What is the story of autumn?

Door County Panoramic

Door County Panoramic

I’m still working through the images from fall color hunting but as feared, not really finding any outstanding shots.  This was a grove of trees on the edge of a field on one of the few days with actual sunshine.  Casually driving around and looking at scenery would have convince the average person there was lots of great scenes this fall but taking time to find something to compose was a different story.

Speaking of which, what is the story for fall colors?  Is it the brilliant end of a growing season?  A nostalgic memory of earlier autumns?  The slight chill in the air accompanying the changing colors that reminds us of the season to come (and its associated holidays for family and friendship)?  If one had the perfect photograph of fall colors, what story would it tell?  What memory would it elicit?  What emotion would it stimulate?

Never really thought about it.  Photographing the changing colors just seems like the thing to do in and of itself.  But there must be some basic, primary essence of why we enjoy such images.  And linger our gaze on some while passing by others.  Perhaps figuring that out will enable me to see even the least autumn in a new way.

Comments?

Trying a little of everything.

Wandering around a nearby state park, trying out some different techniques.  Nice day to be doing just about any type of photography.

First, with the strong morning sun and no cloud cover shadows were going to be black, but contain some interesting details.  So, go with HDR.

5-image HDR

5-image HDR

Nearing the top of the bluff with almost the whole lake spread out before us, good time to show the complete picture with a panoramic.

10-image Panoramic

10-image Panoramic

One of the most popular rock formations, and some clouds coming in for sky definition, along with a look at the rest of the lake.  Don’t want the distortion of a really short lens, so another panoramic.

7-image Panoramic

7-image Panoramic

More clouds coming in fast but still plenty of sunshine overhead.  With the contrast of rock, water, sky and foliage, time for infrared.

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On the way down, along a forested trail, turn from the grand landscape to the intimate one.

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All in all a nice walk through some varying terrain.  What better way to spend a holiday?

Sierra Images

On the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada range lies Mono Lake, a remnant of a prehistoric sea that filled the valley below Tioga Pass.  Once famous for the millions of migratory birds that stopped here on their travel and the Pacific gulls that nested in the millions, Mono Lake suffered from Los Angeles siphoning off water from the melting snowpack that feeds the lake.  Threatened with disappearance, the lake is slowly recovering after efforts by conservation groups to wrestle the water supply away from the metropolis almost 400 miles away.  Nonetheless, the numbers of birds using Mono Lake for resting, feeding and nesting has dropped significantly as they seek other havens in this desert environment.

Mono Lake from Visitor's Center

Mono Lake from Visitor’s Center

Mono Lake is famous for its tufa formations (images of those later), remains of thermal vents in the lake’s bottom that are gradually exposed as the water level drops.  The two islands in the lake and the chain of craters to the south are symbols of the younger and more violent volcanic activity in this valley.  Although Mono Lake is probably over 1 million years old it sits on unstable foundations.  Water passing through these younger strata pick up minerals, contributing to a salinity several times greater than the ocean and an alkaline nature that Mark Twain commented on as being useful for cleaning clothes by simply dipping them in the water a few times!

Mono Lake from overlook

Mono Lake from overlook

Little towns string along the eastern Sierra foothills, agricultural oasis catering to the constant tourist flow passing through in admiration of the scenery to the west.

Sierras from Bridgeport, CA

Sierras from Bridgeport, CA

North Dome in Mirror Lake, Yosemite

North Dome in Mirror Lake, Yosemite

Glacier Point and Royal Arch Creek, Yosemite

Glacier Point and Royal Arch Creek, Yosemite

Bridalveil Falls and Leaning Tower, Yosemite

Bridalveil Falls and Leaning Tower, Yosemite

Every little thing

Watching the chipmunks and ground squirrels running around chasing food and each other I got to wondering what the world must look like from their perspective.  With eyes almost on either side of their head the view is much wider than we see, and just about every plant around grows taller than them.

I put my tripod flat on the ground and mounted my shortest lens to a panoramic attachment to get some images of the world at their level.  It certainly looks like a much bigger and wider world than we’re used to seeing.  And the details are almost overwhelming.  No wonder they seem to attend to every little twig and leaf that turns up in their small section of land.

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10 image panoramic, 14mm, f/8, ISO100

Look deep into my image

Landscape photographers, as a group, generally are looking for the greatest depth of field possible in their images.  The intent is to emulate what the viewer would see were they standing right there, with everything from their toes to the horizon in focus.  Although our eyes don’t actually work that way (we scan a scene and our brain pieces it all together in a way that makes it look like everything is in focus) it’s the way we expect a landscape scene to look so photographers work to deliver that in their final work.

