Posts tagged “technique

The Shadow Knows

Besides finding interesting ice formations, winter is a great time to play with shadows. With enough snow, the low angle of the sun makes this something you can do almost all day. Just recently I posted a forest landscape with shadows that brought out the contours and the silky texture of the snowpack. You can also use a landscape view to emphasize the contours of the objects casting the shadows. Apple trees are perfect for this kind of thing because they’re so gnarled and twisted.

Winter orchard

If you start to limit the angle of view with shadow photos, you can bring an abstract art quality to the image that is especially fun to play with.

Elegance of the Forest

Symptom of the Universe

Playing with processing is part of creating an even more dramatic image. Here is a light selenium tone treatment. I chose this technique to preserve the feeling of lightness I get from the photo. The delicacy of the shadows and the birch. Traditional monochrome or sepia didn’t preserve the mood so I tried different things until I found something that worked. Never be afraid to experiment!

Immersive moments

Man made objects can work for this as well like this bench I found in a small park in Manchester, NH.

Benchmade

And of course you don’t have to convert everything to monochrome. Even in the dead of winter there are subtleties of color to capture. The sun had barely risen when I found these tracks winding through the trees; the warm yellow sky reflects beautifully in the snow.

Step softly

Even a tiny fern sprig can be interesting with the right background. I just love the differences in intensity between the shadowed snow and the lit snow.

Beguiling

I was struck by the geometry in this next scene and so perched on a large rock to frame a more abstract view of how the shadows and reflections intersect with the trees themselves.

Morning intersections

So if winter hasn’t drawn to a close where you are, maybe try some shadow play yourself.

 

 


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.


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.


Answers from photographers

Thanks to everyone for their considered comments on my last post.

I got together with my friend the other day and even though she knew I’d be bringing mine, she didn’t bring her camera.  This tells me pretty much all I need to know about her stage with it right now – snapshots only, nothing serious.  No inclination to do more.  All fine with me.  She knows I’m a resource should things change.  As an abstract painter, she approaches things differently than I do as either a jewelry artist or a photographer and so your comments gave me some alternate perspectives.

Glenn, you’re right about the makers v. takers and if being a taker suits her purposes then that’s all that matters.

Jason, I took a class in HS as well, but didn’t do much formally beyond that time.  It’s been a process of learning by doing and a little bit of reading.

Steve, your background certainly has helped you establish a style when it comes to your post processing work.  It’s funny because my friend started asking me all kinds of questions about Photoshop and equivalents from Corel and other mfgs.  It was kind of staggering to me because in my process it’s a cart before the horse kind of question; she doesn’t even know what she needs out of a photo editor so how am I supposed to tell her?  🙂

Theresa, I hear you about camera manuals.  As bad as stereo instructions to be sure, but they are good for at least providing an overview of controls etc, so you won’t fumble so much to use them at first.  And keeping it with you can only ease your frustration when something isn’t intuitive – like her need to shut off the flash.  Learning by doing, sister, I’m there; you’d have a real laugh at my mountains of bad slides and prints.

kat, the themes and assignments idea is a good one should she ever really want tutoring.  I’ll remember that one.  You’re right that it can refresh your artistic side and forgotten skills.

Richard, critique is tough with her and anything.  With her, she thinks that her process is so well thought out that her end products must be great no matter what.  Not that she doesn’t take instruction or correction, we worked together long enough that I know she can, but sometimes she thinks her great process will always equal a great result.

Matt, you’re right about the ease of experimenting and practicing with digital and I suspect that’s how she’ll get on.

Jackie, you really went the extra mile and it shows in your work.  Formal classes, seminars and workshops are something I’ve not taken advantage of at all, but would like to someday.  Not only would they seem to instill good habits and techniques, but also help a person find her style.

Jason N, books are a good idea and I probably should update my library.  I’ve heard nothing but good things about the Petersen book as you say.  Being grounded in the knowledge of the whys and wherefores of what makes a photograph work from a technical perspective can’t be replaced.

Thanks so much for all your insights.  Keep them coming if you haven’t commented.

