Let’s talk about light for a minute. This is a photography blog after all, right? So here’s where I wax on and on about the blue hour or the golden hour, ok? Or maybe the drizzly overcast day that’s perfect for waterfalls.
Nope. Not this little gray duck. Sure, I love that light and it is a dream to work with, but what if you don’t have it? Pack it in? Give up and go home?
Work with it. Make it work for you.
A lot of photography blogs talk about vision, too. Bleah. Vision. Yeah, you have to have it and an understanding of how to work with light, but not just one kind of light. All kinds. The better you are at dealing with different situations, the better photographer you will be. You will have more “keepers” and more fun. I mean, who wants to go out in the dark all the time? Or on rainy overcast days that are just pretty blah? There is a time and place for that, but a gorgeous, sunny day can be equally rewarding for you and your camera. Especially after a long, gray winter. Spring days are just made for sun and I’m here to tell you it can work. Really.
So, where to begin. I went out in April on one of the only sunny warm days we had because it was too beautiful to be inside. The spring ephemerals were blooming and because the canopy hadn’t filled in much, there was mostly direct sunlight on the forest floor. No leaves to filter and soften it. Nope. Some was direct and harsh.
Did you shudder just then? Direct and harsh are two words most photographers have nightmares about. Oh yeah, very nightmarish right?
So lets go back to vision for a minute. My vision for this shot was the backlighting. Bloodroot is perfect for this because of those leaves and that the flowers, while fragile, have great presence and structure. Because I didn’t have even lighting, I needed to find scenes that worked with the direct sunlight I had. How could I showcase these beautiful wildflowers under these conditions? Backlighting immediately sprang to mind and so I worked pretty hard at cleaning up this next little scene in order to really play up the individual and highly specific beauty of bloodroot. I also waited on the light quite a bit. When I was finally ready to shoot the flower was in the shade of a tree and so I had a light snack while I waited for the earth to turn and give me what I wanted –
Another tip for working with this light comes in the processing. I use Lightroom, but most other software in this category will allow you to control the highlights in the shot. I dimmed them just a bit so that the detail in the petals came back, but not so much that they don’t appear white and crisp.
Going back to the idea that you need a flower with substance in this kind of light, take trout lily as an example. They cry out for backlighting!
Backlight isn’t the only direct sun that can work for wildflowers. How about sidelighting? Early meadow rue grows like crazy around here and each flower looks like some kind of crazy lampshade from a 70s pizza parlor and I love them. You literally have to stop breathing to photograph them; they’re that sensitive to the least movement of air. But wow, they’re so unusual that I always have to give it a go and when I saw these in some early morning sun, I braved the mosquitoes.
Just look at the texture of those little stamens! And the petals, which mostly go unnoticed, those even get a bit of attention. Of course the background has to be right for this kind of thing, too. Often it has to be in shade in order to get the subject to stand out. A little patience and observation can pay big dividends.
Last let’s take a look at frontlighting. It’s probably the least popular because it tends to blow out the highs and lows in any image and can make things look flat and harsh. A challenge! I accept.
I love the hardiness of spring ephemerals. They often sprout and bloom when we still get temperatures below freezing and it doesn’t seem to bother them at all. They’re delicate yet tough and when I spied this little cluster of spring beauty, that idea came into my head. To me the light illustrates the duality of the flower. It is quite tiny and delicate in appearance, but can withstand the harsh Wisconsin springs.
Yup, that light sure is direct, but the shadows are really great at showing texture and structure. Again, it needed a darker background to work and I did a bit of pulling back in the highlights so that you can see those petals in all their stripey pink glory. Oh and that ant totally photobombed me.
So there’s how I work with direct sunlight in wildflowers. I hope that the next time you have a sunny day on your hands you don’t hide indoors with your camera or go out in nature without it. There is beauty and distinction to be found out there if you look for it and know how to make it work for you.
