Bad Light- There is no such thing

Jay Maisel, in his book Light, Gesture and Color, presents many compelling images made in ‘Bad Light’. Mr. Maisel’s contention is that there is no bad light in photography, only vision and opportunity.

Nature and landscape photographers usually do not care for high, hard, midday light although there are always backlighting opportunities and blue skies. This is especially true in the forest where the combination of trees and light present huge ranges in tonal contrast, that at times overwhelms the sophisticated modern DSLR sensor.

Autumn foliage on Vancouver Island, Sooke, BC- straight shot

Such was the case for this picture (above). While touring on  Vancouver Island I stopped for the backlit red and green foliage and used a polarizer to try and tone down some of the highlights glinting off the leaves. In post processing I was able to tone down highlights and reveal some detail in the shadows but the straight image is still very contrasty and pedestrian.

Thinking ahead I decided to make duplicate images partially and completely out of focus. I thought I could combine each one later with the ‘straight shot’. This is a digital version of the Orton effect, pioneered in the slide film days by Vancouver Island photographer Michael Orton.

Autumn foliage on Vancouver Island, Sooke, BC- Combination-1

Autumn foliage on Vancouver Island, Sooke, BC- defocused-1

This can be done in camera too, certainly with Nikon DSLRs, but the drag and drop approach for two images is very easy to accomplish in Photoshop. Once combined, I adjusted the opacity slider in the layers window to reveal about 50% of the focused image. I think the results are keepers! What do you think?

Autumn foliage on Vancouver Island, Sooke, BC- Combination-2

Autumn foliage on Vancouver Island, Sooke, BC- defocused-2

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

     

Revisiting a subject and locale

Happy New Year dear readers. All the best in 2016.

Trapped leaves and grasses in an ice-covered puddle

Trapped leaves and grasses in an ice-covered puddle

At this time of the year it is customary for many to conduct year-end reviews, whether they be sports stories, news stories, movies or books but for me I’m going to finish 2015 by exploring my Close to Home theme from the standpoint of revisiting a favourite location and subject, in this case one that I have neglected for several years.

Ice coated grasses on the banks of a small stream

Ice coated grasses on the banks of a small stream

Flowing water and ice formations

Flowing water and ice formations

It’s important to stay fresh, to keep exploring new dimensions in nature photography. Returning to the same subjects time and again puts one at risk of being labelled repetitive and not willing to take chances by exploring new approaches and subjects. There’s a risk of becoming stale and staying safe with tried and true. A risk of becoming boring and bored. As Freeman Patterson puts it “Inspiration begins with work” Can an old subject still be inspiring?

Trapped leaves and grasses in an ice-covered puddle

Trapped leaves and grasses in an ice-covered puddle. I noticed this as I walked toward my second stream.

Nothing stays the same in nature and my approach to nature photography continues to evolve too. That is the beauty of nature photography. Changing seasons, ecosystems, climatic patterns together with the photographer’s evolving vision and technique make for an unending photographic potential. My earlier images of these places were created largely from slide film so I did not have the luxury at that time to change the look of an image simply by changing my ISO and therefore the shutter speed for the exposure. Sometimes a longer exposure time works best, sometimes short exposure times produce more pleasing results. And the instant feedback from the review screen allows me to decide what is working best or go in a different direction.

Trapped grasses in an ice-covered puddle

Trapped grasses in an ice-covered puddle. Before I photographed the second stream and its tiny waterfall I photographed this large puddle with trapped grasses.

In this El Nino year I decided to revisit a couple of nearby locales because I thought the conditions would be roughly similar to what made them great years ago: below freezing temperatures, no snow and plenty of runoff from recent rain. Usually I visited these locales in late autumn, not so close to Christmas as I did this year, for streamside ice and flowing water photography. I forced myself away from the computer and drove along Gibson Road toward two small streams. I was not disappointed. The flowing cold water and cold air created numerous beautiful and intricate ice formations along these streams. Along the way I noticed a scenic on the rocks that caused me to pull over but I quickly became attracted to patterns in a roadside puddle where I then spent most of my time exploring the ice patterns with a macro lens (lead image).

Ice coated grasses around a small waterfall

Ice coated grasses around a small waterfall

Later I visited another small runoff stream on Jarvi Road, one that I have photographed off and on recently, but more in springtime when the moss is green. The small birch twig trapped in the ice was not there before. The moss was duller at this time of the year but there was so much water and the ice formations were exquisite.

Ice coated grasses and flowing water

Ice coated grasses and flowing water

Ice build-up around a birch tree branch

Ice build-up around a birch tree branch. New this year.

 

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.

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

Christmas Images

Seasons greetings, Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to one and all!

Christmas morning light on trees in the yard

Christmas morning light on trees in the yard

After the family traditions on Christmas morning have been attended to there is sometimes an opportunity for me to do some nature photography, something that I always ask permission from the family before venturing forth, sometimes just on the deck, sometimes in the driveway, never too far from home nor for too long.