When my friend didn’t immediately fall in love with photography and pester me with questions, it made me feel as if I were alone and somewhat strange for taking as much time with it as I do.  Ditto for our mutual friend who is a photographer, but was too lazy to go out with me in the cold.  The light was great and she just didn’t care.  So why should I, I asked myself.  I was disheartened for a while.  I love seeing the spark of joy of photography in others and when they don’t share my passion it makes me sad.  Everyone should love what I love, shouldn’t they???

The cure was going for a long drive to a photography meet-up.  The location was weird (an abandoned quarry) and there were only three of us plus my husband who was only along to see a decrepit, old place.  After spending the afternoon with passionate and creative photographers, I felt better.  I felt at home.  We were excited to explore the grounds and happy with its off-beat appeal.  I was glad to be back among my people.


A question for photographers

All 3 of you who read this blog.

How did you learn to do what you do?  Assuming you’re capable of making the camera give you the results you want, how did you figure it out?

I ask because I have a friend who just bought her first SLR in ages…or maybe ever.  She knows terms like f-stop, aperture and light, but doesn’t know what they mean or how they affect her photos.  I’ve had quick conversations with her on the phone, but haven’t spent any time with her and the camera taking pictures.  No time.

So far I’ve counseled her to read her manual and keep it with her.  She didn’t and one day couldn’t figure out how to turn the auto flash off.  Sigh.  I’ve also counseled her not to try to figure it out all at once.  There’s about a million buttons, dials, menu selections etc and that will drive you nuts if you try to take it in all at once.  Especially if you have no idea about the basics of photography.

She’s enthusiastic and I don’t want to crowd that or dampen it into frustration.  It’s been forever since I learned how to manipulate settings to get what I want.  Now it’s second nature and I don’t know what the best approach would be.  The books I have are all geared toward 35mm cameras without autofocus and so they probably won’t be much help.  I haven’t bought a new photography book in 10 years and the ones I have are specific to landscape and macro, two things she probably won’t be doing.

There’s a possibility of going out with her on Friday to shoot. A mutual friend who also has a ton of experience with photography is going, too.  The question is, how valuable will we be without making her nuts or getting in the way of our own shooting.  Should we leave her alone and tell her to get a book?  Should we guide and coach her?  Should we talk her through our own shots?  A combination?

So…I’d like to hear from you if you have suggestions or stories about how you learned to take the camera off Program.


The Shots I Don’t Take

The other day I met up with a couple of local photographer friends in quest of a foliage sunrise.  Unfortunately it didn’t work out.  The sky was too densely overcast and the light dull.  Bummer.  But I didn’t drive long to get there and the meet up gave me a new location to shoot in the future.  Plus I got to hang out with two good guys who also happen to be good photographers.

Anyway, a couple minutes worth of casual conversation got me to thinking about how we grow as photographers.  Basically these days, we agreed, it is almost more about the shots we don’t take than the ones we do.  I said that when I look through prints or slides from my early days I groan aloud and wonder why I even pressed the shutter button.  He laughed and said he’s done the same.

The thing is, I know why I pressed it.  Primarily it was out of sheer joy.  The joy of discovery, the joy of what I saw, the joy of making art, the joy of just doing what I liked to do.  Second was that I had to press the button.  Any endeavor requires doing.  Well duh, right?  If I didn’t shoot a lot of film, I’d never come to understand what works and what doesn’t.  I’d never come to understand what moved me as a photographer.  In short, I’d never learn.  How can you come to understand, to know, anything without studying it?  How can you get “mad skillz” without shooting a lot?  For photographers this means more doing than observing or reading.  Skills need to become second nature because if you miss the shot of the monkey riding Pegasus with a rainbow in the sky, you’ll regret it forever.

Mostly though, it’s not about the once in a lifetime shot, it’s the quotidian.  The everyday pursuit of what moves you.  Capturing your style as well as the subject.  To me it’s knowing what translates from 3D to 2D.  Some things do and some things don’t.  But I had to produce a lot of don’ts to figure this out.  I try not to think of it as having wasted film, but as learning how to take the kind of photographs I want.  At the time film was the only medium available, new photographers these days have no idea of the agony a photographer on a budget went through with film, but that’s another post.