In the good old days of view cameras this infinite depth of field was accomplished by tilting the lens downward a bit to expand the depth of field at the film plane (which was not tilted).  From William Henry Jackson to Ansel Adams this was the way you got wide depths of field in a landscape photograph.  When medium format and 35mm cameras came along with lenses fixed parallel to the film plane this wasn’t possible until the invention of tilt-shift lenses, which act somewhat the way a lens on a view camera works.

Another method has always been possible but until the invention of digital photography wasn’t easy.  You could always photograph sections of a scene, each in focus, and paste them all together to create a final image where all parts are in focus.  This was a very time consuming effort and the results not always satisfactory, or easily reproducible.  With digital processing, though, it’s just a few clicks away.

I’ve played around with this “focus-stacking” technique a few times in macro photography as a way to bring more of a small object in focus within a single image.  While at the NANPA Summit, though, I heard George Lepp talk about it as a way to expand depth of field in landscape photography as well.  It’s essentially the same process – take several images of different parts of a scene, all in focus for that part – only instead of cutting and pasting prints you let Photoshop combine the digital images into one, picking the areas that are in focus to generate the final image.

Here is an image made up from 17 individual images, each one made using a different focal point.  I put my camera and long lens (works best with a long lens to get the detail in the final image) on my tripod and made each image, gradually moving my focal point from right in front of my feet to the distant shoreline.  I then made adjustments to the exposure for each in Lightroom and moved the whole group to Photoshop to be turned into a panoramic – a vertical one.

As you can see in the follow three crops, each part of the overall image is in focus (well, mostly – I could have made more images to make sure each section was accurately focused).

It’s true that closing down the aperture will increase depth of field but the results will most likely not be this good.  First, long lenses have a narrow depth of field simply due to physics so I would not have been able to get the snow at my feet and the distant shoreline both in focus even if I closed the aperture to f/32.  And using a shorter lens (which will have more depth of field at the same aperture) would not give me the distant detail I want.  Second, closing down the aperture smaller than the “sweet spot” in a lens (usually in the middle of the aperture range) means lost detail due to light diffraction around the edges of the aperture blades, scattering the light as it reaches the sensor.  Granted, most of this wouldn’t be noticeable unless you really zoom into the picture or print it really big, but what’s the point of capturing detail across the distance of a composition if you can’t do that!?

But what about horizontal?  You can use the same technique but instead of a single row of images you’ll need to add one or more rows in order to get enough of the scene in the final image.  Simply make several images in a row, point the camera up or down to a new focal point (with some overlap of the prior row), make several images in a row, etc. until you have enough rows to cover the scene.  I usually then make traditional panoramics of each row of images and then the final image from combining the panoramics.  Photoshop will combine either vertically or horizontally when it realizes you have overlapped enough of the scene.

Obviously this works best where nothing in your scene is moving.  It’s fun, though, to be able to create images that look like the way we expect reality to appear.

Elements of the big picture

I’m sure you’ve all run across people who proudly proclaim “I’m a big picture person” when discussing how they approach an issue, as if disdaining any contact with actual details required to get something accomplished.  Don’t get me wrong, there are people who actually are best at the big picture and we need them in order to keep us thinking about an objective or plan or expected destination in life.  Still, sometimes the details can bring out aspects that shouldn’t be overlooked, especially in a photograph.

ISO 100, 100mm, 1/50 sec., f/8, 9 image panoramic

ISO 100, 100mm, 1/50 sec., f/8, 9 image panoramic

I’m guessing this is a little too wide for this blog but I wanted to show it as a way to point out how you sometimes have to craft an image with what’s available.  There are no mountains in Nebraska so you have to see what the sun will provide in the landscape you’ve got.  This time of year the corn fields are bare so the contour plowing is visible, especially when you include some shadows for depth.  I caught a glimpse of this idea while driving home one day and set out that week to duplicate it.  The trick was finding a field with these berms curving away from the camera to set the foreground apart from the background, on a slope that would allow wide separation between them so the shadows of one wouldn’t hide the peak of another, and waiting for an angle where the setting sun would just cut across the tops of each berm leaving the area behind them in shadow.  The result is the alternating light and shadow curves.  I was fortunate the close-in foreground was plowed across the width of the scene, giving me a firm foundation for the image.  I cropped it close at the top (no clouds, not very interesting sky) and did some post-processing in black and white to make sure the tones were distributed the way I wanted.  And that was it.

I like how the very visible curves give a sense of depth to the image, drawing your eye from the close foreground into the background, and from side to side. sweeping from the left and going downhill to the right.  It’s the way you would view the scene were  you standing there and that’s my objective for shots like this.

The Plains have been compared to a sea of grass.  Standing in one of the remaining prairies in the area and watching the breeze ripple the tops of the grass to drive waves across the fields reminds you of being at sea.  What I like about this composition is the berms solidify that idea, freezing the moving waves to reveal their relentless travel in the face of the wind.