Straight Shots

Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) growing at the edge of small river, with sunlit highlights from the river water.

Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) growing at the edge of small river, with sunlit highlights from the river water.

I love making abstract, interpretive, impressionistic images with my camera. It’s satisfying to be able to create these types of  images, straight out of the camera. They are less documentary and in some cases inspire ‘what is it?’ comments. These images emphasize colour, texture, shape and line. They convey feelings of delicacy, fragility, lightness and euphoria or spirituality. It is possible to achieve these types of images without the use of image altering computer software. All it takes is careful observation and imagination along with a good knowledge of how the camera captures images.

Here are some recent images that illustrate some techniques I like to employ. I include some tips and advice to help you produce your own interpretive images, straight from your camera.

  1. Shallow depth of field- I begin by setting the lens to f4 or so (wider aperture) with the intention of selectively focusing on my subject. I scout the composition  while handholding the camera to give freedom of movement and then when I find the angle and focus point I desire I mount the camera back on a tripod for a more careful composition. This is often called ‘selective focus’ because something will be in focus while much of the subject will be rendered as out of focus colourful blobs.
Birch trees in spring. Selective focus. f 5.6 210 mm

Birch trees in spring. Selective focus. f 5.6 210 mm

One subject I tried this spring was a birch woodland with emerging (backlit) leaves in birch saplings nearer the camera. I was fortunate to finally notice an excellent example below me as I stood on a hillside rock outcrop. My original intention was to climb the hill and photograph emerging foliage in distant trees on a hillside. I still photographed that hillside but I spent most of my time on the hill photographing the birch tree trunks and fresh new leaves.

Birch trees in spring. Selective focus. f 5.6 320 mm

Birch trees in spring. Selective focus. f 5.6 320 mm

This technique also works well for flowers especially with the camera set low to the ground and a focus point set on more distant blossoms. You can even try it with super telephoto lenses!

Texas wildflowers, telephoto lens, selective focus 300 mm @ f7.1

Texas wildflowers, telephoto lens, selective focus 300 mm @ f7.1

Texas wildflowers, 80-400 @ 280 mm f8.

Texas wildflowers, 80-400 @ 280 mm f8.

  1. Macro lens painting- This is a technique I tried after reading a posting from US photographer and photography educator Janice Sullivan. The technique employs long exposures (5 seconds or so), the camera hand-held on colourful subjects such as garden flowers. I started the exposure on a blossom and then pointed the camera at nearby colourful displays, all in the same exposure.
Macro lens painting in a flower garden. 5 seconds @ f18, 105 mm

Macro lens painting in a flower garden. 5 seconds @ f18, 105 mm

Macro lens painting in a flower garden. 5 seconds @ f18, 105 mm

Macro lens painting in a flower garden. 5 seconds @ f18, 105 mm

  1. Camera movement/panning- This is a tried and true technique for creating impressionistic images of subjects like woodlands. I use it extensively in spring and fall. For the images below I moved the camera up and down during a lengthy (5 second or so) exposure while I was photographing a pine woodland in fog. The vertical lines certainly suggest I should use a vertical composition but I often do this horizontally to include more Vertical lines- tree trunks. Telephotos work best but I have tried this technique with wide-angle lenses too with interesting perspective results.
Red pine woodland in morning fog- camera movement, 5 seconds, f20, 125 mm

Red pine woodland in morning fog- camera movement, 125 mm, 5 seconds @ f20

 

Red pine tree trunks in morning fog- camera movement, 3 seconds, f20, 34 mm

Red pine tree trunks in morning fog- camera movement, 34 mm, 3 seconds @ f20

  1. Natural distortions- I often like to photograph the reflective surfaces of lakes and ponds, in spring, summer and fall, concentrating on the gentle distortions of the reflected shoreline features created by the water. In the examples below however, I was stuck in my car, waiting out a thunderstorm. I left the wipers off and decided to photograph the distorted autumn woodland through the rain-soaked windshield. I hand-held and used my 105 mm macro. Focusing on either the subject or the windshield yielded different results and these can be evaluated immediately by reviewing images in the camera monitor. That’s the beauty of digital photography- being able to see the results in real time so adjustments or refinements can be made!
  2. White birch tree woodland in autumn colour at Lake Laurentian Conservation area as seen through a rain-soaked windshield. 105 mm lens f 3.5