Christmas morning light and fresh snow on spruce trees

Christmas morning light and fresh snow on spruce trees

 

Christmas morning sunrise

Christmas morning sunrise

Christmas is one of the quietest days of the year to be outside. The winter weather over the past 8 years- the time period from which these images were chosen- has been variable in the extreme. Cold days, El Nino warm days. Days with little snow but morning frost and days with beautiful fresh snow. This year is promising to be gloomy and wet but I am hoping the rain turns to snow in time.

A red fox lounging on a small roadside mound

A red fox lounging on a small roadside mound

 

A chickadee spreads its wings near the bird feeder

A chickadee spreads its wings near the bird feeder

Through these past 8 years, when the conditions were excellent and the light was magical, I knew I had to forgo some of the family traditions and take time to make some pictures. Please enjoy these images made on a very special day.

Junction Creek snowfall 2012

Junction Creek snowfall 2012

Ice formations along Junction Creek

Ice formations along Junction Creek

A dusting of snow on grasses along the driveway

A dusting of snow on grasses along the driveway

Garden grasses

Garden grasses

Tree shadows on snow drifts in the yard

Tree shadows on snow drifts in the yard

An ice puddle at the edge of the lawn in an El Nino year

An ice puddle at the edge of the lawn in an El Nino year

Santa Claus takes the kids for a ride

Santa Claus takes the kids for a ride

Photoshop’s Oil Paint Filter

Summer wildflowers Multiple exposure

Summer wildflowers Multiple exposure

While I enjoy winter photography in Northern Ontario there are stretches of time when the camera remains inactive. We have been experiencing a ‘normal’ winter this year and there have been periods of extreme cold, snow and overcast conditions. These conditions, together with a winter lethargy contribute to staying indoors a lot. One of my winter projects, apart from catching up on backlogs of recent material, website work, marketing etc, has been to comb the extensive file of transparencies, looking for hidden nuggets worth scanning and digitizing. While optimizing the raw scans I wondered whether some images might be suitable candidates for the Oil Paint Filter now available in CS6.

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Summer wildflowers Multiple exposure- Oil Paint Filter

Summer wildflowers Multiple exposure- Oil Paint Filter

People sometimes ask me ‘Is Photoshop CS6 worth getting?’ and I answer in the affirmative (although I am certainly not a Photoshop expert). I like some of the new tools such as the improved content aware fill, the crop tool plus the way pallettes and layers are now organized. One of the new filters in CS6 is the Oil Paint Filter. Generally I avoid gimmicks such as these types of filters, but sometimes it’s nice to fool around a bit. It’s hard enough overcoming the skepticism inherent with viewing digital photography these days- ‘C’mon, that’s photoshopped….right?’, but I subscribe to the notion that we are making pictures and not always making a purely documentary image of nature.

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For that reason I do enjoy camera movement photos, lengthy time exposures and variations of in-camera multiple exposures. See my blog post on Interpretive Images. With the current crop of Nikons (actually in-camera multiple exposure has been around for a few generations of Nikons) it is easy to create multiple exposures. It was possible to perform multiple exposures with film cameras too. It was just a bit more complicated.

As I processed my slide scans, I wondered whether an application of the Oil Paint Filter would produce pleasing variations of some of my multiple exposures and other impressionistic images. If I thought I had a candidate image I would optimize it, save it and then Save As xxx_V2.tif. Below are a couple of before and after examples to consider.

Spring Forest, multiple exposure

Spring Forest, multiple exposure

Spring Forest, multiple exposure, Oil Paint Filter

Spring Forest, multiple exposure, Oil Paint Filter

I thought the Oil Paint filter might also produce nice variations of abstract reflection images, such as the examples below. This filter can aslo be used to rescue otherwise hum-drum images that might be consigned to the trash. Images with cluttered detail, boring skies, etc. might be candidates.

Spring reflections

Spring reflections

Spring reflections, Oil Paint Filter

Spring reflections, Oil Paint Filter

Autumn reflections

Autumn reflections

Autumn reflections, Oil Paint filter

Autumn reflections, Oil Paint filter

If you are interested in trying the Oil Paint filter, there are a number of ‘how-to videos available on the net available through a Google search or a U-Tube search. Below are the settings that I decided to use. As always the on-screen preview gives you an accurate rendition of the final result, which can be tweeked and saved and then re-saved using the history pallete. The filter remembers the last-used settings. In future versions I would like to see Adobe add ‘save custom settings’ to the filter window.

Oil Paint filter settings used for image examples

Oil Paint filter settings used for image examples

Autumn forest, multiple exposure

Autumn forest, multiple exposure

Autumn forest, multiple exposure, Oil Paint filter

Autumn forest, multiple exposure, Oil Paint filter