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.
Sometimes when the mood strikes me and the brook is cooperative, I’ll spend some time shooting water over rocks and the patterns it makes. Ice is a bonus.
This little vignette was the one I started on first – that chunk of ice split the water in such a great way, it’s the ice just below it on the rock that makes it stand out I think – and it’s a good thing I did because in a few minutes it was gone, leaving the rock bare. The afternoon light was gorgeous and fleeting, too, so I worked fast from the bank of the creek, breaking off dead branches that were in my way and holding live ones out of the way of the lens. That little scrim of direct sunlight just makes this shot for me. It’s my favorite of the series. I always feel lucky to be able to work with it even though it doesn’t last. Maybe that’s why.
I also like doing this because I have to work with what I get to a large degree. I can’t move everything or sometimes anything in the scene (like I can with microscapes or macro) and need to create compositions and arrangements within those constraints. This first scene for example, there is another big rock just up and to the left of this, but it was pretty distracting so I had to try to position myself so I could isolate this one formation. All before the ice melts! No pressure.
This next boulder had a much bigger sheath of ice that reminds me of a monster, rising to the surface to scope its prey. Could be that I just watched Predator again though. I love imagining how the ice forms in that peculiar, rounded way, and that some of it so clear that you can see the moss and lichen underneath.
Both of these images are processed similarly; close to how they appear to the eye. In post I bumped the magenta tint a bit to bring up the blue and purple slightly, but preserving the brown color of the water which is very tannic.
Rather than just go with a straight up realism approach, these kinds of subjects let me play with mood and style. I’m not one to go very extreme with processing, but sometimes it helps bring out what I had in mind when I shot the picture. That is some whirling space object; like a galaxy or a gaseous planet, alone in the void.
The shot above is done with the split toning feature in Lightroom, the one below with a preset (I think it was polar or cold tone) and a few tweaks by me.
Compare with this realistic version of the same ice formation –
And of course monochrome works really well for this.
So while I wait for the color and energy of spring, I will keep playing and finding beauty even in the stark Wisconsin winter.
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.
By now most of you have caught on that this isn’t a technical photography blog, but that I’m not above putting out a little know-how if I think it could be useful. With wildflower season approaching, I think you flower shooters will like this one – purple flowers looking blue and how to fix it! This drives me crazy and I’ve actually gotten into arguments with people about it, with them usually insisting the flower actually was blue. Uh, no folks it wasn’t – they’re called violets, not blues ok? That’s a different topic though – what we’re going to tackle now is a wicked easy way to color correct your flower pictures.
Now, without getting all techy on you a hell of a lot goes into managing color in digital photography and I’m not going to get all preachy about it. Let’s assume you have calibrated your monitor to the best of your ability. Let’s take it as read that you’ve selected the proper white balance when you were shooting. Still have blue flowers? It’s not your fault. It’s the sensor. In a nutshell, digital sensors have a difficult time seeing, rendering and processing purple and often put out pure blue instead. If you want the techy reasons Google is your friend and there is no shortage of articles about it. Even film had trouble reproducing purple accurately. Mostly it has to do with the color purple itself being made up of red and blue, two colors on opposite ends of the color spectrum and digital sensors, even very modern ones, have trouble. It’s been a thorn in our collective sides for years. A quick Google search pulls up a ton of people asking why their purple flowers look blue.
I find it’s most obvious when shooting in the shade, which, let’s face it, is where a lot of us prefer to shoot wildflowers. Harsh sunlight is not our friend. Shots in sunlight are more accurate, but often can be a bit off, too. Some people also report that using an IR or UV filter makes the problem more extreme, so if you’re using one on your camera, remove it when photographing purple wildflowers.
I’m going to use this shot of chicory to illustrate my process. I was shooting in the shade of a tree on a sunny day, I have made some changes like contrast, sharpening and cropping and kept those all the same, only varying the adjustment I want to highlight in each example. Here’s the starting shot –
A lot of people will tell you that all you need to do is adjust your white balance and you’ll be all set. Well, yes and no. If your purple flower is basically purple, just a little cool, changing the WB will probably work a treat. If your flower looks really blue like the shot up there, adjusting ONLY white balance may get to a color approaching what you saw in your purple flower, but it won’t be exact. And just look what it does to the rest of the shot –
The quick and easy fix for this lies in your HSL panel (I’m using Lightroom, but many other robust editors also have this functionality, you just need to find it). Each color has a control with the cool end of the the range to the left and warm to the right. To make blue purple we need to increase the amount of red which means sliding to the right (warm). How far you drag your slider depends on how off your color is. You could also use the targeted selection tool (that little bullseye under Hue) and put your mouse right on the blue color and then use the arrow keys to make the adjustment, but it’s not necessary for most shots where the color you want to change is clearly differentiated.