    White birch tree woodland in autumn colour at Lake Laurentian Conservation area as seen through a rain-soaked windshield. 105 mm lens f 3.5

     

    White birch tree woodland in autumn colour at Lake Laurentian Conservation area as seen through a rain-soaked windshield. 105 mm lens f 3.5

    White birch tree woodland in autumn colour at Lake Laurentian Conservation area as seen through a rain-soaked windshield. 105 mm lens f 3.5

     

Rainy Day Photography- 2

In another life I taught High School Science. Biology was my specialty. One of the topics I presented was ‘water- it’s special properties’ something that all Biology students need to understand in order to study Biology at any level of Biology, be it biochemical or ecological.

Raindrops collect on the waxy surface of a fallen leaf

Raindrops collect on the waxy surface of a fallen leaf

Safe to say this was not the most exciting topic for biology students, especially at the start of the semester but I endeavoured to make it as interesting and applicable as possible using some simple but very cool demonstrations that always captured student interest and helped make them appreciate the topic.

Raindrops cling to a garden flower stem.

Raindrops cling to a garden flower stem.

Water molecules are peculiar and one can demonstrate their fascinating nature by observing the behaviour of water drops. I sprinkled some water on a sheet of wax paper placed on an overhead projector. With a toothpick I towed water drops around on the slippery surface and the students could watch them merge when they got close together- always retaining their round shapes. Terms like hydrophobic and hydrophilic could be introduced. In another demonstration (which needs low humidity btw!) I combed my hair to put an electrostatic charge on the comb and then used it to attract a thin stream of water from the faucet.

Interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana) fronds with raindrops

Interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana) fronds with raindrops

Canada blue joint, Calamagrostis canadensis. Raindrops on leaves

Canada blue joint, Calamagrostis canadensis. Raindrops bead up on the waxy leaves

Living things take advantage of these peculiar properties in many ways and it was then my task to try and make those connections over the course of the semester.

Yellowing garden iris leaves and raindrops in autumn

Yellowing garden iris leaves and raindrops in autumn

These days I am a photographer, but still fascinated by water drops clinging to stalks of grass, glistening on spider silk or beading up on the waxy surfaces of leaves. To photograph these phenomena I need a macro lens, tripod, calm conditions and preferably soft overcast light, but backlighting could work occasionally too. Shallow depths of field and careful framing are important factors to achieving success. Keywords such as ’round’, ‘fresh’, ‘delicate’, ‘reflections’, come to mind when photographing. I like soft backgrounds achieved by using shallow depths of field. Keeping the raindrops in focus requires careful camera position, parallel to the main plane of the drops or sometimes I use Helicon focus stacking techniques to merge different areas of sharpness.

Raindrops clinging to strands of hairgrass in late summer

Raindrops clinging to strands of hairgrass in late summer

Raindrops on grass spider web with red blueberry leaf

Raindrops on grass spider web with red blueberry leaf

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) Autumn leaves with raindrops

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) Autumn leaves with raindrops

After a light rain I hope for calm conditions and then venture out. Normally I do not need to go far.

Brenda and I will be away for over a month, exploring the Northwest Territories to Wood Buffalo NP and up to Yellowknife, with another tour in to Arctic Haven Lodge in Nunavut included. I won’t be blogging until after I return but until then good shooting!

Rainy Day Photography- 1 ‘no wipers please’

I began thinking about photographing in the rain as I was editing a batch of pictures from Nunavut. On the day in question our weather forecast was deadly accurate as a spectacular sunrise heralded the approaching system. It started gently allowing me to make images of raindrops on rock formations along the lakeshore but quickly morphed into a driving rainstorm that left our group lodge-bound for more than a day.

