Posts tagged “coaching

Welcome that spring sun!

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.

Ha!

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?

Nah.

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?

Blood and rattlesnakes

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 –

Interpretation of dreams

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!

Idolatry

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.

Early early

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.

Beauty spot

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.

 


Looking up to mushrooms

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.

Surfacing

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.

Song of the woods (tylopilus pseudoscaber)

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.

So taken (mycorrhaphium adustum)

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.

Phantom gourmet (hygrocybe punicea)

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.

Lambent (hygrocybe punicea)

In the end, there are only so many ways to shoot mushrooms, but up from under is usually a winner!

 


Do you fuel your fire?

Do you fuel your fire or let it go out?

Today I went with a friend to shoot the sunrise.  I know this lake fairly well and know how few places there are with compelling or even just plain usable foreground elements.  It’s always a tough shoot unless you have a lot of time or have scouted beforehand.  With my friend’s back being very painful, I knew we couldn’t walk far from the parking lot and I hoped against hope I’d find something, but doubted I would.

What an attitude huh?  I’d practically given up before I’d even started.  Whatta dope.

It got worse.  I actually took the filter holder off my camera and put the whole rig away!  I stood around chatting with Denise about how I wasn’t feeling it.  She was moving around and trying things.  What the hell was I doing?  Being an idiot.

So I decided that was stupid and went off hunting.  Down by the foundation of an old boathouse I found something…not quite in time for the pre-dawn light, but in time to catch the sun as it crested and lit up the reeds in the foreground.  I was thrilled to find that crack in the ice, too.  It won’t win any awards, but it isn’t crap either. Finding it made the whole morning worth it and I felt instantly better.  Suddenly I was a photographer again.

Eternal Quest

I’m glad I made the effort.  I wasn’t feeling it when I got to the location, but neither was I trying to feel it.  I wasn’t fueling my fire, I was letting it die.  Some photographer, huh?   How many times have you been tempted to give in and stop shooting when you get on location?  Do you work your way through it or do you tell yourself you’re being a discerning photographer and not wasting your time?  Attitude and expectations are everything on some shoots.  Don’t give up.  Go hunting. Stay engaged.  Look around. Fuel your fire!


Lickable Light – white balance and how it will make your photos their best!

In the course of a day I look at hundreds of photographs.  By participating in Google+, forums, flickr, 500px and other photo communities it’s easy to do.  One thing that has been getting my attention is that people don’t seem to understand white balance and its importance.  Mainly I notice it when there is water involved. Blue waterfalls everywhere.  Is the world running with mouthwash?  Crazy.  I also notice it in woodland shots that are clearly taken in daytime, but look really odd and blue.  Too cold by far.  Mostly it’s white balance which is nothing more than color temperature and can be easily adjusted.  Correct white balance and overall color temperature is the most important thing in making sure your colors are accurate.  Well, that and monitor calibration, but since you can’t correctly calibrate every monitor in the world, just do your own and let it go.

Folks who shoot in raw often don’t care about white balance in camera because they can always fix it later.  To some degree I’m guilty of this, but try to match my wb in the field to what the light actually looks like.  It’s tons easier to do it there than after the fact when you might be too removed from the moment to remember what your eyes saw.  Most cameras have auto-white balance which is a place to start, but be aware that most cameras aren’t accurate.  Here’s an example:

This is my friend Melissa coming down through the Magical Birch Glade in the NH White Mountains.

Out of the camera white balance is too cool.

It was early afternoon and while there weren’t a lot of leaves left on the trees, there were quite a few.  The light in autumn afternoons around here is golden and soft.  At this time of day it’s not as warm as it gets later, but the yellow leaves made it more so.  Take a look at the birch trunks…they appear sort of blueish.  They didn’t really look that way.  To anyone not with us that day, this picture would be fine, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.  For an October day it was warm; in the 80s. Does this picture convey warmth to you at all?  And that golden afternoon light I talked about, don’t you want to see it?

