Archive for the ‘light’ Tag

Friday Foto Talk: Macro Photography “in Flow”   5 comments

Morning dew in a Montana mountain meadow creates dazzling jewels in the light of the rising sun.

This series on flow and photography has taken on a life of its own; but don’t worry, it’s almost over!  If you haven’t been following along, flow is that state of intense focus where we lose track of time.  Check out Part I and Part II for tips on how to apply it to photography in general.  The rest of this series has applied flow to various genres (landscape, travel, etc.).  This week it’s macro and close-up photography.

Macro is probably the easiest kind of photography in which to experience flow.  There is something about focusing on the small that helps to capture and hold our attention, often for hours.  Macro can also require a lot of trial and error, at least for me it can!  If you don’t become frustrated too easily this can bring about intense engagement with the process.

Pasqueflower is a unique part of the alpine bloom every summer on Mt. Rainier, Washington.

Pasqueflower is a unique part of the alpine bloom every summer on Mt. Rainier, Washington.

Awhile back I did a series on macro photography, so check those posts out for a much more comprehensive tutorial.  The tips below are specific to achieving a state of flow during your macro shoots:

  • Look and Think Small.  It’s hard while on a walk to concentrate exclusively on finding macro subjects.  It would take hours to cover a mile!  But you will find macro opportunities if when you’re hiking along you look out for the odd bit of color, a contrasting shape or texture, or a little movement in the corner of your eye.  Both thinking about and looking for small subjects brings you into the present, and that facilitates flow, even before you take a single shot.
This brown basilisk in a Guatemalan forest almost escaped my attention.

This brown basilisk in a Guatemalan forest almost escaped my attention.

  • Work it.  When you do find something interesting, stick with it for awhile.  That is, work the subject.  Change settings and camera position to vary depth of field.  Vary angle and distance to get different backgrounds and compositions.  And don’t stop there.  Once you’re in “macro mode”, it’s easier to find other subjects, or as with flowers, other examples of the same subject.  Stay on your hands and knees, keep the macro lens on, and don’t worry about time.  Enjoy the flow.
After a few shots of this frog's whole body, I moved in closer and closer until I got a shot that empasized his watchful eye.

After a few shots of this frog’s whole body, I moved in closer and closer until I got a shot that empasized his watchful eye.

  • See the (small-scale) Light.  As photographers we are constant observers of the light.  But when you’re shooting close-up the patterns we are used to change.  All of a sudden you’re able to take advantage of the fact that your field of view is greatly reduced.  This makes it easier to get effective shots in light that would be difficult when shooting larger scenes.  So be a student of light on a small scale too.  Watch how it plays across confined spaces, and how larger elements like trees can help shade or spotlight your subject.  As with the first point above, this will help keep you in the present and accentuate flow.

 

A water lily in the middle of the Okavango Delta caught the light beautifully as we passed in our mokoro (dugout canoe).

A water lily in the middle of the Okavango Delta caught the light beautifully as we passed in our mokoro (dugout canoe).

  • Be Patient.  To one degree or another, patience is a requirement of all photography.  But when you’re waiting out the wind in a field of flowers or approaching an insect or other small creature inch by inch, you learn the real meaning of patience in photography.  Mastering patience is a key part of making flow a more frequent experience.

This was a recent shot.  I sat patiently waiting for one of the dragonflies buzzing around to land in this natural spotlight.

Macro photography is such a natural when it comes to flow that, even if you don’t normally do macro you’d do well to try it.  That’s because the practices that lead to successful macro photos will help you with the kinds of photography you do enjoy.  And because flow is relatively easy to experience with macro, you can more readily get into it next time you’re out, whatever kind of shooting you do.  Thanks for reading and have a happy weekend!

One of many desert five-spots in Death Valley, part of the so-called super-bloom of last spring.

One of many desert five-spots in Death Valley, part of the so-called super-bloom of last spring.

 

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Friday Foto Talk: Myths of Photography – The Tyranny of Light   24 comments

Beautiful light floods the Columbia River in Oregon at sunrise, and Beacon Rock (my subject) is almost lost as a result.

Beautiful light floods the Columbia River in Oregon at sunrise, and Beacon Rock (my subject) is almost lost as a result.

You hear all the time about the importance of light in photography.  And most often light is combined with rich color as being one and the same thing.  I believe there is a myth now being perpetuated among landscape photographers in particular.  It’s that light and natural color saturation are to be sought out and “obtained” in your photos, almost to the exclusion of all else.

I’ve said quite a number of times in this blog that light is important.  And it is!  Quality of light, specifically how rich and soft it is, is certainly worth seeking out, for any subject or type of photography.  But I think many of us have gone too far.

By the way, most of the photos in this post I’ve never posted (even on Facebook) and they don’t appear on my website.  Enjoy!

A tree with light on the Oklahoma prairies. Because it's in silhouette, the light & color behind it can be almost as fine as it wants to be.

A tree with light on the Oklahoma prairies. Because it’s in silhouette, the light & color behind it can be almost as fine as it wants to be.

