Alchemy is the ancient “science” of turning mundane elements into gold. For a long time many people (including Sir Isaac Newton) believed it was just a matter of time before they had success. As far as I know, it has never worked. Except maybe it has.
The immortal last words of McManus (The Usual Suspects) perfectly describe what’s happening with this picture on flickr –
I put it up a few hours ago and it’s had a hundred views coming from an unknown source. The Unknown source gag is something that frustrates the crap out of me with flickr. I’ve put a comment in asking if someone could tell me from whence they all come, but so far nothing. Strangest thing.
Ah that famous scene in Pulp Fiction where Vincent enumerates the little differences between the US and Amsterdam. I had a similar experience recently and no, it didn’t involve Burger King either.
As you’ve probably gathered by now, I practically live in the woods. It started when I was a kid. No amount of fairy tales would keep me out. (what was it with making the woods scary or having scary things happen in the woods all the time? Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, even the Three Pigs had a rough time of it there.) Anyway…I love the woods and so when I tagged along on one of my husband’s most recent business trips I knew that’s where I’d go on my day alone while he went to his meeting.
I decided to go to the Long Hunter State park just outside of Nashville. The trail I picked was called the Day Loop Trail and I thought it would be long enough to take up a few hours. Also I thought it would be interesting enough with parts overlooking the reservoir itself and the rest in the forest. After getting turned around a bit and taking a while to find the trailhead which isn’t in the main part of the park, I set off on my hike.
Timing couldn’t have been more perfect. First – the foliage was at its peak, second – the temperature and humidity were ideal, and third – I was basically alone. While hiking this 5-mile loop I only saw 3 other people. Perfect!
The first thing that struck me as different was the rocks. Well, duh. I’m used to granite. They don’t call NH the Granite State for nothing. The stuff is everywhere. Most mountain trails wind through long strings of boulders. Huge granite ledges and outcrops give the land its uneven character. In TN that granite is replaced by limestone. It is just as ubiquitous, but looks much different. A lot of it is carved by ancient winds and water and there are strange holes in some of it. The way it is worn away at the surface and can sometimes run in shelves and seams was different, too. After a while though, it was eerie not having miles and miles of stonewall accompanying me through the forest. In New England you can’t go ten feet without tripping over one. While our soils are fertile, the land is so strewn with boulders it has to be cleared before it can be tilled. Rock walls not only got the stupid things out of the way, but they also helped establish boundaries for land owners. A lot of land now set aside for conservation was once farmland so the walls are everywhere. Not so in this part of Tennessee.
The second thing that struck me was the undergrowth, or rather the lack of it (at least in this section of the park). I don’t say that there was NO undergrowth, but sometimes it seemed that way. I’m used to ferns by the thousands. Hobble bush. Blueberries and raspberries. Laurels of several varieties. Maple leaf viburnum. Witch hazel. All kinds of undergrowth make up the NH forest. So when I’d come across patches like these, it startled me –
Like I said, not all of it was bare, I found this glorious swath of vinca minor which must be amazing in the spring when it blooms –
So no ferns to photograph and weirdly, no mushrooms either. Plenty of trees though and while most of them were yellow, some weren’t –
Speaking of trees. Here’s the last thing that kind of freaked me out a bit. All through this part of the woods there wasn’t a single pine tree. Not one. No firs. No hemlocks. No pines. No spruces. No cedars. Well, ok, red cedar, but it’s really a mis-identified juniper so doesn’t really count. I didn’t see a single pinecone. Very, very strange for this northerner. Lots of deciduous like maple, oak, shagbark hickory and sycamore, but strangely no birches, aspens, poplars or beeches. Again, odd for this little gray duck.
Unfortunately, the light wasn’t great for views of the lake, but I did like the way some folks had tipped up these slabs of limestone –
In New England we stack up rocks along the trail (and especially on mountaintops) to make little cairns. People just love rocks and piling them up on each other. Funny.
Oh and here’s someone I ran into…well almost ran into on the trail.
She was so different from the orb weavers we have up here that I wished I could have photographed her closely and better, but the wind was relentless and so I had to go for a wide open, high-speed silhouette instead. I do wicked love that her jaws are silhouetted as well. Pure luck.