The first thing to do is to check your scene in the field and try to match it in your live view screen to as best you can. Probably you won’t get it exactly, but close is good. Try daylight, cloudy, shade, flash – all of them are different temperatures and you can see their effects in the LCD screen.  When you get your shots into your computer the first thing to do is adjust the white balance.  Many photo editing packages have set their tools in order of precedence, in other words they are in a rough order of how you should use them with white balance at the top of the stack.  So with all other changes being the same between shots and only the white balance changed, here’s the Magical Birch Glade –

Inside the MBG - with the white balance correctly adjusted, it really is magical.

OK, maybe that one was too subtle.  Check this one out.

The Little River with auto white balance. Yuk.

This is the Little River in Twin Mountain where the Twin Mountain north trailhead is.  It was taken just a few hours after the shot in the MBG; farther into that mellow warmth.  You wouldn’t know it from this though, would you?  This is really the bane of my existence when I look at other people’s images.  Blue water.  Blue rocks.  Blue tree trunks.  Come on people.  Pay attention!  Unless these things really were blue, adjust your white balance.

It’s easy to do.  Most editing packages have presets like daylight and cloudy as well as a slider that will let you put the temperature somewhere in the middle.  It’s not hard.  And look what a difference it makes.

The Little River with correct white balance.

Check out the trees, too – the color pops a lot more and the whole scene is more inviting.  Only the white balance is different between the two shots.  Here’s another one that’s even more dramatic.

Drawing to a Close - way too cool. It makes this shot cold and uninviting.

My husband and I went walking in a state park the other day.  Unfortunately it’s been closed due budget constraints, but we jumped the fence (as everyone is free to do, you just can’t drive in anymore).  What have I been banging on about in this whole post besides white balance?

LIGHT!

What are we trying to photograph, folks? Light of course.  And nothing is more wonderful than soft, warm late afternoon light in October.  It’s truly special.  Believe it or not that’s what I saw in the shot here.  But the camera doesn’t see like the brain sees and so it’s off.  Way off.  If you weren’t there of course you wouldn’t know, but the whole point of sharing photos is to bring other people into your world.  To show them a little of what you experience and find delight in.  Personally I don’t find much to delight in with the before picture.  Straight out of the camera be damned.  Now for the correction –

Drawing to a Close - ah now that's a warm, inviting, atmospheric shot I want to just climb into.

Now that’s the scene that made me stop.  The trees and their shadows, the couple and the light all made me stop and shoot.  Look at that light, would you?  It’s lickable.  And isn’t that what it’s all about?


What’s Your Major?

Recently I participated in a discussion that stemmed from a person wondering about the composition of a very famous photo by a very famous photographer; Henri Cartier-Bresson.  Specifically the person wanted to understand why this image is composed so amazingly well.

It got me to thinking about photography and the importance of concentration in the sense of a Major in College.  Cartier-Bresson had a very specific concentration and didn’t experiment wildly with either his subject matter or his equipment.  Instead he applied his passion to what amounts to one genre and that, combined with his instinctive artistic sensibility, makes his work compelling, cohesive and unique.

Often when I look at someone’s photo stream or gallery, I don’t see much cohesion. Mostly this applies to amateurs, not people making a living with this.  Many photo-enthusiasts seem to sprawl all over the place, never picking a major.  They spend a lot of time experimenting not only with subject matter, but equipment as well.  They might get a really good photo now and again, but not many.  That’s especially sad if the person has been at it for years. To me, as someone looking at what they’ve produced, it is obvious they haven’t mastered anything and don’t look as if they intend to.

That’s one thing I also look for; intent, craft, vision – progress.  A specialized style and body of work that shows me they can direct their passion into one channel and really develop expertise.  Speaking for myself, I think I’ve improved.  My focus lately is woodlands and attempting to capture intimate portraits of the forest and what I find so magical about being in one. Does that make my photos repetitive and boring?  I hope not, but then again, I don’t really care.  I value my concentration not only for what it produces for images, but for the process itself – it builds muscle memory and good instincts.