Here are a few things about light that I think you should give some thought to:

  • Light will come.  This is the best thing about light on planet Earth.  It is so varied, so wonderful in its ability to reinvent itself every single day, that if you’re patient, the light you wish for will come.  It’s not just that, if you’re patient and persistent, you don’t need to settle for “sub-par” light.  The truth is that you can shoot that “knock your socks off” light one night, and then the next night get nice, subtle light that’s more appropriate for your subject.
  • Have you digested that last point?  Light, though very important, should in most cases not trump subject.  You can even add composition as being more important than light.  Composition and subject are so tightly tied together that it’s near impossible to think of them as being separate.  If you let it, light can be the subject.  Then you’ve succeeded in making a photo that, while it will invariably get plenty of wows and love on the internet, is just another photo (among millions) that is about light.
Light that was just too good. I decreased saturation for this sunset along the Cimarron River in western Oklahoma, but it's still a photo that is 'about the light'.

Light that was just too good. I decreased saturation for this sunset along the Cimarron River in western Oklahoma, but it’s still a photo that is ‘about the light’.

  • Do not shoot the light.  Now I’ll admit when I see great light I go like a madman looking for something to shoot.  It is part of what being a photographer is all about.  Don’t fight that, it’s fun!  All I’m saying is that if you regard your photography as an art form, your process should be much more about subject and composition first, then light.  If you put light first you’re setting yourself up for getting away from using photography as a way to express yourself, which is the point as far as I’m concerned.
The subject in this image from Snow Canyon, Utah is lichen. The light is good but I don't think it overwhelms the subject.

The subject in this image from Snow Canyon, Utah is lichen. The light is good but I don’t think it overwhelms the subject.  This is an exception, as it appears on my website because I liche it!

  • Think of light as just one more element in your photograph.  You have two choices with natural light.  Either make the best of what you’ve got in front of you or come back tomorrow, or the next day, or next week.  If you have a favorite spot near home that you return to time and time again, and then go on a trip where you have but one chance at a given location, you know what a tyrannical master light can be.  But think of it like a model who doesn’t show up one day.  Give her another chance and she’ll probably show the next day.
The sunstar (most call it a sunburst) is probably too prominent, but at least the subtle light/color doesn't take away from these ferric concretions eroding out of sandstone near Page, Arizona.

The sunstar (aka sunburst) is probably too prominent, but at least the subtle light & color doesn’t take away from these ferric concretions eroding out of sandstone near Page, Arizona.  I promise I didn’t place them, I don’t do that!

  • There is such a thing as light that is too good.  There is no photographer I know who will agree with that statement when I say it like that.  But now, after some years of chasing light, I know it to be true.  Everything depends on your subject and composition.  But sometimes, the light just seems to be so good that it swamps your subject.  Or, to put it another way, that stupendous light tends to overwhelm the intention of your photograph, whether you realize it at the time or not.  If you’re a typical photographer who’s in love with great light, I’m guessing you’re not aware of it when it happens.
Harsh and disagreeable light was what I had here at East Zion, but a cute bighorn lamb negotiating the terrain is the story.

Harsh and disagreeable light was what I had here at East Zion, but a cute bighorn lamb negotiating the terrain is the story.

  • As you mature as a photographer, you’ll come to desire different light for different subjects and compositions.  There is no such thing as light that is perfect for everything.  It all depends on what you want to do with that light.  Of course it doesn’t hurt to experiment, to try unconventional light for your subject.  But if you can figure that out you’re pretty far along in knowing both photography and your own style.

I do believe I’ve said all there is to say about this subject.  In fact I’ve never heard anyone in photography talk about this, and I think it may be the most important of my photo-related posts.  But if you know of some book or blog that talks about light this way, please enlighten me!  Hope your holiday preparations are coming along nicely.  Happy shooting, and use that light judiciously!

I'll end with a shot from a sunset that I've never posted anything from, in Montana's Flathead Valley. I couldn't do anything with this light because it suffused and overwhelmed the available subjects: subtle old cabins and grasslands in maybe my favorite valley draining the west side of the Rockies.

I’ll end with a shot from a sunset that I’ve never posted anything from, in Montana’s Flathead Valley. I couldn’t do anything with this light because it suffused and overwhelmed the available subjects, subtle old cabins and grasslands in probably my favorite valley in the northern Rockies.

Friday Foto Talk: Overcoming Obstacles – Light   5 comments

Sunrise over the Olympic Mtns., Washington state.

Good photography is all about overcoming obstacles.  And not just those easy ones like how to afford a good camera, or which tripod to buy.  It’s about tackling problems both internal and external, those you create yourself along with the ones that are present whether you decide to photograph or not.

Light is one of photography’s most important variables.  Light is so important I can only write about it with the expectation that I’ll be leaving a lot out and of necessity coming back to the topic in future posts.  I’ll also be discussing a thing of beauty (top image), which is never smart (and which I never claimed to be)

Obstacles related to light are many.  There is, for example, the struggle to get your butt out of bed at zero dark thirty to catch great morning light, a seemingly insurmountable obstacle at times.  This post will concentrate on finding the right sort of natural light for landscape and nature subjects.  It’s all about making compromises.