Ennadai Lake at dawn ''Red sky in the morning, sailor's warning'

Ennadai Lake at dawn ”Red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning’

Ennadai Lake shoreline rocks with first raindrops.

Ennadai Lake shoreline rocks with first raindrops.

Subarctic taiga as seen through rain-soaked window. ⅛ @ f16 ISO 1600

Subarctic taiga as seen through rain-soaked window. ⅛ @ f16 ISO 1600

Subarctic taiga as seen through rain-soaked window. ⅛ @ f16 ISO 1600

Subarctic taiga as seen through rain-soaked window. ⅛ @ f16 ISO 1600

Still, when it comes to photography I have a ‘glass half-full’ attitude and while the rain pelted down I decided to photograph the landscape through the lodge windows. There was plenty of room to set up a tripod in the lounge area. I used an aperture of f16, expecting the water on the window to blur the terrain in impressionistic ways and distort the scenes outside. As I thought about these images I realized that I had others, taken years ago at home and in Algonquin Park.

Algonquin's highway 60 seen through a rain-soaked window. 1/15 s @ f11 ISO 800

Algonquin’s highway 60 seen through a rain-soaked car window. 1/15 s @ f11 ISO 800

Autumn trees as seen through a rain-soaked window. ⅛ s @ f16 ISO 800

Autumn trees as seen through a rain-soaked car window. ⅛ s @ f16 ISO 800

A little rain has never stopped me from photographing scenes in nature. Most experienced outdoor photographers recognize that rainy conditions offer wonderful opportunities to make distinctive images, so long as they and their equipment are protected from the elements. A quick internet search will reveal a myriad number of gadgets designed to make photography doable in wet weather. But it can be as simple as a clear plastic bag with a couple of carefully placed holes for lens and eyepiece or a plastic shower cap from the motel room covering the camera body. I like to attach a polarizing filter to the lens when it rains as it is more easily wiped with paper towel if rain drops accumulate (watch for fibers if it gets wet). Your lens hood should protect against raindrops accumulating on the filter and the polarizer offers the added advantage of saturating colours and removing glare and reflections from wet surfaces. The recently released Flex Lens Shade can provide additional protection to the front element of your lens

Garden flowers through wet window. Not rain. Brenda was watering the garden outside this window. I stayed dry indoors.

Garden flowers through wet window. Not rain. Brenda was watering the garden outside this window. I stayed dry indoors

Today’s professional and semi professional camera bodies and lenses are well sealed against water and can stand a little rain without damage. I try and towel off my camera body under the hatch back of the car when necessary and I sometimes use the hatchback as a rain shield if I can photograph a scenic close to the car. If the rain is pelting down I look for interesting images through the windshield while I wait out the downpour. Of course the wipers have to be off and the camera will likely have to be hand-held so higher ISOs will be necessary.

Subarctic taiga as seen through rain-soaked window. ⅛ @ f16 ISO 1600

Subarctic taiga as seen through rain-soaked window. ⅛ @ f16 ISO 1600

In a follow-up post I will present some close-up images of raindrops on vegetation together with technical notes and the best conditions for capturing similar photos.

Cape Churchill Polar Bears

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus), Wapusk NP, Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus), Wapusk NP, Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

In November 2016 (Nov 17-28) I will be leading a group, through Frontiers North Adventure Tours, to Cape Churchill Manitoba for Polar Bears and other wildlife. We will have our own tundra buggy and be part of a larger group of 40 like-minded individuals. This is considered the ultimate polar bear tour and while it is expensive (CAD 11 799 + tax+ single supplement 450.00) it is all inclusive and exclusive. Only 40 people per year experience this adventure on the Hudson Bay coastline in Wapusk National Park. Frontiers North has perfected the technique of towing their modular Tundra Buggy Lodge 35 km from Polar Bear Point to Cape Churchill, where the big bears, mothers and cubs assemble to await the formation of ice in Hudson Bay.