By instinct in this case, I mean an instant sense of what will make a good photograph.  I don’t claim to know the circumstances under which Mr. Cartier-Bresson made the image above, but I bet he didn’t overthink it.  I bet he didn’t stop forever at the top of those stairs and manipulate the camera in every conceivable way before deciding on this composition.  I bet it was instinctive.  Even if he asked a bicyclist to work with him to make the shot, it was Cartier-Bresson’s knowledge that if he put such a person in that spot it would be amazing.  He knew it would be especially good if the rider were blurred.  The sense of motion we already get from the swirling steps is almost enough to make the image outstanding, but that bit of activity, of life, really makes it amazing and irreplaceable.  Even if this shot wasn’t especially difficult, planned or set up, Cartier-Bresson never-the-less worked on it.  His photography career and the hours he put in at his Major produced it.  That was the work.  And it paid off every time he picked up a camera.

Experimenting and practicing within a specific sphere of photography allows you to build a library of facts, techniques, outcomes and lessons that help you make better decisions in the field.  By making better decisions you get better results.  By developing good habits you save time and have less frustrating experiences.  Eventually habits become instinct.  For me, having a foundation of good habits and instinct leaves me more brain power to devote to the finer points of composition, light, perspective, depth-of-field and other technical choices.  More keepers is what it comes down to.  Expertise is a nice thing to have.

As a novice it’s natural to try lots of things. The world of photography is new and exciting and when I look at my pictures from that time, I smile indulgently at myself.  It’s an important time though.  We learn the rules and try to play by them, hopefully realizing in the process why they are rules and why they work.  I’m talking the rule of thirds, the golden ratio, leading lines and ideas like that.  Once understood and applied, they help whatever artistic sensibility you have become more substantive and less theoretical.  After looking at shots you’ve taken where you forgot the rules and have crappy photos, it doesn’t take long for the rules to become habit and hopefully instinct.

That said, I don’t think you can really excel unless you pick a major.  Ok, I’ll let you have a minor, too, but diluting the craft over lots and lots of genres won’t help you become an expert in any.  If you want to be a landscape photographer, do it.  Do it more often than you take pictures of your kids.  If you want to be a macro photographer, do it more than you take pictures of buildings.  If you want to be a street photographer, do it more than you take pictures of your vegetable garden.  At first quantity matters more than quality and it’s the application of the former that will build the latter.

Like that old Carnegie Hall joke, the secret is practice, practice, practice.  But not just snapping away at anything that moves, you have to devote yourself to what you love and be faithful.  The rules of photography always apply, but they apply differently depending on the subject and the particular way you want to show it.  The end result, if you have any talent, is that you’ll build a body of work that shows you are a subject matter expert.

I know it’s hard to stop taking pictures of all and sundry, but you really have to.  Especially if you’ve got a life, too, and can’t spend 10 hours a day taking photos.  If you’re stuck on picking your major, here are a few ideas on how to decide.  Go through your photos and rate them.  If you’ve already rated them, look at what rated highest and lowest.  Did you have fun taking those?  Did you love the process?  Another way is to look on sharing sites and see which of your photos are most favorited or commented on.  Which ones made Explore?  Again, did they move you?  Was making them a good time?  Are they a cohesive group?  Another way is to look at your worst pictures.  Are those the ones you were really excited about?  Why did they fail?  Do you want to get better at taking those kinds of pictures?

There are lots of ways to choose your major and once you have it’s vital not only to practice, but to look at the work of the experts.  There is no shortage of photo web sites, fora, blogs and sharing communities.  Find some photographers who take the kinds of pictures you want to take and follow them. Study their work.  Study their processes.  Pick apart their EXIF data and equipment lists.  Read their articles.  Comment on their work and see if you can get a dialog going.  Attend one of their workshops if they offer them.  Podcasts, webinars, tutorials – it’s amazing what’s available now.  Just don’t go overboard.  Too much information and too many conflicting approaches will only muddy the waters.  Instead, pick a point or two and take them into the field, specifically applying them during your session.  See if the ideas work for you.  Did you get more keepers from that session or not?  Lather, rinse, repeat.