Night light:  It's rare for me to post a sky-only image, and if the setting moon hadn't been playing an intriguing game of peekaboo with low clouds over the mountains, I would not have shot it.

Night light: It’s rare for me to post a sky-only image, and if the setting moon hadn’t been playing an intriguing game of peekaboo with low clouds over the mountains, I would not have shot it.

Finding the Right Light

In natural light, this usually means shooting in the golden hours (or at least with a low sun).  However, it’s not a good idea to be rigid about light.  Sometimes you want bright overcast, other times rainy and overcast, and still others dark, stormy skies.  Sometimes (not often) you even want mid-afternoon light.  And don’t forget about the night (image above), where the light of stars, moon and various ambient sources both natural and human can give you the right look for certain subjects.

How does one know what light works best for a given subject?  My advice for this topic more than any other in photography, is to not look to be taught by others.  Instead, shoot relentlessly and experiment continually.  Become an observant “student of light” and you’ll eventually attain a genuine feel for what light to shoot a given subject in.  After all, you learn the most about light when you use only light as a teacher; you don’t need anyone else, no matter how much expertise they have.

It also takes perseverance to shoot in ideal light.  That’s because, even though you do everything else right, Mother Nature will simply chuckle and at the last minute throw you a curve.  Clouds move in, or clear out.  Light with deep contrast becomes flat for no discernible reason.  Don’t despair; return another day and try again.  The important thing is to take the time to shoot things in the right light, even if that means repeatedly missing dinner or dragging yourself out of bed before dawn.

Excellent light falls on mossy pilings along the lower Columbia River in Oregon.

Excellent light falls on mossy pilings at sunset along the lower Columbia River in Oregon.

LIGHT & COMPROMISE AT YELLOWSTONE

Shooting Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park represents a somewhat unconventional example.  The thermal pools generally don’t show their characteristically deep blues at sunrise or sunset.  They are at their most colorful with a higher sun angle.  But light on the landscape around the pool is better with a lower sun, so an obstacle related to light pops up if you’re trying to capture Grand Prismatic at its bluest.

During one visit, I wanted to capture the spring in just this way.  I wanted to feature the sapphire color of the mineral-rich water.  I wanted to include a bit of the surroundings to avoid a totally abstract look and lend a sense of place.  Also, as usual, I wanted a composition that differed from the others I had seen, my own unique take on it.

It was obvious that I needed to compromise on the time of day.  By shooting later in the afternoon, I’d risk losing the blue color.  But risks are necessary in photography, especially when dealing with natural light.  The hill sitting just west of Grand Prismatic provided an opportunity.  I thought if I got up higher and had the sun at my back, I might still, because of the angles involved, see that nice blue hue even with a sun that was starting to sink (and cast nice enough light on the pool’s surroundings).

I climbed the hill and, working around a lot of obstructing trees, finally got a clean composition just before the sun sank too low and the pool lost its color.  The hill in the past has been a popular place to shoot this spring from.  But the trees grow higher each year, blocking the view.  It’s an example of not only finding the right light but also handling physical obstacles (discussed in a post to come) to get a good point of view.  The lower sun provided a bonus in addition to good foreground light.  It caused a long shadow to be cast behind a lone snag.

Yellowstone's Grand Prismatic Spring

Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring an hour or so before sunset.

That’s it for this Friday.  A long one, but there’s so much to say about light.  I’ll end with one more thought: may you have the best of light this weekend and for all your photo ventures.

The Source: Sunset over Roatan.

Friday Foto Talk: Overcoming Obstacles – Subject   6 comments

Late afternoon light on the Guadalupe Mountains, west Texas.

Late afternoon light on the Guadalupe Mountains, west Texas.

Obstacles crop up as often in photography as they do life in general.  It’s tempting to think only in terms of technical problems (exposure, focus, etc.), and it’s true that techniques of photography can take up a lot of your thought and effort.

But I’m not covering these sorts of obstacles for a simple reason.  Shooting a lot (see Part I) will allow you to handle those things easily enough.  This series of posts is about the bigger obstacles, those that stand in the way of becoming a very good (or even great) photographer.

Finding Good Subjects

As Joe McNally, the famed National Geographic photographer said, “If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff”.  With photography, putting yourself in front of interesting subjects is the pathway to success.

Of course what one person finds interesting others may not.  But it is true that some subjects photograph much better than others do.  For example, put a human in any picture and you automatically connect with people (funny how that works).  Do me a favor though, resist the urge to picture someone with tripod and camera in front of a sunset ;-).

Enjoying the last flat section of the Cooper Spur route, north side of Mt. Hood, Oregon.

Enjoying the last flat section of the Cooper Spur route, north side of Mt. Hood, Oregon.

Here’s one simple example of how to include interesting stuff in your photos.  If you’re going on safari (anywhere not just Africa), why not try to time it for just after most of the animals bear their young?  Nothing is cuter than a baby animal of course.  But more importantly, the presence of youngsters means a better chance to photograph interesting behavior.

A young zebra glances back at me as his mom  uses her tail to brush flies away, