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.
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.