Way back in November 2016 I went to New Mexico for a long weekend and one of the places I visited was Carlsbad Caverns. I love caves and really hit it lucky that I could bring my tripod down into the depths of the earth (on the self-guided tour). It helped a lot. A few years ago I visited similar (but much smaller) caves in Oregon where tripods were not allowed and oh the ISO I had to use! Here I stuck pretty much to 500 ISO which is a good compromise between having fairly quick shutter speeds (just for time’s sake) and noise.
No matter where you are, it’s always important to remember your pictures are secondary and to respect the rules and regulations around photography. No tripod means no tripod. No flash means no flash. Sticking to the trail and not putting a leg off means just that. That’s important because a bunch of jerks flouting the rules just make it harder for the rest of us. I think I goofed once on this trip and a ranger pointed it out, nicely, but firmly and I paid better attention. Eek!
So, here are some things that worked for me. Shooting in caves is always challenging whether you have a lighted system like at Carlsbad or unlighted like the Lava Caves in northern California. Paramount is dealing with the lighting. If the caves are lit like these, it’s in pockets, pools and slices. It isn’t uniform which makes for great texture, but hot spots where you will blow the highlights. With today’s cameras though, you can still underexpose and capture a lot of detail in the shadows, so I recommend just barely clipping the highlights. For me it was overexposing by about 2/3 of a stop overall.
Then in Lightroom I pulled the highlights down, increased exposure, waved the adjustment brush around a bit and things evened out without being too noisy. With images like these, having lots of texture, I find boosting the clarity helps emphasize that primary aspect.
Another challenge is white balance. No matter what light source you have (flashlight painting is fun if you get the chance) it will create color casts that aren’t natural to the stone. It’s amazing what light does to color and for the most part, the white balance in camera was ok, but my husband had a very neutral flashlight with him and I realized how warm the light was down in the rooms. So I cooled it off a bit in Lightroom, just so that it wasn’t overwhelmingly golden. I also dialed down the green tint and boosted the magenta just slightly.
Then there’s composition. Caves are intensely three-dimensional. There’s a lot to look at and most of it relies on the mind’s ability to separate shapes, color, texture, light and shadows. The camera isn’t good at doing all of those simultaneously. So at first I shot with an eye to what I was seeing. Only after time did I change that to what the camera could convey. Compare these two images. The first is a pool of water that has collected at the very bottom of the cave and I find it to be pretty abstract at first glance. You have to figure out what you’re looking at and to my mind that takes longer to do than the first one (since you already have the cave context for the pics, that helps a lot rather than going in cold).
So that was my experience in Carlsbad Caverns. It’s a true wonder of nature and I highly recommend visiting even though it’s in the middle of nowhere. The walk down is staggering (if you’re up to it, if not there’s an elevator, but walk if at all possible). Jaw-dropping formations and just the age of the whole thing really makes you realize how insignificant you, and all of humankind is. We’re just a blip. The cave is eternal.
I don’t do it all the time, but if I can get under a mushroom I will. Well, not me exactly, I’m not Alice, but my camera. For these first two images I used the wider end of my 12-35mm lens. The first one was on a tripod, the second literally on the ground with sticks and the lens cap acting as shims to get the camera level. The perspective is terrific and it shows off those beautiful gills.
Sometimes the structures that hold and release spores are a bit different like with boletes that have an underside that looks like a sponge. I recently found out that a single mushroom can release millions of spores in a single day. They do this every day it fruits pretty much. Amazing.
In addition to gills and pores there are also teeth. The idea of toothed fungus makes me a little giggly, but that’s how they’re categorized. This one happily turned itself inside out so I could get a peek at those teeth. I shot this with a medium telephoto because it was way inside a bunch of bushes that I had to hold out of the way to get this shot. I couldn’t tell it was a toothed mushroom until I looked at it on the computer. And the ID took a while because this is a remarkably pristine specimen. The ones in my books were ragged, dirty and stained. Just lucky I guess.