Here’s a good example of what I mean by not translating to 2 dimensions.

Play of light doesn't work in 2D

In reality, this vignette is pretty neat and eye-catching.  It’s a rock overhang on a small brook.  The way the light was hitting made a really neat reflection on the rock above.  Swirly and sparkly – I sat mesmerized for a few minutes before deciding to try to capture it (and all the while I was contorting into a decent camera angle, I had my doubts as to whether it would be a success).  Maybe some people would post and be proud of this shot, and I might have myself if I were just starting out, but now it’s on the reject pile.  It just doesn’t translate.

Knowing this I find myself not taking photos that I would have years ago because I know they’ll end up rejects.  What is pleasing to the eye sometimes just doesn’t come through in a photo and I’d rather spend my time looking for what will.  Practice, practice, practice.  New angles or vantage points.  Juxtapositions and slices.  It has to translate.

Here’s another one I took on a 0-degree photo meet up.

The mist too far

Now I know for a fact, because I took and printed similar shots in the 80s when I was new to photography, that I’d have set this as a keeper then.  It’s on the reject pile now.  Why?  Because it’s flat, blah and not compelling.  The mist needs to be closer to us, there needs to be something prominent in the shot to draw the eye.  It shows the serenity of the moment, but so what?

It got into the reject pile, sure, but I still shot it.  I took a chance.  I experimented.  Practiced.  And it taught me something.  Taught me in two ways; first that I should have hunted around for a better way to frame this.  I should have hunted for that compelling element that would have made the shot and kept me from wasting my time.  Maybe my brain was frozen – it really was 0 degrees out and we were all shivering.  The second way it taught me was by adding to my store of info on what doesn’t work in a photograph, that way when presented with a similar scene, I might remember and do that hunting.

Here’s a less boring sunrise from a few months later.

 

Sunrise on Squam lake

No, this image isn’t perfect.  It won’t make my top 10 for the year, but it is an improvement over the other sunrise shot.  Remember, I’m still practicing.


Massive Dynamic II

Son of Massive Dynamic. Told ya I’d go back.  Yesterday afternoon was a pretty good day to be out.  Better than today which is overcast and blah.  Anyway, I didn’t take these two shots deliberately to match.  They’re like bookends and I only noticed it when I got to processing them.  I mean, it’s not too shocking considering how I compose shots and the time of day, but man, they are pretty cool together.  Even though there is a bit of color in the trees and sky, I still went with monochrome to preserve the feeling of the bridge set as a whole and to emphasize form and lines.  That’s my excuse anyway.

 

Set in stone

Quiet shores

Oh, so you want some color now do you?  Well, ok.

 

Warrior of Life

I’m really pleased with how that one turned out.  After repositioning the tripod a few times, I got that ridge of white water to angle where I wanted it.  The combination of polarizer and neutral density filter gave me the colors and exposure I wanted.  The Merrimack is no river to fool with and so while I did want to convey an idea of it’s flow, I also wanted to preserve the feeling of power and so a 1 second exposure was pretty good at doing both.  I tried both slower and faster and neither works as well as this.  It also brings up the yellow reflections of the leaves pretty well which to me, adds interest.

Anyway, I have a few more from this ramble, but I’ll save them for another post.


To Bridge the Gap

One of the by-products of decades of photography is an excess of gear.  I’ve got stuff that I just HAD TO HAVE that I didn’t end up using much.  Yeah, photography isn’t the only hobby where this occurs, but it is one of the major ones.  Gear fetishists know what I’m talking about.  A spate of interest in a kind of shot makes you go out and buy all kinds of weird stuff.  Back in film days I bought a crap load of filters.  Didn’t use 3/4 of them, but I had them.  Ugh.

Then I decided to get into macro photography, but didn’t really research my needs very well and ended up with a ring flash when I really should have gotten a dual macro flash (one flash on either side of the lens, independently controlled and articulated).

