A longer than expected snow storm dropped several inches on us a few days ago, followed by sunny, warmer days. I wandered down to the park to see how it looked. The wind that generally accompanies our storms crafts all sorts of shapes in snow, while it falls and afterward by remolding the drifts. These are designs governed by complex physics, making their ultimate form difficult to predict. Yet out of chaos comes beauty.
March 12, 2013
February 26, 2013
This weekend there was a perfect winter day to be in the woods. No wind, temperature just above freezing, good snow cover and hazy clouds over head. I could wander around holding my camera gear with no gloves on (buttons get progressively smaller the bigger your gloves are) and take my time with longer shots since the woods weren’t swaying in the breeze. The small woods trail I took was mostly empty – many tracks indicated it had been well used earlier – so I had all that nature to myself. Even the small herd of deer I scared up weren’t in a big hurry – they seemed to realize it was just too nice a day to worry about a lone photographer on their trail.
As the temperature was just right for melting and freezing water I found some very interesting compositions in a small waterfall along the trail. Water was flowing under the ice, breaking free in places and splashing around to re-freeze into more ice covering the water. This is yet another way for icicles to be made and to merge together into ice curtains.
The old saying is moving water won’t freeze and yet parts of it do. Without the continual replenishing from upstream I’m sure this would turn into a solid block of ice but for now only part of the motion is suspended into a scene for the wandering photographer.
One fascinating aspect of the stream is how it isn’t lifeless in winter. While the surrounding trees and bushes have long since lost their leaves and the ground cover naps awaiting spring, under the ice lives mosses and algae soaking up the sunlight while eating what passes in the moving water. The green of these hardy creatures is visible to anyone taking a close look, right there under the swirling stream.
Winter remains the time to practice, practice, practice black and white photography, looking for textures, tones and structures more obvious in the contrasts of snow. I find the lines interesting; lines we’d ignore in the spring and summer become visible in winter as the snow frames and blocks to give partial forms and reveal new arrangements of objects.
Of course the wildlife becomes easier to spot as well, dark moving objects against a white background. How do you sneak up on a deer in winter? Park your car behind a snowback along the road in your neighborhood and lean your long-lensed camera on the glass, of course.
February 22, 2013
As most of the traditional winter sports require more change in elevation than is typical on the Plains in Nebraska we take advantage of whatever terrain is available. A local dam works just fine, offering two slopes in one. Slalom poles are included – courtesy of utility companies.
February 21, 2013
Every noticed how snow turns the world white almost without you noticing? Glance out a window and you suddenly realize it has snowed and quietly covered your yard with a clean, white blanket. Wouldn’t it be nice to watch that happen?
We’ve been hearing about a serious snowstorm coming our way for a couple of days so I set up a camera to look out my office window and used a remote shutter release to take a picture a minute until I got a little over 125 pictures (good exercise for while you are working on emails!). I made some minor adjustments to the exposure on all of them, dropped them into iMovie with a short duration between each, and converted the whole thing into a 30 sec. video. It’s pretty interesting to watch how nothing dramatic happens until you suddenly realize the scene is white. Where did that come from?!
Take a look and see what you think.
February 6, 2013
Giving your images a distinctive and interesting look is always a challenge but there are several tools available. Depth of field is a popular “art” tool that enables you to quickly bring the viewer’s eye to the exact subject you want them to pay attention to right from the start. To use effectively, though, you need to understand what is the depth of field you’re going to get for your composition? It’s a tricky question – each lens behaves differently based on aperture, distance from subject, focal length, etc. You almost have to experiment with your bag of lenses and learn. Or you can look up the depth of field chart for your lens and memorize it. My problem with the latter option is I have a hard time visualizing what a 3 inch depth of field or a 500 foot depth of field looks like. I usually just play around with my lenses and see what they deliver.
It’s especially daunting with telephoto lenses. The depth of field for these starts out short and seems to only get smaller. Here’s an example:
I liked the little snowball sitting in the sunlight so I wanted to make an image of it. I was sitting at a picnic table with my camera on my tripod, using my 300mm manual focus Olympus lens (from the OM film camera days). On my digital Olympus body this is equivalent to a 600mm lens on a full format camera. I’m about 10 yards from the snowball so this long lens really gets up close. I think the aperture was around f/11 or f/16 since I was looking for maximum sharpness. Notice the area that’s in focus – it’s a narrow band where the snowball is in the sunlight. The grass in the foreground and snowbank in the background are completely out of focus. Which is what I wanted – you eye should go right to the snowball. But how much depth of field is really there?
If I zoom in on the image you can see the depth of field is REALLY narrow; according to one online DOF calculator it comes in at 4 inches. Which means if I was making an image of a deer’s face using this distance and settings, their eyes would be in focus but their ears and nose might not be – and this is at a small aperture (not that I expect to be 10 yards from our local deer, at least not unless I’m holding a handful of corn for them). It does give a cool look, though, as it centers your eye right on the subject I want you to pay attention to. Like most specialized tools – and a long telephoto lens is definitely that – you get the best results when know the lens’ limitations and operating within them.
In my youth as a photographer I was always trying to get maximum depth of field, especially with landscapes. I’ve learned now that shortening it up can truly bring some interesting features to your pictures. Just have to know when and how to use the technique effectively and what tools work best to deliver on it.
Went out yesterday specifically to look for patterns at the edge of melting snow. The idea just popped into my head as I was wondering how to do a better job of capturing the texture of snow, since simply making an image of a snowbank doesn’t give me what I want. As it turns out, the exercise became a study in negative space (of a sort) as I saw that what was around the melting snow was equally as interesting. Let me show you.
I started seeing some sort of yin/yang compositions where the snow had melted off high spots and remained in the depressions. Not only is there a contrast between the light and dark areas but since I was looking around in a sandbox, there is a contrast of textures as well. The sun is about a hour from setting so the low angle cuts across the top of the peaks and reveals the snow texture as well as the sand pebbles.
Light and dark, shadow and highlight, edge and pattern. What is the subject of the image?
Where the snow has thinned enough for the darker sand to start showing through I’m able to see the snow’s texture better. Light requires shadow in order to illuminate?
The last image is simply to practice capturing the subtle gradations of tone as the sunlight curves along the gradual slope of the snow. The transition from light to dark is a fraction of a degree of angle, and right at that point you can see the irregular surface mottling where the snow has melted at different rates. Macro textures and micro textures – snow has it all.
January 26, 2013
Periodically I browse through my Lightroom catalog, sometimes to change ratings on images, sometimes to see if a new processing technique will give me a better version of an old image, and sometimes just to remind myself where I’ve been going with my photography. The other day I was looking back at images from this time last year and two years ago. It seems I’ve gotten better at technique, composition and overall image meaning, but in many ways I’m still making the same images. Good instructors continually say to push yourself out of your comfort zone. Not sure what that means in many ways. I’ve not yet achieved comfort in what would you considered my comfort zone. My photography interest is the outside world in many aspects – these are the images I’m most comfortable making. But I’m not comfortable with the results I see. I want more depth, more striking-ness, more you-are-there clarity in my images in addition to stories and interest. As I don’t feel I’m delivering that in my images I’m uncomfortable with them. I don’t need to attempt abstract art in order to feel uncomfortable yet sometimes I feel that’s what instructors are saying – stop doing what you do all the time and do something unrelated to it. I appreciate the Zen benefit of ridding your mind of constraints, but shouldn’t I keep working on my discomfort where I know what I want in an end result? I’m sure it’s an internal argument many photographers go through.
So, I was looking at image from two years ago and came across a winter HDR series I made. The processing tool I was using at the time really didn’t deliver the look I wanted thus I moved on to other images. Now I have what I consider better tools and experience using them, as well as a different ‘eye’ on the subject, so I played around it again to see if I could get what I saw at the time.
This time the HDR came out better than before, although it is still obviously an HDR. Expanding the tone compression (the way software manages to deal with wide dynamic ranges) would make the dark areas lose all detail and blow out the sky highlights so I left it this way. I used the History brush to enhance the highlights and darker areas, increasing the contrast along lines to make them more obvious. Also brought a couple of brighter lines from the background to the foreground to simulate sunbeams on the ice. I like the effect – your mileage may vary. What I see is an almost surrealistic image, which is about what I was seeing the day I made it.
Another thing about photography, at least for me, is how it mimics chess in your mind. Much like a good chess player can remember how the board achieved the current arrangement even days after walking away from it, I can look at the images in my Lightroom catalog and pretty much tell you where they were made, why they were made, what was going on around there at the time, and other aspects of lighting, weather, colors, etc. Although I made this image two years ago I remember where else I shot at this location, why I chose this perspective, how cold it was and how I imagine all the people walking by thought I must be crazy standing there taking picture after picture when there was virtually no light on the lake. It’s an interesting condition, probably exacerbated by my visual learning style, but it sure makes keeping the metadata and key words up to date easier!
Anyone else have this condition as a photographer?
January 17, 2013
It was just a few years ago, not long after we moved to the Plains, we had snow on the ground before Thanksgiving that wasn’t gone until nearly Easter of the following year. Winter needs snow; it’s one of the reasons to live where winter is a real season. Lately, though, the snow on the ground comes later and leaves sooner. Debate whatever side of the climate research you want – I just want the snow back.
Really, didn’t seasons used to gracefully migrate into one another? Spring showers and flowers would ease into summer greenery and warmth which would evolve into autumn colors and crispness. Then once the last leaf fell to the ground snow was right behind it to shape the ground until the spring bulbs pushed their way through to the sun. You didn’t need a calendar to know what time of the year it was – you just needed to walk around outside a bit and it became obvious.