And I do mean repeat.  Develop that muscle memory.  Develop good habits and instincts.  Find your passion.  Declare your Major.


Mono Lake and Musings on Travel Photography

So I’ve been thinking about this blog post and putting it off because I didn’t have an angle, a theme or a cohesive idea to pull it together.  As with a lot of my writing it just needed time to brew, like a good pot of French Press coffee.  (Four minutes with 200 degree water and fresh ground Starbucks coffee, preferably a darker roast like Sumatra (my current fave) or Italian roast.)  After a few days, I realized what’s really been rattling around in my head – the differences between travel photography and home turf photography.

A little while ago I wrote about The Art of the Do-Over and how that takes some of the pressure off getting the “perfect” shot.  And in the Are We Blind article I showed two shots of the same waterfall separated by about a year of serious shooting.  Knowing that you can easily go back to a location and get the shot you missed is an immense comfort.  You can control the light by watching the weather.  You can control the time of day you shoot.  You can control the equipment you have with you.  And last, you bring your experience and knowledge to the shoot; you know what you’re after and you know the location from having shot it before.  All really fine circumstances, but travel photography is different.

Spacegirl Blues

Travel photography is loaded with pressure.  With angst.  Will I get that iconic photo?  Will I be able to document what it was really like to be in this place?  Will I just get “tourist snaps”?  Will I find some hidden wonder no one’s ever shot before?  Will I get up for the perfect sunrise?  Will I have enough memory cards?  It’s a crazy, anxiety producing time for a serious photographer, even when it’s supposed to be relaxing.  Oh the things we do to ourselves.

There’s an old adage that says familiarity breeds contempt, but I try not to let that happen.  Familiarity can also breed ideas and a level of comfort with the area that the travel photographer doesn’t have.  My biggest hurdle on vacation is not being familiar with the location.  Oh sure you can use online maps and specialized programs like The Photographer’s Ephemeris, but they can only do so much.  Like when you drive and drive to reach a sunset location only to find the river in shackles provided by the Los Angeles water department.  Or when you get up before the sun and drive to what you think will be the perfect beach only to find there’s a huge fence and the gate is locked.  Yeah, that kind of thing.  Being a native is a tremendous advantage in any setting and I can see why photographers hire guides to help them find the best locations.  But I’m on vacation, not a photo shoot and I have to be mindful that my husband has different ideas about fun and relaxation.  Learn to let it go if a shot just doesn’t come together perfectly.  If a location doesn’t turn out to be as good as advertised.  If you have to make do with something other than your ideal.  Let.  It.  Go.

Gemini Spacecraft

And then there’s the weather.  You’re only going to be in that spot for a short amount of time so you take what you get.  Hopefully it’s something you can manage and work with instead of against.  I ruined one whole vacation’s worth of shooting by fighting the light instead of managing it to advantage.  Clouds don’t show up for your sunrise…find something else.  Too much cloud cover for your sunset shoot?  Harsh light all day?  Wind?  Rain?  Snow?  Freezing temps?  Ah the joys of travel photography.

That’s when flexibility is key.  I’ve heard it said that the best way to get good images is to have a shot list and plan them in advance.  All well and good except that you’re planning with in a finite box of perfect conditions.  Ha!  We all know Mother Nature’s sense of humor and unless you have a lot of time and an unlimited travel budget, chances are you’re not going to get the shot you envision.  That’s when the ability to see photographs on the fly comes in so handy.  I did that pretty well on my last trip to CA and tried to do it on this one.  Experience and a solid foundation of good photography practices will be something to lean on in times of trouble.  Think of it as your fallback position.  Fallback onto solid, traditional compositions and subjects that are dictated by what you see, not what you want to see.  Remember what I said about letting it go?  This is when you do it.  Be flexible and let it go if you can’t accomplish it.