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) Mother and yearling cub, Wapusk NP, Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) Mother and yearling cub, Wapusk NP, Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Our tundra buggy will have a limit of 10 photographers plus guide and driver so there is plenty of room and each photographer will have access to both sides of the vehicle plus the platform at the back. We are out each day, all day, for 7 full days plus some time in the town of Churchill and in the Churchill Wildlife Management area prior to departure for the Cape.

Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus) Sleeping in snow, Wapusk NP, Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus) Sleeping in snow, Wapusk NP, Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

The tour begins in Winnipeg with a welcome dinner and accommodation included. It ends in Winnipeg with a farewell dinner and overnight hotel. Frontiers North provides (on loan)  winter apparel- parka, boots and pants. Travel to Churchill is by charter aircraft so all your gear can be carried on without carry-on restrictions.

The Cape Churchill Lodge

The Cape Churchill Lodge

Tundra Buggy vehicle and curious polar bears, Wapusk NP, Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Tundra Buggy vehicle and curious polar bears, Wapusk NP, Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Please don’t hesitate to contact me through the blog or my website email info@donjohnstonphotos.com if you have questions. I will provide information regarding booking the tour at that time.

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus), Wapusk NP, Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus), Wapusk NP, Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus), Wapusk NP, Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus), Wapusk NP, Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Friday the Thirteenth

I suppose it is bad luck when the morning brings temperatures much lower than they should be for this time of the year. This morning I heard the news reader mention that the dreaded ‘Polar Vortex’ has returned. I took my iphone out on the deck this morning along with bird seed for some extremely fluffy chickadees, redpolls and pine grosbeaks. I stopped for a photo of our deck thermometer. It is the coldest morning of the year so far and January has come and gone.

The deck thermometer at sunrise 2015 02 13

The deck thermometer at sunrise 2015 02 13

But for me the photographic silver lining in this Friday the 13th cloud is the potential for some good window frost photos from the back window of the garage. We have an unheated garage and the back window looks out on an expanse of snow covering the lawn. My woodshed casts a blue shadow for the first hour or so of morning after sunrise. In addition there is a band of dark spruce trees behind the lawn so I have a choice of backgrounds ranging from pale blue to dark. Sure enough the frost feathers had formed. I remember Dennis Fast lamenting that he has lost the opportunity to photograph the buildup of window-frost that occurs on cold mornings now that he has a newly renovated sunroom with more modern air-tight windows.

Garage window frost feathers. Blue shadowed snow background.

Garage window frost feathers. Blue shadowed snow background.

Garage window frost feathers. Spruce woodland background.

Garage window frost feathers. Spruce woodland background.

Achieving sharp macro photos is one of the biggest technical challenges for this project. I have to improvise a support for the camera and lens in the optimum position for these photos. I need to support the camera during exposures on a rather unstable wooden workbench. I found that a beanbag on a milk crate, shimmed if necessary to prevent wobble, works better than trying to set the legs of my tripod on the workbench. The micro lens has very limited depth of field, even at f22, so to achieve sharpness everywhere in the frame I need to position the camera and lens so that its sensor is absolutely parallel to the window frost. I use extra boards under the milk crate to add or subtract height depending on where I need to frame the frost, choosing the nicest swirls against a blue or dark background. The backgrounds are so distant that at f22 they remains soft.

Garage window frost feathers. Sometimes a 2-3 frame focus stack is needed if sharpness varies from top to bottom.

Garage window frost feathers. Sometimes a 2-3 frame focus stack is needed if sharpness varies from top to bottom.