Olympus T10 Ring flash and 90mm f2 macro lens

Needless to say, it didn’t get much use because while it provides great light, it doesn’t provide great definition in the form of shadows.  If I’d done a bit more research I’d have realized that to bring up detail in macro shots, hightlights and shadows are key.  The way to do that is to light one side of the object more than another.  Some do this by using a single flash and daylight, or sometimes a reflector and daylight, but another way is to use two flash units powered and angled differently.  Some ring flashes have controls to individually manage the flash bulbs within them and actually turn them up and down independently, but this flash doesn’t allow that.  So what’s a poor photographer to do?

Adapt.  Sure, I’d love to buy a new Olympus macro flash rig designed for the E System, but as I just said, I’m a poor photographer.  I need to find a way to use my old gear with my new gear.  I’d heard that some vintage film flash units can damage new digital SLRs with their high voltage output, so I was a more than leery of trying it.  Luckily the folks at Bifos exist to make the Olympus user’s life a little easier.  There’s even a tutorial on how to properly adapt this old flash to the E series cameras.  Rejoice!  After following the relatively simple directions, I’m taking it into the yard to experiment.

Quince blossoms in the rain

This is probably the best photo I’ve taken recently with the manual gear shown above.  Since the flash, lens and camera don’t communicate I have to assess everything in my head and try for the best settings with regard to shutter speed, aperture, flash output and focus.  I don’t actually mount the ring flash on the lens (although I could), instead I hold it to one side of the subject and aim it manually.  Literally.  It’s in my hand.  It’s a flexible way to work, but not very precise.  Sometimes things come out too dark or too light.  But over time I’m getting a feel for how each variable works with the others.  It’s not perfect, but it’s workable.  Next is a diffuser.  The direct light is too harsh for my liking, but a little DIY time should produce something useful.

So what the hell am I nattering on about?  What’s the point?  Well I guess in this era of reuse/recycle it’s appropriate.  A lot of old gear still has life in it if we’re willing to adapt.  I wouldn’t trade my old OM 90mm macro lens for anything, even a new Olympus macro lens.  And yeah, I’d love to have a new flash, but I’d feel so stupid and guilty for not using the one I have that it would be a hard purchase.  Using my old one gives me satisfaction in a couple of ways; I’m overcoming the difficulty of the process and I’m getting my money’s worth.  Now maybe I can find a legacy twin flash rig that will mount on the power unit…


The Story of a Single Shot

I am a walker.  I mean that in the sense that I’m not a runner.  I go out and tear up several miles at a time.  I average a 14-minute mile.  It is not a stroll.  What the hell does this have to do with photography?  Well one of my normal walking routes takes me by a stream that runs through my neighborhood and out into several others.  Over one of the bridges I’m allowed a view down into a part where it gets rather spready.  As spring progresses the vegetation gets more varied and lush.  Part of that lushness are skunk cabbages.  An inglorious name for a really rather nice plant.

So you’d be expecting skunk cabbage pictures right about now.

You’d be wrong.

Fast forward a couple of days and you can find me at one of my favorite spots; the Musquash Conservation area.  It’s so close to my house that it’s like an extension of my (rather puny) back yard.  I know the trails well and just off of one of them lies a smallish brook.  In the afternoon the sun angles down rather nicely into said brook.

Ah…now for the skunk cabbage shots, right?

No.

In fact there are skunk cabbages in that smallish brook and I noticed them.  Noticed them proper.  However they weren’t lit in any way that would be considered in the least photogenic, but these things were –

Unfurl

Now an uninitiated person might think these are skunk cabbages, but they are not, they just like hanging around with skunk cabbages.  Must be the conversation.  At the time I was photographing them, I had no idea what they were, but I do now.  But since I didn’t then I’ll just get on with telling you how much I squished around in this smallish brook trying to find just the right composition and treatment for these impostor cabbages.

I tried initially doing some test shots with the camera off tripod.  I find it a useful and time saving technique when I’m only trying to find how best to pull various elements of a photo together.  Time saving was key in this session because the sun has a nasty way of getting behind trees or clouds or very tall people and ruining my light.  Angled sunlight is tricky enough as it is without a capricious sun getting in on the act.