Here’s another example of a toothed mushroom –
It’s sometimes called a hedgehog mushroom (aka Hydnum repandum) and is not only edible, but reportedly delicious. Now I know where they grow (some chanterelles conveniently nearby) I can gather them next year and have a taste. I could use my tripod to shoot that image (and many others from the down low) because I do not have the center post attached. My particular model came with one, but it is removable and so the legs splay to 90 degrees and the head touches the ground. Very handy. If you want to do a lot of this type of work either take out your center post or get a tripod that doesn’t have one to begin with.
It is occasionally a bit of work to get under a small mushroom that isn’t on a nice stump or log. Usually there are only little slopes and depressions in the forest floor, but sometimes the tripod in its lowest position is too high. In those cases I reach for my homemade beanbag camera prop. Then I can usually get low enough since it’s only a couple inches thick. I use a 1 quart ziplock bag with 2 bags of barley inside it. I’ve stuck some friction tape to one side of it to keep the camera from sliding. And, as I mentioned above, sometimes I still use sticks and/or my lens cap to shim. It’s magical when I can get so low that the foreground changes dramatically and helps me highlight only the cap, which adds a dash of mystery.
I also like the foreshortened perspective that helps to emphasize the mushroom, not where it fruits. And there’s the lovely bokeh that often comes with shooting in dappled sunlight.
In the end, there are only so many ways to shoot mushrooms, but up from under is usually a winner!
Ah winter, with your muted color palette and your blanketing snow, you call to my inner minimalist in a way that the more riotous seasons don’t. Spring heavy with budbreak and flowers. Summer with its riot of wildlife. And fall with its panoply of colors. They don’t make it easy to strip a scene down to its essentials the way winter does. There’s too much competing for a photographer’s eye and, unless you work at it, arriving at a truly minimalist image is tough. Don’t lose hope though, you can start to develop an eye for minimalism during the season that helps you see it best; winter. And once you have some practice time it will be easier to spot these scenes during the more clamorous times of year.
For me, minimalism is about removing extraneous elements from the image. Textures, shapes, colors must all be simple and stark to some extent. Often it comes down to providing the viewer with just one element to focus on – a color or form or texture. A single element, or a very few of them in a conspicuous pattern. Simple backgrounds.
My first go-to is always the small scene and so let’s look at that first. The season’s first snowfall made these flowers in my yard really stand out. The trick was to find a group that was isolated. Once I located some, I needed to use a lens long enough to carve out small scenes without trampling them. Remember to get the focal plane (film or your sensor) lined up with as much of your subject as you can. Because macro or telephoto lenses have narrow depths of field you can accidentally have parts of your subject out of focus which may not provide the strongest image.
Snow makes it easy to notice tiny things. It automatically creates a uniform backdrop. And it’s easy to clean up any tiny bits of debris that might otherwise distract from your main subject. Spot and blemish removal tools are quick and easy enhancements to a minimalist image.
Sometimes a streak or pop of color will be enough to create something eye-catching, but making an image even stronger takes some processing. I love this shot of some rock cap fern curled in the cold, but as I shot it the line was straight up and down and was boring; too static. A bit of cropping and rotation in Lightroom and I got a more interesting visual just by tilting things so that the fern forms a diagonal.
Never underestimate the power of a good diagonal!
As you look through the images here, you’ll also notice I follow the rule of thirds with most, if not all, of them. When you’ve isolated your subject so severely it’s doubly important to create a harmonious and balanced scene. The rule of thirds is an easy way to make sure your shot is as pleasing to the eye as possible and one you probably already use every time head out. If you can’t quite get the shot in camera, use a wider, more inclusive angle of view so you can crop the image with the rule of thirds in mind. Using your software’s cropping guide may also be helpful when you do this.
Stepping back a bit, but still armed with my medium telephoto lens, I start to see larger scenes that still remain simple, stark and dramatic. Shadows can help a lot with this and once you start noticing them, more and more will pop out at you. Don’t get lazy though, move those feet to find the best angles that eliminate everything but your subject.