For my frost photography I use a 200mm micro Nikkor with or without a close-up diopter (for extra magnification) that can be attached in front of the lens. The D800 produces such large files that any one can be judiciously cropped if necessary and still produce a Tif of adequate size. I always shoot RAW with a manual exposure of about 0 to +1 depending on the background. I prefer manual White Balance that I can adjust afterwards too. I use my hand to dampen the camera into the bean bag. I use Mirror lockup and a cable release to further ensure sharp results. After each exposure I check the histogram and zoom to 100% on review to assess sharpness (there is a menu setting that activates a button for this action).

Working inside the garage keeps me out of the wind but it is still very cold so I need to dress warmly and use gloves to handle the camera. I like the Freehands photography gloves with flip-back fingertips (held back with neat magnetic buttons). Once I finish I wrap the camera in a big plastic bag and let it warm up inside the house. In a few hours the beautiful frost feathers will sublimate off the window.

Interior window frost with rising sun @ -40

Interior window frost with rising sun @ -40C

Interior window frost with rising sun @ -40

Interior window frost with rising sun @ -40C

On and off the deck

 

Male ruby-throated hummingbird perched on a branch on the deck, near the nectar feeder

A male ruby-throated hummingbird perches on a branch on our deck, near the nectar feeder

 

Brenda and I are about to hit the road again and I thought I had better get in a blog post before leaving for the Northwest Territories and Vancouver Island. We usually stay home for the summer, preferring to avoid the crowds, traffic and higher prices.

 

A male goldfinch forages among the goldenrods behind our lawn

A male goldfinch forages among the goldenrods behind our lawn

Brenda enjoys her gardening and we tend a vegetable garden and milkweed patch that was finally visited by monarchs. It has been a cool summer thus far, perhaps following upon the very cold winter and its lingering effects. Blueberries were late this year but the crop was quite good in places. Nonetheless birds, small and large mammals, insects, snakes and spiders continue their seasonal rituals around our property.

 

Geranium flowers in a basket after a morning rain

Geranium flowers in a basket after a morning rain

During the summer I stay close to home with the camera too. Not surprisingly, if I am ready and the equipment is at hand there are photo opportunities awaiting in Brenda’s gardens, on the lawn and on the deck.

 

A moth rests on red flower petals, chilled by raindrops

A moth rests on red flower petals, chilled by raindrops

Here is a collection of examples from the last couple of months. Please enjoy!

This red squirrel has mastered traversing the clothesline to venture out to a hanging seed feeder

This red squirrel has mastered the art of  traversing the clothesline to venture out to a hanging seed feeder

On the way out to the seed feeder

It swiftly moves out to the seed feeder

Sheep laurel and birch near a blueberry patch behind the shed

Sheep laurel and birch near a blueberry patch behind the shed

Raindrops on fern fronds at the edge of the lawn

Raindrops on fern fronds at the edge of the lawn

Swallowtail butterflies visit a patch of hawkweed I leave un-mowed on the lawn

Swallowtail butterflies visit a patch of hawkweed I leave un-mowed on the lawn

Butterflies are attracted to Brenda's flowers too

Butterflies are attracted to Brenda’s flowers too

A patch of summer flowers with camera movement during the exposure

A patch of summer flowers photographed with camera movement during the exposure

After a bear left a 'calling card' on our lawn the chipmunk moved in and scavenged the seeds in the flop

After a bear left its ‘calling card’ on our lawn this chipmunk moved in and scavenged the seeds in the flop

Legendary Cape Churchill

Cape Churchill at sunset

A Tundra Buggy at Cape Churchill at sunset

The Tundra Buggy Lodge

The Tundra Buggy Lodge

Every year the polar bear viewing season culminates with a tour to Cape Churchill in Wapusk National Park, Manitoba. The adventure tour is run by Frontiers North and it is first class in terms of accommodation, food and polar bear viewing. The Polar Bear Lodge consists of 4 modules on wheels, together with some modules for staff and support. Two bunkhouses, decked out in Hudson Bay colours, a lounge and a dining car, along with the support vehicles are towed by Tundra Buggies, in a convoy 35 km from the Churchill Wildlife Management Area to Cape Churchill in Wapusk National Park. The logistics of such a trek are awesome. There has to be enough ice to support these large vehicles as they are towed across shallow bays, yet the operators cannot schedule this tour too late in the season otherwise the bears will have migrated out onto Hudson Bay.