Songs for Future Gods

So along with setting a shot list that you can be flexible about, it’s important to set expectations, too.  Study the weather.  Look at the elevation.  Check out the terrain.  Know where the light is coming from. Go to your favorite photography forums and see what threads have been posted about where you’re going.  Post your own thread asking for advice.  Check out blogs from local photographers or pros who have been to the area.  Oh what did we do before the internet?  Seriously, it’s so much easier now and so there’s no excuse for not being prepared when you get there.  Just knowing what the typical day is like where you’re going is a huge advantage.  This will help you visualize ahead of time and you won’t be surprised about what you find.  Think of it as sending an advance team.

Riders of the Dawn

After years of bringing the kitchen sink with me on vacation, now I travel with minimal gear.  It’s rare that I find myself wishing for something I didn’t have.  But what if you do need something that you didn’t bring?   If you are lucky enough to be in an area that has a decent camera store, you might be able to talk your way into a quickie rental.  Or if you’re traveling with other photographers who use the same brand, you can always beg or borrow.  Mostly though understanding your own photography is your answer.  Analyze what you use, really use, not just own.  Think about what you want to produce while you’re on vacation and pack accordingly.  On this trip I brought an older telephoto lens because I don’t have any new Olympus tele-zooms.  Having gotten decent results with it before, I thought it would work.  Unfortunately the camera out-resolves it and I didn’t get a single useful image with it.  Maybe I should have brought the one I have more experience with, but I brought the 180mm because I so rarely use it.  And vacation is not the time to be learning or perfecting techniques.  Work on that when you can have an easy do over.

Interstellar Communique

What about fun?  What about relaxing?  What about enjoying a place without having to photograph every inch of it?  Knowing when enough is enough is so important.  I’m not a street photographer and so my instinct to bring a camera with me into town to get breakfast is weak.  Sure I thought of doing it, but I didn’t because that’s my time.  My relaxation time.  My time to just sit with my husband, laugh, eat and find the course of the day.  Being with a single-minded automaton is a real drag and who wants to be that person?  Putting the camera down and experiencing a place is sometimes more important than snapping away.  Sometimes the camera is a barrier to being, just being in a location.  More than once it’s happened that I come away from a place without a sense of it…I was too busy looking through the viewfinder.

Monocerous

Oh jeez that was rambling, wasn’t it?  Here’s a summary to better prepare for a “once in a lifetime” location –

  1. Study the location remotely – weather, light, terrain and choice locations are all available online to help you get a feel for a place
  2. Be flexible – chances are the perfect conditions will never present themselves and you have to be able to envision good photos on the fly using what you see, not what you want to see
  3. Bring gear that suits your style – don’t try to break out of your zone on vacation, bring equipment that enhances your viewpoint not what disrupts it
  4. Fallback to the familiar – can’t make the original images you want, fallback on tried and true techniques and compositions; imitate the masters, they earned that title, find out why
  5. Work with what you have – if you can’t get to a spot or find conditions different from what you expected, exploit what you find and work it hard, let go of your preconceived photo
  6. Put the camera down for a while and really feel what it’s like to be where you are and with the person beside you – don’t let the camera be a barrier to fun

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 Photography.ca.

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.


Photography Field Tips #1

One of the earliest lessons I learned in photography was to cultivate good field habits.  That is to establish habits and routines that not only help you stay organized, but keep you from going crazy if you have a lot of gear.  Accessories are the kiss of death sometimes and unless you have a way to keep track of them, you’ll lose stuff or not be able to find something when you need it.  One of my oldest habits is to always put my lens cap in my left pocket.  Usually it’s my pants pocket, but it can be jacket or vest pocket, too.  Don’t get me started on cap keepers, either.  Never had one, never will.  When I was in camera retail I sold them by the boatload, but would never be caught dead with one.  Noob city.  Nope, the pocket rule has always worked.  Only lost one lens cap in 25 years.  I think that’s pretty good.  Whenever I don’t follow the rule, I screw myself up royally.

