogpile!

A Photographic Cliche – Wildflowers

I can’t help myself.  I’m a nature and outdoors photographer.  That means I shoot a lot of wildflowers.  Yeah, it’s a cliche, but sometimes they are just so lovely I can’t pass them by.  This year I’m trying to capture the quality of light as well as the flowers themselves and so far it’s been pretty good, like the purple trillium shot from the last post.  Here are some more.

Marsh Marigold


Wood anemone

So far so good.  Others are out, too, like wild oats and gold thread, but right now I’m concentrating on shooting flowers I don’t have good images of yet and I have some of those.   More are coming like lady slippers, lilies, irises and fringed polygala (one of my favorites) and so more cliches are headed your way.  You’ve been warned!

Spring photography – not for the faint of heart

I have a love/hate relationship with spring.  In the love category we have the fact that when a breeze hits your face it doesn’t feel like it will freeze off.  Also the twittery, fluttery birds all excited to be making more birds.  Tree frogs.  And the lovely green of the pale leaves as the trees come back to life.  How about them flowers?  What’s not to love you say?


For those of you who have never ventured into New England in spring are only missing one thing.

Black flies.  Mosquitoes.

Ok, two things.  They really make me miserable.  I have excellent anti-bug goo, but all it does is keep them from actually biting me, which I suppose is good, but I wish it would keep them away, too.  Instead I get a cloud of them buzzing around my head.  Very distracting and frustrating for the nature photographer.  Especially since I do a lot of tripod work very close to the ground.  Bah.

But I put up with them the other day and came up with a few lovelies including this big girl –

Blanding's turtle (legacy OM 90mm f2 macro)

I met her trying to get up the steep embankment of an old logging road in a state park. Well, steep for a turtle anyway. So I helped her up it and set her by the tree. Waiting for her to stick her head out was agony because of the bug cloud encircling my own. Eventually she did though she never moved or put a foot out. Luckily I had the legacy 90mm f2 lens for some extra reach. A fellow photographer corrected my ID and pegged it as a Blanding’s turtle, more rare in NH, but known in the area I found it.

Earlier I’d been wildflower hunting.  I didn’t find what I was after (the ever elusive bloodroot), but I did find some purple trilliums sunbathing.  They were about a foot high so I could shoot an up from under microscape and get those great leaves in the sunlight.  They just pop.

The Sunbathers (Purple Trillium)

These are right next to a tiny cemetery and so I think people planted these lilies and forsythia which made for an eye-catching swath of color –

Double Nature

I’ll try to remember to go back when they bloom.  If I can brave the bugs that is.