Now it feels like seasons make a quick appearance, tell a few jokes and then rapidly exit stage left, leaving us with this “in-between” thing that has no name, a time we sit around trying to decide “what season is it?” and our biological clocks get out of rhythm with nature. It’s like a scene from a bad Chekhov story where the characters sit around wondering why they are there and what they are to do, only to realize the answer to both questions is there is no answer.
Feels like we at least need a name for this inter-seasonal doldrum. They say naming something makes it real in our minds so that would be a start.
Anyone got any ideas?
January 5, 2013
When you have shadows, work with shadows. This is the perfect time of the year for black and white. Use low angled light (just before sunset or right after sunrise) to bring out the surface texture and details. Work with exposure to make sure you keep details in the shadows and highlights (yes, that’s a 40 second exposure above – another moonlight image). Traditionally you want some pure blacks and whites in an image as reference points but with ice and snow that can look too contrasty so I’ve backed down on each a bit. For the Zone System enthusiasts out there all these images have tonal ranges between Zones 2 and 8; pushing to 1 and 9 gave me too much stark appearance. If all that means nothing to you then read up on Ansel Adam’s exposure techniques or play around with your own exposures until you get what you want.
If you want to play around with Adam’s Zone System keep in mind the intent was to visualize tonal attributes in the final PRINT, not the intermediate negative (or RAW file for digital). Many of Adam’s negatives were actually somewhat flat – he brought contrast to selected areas in the printing and developing process. For digital, keep your histogram even across the center and then post-process to spread information to pixels at the ends to get the contrast you want. Use local dodging and burning (or adjustment brush in Lightroom) to enhance selected areas. If I do that to these images I’ll post what I get and how I worked it out.
January 2, 2013
The perfect snow day for photographers has to be where the clouds are high and thin, making a huge softbox for the sun to evenly illuminate the ground. I usually am looking for medium soft shadows where you can easily see details in them. The clear blue sky typical of winter results in stark shadows cast by the untempered sun, with extreme contrasts between the snow in the sun and snow in the shade. Alternatively, the other typical winter days of overcast result in no shadows at all, just an even grey cast over the whole landscape. What’s a person to do when the itch to photograph a landscape turns up?
Well, on a cloudy day you can bring your own sunshine and make your own shadows. Off-camera flash units are perfect for this sort of light manipulation. You put them where you want light, attach a light modifier of some sort and adjust to give the amount of light you want. These are fill lights only – you aren’t going to be able to illuminate acres of ground. No, this is like big light painting – you put light where you want and use composition to create the total image.
Here’s a before and after of what I’m talking about:
Sometimes you just need a little extra light to bring more interest to the image. I used three flash units in the “after” image: one between the first and second tree on the left, one between the second and third tree on the left and one behind the distant tree on the right. The first two have a softbox and white reflector attached, respectively. The third one is just a bare flash. Each one is attached to a PocketWizard radio trigger so they all fire when the shutter is released. I like the PocketWizard because the range is well over 1000′ so I can place the flash units where ever I want. I do wish the Olympus system had a wireless flash adjustment, though, so I wouldn’t have to run around to all the units to adjust the power levels between shots.
Obviously this is more than the on-camera flash built into the camera body, and all those flash units and transmitters do cost extra. I use mine for multiple purposes, including the rare portrait or group image, so I could justify the purchase. I like taking the sun around with me for when I need it but it’s more gear to buy and haul around so it might not be for everyone.
Others were using the late evening light as well. The local deer are able to reach grass under the snow now that it has melted a bit. It’s amazing to think how an animal of this size finds enough food to stay alive in the cold. There was still some green grass under the trees, however, and the last snow came down heavy enough to insulate it from the bitter cold of the last week. Deer will paw away snow to find food and I caught this one in the act.
They have put on a nice winter coat this year and don’t appear to be too thin. Talking with one of the park supervisors I learned they get feed supplements as well, placed at various places around the park away from where people will disturb them. Must be working for them otherwise I think they would hang out around the road begging for handouts.
Today they were moving around in groups, some feeding and some just lying around. I’ve read their winter coat is so well insulated they can lay down on the snow and not melt it. Has to do with the hollow hairs of the outer layer of their coat. Sometimes you can see them walking around with snow on their back that isn’t melting either.
They see a lot of car traffic through the park, most of it looking for them. As a result they usually ignore vehicles passing by but every once in a while something will catch their attention and then everyone has to look up and see what’s happening.
I could have used one of the flash units to put a small catch light in their eyes – I don’t think it would have bothered them. My lens was resting on the window and I was about 50 feet away so I’m pretty sure my best flash would have reached. Perhaps next time I’ll plan on that and have all the gear ready to go. For today I was happy to bring some light to the trees and photograph the deer au naturale.