The other day is a perfect example.  I was out in the woods as usual, looking for signs of spring.  I didn’t find any, but I shot a little anyway.  I remembered distinctly that I didn’t want to put my lenscap in my left pants pocket where I always put it because I was going to do a lot of ground shooting and it’s uncomfortable to have a 72mm cap in there.  I also couldn’t get to my jacket pockets because of my backpack straps.  But it belongs in one of them that’s for sure. That’s all I remembered when an hour later I reached for my lenscap because it started to snow hard.  It wasn’t there.

Frantic pocket patting ensued.  I must have looked demented.  Or like I had OCD.  That great George Carlin routine about losing things went through my head.  I even checked the upper parts of my pockets because yes, indeed, it might have fallen upward!  I went through the obvious places in my backpack.  I changed the battery so maybe it ended up in the main compartment where the old batteries go…nope, not there.  Am I sure it’s not in my pockets?  More pocket patting.  Nope, not back yet.  I knew I shouldn’t have put it in my left front pocket…I knew I’d be crouched down a lot and it must have squirted out while I was shooting.  A quick review of my shots gave me the locations where I’d have to stop and search.  Back down the trail I went.  Eyes down, scanning for a black disk and hoping it fell on some snow and not the leaves which could hide a Sherman Tank.

Imagine looking for the same stupid leaf you liked on the side of the path only coming from the other direction.  OMFG it was torture…was that the little plant I stopped to look at?  Oh hey, here’s where I found that old jar.  It must be here.  After much snow scraping and leaf kicking I didn’t find it.  Ok…it must be down where I shot that club moss.  Yeah, I spent a lot of time there, so it must be there.  How much further was that?  Oh there it is.  More snow kicking and leaf sweeping.  No cap.  OMG.  Is it where I shot that weird tree?  Or was it when I went to shoot the birch bark?  Tramp down the trail some more, always scanning the ground.  What if someone stomped on it?  What if someone kicked it?  What if a dog thought it was a toy and chewed it all up?  I’ll never find it.

So…to make a long story short I got all the way back to the first thing I shot and still didn’t find my missing cap.  I decided to search my backpack again and then it hit me.  I put it in the side pocket.  But not the left pocket, the right one.  There it was.  Shining up at me, smiling with glee that it was once again found.  If I could have kicked myself, I would have.  What a dope.  I didn’t follow my rule and it screwed with me.

The Offending Pocket

You can imagine what I’ll be remembering to do on my next few trips out into the field.  Negative reinforcement, baby!

So what other rules do I have?  Not all that many, but one that I live by is to keep my fresh batteries in one spot.  Here –

Keep your good and bad batteries straight or you'll go nuts.

If I find batteries anywhere else in my pack, I know they’re used.   I don’t really have a designated place for them, just that they don’t go back into that little section.

Oh, so I probably should show you the whole rig, huh?  Well here it is with my travel tripod stuffed in the back –

My most used camera bag - a LowePro

It’s a LowePro Street & Field Rover Light.  Stupid name, great bag.  The top section is basically one big pocket and is great for non-photo stuff like snacks, shell jackets, hats, gloves and other stuff.  I’ve got a trash bag in there all the time as well as some peanut-butter crackers.  Oh and an extra memory card, filters, a space blanket and folded paper towels.  And I can’t forget my Swiss Army knife and flashlight.

