This doesn’t happen to me often, that I run into kind of eerie scenes in the woods. I mean the life of a nature photographer is about living things, right? But I found these eerie little vignettes within a few minutes of each other, so Happy Halloween everyone!
Exploring a whole new landscape has its ups and downs. On the one hand it’s exciting and the novelty of the new makes every nature preserve a mystery waiting to be solved. Tingly. I love that part of it. The downside for me is resetting my expectations. Especially this time of year (the natives call it falltime which is really weird, but whatever). Foliage makes for great landscapes, but I didn’t really find what I was looking for which was New England. Doh! You’re not in New England anymore!
So I had to adjust my sense of wonder and what makes a quintessential fall photograph. Not knowing what was what or what was where made things a little harder. Oh sure properties have descriptions and whatnot, but rarely are they accurate or line up with what I pictured in my mind. The trails just didn’t go where I thought they would – say to a free-flowing river, but instead would wind into a huge marshy area that was still the river, but not exactly easy to get to or photographically pleasing. I really needed to take off my blinders. And mostly I was successful, but really what I had to do was let myself off the hook. That is to allow myself to not take the most astounding photographs of my life and just get to know and appreciate my new location.
I have ideas now I’ve been here a few months. Locations I want to explore at other times of year. Natural features that are special to Wisconsin and how and under what circumstances I want to shoot them. After all, I’ve probably got decades ahead of me with this as a home base.
One of the things I noticed right away about the Wisconsin forest is how dramatically different the undergrowth is from New England. Check out the grass –
There’s tons of it all over. Sure, there are tufts here and there in New England forests, but not like this and once I spotted it I knew I’d have to find a scene that really showcased the lush growth. When I saw this one with its early smattering of leaves I knew it was the one.
Ferns are still prevalent in the undergrowth though and you know how I love them. Strangely, I haven’t seen any Christmas fern although the presence of Maidenhair is kinda making up for it. This is Evergreen fern I believe and it was instrumental in making many of the early fall photographs I really like.
One of my favorite trees is the Tamarack pine or Larch. In New England it really only grows in kettle bogs and similarly wet, nutrient-poor habitats. It’s a delicate beauty whose needles are soft and grow in little bunches all along the branches. It’s also the only conifer (to my knowledge) that drops all its needles in fall. Right now basically all the deciduous trees have dropped their leaves and so the still orange Tamaracks really stand out and they seem to be everywhere. I see them alongside most roads and I have ideas for next year, but they’ve already made great subjects this season.
You may not be able to tell, but those last two images are of the same trees, just shot from different sides of Game Pond. The other side of Game Pond is actually a kettle bog, well actually the whole thing is, but only one end is marshy and what we think of as boggy. That section isn’t large, but is typical of what grows in a kettle bog –
You can see bog cotton, black spruce, bog rosemary, leatherleaf and there could be some rhodora or bog laurel in there, but really Wisconsin is pretty laurel-free on the whole which is kind of a bummer. Should be great flowers here in spring though.
A lot of the terrain is quite flat in the northern part of the state, but sometimes I get lucky with rivers and ponds that give me a little elevation. Here’s a hillside leading down to the water and it’s wondrous to imagine how large the pond was when it was formed by the Pleistocene glacier –
Of course I’ve been aiming at the ground as well and wow, are there ever mushrooms! I’ll have to do a whole series just on mushrooms, but here’s what I found on this particular outing to Veterans Memorial park –
I used the diffuser on all of those mushroom shots and wow, what a difference, especially on the red russala. And of course the legacy Olympus 90mm macro.
So that’s my trip to the Veterans Memorial Park in Langlade county and how I’m adapting my photographic vision to my new state. I got out a few more times before stick season set in, and even hit the Driftless Zone! More soon.
In my last post, I mentioned that I bought a collapsible diffuser, so I thought I would write to explain how I use it, what the results have been and why I can’t believe I haven’t bought one before.
Part of my not buying one is sheer forgetfulness, but another is that I don’t want to complicate my photography with a lot of gear. Before my old ring flash died I used it sparingly because natural light seems much more complementary to my work than artificial and so you’d think a light reflector/diffuser would be more appealing, but somehow I just made do with my hat or leaves or simply using my body to make my own shade. Adequate, but not flexible and certainly not repeatable with any certainty, I mean, who can find the perfect leafy branch every time you need one?
So here is the little beast –
I included a credit card so you can get an idea of size. It’s very slightly translucent, but completely opaque, made of nylon and has a hard plastic ring sewn into the black piping. If you grasp the edges and twist it will fold down to fit in its case which has a loop for attaching to a carabiner or other handy clip. At first I had a time remembering I had one, but once I started using it, it stayed more out of the bag than in. I do wish I could use it with an articulated arm/clip system I built a couple of years ago, but alas it’s too insubstantial which works for being foldable, but doesn’t leave a large/firm enough edge to grip.