Can you sense a theme here?
Going farther back, and using a wider angle requires an even more discerning eye. The lone tree to the right is the obvious draw, but to make the image even more dramatic, I adjusted the blue channel after converting to black and white. By sliding luminance and saturation to their lowest values, it rendered the sky nearly as featureless as the snow. It reinforces the bold quality of the trees and makes them pop.
So that’s a quick look at how winter can help you hone your eye for the minimalist photograph and so to recap –
- Choose a medium telephoto to isolate your subject
- Align your subject with your focal plane
- Clean up snow debris in post processing
- Focus on color for instant drama
- Use strong lines, like diagonals, to keep things from being too boring
- The rule of thirds is your friend
- Look for repeating patterns (shadows are great for this)
On a recent outing on the Wisconsin river I experimented with shutter speeds. Often photographers automatically go for the long exposure when it comes to flowing water. Once you’ve mastered the technique, it’s a gimme and for the most part produces very striking effects.
But is it always the best or most appropriate? I suppose it depends on what you’re going for. Artistically it can be a great way to contrast motion and stillness and expose patterns that you can’t see the same way with the naked eye. I love it, but sometimes I want to convey the power, noise and sheer presence of a mighty flow. The smoothly swirling patterns, while lovely to look at just don’t showcase those qualities. So I tried my hand at much faster exposures and found those can also produce some striking photos.
Look at the difference in these two images. How does each one make you feel? What does each one tell you about what it was like to be there? What does each one hide from you about what it was like to be there?
These next shots are more traditional waterscapes and are from different positions on the same section of the river, but the emotions they convey are quite contrary.
The snow in that second image helps bolster the drama of a river in full roar that in the long-exposure image isn’t all that apparent (it had stopped snowing by then). But in terms of how each shot makes you feel, take a few minutes to absorb that. The first for me is a bit timeless and hasn’t much in the sense of power that the second does. Without looking at the EXIF data, there’s no way to tell how long it took the water to flow that much. Even if there was snow still flying, it would be blurred and difficult to see. It’s a more restful and possibly a more artistic presentation of the river and the second you could categorize as documentary in nature. It has an immediacy the first doesn’t have.
Depending on how much surface variation there is to a brook or river, I usually time my long exposures between 5 and 15 seconds. Sometimes I go longer, but not often. There is cool stuff below that range though and just leaving the shutter open a fraction of a second can produce some surprising results. Here’s an example of what I mean. This is a slice of the Wisconsin I liked the look of when I was out on some rocks in the midst of the roar. The water is tannic and so naturally the color of tea or root beer. It’s not polluted! Tons of fish, insects, reptiles, birds and mammals depend on this river and it’s hugely popular with two-legged fishermen as well.
I started out with just a bare lens, no filters, working mostly hand held with high shutter speeds. I had my tripod with me though so I did use it for these next shots –
It’s not bad. It has some appeal and visual interest. Could the water action be more interesting? Sure, but that’s really hard to predict and so you’d end up shooting bursts of images hoping for the best. If you’re looking for this stop-action, frozen quality, I’ve found that’s really the only way since the water’s shape is so random. First look for a dynamic part of the water and properly compose and frame. Using live view you can see if the results produce the visual attraction you want. If not, find another section of water and give it another go.
What appealed to me with this little slice was the rocks on the banks; the frame they provide. With the frozen water image, I just didn’t get the contrast I wanted. The rocks are cold, implacable and they seem like river could never affect them (though it does in the end; water always wins). The Wisconsin is active, alive, unpredictable and relentless. So I put a neutral density filter on and tried a long exposure –
OK, so we’re partly there. The rocks are steady as ever and boy do they look like they’d break your bones. All well and good, but look at the water.