The bottom section opens like a clamshell and has padded sections like any other camera bag.  I haven’t moved them around much.  My old E-300 (which I used to take these pictures) fit better than my E-30 does mostly because it doesn’t have a penta-prism and is flat on top.  It does the job though –

The E-30's home away from home

As I haven’t acquired a large telephoto zoom at this point, this bag still works.  I’ve had it since 2003 and it’s been everywhere.  I use it as my primary carry-on all the time when I’m flying.  I can cram toiletries and other stuff like my Bose headphones, a book and my iPod in the top and all my camera stuff below.  But the best thing about it is that it’s a real hiker’s pack with excellent padding and adjustment potential.  When hiking with a camera I usually have it hanging from a D-ring on the right shoulder strap.  Like this –

With a wrist strap, the camera hangs at hip-height and is manageable on the trail.

Most of the time I don’t even have to detach the camera and can leave it on the D-ring (or D-link as I stupidly labeled it).  It is an unusual arrangement, but it works for me.  The D-ring is also a handy hanger for gloves.  Sometimes I hang a water-bottle pouch from the waist belt.  Not only is it good for water, but for a long telephoto making it easy to do lens changes without taking the pack off.  The only downside is when you slide down a hill in deep snow.

So yeah, I’ve gone down a tangent that has nothing to do with rules for the field.  Digression is the house special today.  As rules go I think the lens cap location is key as is keeping your batteries straight.  Anyone else got any good field habits they want to share??  Feel free to chime in!


Black and White Photography 201

The next step along the monochrome brick road is manipulating images once you’ve converted them and done the basics like cropping, white balance and sharpening.  Sometimes the color palette we’re presented with isn’t as dynamic in monochrome as we want it to be.  I mean that the gray values of the colors aren’t separated, they’re the same.  So try as you might the image just doesn’t work in some ways even though your composition and subject matter might be perfect.  This often happens with colorless landscapes like this one –

What made me take this photo was the big tangle of trees and shrubs and the orderliness of the walkway in the midst of it.  I knew when I took it that my end product would be in black and white, but also was worried that the tonal range wouldn’t be great enough.  I was right.  Notice how the walkway disappears as you move from the stairs to the back of the photo.  The color of the wood and the color of the vegetation are about identical even to the eye.  So how can I make this photo work?

Color sliders were the first thing I went to.  In Lightroom’s Develop module there is a panel called B&W and it only functions when you’ve done a conversion using the black and white button in the Basic panel (if you just move the saturation slider to 0, it won’t work since you took all the color out of a color photo).  All the major colors from red to magenta have an individual slider that changes the intensity of that color in the photo.  Slide it all the way to the left and the colors are saturated to 100, slide it the other way and they’re de-saturated to 0.  In the photo the shade of gray is either darkened or lightened.

Tool panels for both the adjustment brush and the B&W color sliders

With this shot I concentrated on the orange slider, moving it to the left to darken the gray value of the orange in the branches and dead leaves on the ground.  This helped make the far pathway more visible because the gray value of the planks wasn’t changed.  So far, so hoopy.  But I still wasn’t satisfied.  The thing makes this shot work is the big distinction between the mad tangle of branches and the imposed order of the boardwalk, so that meant that the boardwalk had to pop more.  What to do…ah, the adjustment brush.

This is a tool I’ve just begun to use more often.  I liken it to the dodging and burning I did in the darkroom in the 80s.  With this tool you can lighten or darken the exposure of an area easily.  The brush proportions and intensity are almost infinitely variable and you can do much more than just change exposure with it, but for this article I’m only concentrating on exposure.  Typically I’ll dial in a huge change just so I can see it clearly on the image.  Once I know the area I want to cover is covered, I’ll dial it in to the exact value I want.  It takes practice, but since Lightroom is non-destructive, I don’t worry about it.  You can have as many do-overs as you want.

 

Out of Chaos - final version

Using these two techniques in Lightroom made the most of this photo.  The changes aren’t huge, but they work.  I never want my images to be about the processing.  Instead I want the processing to clarify and enhance the point of the image.  I think leaving the mass of gray makes the chaos look even more chaotic, but the subtle use of the adjustment brush and the color sliders reinforced the sense of order provided by the walkway.  Here are some other shots where I used either the brush or the sliders or both.