And so ends my wonderful, magical and eye-opening hike through some of Tennessee’s beautiful forests. Oh wait, let’s take one look back –
Up until recently, I’ve been a catch-as-catch-can type of photographer. If I was going somewhere, I took my camera and tried for photos as I went. Rarely did I return to a location to do better or capture a different aspect of the place. Now though, I understand what scouting a location can do. Remember that old slogan the Boy Scouts used, be prepared? Or maybe it was Outward Bound. Whatever it was, scouting helps me do that really well; be prepared. I have no idea why I didn’t do it before. Just lazy I suppose. Now though, even if I don’t come away with the best portfolio-making shot on earth, I find just being in a location valuable enough to make it worth my effort.
The more familiar you are with locations near you, the more confident you’ll be going into the field. I’ve got shot list in my head and a ton of trail maps in my glove compartment so I’m never short of ideas. In New England we’re lucky to have distinct seasons and the changes that come are big ones. Locations look completely different and it’s an adventure to capture all aspects of them. And don’t forget local meet-ups. I love both being introduced to a new location by someone, and sharing one that might be new to others. We always have fun and it’s great to see how differently we view the same place at the same time.
Sunday for example, I met up with a photographer friend to take advantage of sunrise side-light at another Nature Conservancy Preserve – Lubberland Creek in Durham, NH. It’s part of the Great Bay estuary and is mostly a tidal wetland full of grasses, reeds, flowers, birds and oh yeah, poison ivy. That evil vine aside, the place is lovely and has potential for future sunrises when the sun is in a better position and when there are clouds in the sky. I think it would even work well for sunsets. There’s a beautiful island in the mouth of the creek’s delta and boy won’t that be great at high tide. I’ve really got to get some waders or at least knee-height rubber boots so I can go in the really squishy parts. As it was today I got my shoes pretty soaked, but that was probably more because of the dew than anything.
Watching the light on the grasses was pretty wonderful even it it wasn’t dramatic –
I was fascinated by how the light transformed the scene and of course I got down for some bokeh action –
If you’ve got your Sherlock Holmes hat on, you’ll notice the difference in the bokeh between those two shots. It’s part of what fascinates me about using extreme bokeh and pinpoints of light, like these dewdrops. The shapes of the aperture blades in the lenses is different and gives you different looks. The blades in my Olympus Zuiko Digital 12-60mm are round and the blades in my 80s vintage Olympus Zuiko 65-200mm are octagonal. Oh and I used the close focus feature of that old lens, something I don’t do very often, and I think it came out really well. After playing with the depth of focus for a few frames, I decided this mid-point approach was best. It was tough finding a section of grasses that went all the same way. Reaching in and even delicately removing a blade going the wrong way would make all the dew fall off and ruin the shot. I think my shooting buddy Jeff found out the same thing and if anyone was watching us we must have been pretty comical.
It was all about texture, light and patterns and I think even monochrome works well –
So now that I’ve scouted it, I’ve got ideas brewing for other shots I’d like to get. Frost and snow in winter. A dreamy sunrise with fog. Now I just need to spend a little time with The Photographer’s Ephemeris…
Late last year I visited a nearby Nature Conservancy property called The Cedar Swamp Preserve. Yeah, real romantic sounding place, right? Well it’s got two great things going for it – Atlantic White Cedars and Great Laurel or Giant Rhododendron as it’s sometimes called. This is a small preserve jammed between huge condo developments, some commercial operations and an abandoned-before-it-was-built college campus. Lucky for me it’s only 15 minutes from my house. I’m very grateful for its presence.
I have a thing for trees. Not hugging or anything too silly, but a reverence for what they are and what they do. How long they live and how symbiotic our relationships to them are. I wish I still had my 10-year-old body and mind so I could keep climbing them. I am always saddened by the sight of a full logging truck. I think of the animals and birds dependent on those trees and how they’ve been destroyed. Sometimes when I see a particularly wonderful tree, I put my hand on it and feel the wind vibrate through it. I especially like to find trees that are extraordinary for their size or their mere existence. Like these Atlantic White Cedars for which the land was set aside.