Here’s the finished shot with the color dialed in as close as I can come to what it was IRL (and I kept the flower handy to compare which is great if you can do it). Remember, all other factors are equal; overall saturation, white balance, sharpening, contrast, all of it the same. Only the color slider is changed –
You eagle-eyed folks will have spotted some chromatic aberration where the purple and the green meet. I’ve found this occurs fairly often with this combination even with lenses that don’t throw color aberration at any other time. Yep, there’s a wicked techy explanation for it, but I won’t give it to you here (Google is your friend if you want to know why). Using LR 3 I could probably correct this, but Adobe in their wisdom decided to make this correction tied to lens profiles only in LR 4 and they can’t be bothered to include a single piece of Olympus hardware in their application. Thanks guys. I love being given short shrift. But anyway, you folks with mainstream cameras can probably fix this easily.
Here’s one more comparo for you and it really shows why they’re called Violets and not Blues (and how even in bright sun digital sensors can be confused by purple). All I did was adjust the hue and luminance values with the blue and purple sliders and although that makes it seem like I adjusted the green channel, I didn’t. Scout’s Honor.
That wasn’t so bad, was it? Easy peasy. Use the technique with that other bane of the digital sensor – magenta and dark pink. It never looks right out of the camera and it’s always HSL panel to the rescue!
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.
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.
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.
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 –
- Use a tripod
- No direct sun
- Use filters – polarizer and/or neutral density
- Expose for the highlights (spot metering helps)
- Use the adjustment brush or similar tool in post processing
- 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.
Recently a thread about 2010 photography resolutions was resurrected on a board I post to on occasion. Scrolling through the replies I found mine. One of the 3 points on my list was to have better organization when it came to my picture files. While it wasn’t a complete fail, it also wasn’t a complete success.
I’ve never been terribly organized when it comes to pictures. I’ve got film negatives, prints and slides in basically a few places, but there is no overall structure to anything and I’ve got to poke through envelopes and binders to find what I want. This is only part of the mess –
When I made the switch to digital I did about as well. At first I tried renaming all the pictures to something I could easily remember. Ha! Talk about time consuming. So then I just named the folder something I could identify and that worked a bit better. But the folders themselves didn’t have any hierarchical structure and those started to get out of hand. Too many files, too many names, too many things just floating out there. And too much time needed to actually make it better.
Lightroom is my photo processor of choice and luckily for me it shines as a database and file organization engine. Unluckily for me, I didn’t really use it consistently or intelligently last year. I found myself repeating the same tasks over and over again with every shot that I processed, every group of pictures that I imported. Uh, hello…Lightroom can be automated in almost every way you can think of. Duh. I really need to think about what I do repetitively and write a preset for it.
Ok, so the first thing I’ve done is set up a top level folder for that year. Really? Pretty basic, huh? The thing is I didn’t do that before, instead trying to shove subject, location and date information into the folder name itself. No sub-folders, no nothing. Honestly though, I never shot like I did in 2010 though, and the sheer volume made things substantially worse. Just look at part of it! I has a dumb.
Better folder structure means I can find stuff. Look at how many folder names have multiple subjects…and they’re still all in one folder. Doh! No more. Next year will be different.
If there is different content in the same import batch I will immediately separate them into individual folders even if they are imported into one at first. Really time saving over the long haul and should only take seconds to do.
The next thing I’ve done is set up an import preset. I learned about this at the Adobe channel on youtube and I’m so glad I found it. It will automate a lot of the things I do including modify metadata.
I already use keywords extensively, so I don’t really need to improve there, but I do with ratings. I don’t always rate every file I work on. Generally if I work on a file I publish it to either flickr or smugmug or both. Now that I’m at year end and choosing my best work, it’s a chore to have to go back and rate shots I should have done at the time. Lightroom has collections based on star ratings and so it’s easy to find them once I’ve rated them. I’ve also got collections based on color labels and keywords. Smart collections, too, so things get added to them automatically.
Automatically. What a wonderful word. Another thing that LR does is publish photos to popular websites like flickr. So far I haven’t used this feature, but will be doing so in 2011. No need to clog up my hard drive with extraneous jpeg files.
I didn’t intend for this to be a how-to exactly, there are plenty of better tutorial sites out there, but just to illustrate my pain and some of the things I’m going to do about it next year. If anyone reading is a LR3 user who wants to share something that helps you stay organized and on top of things, I’d love to hear it. LR is such a huge application that I know I haven’t poked into all its dark corners yet.