 

Garter Snake

Hope

Grimm's Woods

The Ones Who Came Before

Hopefully, if I’ve done my job right, the processing doesn’t reach out and smack you between the eyes.  I think my touch was light enough, but definite enough to bring out the strengths of each photo (or in one case, to minimize a weakness).  That’s the key though – the image has to work in the first place.  The composition, exposure, framing and subject matter have to be appropriate for monochrome.  Then if the gray values aren’t helping those things, or some of the exposure values aren’t, the adjustment brush or color sliders can assist.

I’ve mentioned only Lightroom because that’s the editor I use, but most robust programs will include the same functionality at least where the color sliders are concerned.  I’ve also not mentioned white balance or curves, things I also use in my black and white photography, I’ll save those for another article.    For me, working a monochrome image in the ways I just talked about helps me reinforce the ideas and feelings I want to convey with my photograph.  They’re part of the process that begins in my head, goes through my camera and then my computer to the final product.  The key is knowing what you want to show and the tools that will help you do it.  These are just a couple you should get to know and learn to wield with skill if you want to make the most of your B&W work.

 
Black and White Gallery

Black and White 101 article in case you missed it


Photography Resolutions – checking in

A while back I said I’d report on my progress from time to time.  It’s part of my attempt to be more aware of the state of my photography and where I want to take it.  Now if I can only remember what they were.  Oh right, here they are –

1. Improve composition; read a book or two, podcasts, tutorials, essays etc.
2. Strive for more distinctive images
3. Maintain post-processing workflow discipline

Hm.  Will you look at that.

Yes I have read a few articles that deal with composition, but I haven’t done anything really serious about it.  No books have been bought.  Mostly because I’m still not working full time and what with the internet being free and all…  But I am on the trail of a full time job and when that lands (positive thinking all around!) I will buy a book or two.  That being said, I have been more conscious of the rules of composition when I’m out in the field.  Hardly ever in the past did I deliberately think about composition in my head.  It’s always been very gut-level for me.  I walk around, frame, pace, line up, but never do I recite mantras to myself.  Now I sort of do.  One I keep in mind is relationships…creating relationships between objects in my image.  Here’s one –

Pratt Cemetery

In this one I deliberately set opposing geometries together.  Vertical aspect, horizontal wall in foreground, vertical trees in background, that first horizontal row of nearly square headstones, going from short to tall, the tall monument on the left reinforcing the vertical nature of the shot.  All sort of clashes, but also flows really well.  I did it deliberately.  Oh sure I tried other compositions, but none worked so well.  I even left out the rather terrific gate because it broke up the flow too drastically.  It blocked the flow.  Out it went.

On to the next one.  Have I striven for distinctive images?  Yes and no.  In my mind, this means shooting a more typical view in a different way.  Lately I haven’t been presented with much that’s typical so my images remain my own take on the world I see.  The only one that approaches anything near this is this shot of Mt. Monadnock –

Winter Monadnock

No, it isn’t that great a photograph.  The view to the mountain was difficult and narrow.  I had to climb on the top of an escarpment to get clear of the trees in the immediate foreground.  The lighting wasn’t particularly helpful either, so I decided to try to make the mountain look small by using a lot of sky.  If they sky hadn’t been interesting, I wouldn’t have, but I think as a snapshot, this works.  Are there other shots of  mountains taken this way, I’m sure there are, but most people wouldn’t even try I don’t think.  Maybe I’m foolish to have, but I think even a snapshotty image adds to the impression of a place.

And how is my post-processing work-flow these days?  Pretty good actually.  Using specific folders, tags, labels, ratings and keywords has made it much easier to find stuff even though I haven’t shot much yet.  So far, so good.

So there you have it.  An update.  Crossing my fingers that the weather cooperates for one last major winter shoot this weekend.  I’ll be trying to manage #1 and 2 more fully and hopefully #3 will be habit by now and will fall into place automatically.