According to the website, these trees are quite rare around the world and this 42-acre stand is part of only 550 total acres in NH. This swamp is the most northern of all Atlantic White Cedar swamps and also has a black gum tree which I have yet to actually find. The walkways are a bit treacherous in places, but I haven’t taken a dunk yet. Neither has my tripod which is too big for the planks. I do like taking a stroll through though. Check out those cinnamon ferns!
So the other thing that makes this special (and me glad that UNH chose the mill buildings in Manchester) is the Great Laurel or Giant Rhododendron. In all my wanderings and hikes I’ve never seen these anywhere else up here (except some cultivated plants which might be variations on the wild species). They’re giant, ghostly and faintly primordial trees. Much bigger than mountain laurel they can grow to 35 feet high. I wished for a taller tripod or a stepladder while photographing them, so much of the drama seemed to be taking place far above my head.
I missed the blooming last year and was determined to get there at the right time this year. Unfortunately because of the weird, wet spring we had, wildflower timing was all over the place and I had to keep coming back and back and back to check on the blossoms. The last time I did the bud casings were soft and springy to the touch, so I knew the time was near.
Each time I visited the groves, ideas would start to coalesce. I envisioned black and white primarily because the canopy above these huge bushes obscures a lot of light and I could play up their natural drama. And because when they do bloom, the flower clusters seem to hover in space a bit against their dark leaves.
But the light was amazing and so soft that I couldn’t resist doing some in color as well.
I had the idea of heading over just after dropping my husband at the airport at 6:30 am. Like I’ve been trying to do all year, I wanted to incorporate more dappled sunlight in my images. The low-angled, early morning sun was perfect. I couldn’t believe the wind was so still either. Wind! The bane of my existence. But it was still; just a breath. A perfect storm of conditions. Just look at the texture and depth the sun adds. And that subtle blush of color. OMG.
Sometimes when I’ve got an idea in my head for months and I finally get to execute on it, I’m disappointed, but not with these. I’m so happy they came out the way I thought they might; better even. It’s stuff like that that makes me light up inside.
So for you technical peeps here’s the skinny. I used my normal rig; Olympus E-30 and ZD 12-60mm lens. No polarizer since the leaves are so beautifully shiny; like rubber almost and they catch the light to give depth to the shots. Lugged my ancient Bogen tripod since it is the taller of the two I own. I exposed for the highlights which is part of the reason there’s so much detail in the whites. I find the E-30 and most other modern digital cameras can hold lot of detail in the shadows, more than the highlights, so I just watched the clipping blinkies in Live View and held them down. Processing-wise the monochromes are pretty basic, just some stretching of curves to emphasize certain tones in certain shots. The color shots had a bit of vibrance intensity added and some white balance adjustments. Not much cropping post-capture on any of them.
The woods and forests are magical to me and when I can capture that I’m so pleased. I hope you enjoy it, too.
Let the microscapes begin!
Not the most beautiful or delicate of wildflowers, but one of the first to appear. I went wandering in one of the many nature preserves in Andover, Massachusetts the other day and one section of the swamp was covered with skunk cabbage. I read that they can come up so early because they actually generate heat with their cellular respiration and can melt snow. Amazing. Oh and I just saw the photo on the wikipedia page – creepily similar to mine.
I found this one just off the wooden walkway and was struck by the excellent mossy foreground. I’d been scanning for a plant to photograph and none looked so well-situated. The big tree as background and the afternoon sun lighting up the flower itself were perfect to help this shot work. I debated whether to leave last year’s flower in or not, but since I’d already tidied up the scene by removing some distracting twigs, I left it.
I didn’t see the spider thread when I shot it, but I like it now I do. Ditto for those tiny sprouts near the main plant itself. Amazing what is revealed in these kinds of photos and one of the reasons I keep doing them. This one I basically handheld, but kept the lens hood on the moss itself to anchor the camera. My husband looked on bemusedly. He’s used to it.