So, there – that’s the best angle…low down, main plant in large proportion to the plants behind it.  They must be rendered out of focus, but recognizable.  So important to theme and leading imagination without dictating imagination.  Camera on tripod now.  Damn, legs are too tall.  Must get lower down.  Is the water running into my boot?  Never mind that, what’s the sun doing?  Are those clouds?  Ok, tripod is lower.  Oh crap now it’s pivoting on the center column.  Raise center column.

What about that dead tree straddling the smallish brook?  Is it too intimidating?  Is it too dark?  Can I see the light behind it from underneath?  Where are the tips of the leaves of my main plant?  Where’s that sun?  Click.  Damn, the autofocus is confused.  It thinks I want the smallish brook in focus.  Switch to manual.  Ah that’s better.  But are the leaves really sharp?  Hit ok to enlarge Live View.  Nope, not quite sharp.  Adjust.  There.  Click.

Take a few more shots at different focal points, focal lengths, angles and apertures just to be safe.

Many hours later, when I get home I start reviewing to my relief I did get what I want.  Sort of.  Kick up the clarity a notch or two and the blacks.  Damn that dead tree is rather dark and overwhelming.  Let’s crop some.  It’s a start.   But what’s this?  The adjustment brush in Lightroom.  Aha.  That should do the trick.  Feather at 90%.  Brush around.  Ooops, too much.  Undo adjustment brush.  Choose new brush and lightly feather again.  Change exposure.  Ah.  That’s the sauce.

Impostor

Just look at the breathtaking crispness of the foreground plant to the background supporting cast.  The clean lines contrast nicely with the messy forest floor.  The reflecty parts in the water and the deep shadows under the log really stretch the tonal range to the max.  The light beyond the log and the moss in front of the two main plants; how’s that for depth?

Yes.  I am getting above myself, but dammit, I really planned this shot.  I worked on it.  I worked it.  I improved it.  It’s deliberate.  Isn’t that what I’ve been reciting to myself over and over like a mantra?  Be deliberate.  Make choices.  Slow down.  Plan.

I even think it might be working.

So that’s the story of a single shot.  If anyone ever says to me again that my camera takes good picture I’m going to hit them with it.

Oh, and I suppose you still want to know what this impostor cabbage is.  I suspect it to be False hellebore.  A kind of poisonous lily.  But I won’t know until it blooms or the leaves fully unfurl.  And I have plans for when that happens.


Big Picture v. Little Picture

Lately I’ve been out shooting with other people and it’s helped me define my style.  When one is alone, there isn’t anything to compare with, so in a group I observe how others approach the same subject.  It’s fascinating and has led me to think about how I want to convey what it was like to be where I took my pictures.  Both macro and micro pictures are necessary for this, but which speaks more clearly?

Details v. Vistas.  For me, it takes both types of photos to really tell the story; to make the viewer feel like they know what it’s like to be there.  Too many times have I just told ½ the story by concentrating on the Big Picture.  A wide angle lens is a forgiving tool.  It’s easy to get decent or even good photos when using such an encompassing lens.

Stormy skies over Provincetown MA lifesaving station

For me though, I find I like crafting detail shots even more.  They’re more intimate and somehow more personal.  When I see some small element in a photo, it puts me in closer proximity to the photographer.  Now I can try to find what caught her attention in the first place.  What fixed it on this tiny part of the giant landscape?  Is it as magical to me as it was to him?  Can I convey that feeling of a special discovery when I make detailed photos?  It’s more challenging and I really like working the details of a given scene.  Anyone can show me the whole thing, but who can show me the secrets?

Bedewed feather and beach detritus

Sand-blasted chains at Marconi Beach, Cape Cod MA

The size of the detail varies, too.  Sometimes you need focus, but not so tiny.  A medium-shot if you will.  Something with perspective to help illustrate why being at that place at that time was worth photographing.  There was a big storm this past October on Cape Cod and the surf was high…unusually high.  But my big pictures just didn’t convey any scale.  They were impressive of the totality, but so what…oh look – waves.  Aren’t there always waves?  And tilted horizons?

Big surf after the storm, Cape Cod MA

I kept on the look out for something that would convey just how high the surf was coming.  Then I found it.

Surf's Up - right to the edge

Secret’s out.