Mother and cub investigate a Tundra Buggy

Mother and cub investigate a Tundra Buggy

About thirty paying clients from North America and around the world met in Winnipeg, flew by charter to Churchill, were outfitted in complimentary Canada Goose parkas, and were towed out to the Cape for six days of dawn to dusk wildlife and scenic photography in a bleak, windswept subarctic environment. The friendly, professional staff of Frontiers North tended to all of our needs.

Windswept Cape Churchill near sunset

Windswept Cape Churchill near sunset

Willows and snow along the Hudson Bay coast

Willows and snow along the Hudson Bay coast

We had excellent light on some days and encountered a nice variety of wildlife, from arctic hare, arctic and red foxes, snowy owl, ptarmigan and the bears. Big males together with mothers and their cubs. For the most part the bears looked fit and healthy. Part of the expedition included a group from Polar Bears International, who provided expert background updates on the status of polar bears, sea ice and the research that is conducted year-round on the bears. Our group of nine was recruited by Canadian wildlife photographer John Marriott who was unable to be with us, due to unforeseen family circumstances. John recruited a dynamic, knowledgeable and fun-loving group of wildlife photographers who spent 8 days together, in the capable hands of driver Bob Debets and guides Haley, JoAnne and pro photographer Richard Day who each accompanied us every third day.

Arctic Hare (Lepus arcticus

Arctic Hare (Lepus arcticus)

Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus) Sleeping in snow

Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus) Sleeping in snow

The sun rises about 8:30 in November in northern Manitoba and sets about 3:30. The wind blows constantly but we were comfortable in our Tundra Buggy, even though the temperatures (excluding wind chill) were in the -20s Celsius. Photography was done through open windows, using bean bags for support of our long lenses. There was an option to photograph from the back deck. I sometimes chose that option, then being able to set up a tripod. One of the attractions of the Cape Churchill tour is the opportunity to see and photograph polar bears at first light in the morning and last light near sunset. We were fortunate this year to get both.

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) heading to Hudson Bay

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) heading to Hudson Bay

Hudson Bay coastline at freeze-up- polar bear wandering along the coast at sunset

Hudson Bay coastline at freeze-up- polar bear wandering along the coast at sunset

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) Sparring males

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) Sparring males

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) running in the snow

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) running in the snow

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus),

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus),

The red fox might be an indication of climate change, expanding its range northwards into the arctic. We witnessed the red fox dismembering and eating an arctic fox it had killed near the Cape. Disturbing but compelling to see.

Red fox (Vulpes vulpes) preying upon an Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus)

Red fox (Vulpes vulpes) preying upon an Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus)

Some bears were nicknamed BABs- “Big A** Bears”. Cape Churchill is famous for its big males. These guys steer clear of the town of Churchill, choosing to migrate out to the ice through Cape Churchill instead. Once the Big Males have moved through, they are followed by females and cubs.

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) waiting for the sea ice

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) waiting for the sea ice

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) near Hudson Bay

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) near Hudson Bay

A big male

A big male

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus), Wapusk NP, Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus), Wapusk NP, Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

It appeared that the polar bears were going to have a slightly extended ice season this year. I had a dream (nightmare?) before the tour began of seeing the last bear at the Cape disappear into the ice fog as it receded from sight, leaving us on land as it returned to its seal hunting territory in Hudson Bay. That dream became a reality on our last day at the Cape.

Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) Radio-collared mother and yearling, second-year cub

Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) Radio-collared mother and yearling, second-year cub

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) Mother and yearling cub

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) Mother and yearling cub

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) Yearling cub

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) Yearling cub

Other polar bear images from this trip may be viewed by linking through to my 500px site. http://500px.com/don_johnston/sets/cape_churchill_manitoba_animals