Mostly I use it to diffuse light; that is to create shade or soften shadows. Here are a few examples of how I’ve used it to improve my images.
These are the same chanterelle waxcaps from a previous post. I found them in the woods with the sun almost directly overhead. Oh so harsh and contrasty. They were next to a large pile of boulders, fallen branches and other pointy and squishy stuff I didn’t really want to have to climb around in to make shade with my body (my hat wasn’t wide enough).
One of the things I love is that the shadows aren’t entirely gone, but they’re controlled and softened. Now, before you think I’ve used some Lightroom sleight-of-hand, the processing values are exactly the same. It’s only the light and the resulting exposure that is different. Notice the color saturation, too. The orange/red/yellow is much, much too hot in the first picture. Just as you can clip whites and blacks, you can clip colors and just like when you clip highs and lows, the information is unrecoverable. The sensor is overloaded and the detail is lost. So is the smaller mushroom.
This isn’t the only image I took with the diffuser. Using the camera’s LCD screen I could watch the effect of the shade as I held it at different angles and distances from the subject. The differences were subtle, but noticeable and I chose what I liked best in the end. Every situation is different and I’m sure I’ll be playing with it more and more. Without a diffuser I would have walked away from that little scene and lost a photo that I really like.
It isn’t direct light on a subject that is always the main problem. Sometimes it’s glare on another element in the shot that makes for a distracting highlight. Take this one as an example. It’s in my backyard where honey mushrooms grow in huge masses at the base of the trees (the deer love them, btw, and snack on them often). We don’t have a lot of red maples around, so when I spied this leaf I knew I’d use it to make the mushrooms stand out. The problem was the afternoon sun. Even with a polarizer there’s glare on the leaf that I find distracting –
The first places your eyes naturally go to in a photograph are the light areas which is why it’s so important to mange those backgrounds and watch for things that can pull the viewers’ eyes away from your main subject. Out came the handy diffuser and voila –
Other than the change in camera position, everything is the same. The glare was still there and the diffuser blocked it really well. This time I angled the thing perpendicular to the ground to block the sun. The red pops as it should and so does the texture and slight yellow tinge of the mushrooms.
Distractions – they’re not helpful at all and sometimes waiting for the light to change just isn’t practical even in a tiny scene where just a couple of minutes of the earth’s rotation will help. Or waiting for cloud cover. What if there are no clouds? Take this next before picture. Sporophytes are some of my favorite things, but they already exist down where there’s a lot going on; shapes, textures, colors – all competing for your attention. So after careful composition to arrange those elements, light patterns can be hard to deal with like they are just behind the sporophyte stems. Irritating.
So the diffuser to the rescue.
Again, other than the change in light, everything is the same. I just copied the processing I did with the second image onto the first so they would compare fairly. This time I angled the diffuser just behind the sporophytes and hotspot be gone!
Fixing this kind of thing is possible in Lightroom and other robust photo editing packages, but it’s much easier to do in the field. So consider getting a diffuser and using it for your macro and close up work. I find it very useful to provide consistent shade that can be manipulated to give you highlights and shadows that bring out the beauty of your subjects.
In NH part of the Appalachian Trail snakes through the state and Vermont has the Long Trail, but here in Wisconsin there is the Ice Age trail. It isn’t contiguous, but runs for 1200 miles and is a nationally recognized natural resource. It’s taken decades of persistent land conservation, but today there are dozens of trailheads in dozens of counties. I probably won’t hike all of it or even most of it, but I have gone out to explore some already.
Each trail is divided into named segments and they’re all mapped, signed and blazed fairly well. The section in this post is not far from my house, just a mile or so down river below the Grandfather Dam which makes power using penstocks. These things –
Crazy, what? Water from behind the dam is forced into these wooden tubes and regulated by the tanks you see in the background. Turbines get turned and the power plant, just out of shot to the left, sends power into the grid. It’s loud and wet and a bit nerve-wracking to be near them, but it’s the best and quickest way to get to the trail head, so that’s where I started. And no, that’s not one of the disasters. The penstocks are still holding! And the dam didn’t let water go either so I wasn’t caught in a flood (they do sound a siren warning though).
Being so close to the Wisconsin River, it basically follows the shoreline and what used to be the shoreline, but is now forest –
It’s a little hard to make out, but the darker area of the boulder there is concave; worn smooth by dozens and dozens of years of water surging and swirling. All of the rocks in the river are like this and are really interesting to see up close, which luckily you can do most times of the year.
Before I get to that here’s a little warning. Stay alert out there. Sometimes I’m guilty of being a bit too focused on my photography; the surroundings, composing, the light, the wonder of nature. All of it can be really absorbing. Not to mention I listen to audio books quite a bit when I’m out there. I can still hear sounds in my environment, but it’s one more thing my mind has to process other than what’s right around me.