Yeah, not too interesting. It’s just one big, featureless blur of a root beer float. To me it’s boring and lacks any sort of quality that would make you look twice at it. Lucky for me, I removed my neutral density filter and added a polarizer only. Using live view I found a shutter speed that would blur the water somewhat, but reveal the deep bronze color. Patterns emerged!
Now we’re talkin’!
The water still conveys force, power and speed, but now there’s something to snag the eye. By having some blurred action the contrast with the granite boulders is apparent, but it’s not so slow that the water loses all character. An in between shutter speed reveals the light and dark of the water as it moves and this gave me what I wanted when I was making this image.
So why did I use two different filters? Well, it was a bright, but overcast day and no matter how low I set my ISO the camera couldn’t get me a very long exposure. I also don’t like to crank the aperture all the way down on any of my lenses. Doing this almost always puts you out of the lens’s sweet spot (usually between f 4 and 11) and images can be comparatively soft. Using a ND filter will get you the longest exposures depending on how dark the filter is (and subsequently how much light it blocks; think of it as sunglasses for your camera). Using a polarizer is a step between a naked lens and a ND filter. My particular polarizer is a B&W and only reduces the exposure by 1 stop. Some will be darker so your results will vary, but for this particular day it worked perfect.
My take-away lesson from this experimentation is a better understanding of how shutter speed helps to create the mood for a moving water image. Whether I want something soft and peaceful, showing lines and highlights that can’t be seen with the naked eye, or something sharp and arresting, showing water frozen in action. But I can’t forget that the extremes don’t always serve my intentions; I need to be ready and flexible in my approach in order to produce the photo I want. Hopefully you get a chance to experiment, too. If you do, give me a shout and show me what you did!
Here in northern Wisconsin we have a lot of wildlife. What is a non-wildlife photographer to do? Get a wicked long lens and give it a go.
Alas, it’s winter and it’s been pretty cold and so sitting around freezing my ass off waiting for a badger to happen by isn’t something I’m keen on. So what else can you do with a long lens? Play!
I bought this particular lens when it went on sale just before Christmas. In 2015 I watched a similar price drop, but didn’t buy. This time I decided to because well heck, there was a loon pretty much in front of my dock all summer! I got the Panasonic Lumix G Vario 100-300mm F/4.0-5.6 OIS –
It’s a bit of a monster and so I took it out with the battery grip on the GH3 and it worked beautifully. I’ve always found heavier or bulkier lenses balance better with a grip of some kind. Plus it makes the camera easier to hold onto with gloves.
There are a lot of reviews out there of this lens and so I knew that it was a good performer for the money, but not a high-end lens. Of course, about a week after I bought it, Panasonic released a longer lens with better glass. It was more than triple the price though so I think I’m ok with this one considering that wildlife photography isn’t a big part of what I do. If it does, I’ll think about trading up.
Judging by my one time out with it, playing along the Wisconsin river, I’d agree with some reviews that this is a bright sun lens. I think in full or nearly full sun it will be a decent performer. I also think I need practice with it. I’ve never worked with a lens so long before (200-600mm in 35mm terms) and like any specialized lens there’s a knack to it. I think a tripod will help, too. I don’t mind practicing though. It’s fun.
Sharpness depends on having excellent light and a steady grip. A couple of these shots were done with me braced against a tree, but even that isn’t a guarantee. I have a custom setting that is shutter-priority with the camera choosing the aperture and the ISO and that seems to work pretty well with this lens. Rule of thumb for handheld work is you want a shutter speed at least equivalent to the lens length in millimeters, but I try to double it or come close. So at 200mm you should have 1/200th of a second or faster. I also need to refine my technique to steady the camera; grip, breathing and stance are all part of it and funnily enough, the other kind of shooting is a help here. Hitting what you aim for with a pistol requires a lot of the same principles.