Remember that scene in The Jerk when Martin ran all over yelling “The new phonebook’s here! The new phonebook’s here” ? Well I felt like doing that about spring today. This is what tells me it’s arrived –
It’s whitlow grass and there’s a big patch of it in my backyard. They’re the very first flowers to bloom after the snow melts. I found them covered in frost this morning and when the sun came up, the frost turned to water droplets. Each plant is 1 inch high right now (some smaller, some taller) and the closed blossoms are 3-4mm. Tiny, but the early insects are buzzing around them already (they opened when the sun got higher).
I love the light in this one, but it was SO HARD to frame and focus in. If I didn’t have a live view screen that swivels and tilts I couldn’t have shot it. Ditto the zoom feature, so critical for macro focusing. I’m pretty excited to be back in macro season. Winter is so difficult for that kind of thing. With new growth and life returning, I’m sure my pursuit of the microscape will go back into full swing. I tried making a few this winter, but they didn’t work too well. Not much poked up above the massive amounts of snow we got, and the light just wasn’t right. But now spring has sprung, I’ll have more success.
From time to time I go meet up with a few other local photographers. We are all part of the same flickr group and it’s pretty much the same core of people who go to them. We usually try for a sunrise. Winter shooting seems far more popular. Probably because sunrise is at 7am instead of 5. Sunday was such a day. Of course I got about 2 hours worth of sleep the night before. I hate that. Couldn’t get comfortable. I’m coming down with something and kept coughing. The cats kept bugging me. It was brutal. After getting up and reading for a while, I finally went back to bed and was able to sleep for a couple hours. After a bit of a Plan A snafu, we ended up at Adams Point on Great Bay (one of our usual locations) and I got this –
Jeff and I trekked across the meadow heading for the milkweeds hoping for some interesting side light close-ups. I wasn’t feeling it though. Didn’t like any of the compositions I was able to get and didn’t feel like changing lenses for the 10th time (I should have brought my 65-200mm zoom, but had the straight 135mm f2.8 instead – mistake!) so switched tactics instead. Looking up out of my tunnel vision, I saw this beautiful vista. The sun had crested the treeline, but it wasn’t very high and so there are still shadows on the snow. I love the blue of those shadows against the soft pink of the sunlit snow. And the vertical lines of those naked milkweed plants break up the horizontal in an interesting way. The rolling hills and the trees give interest all through the shot. And the sky is equally soft all adding to a hushed, tranquil feeling. Think of it as anti-HDR.
Instead of using my graduated neutral density filter in the field (because my hands were already cold enough) I decided to use the same tool in Lightroom. I added just a little bit of underexposure and saturation in the sky and treeline. Just like a physical filter would have given me. Normally I like doing things in camera, but I just didn’t have the where-with-all yesterday.
I still haven’t gotten a decent sunrise or sunset at this location. Every time I go the sky refuses to cooperate. No clouds or no color. It’s like a conspiracy. Luckily there’s plenty of stuff in the foreground to work with. Here are some from previous shoots –
Boring sky with no clouds, but plenty of color…just look at it reflected in the ice there. That shot is almost straight out of the camera. A little contrast adjustment and I think some sharpening. Now look at this next one – great clouds, but zero color. Sunset bid almost fail. Luckily there was enough interest in the sky for a monochrome. I walked around until I got some other elements to include and later had to climb up that oak tree because the bank was too muddy and slippery.
As a whole, I think they work well to showcase some of the reasons why Adams Point is a nature preserve and also hosts a marine lab. It’s not going anywhere and the pack ice is forming, so one day maybe I’ll get my wish – good color, good sky, pack ice and fog. A girl can dream.
Sometimes you get lucky.
I went into the woods today for the first time in weeks and had been walking barely 10 minutes when I found this –
I couldn’t believe it. How did this beech leaf just stand up like that? As if it were spotlit on stage and about to give a speech. Funny huh? I’d just started to look around and notice details and there it was.
Now, another thing that’s kind of spooky is that I’d pulled over and stopped far short of where I usually park on this particular road. It’s unmaintained, but I’ve driven it in worse conditions with no problem. I have no idea why I did it. There was no logical thought process, I just stopped. For some reason though I parked at a junction with a couple of trails that I didn’t plan to actually hike, but ended up on anyway. If I’d driven all the way in, I would have run over this little leaf and blown a perfect opportunity.