So I’m standing there with the tripod, waiting for the sun to get blocked by a cloud a bit. I’m backing up, reframing, recomposing. Backing up again. I’ve got the remote shutter cable, a polarizer and other stuff. And what’s that? What’s with all these bees? No. Wait. Not bees. Hornets. Big ones. Whizzing around. They’re kind of all over the place. Uh oh.
Yeah. That’s a bald-faced hornets nest bigger than my head. And it was about 20 feet behind me about 15 feet off the ground. No wonder there was practically a cloud of them. Dopey me just backing right into their territory. Yup, yup, yo.
I got right the hell out of there. Wide berth. Easy gait. Nothing too fast or jarring. Didn’t want to freak them out and send them after me. At home I looked at a close up of that shot and you can see a bunch of hornets right in the mouth of the nest. The thing is full of them. A pinata of venomous fun.
Ok, so note to self. Be careful. Be aware. Sigh. Good intentions. I really need to listen to my own advice.
So before I get to that, a word on sunlight and managing it in photos. Who wants to go out on cloudy days all the time, or confine your photos to just the golden hours at opposite ends of the day? Oh sure, they’re great, but learning to cope with direct sun can be really helpful during, you know, the rest of the day. And sometimes it can even help.
For me, the forest shot above wouldn’t work nearly as well if there wasn’t sunlight in it. It brings out the texture of that boulder so that you can see the carved nature of it. It shows depth as well, emphasizing the layers of the trees. I did soften the image in post though, bringing the highlights down and easing off on the contrast. Other techniques I use with dappled sunlight is to lower the luminance of certain colors if they seem to ‘hot’. Yellow and red often go off the charts with digital photography, so managing the color sliders can help tone those down.
It can help with direct sun as well. A beautiful day like this one is tough to shoot in. The shadows are harsh and the glare intense. Start with a polarizer. It can do a couple of things; reduce the glare on shiny surfaces like leaves and rocks, and also bring up reflections. The thing is that to do one it has to do the other less well. That’s where you luminance slider can help. This is not saturation!! That’s a different value.
For this image I really wanted to concentrate the polarizer’s effect on the reflection. That’s something you just can’t reproduce in post-production, at least not without a lot of work. It’s much easier to do it in the field. Then with software reduce the lightness of the colors that aren’t as affected by the polarizer. For this image it was the trees and the rocks. Using this technique leaves your overall whites and highlights where they are which is important for clouds!
Little scenes can benefit from a polarizer as well. The moss here was reflecting a good deal of light and so I reduced it with a polarizer and the green is lush and deep. You may have to use exposure compensation to get the exposure back where you want it, but once you get used to working with it, it’s second nature.
Another tool I’ve been using lately is a physical thing and not a processing technique. Recently I bought a collapsible diffuser (finally!) to make my own shade. I’ve been meaning to for ages, but just never have. Now I have a 12-inch model that folds down to about 4 inches and is very useful for diffusing light on or around my subject as well as creating reflected light. This coupled with some of the Lightroom techniques above have improved the overall look of my images. I used a combination of all of the methods I’ve mentioned for the following shots –
All the field and processing techniques don’t mean a thing if you can’t get the shot in the first place. Whether it be you that’s all busted or your camera. Or in my case both.
While making my way across a small feeder stream, the big, flat rock I stepped on tilted. Sharply. Throwing me straight down onto my butt and tripod with camera attached. Into the drink it went and damn if my ankle didn’t hurt, too. My first thought, of course, was for the gear. A quick look and I saw that the front of the lens was fine. Wet, but undamaged. The lens cap did its job and I fished it out of the water and gave it a shake.
A whole bunch of things saved my bacon with this little tumble. First is my lifelong habit of replacing the lens cap between takes. It might seem silly or a pain, but it literally saved my lens and/or filter this time. And given that it’s a really nice B&W filter, I’d have been bummed to have to replace it. Better than the $1200 lens, but still. Spendy. So I tells ya – put that lenscap on, you never know.
The other thing is that I fell uphill. The stream was flowing down a slope and so in crossing I fell upstream instead of downstream which was lucky. And that my lens and camera are weather-sealed. A quick dunk in very shallow water is something it’s designed to take. And it did. Yay for magnesium camera bodies, too!! A quick wipe down to remove some debris and water droplets and it was good to go.
The last thing I was immediately grateful for was that I didn’t have the Olympus 90mm macro on the camera. That might not have worked out so well. Yeah, it’s a tank and I always put the cap back on it, too, but it isn’t weather proof and it’s old. Almost irreplaceable. Sure they come up on eBay now and again, but not often. So glad it was in my bag. No one wants to see a grown woman cry.
The tripod did well, too. It’s scratched up on one leg, but I think of it as a battle scar not a blemish.
So that’s my tale of near woe. Almost stung to death by hornets, but escaped at the last minute only to fall on my butt and put my oh-so-precious gear in harms way. But wait! Good habits pay off and there’s no damage, except to my pride.