Come spring I should be ready. I’ve got a beautiful little side channel up river from here that has a healthy water bird population (about 35 minutes paddling without sightseeing or chatting with neighbors). There’s also a big National Wildlife Refuge downstate that is important for migrating birds including the sandhill cranes and their great dances. Oh and eagles, too. I just saw two of them from my windows today so hopefully I can sneak up on one or two of them. Oh yeah, good luck with that!
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.
Besides finding interesting ice formations, winter is a great time to play with shadows. With enough snow, the low angle of the sun makes this something you can do almost all day. Just recently I posted a forest landscape with shadows that brought out the contours and the silky texture of the snowpack. You can also use a landscape view to emphasize the contours of the objects casting the shadows. Apple trees are perfect for this kind of thing because they’re so gnarled and twisted.
If you start to limit the angle of view with shadow photos, you can bring an abstract art quality to the image that is especially fun to play with.
Playing with processing is part of creating an even more dramatic image. Here is a light selenium tone treatment. I chose this technique to preserve the feeling of lightness I get from the photo. The delicacy of the shadows and the birch. Traditional monochrome or sepia didn’t preserve the mood so I tried different things until I found something that worked. Never be afraid to experiment!
Man made objects can work for this as well like this bench I found in a small park in Manchester, NH.
And of course you don’t have to convert everything to monochrome. Even in the dead of winter there are subtleties of color to capture. The sun had barely risen when I found these tracks winding through the trees; the warm yellow sky reflects beautifully in the snow.
Even a tiny fern sprig can be interesting with the right background. I just love the differences in intensity between the shadowed snow and the lit snow.
I was struck by the geometry in this next scene and so perched on a large rock to frame a more abstract view of how the shadows and reflections intersect with the trees themselves.
So if winter hasn’t drawn to a close where you are, maybe try some shadow play yourself.
Any hiker with a camera knows trail shots are impossible to pass up sometimes. You’re out there, feeling great, in beautiful surroundings and you can’t help yourself. You want to try to convey some of the magic of where you are. The trees, the leaves under your feet, the particularity of why you love that trail; even the air itself. So how come so many trail shots just end up looking like every other trail shot? Here is my top 6 ways to make them more interesting.
1. Point of interest/anchor
While a trail is a natural leading line, most photos can benefit from a focal point to help start the process of leading the viewer through the image.
This one was taken on my way up to some falls off the Kangamangus Highway in the White Mountain National Forest. It was raining so all the colors were saturated and boy did that little group of evergreen fern grab my attention. I stopped and shot this scene immediately, knowing that the roots and ferns would make a great hook to catch the eye in a photo. With that in mind I targeted the camera’s focus on the ferns and selected f8 because it’s right in the lens’s sweet spot and with the rain and bit of fog, I wouldn’t get a totally sharp image no matter how I choked the lens down. The tripod is low, but not extremely so and I did that to get a nice view of the trail ahead, but also to allow for a close view of the ferns. Try scrolling a bit to crop out the roots and ferns. Pretty blah, huh?
You can use any eye-catching element in a trail to serve as your anchor. Rocks, leaves, small trees or bushes, mushrooms, flowers, odd branches – just about anything that you notice on your hike. Just be sure they don’t fix the eye to that one spot, but serve to start the viewers path through your shot. I’ve even put the camera directly on a boulder with leaves on top and it worked quite well.
2. Perspective (extreme high/low)
While I don’t suggest hiking on your hands and knees, getting down there can give you some interesting compositions. This shot in the Manchester Cedar swamp is from years ago, but I remember noticing how chewed up and rough the walkway looked so it was a natural to get the camera down into the leaves with a wide aperture.
A high perspective can be nice, too, but unless you’re 8-feet tall, it’s tough to get much above normal eye-height. That’s why I’ve been known to get up onto big rocks, tree branches or embankments to get just a few more inches. Sometimes it works really well to get that little bit more trail leading out of the photo.
3. Above and below
This takes finesse sometimes. Especially when it’s an open area or one that is fairly uniform and there aren’t many landmarks to choose from. This is a section of trail in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. It’s at close to 9000 feet above sea level and the dirt is such a gorgeous brown that you want to scoop it up and feel it between your fingers. Plus that sagebrush just staggers me every time I walk through a sea of it. The sun wasn’t doing me any favors and my shadow really got in the way. After a few disappointing images, I finally got to this one where the trail points to break in trees. The muted colors against that knock-out blue sky really show I’m not in New England anymore, plus there’s that space…wide open and so American West it ought to have a label.
Back in New England, above is often forest canopy. A good way to get both the trail and the lofty leaves overhead is when you come to a hill. Managing dappled sunlight is an art all of its own, but with practice you can get good results.
4. Scale and proportion
Sometimes the trail itself can lend a sense of scale to a scene that is otherwise lost. Even better if there’s a bridge or bit of walkway to use for comparison. Mature redwoods are so far outside the normal human scale that it’s hard to convey just how enormous they become. While walking in parts of the Jedediah Smith Redwood Preserve in California, I looked for ways to show how massive these trees really are and this little bridge was perfect for that.
Go ahead and give your browser a scroll so that you can’t see the bridge. Flat right? A tree and some ferns, so what. Now scroll that bridge back in. Wham! Giant tree.
People can also add a sense of proportion especially when you get the path you have to climb in the shot –
Not only can your fellow hikers give your photos a sense of scale, they can also convey emotions that you can’t by staying behind the lens. For me this isn’t something I get to do a lot since I’m a pretty solitary person in my outdoor pursuits. That’s why when my husband hikes with me, he comes in handy.
This image was shot on Big Sur in California on a gorgeous day in May when every wildflower in the state blooms. Big Sur is awesome in almost any season, but spring is kind of mind-blowing. It’s warm, breezy and full of so much color it’s like you landed in Oz. I defy anyone to ignore the joy that bubbles up inside and makes you laugh at nothing. Laugh just to be alive and in the presence of so much beauty and perfection.
Without my husband, standing back at the giddy prospect of hiking in all this wonder, it would just be a trail and some rapeseed plants, which is nice, but unremarkable. He didn’t even need to be facing me to convey the emotions we both felt and looking at it brings it all back.
So continuing with the idea of conveying emotion in trail images, how about trying to capture the way the location makes you feel using just the surroundings themselves? By stylistically concentrating the grit and reality whether it’s harsh or mellow you can emphasize the vibe of your trail experience. Now a lot of people are going to think of foggy days or really cold ones with lots of snow and ice. That’s the easy way out and I’ve done it too, but what if you’ve got just an average day in a pretty amazing place? Take some time to really identify what you’re seeing and how it changed your attitude from the time you got out of the car.
When I got to the Bradford Atlantic Cedar preserve, I anticipated seeing a typical cedar swamp with walkways, moss and various kinds of laurel and ferns. I love cedar swamps and have been in a few so I didn’t expect the closed-in feeling I got within minutes of being on the boardwalk. It felt hushed and secretive and soon I found myself walking with a softer tread; trying not to make noise. I noticed the trees were young and thickly laid out on a bed of sphagnum moss. It was overcast, damp and a little cold, but I was enchanted just the same.
On my way back to the car, this composition materialized and I was very careful both in the field and with processing to impart the right mood. The trees press close with their shredded skins, but the boardwalk is smooth and clear; holding the promise of a way out. It isn’t your typical New England fall shot, but it has presence.
So there you have it; a few ways to improve your trail photos. Here’s a quick recap –
- Find an anchor to lead the viewer through the shot; don’t make the trail do all the work
- Change your perspective; mix it up by getting up high and down low
- Showcase what’s above as well as below
- Got a daunting sight in view; show a sense of scale to really wow the viewer
- Include a hiking buddy or two; people can bring a sense of emotion
- Soak up the atmosphere and find stylistic ways to emphasize it in your final image
Did I miss any? What techniques do you use to make your trail photos more compelling and dynamic?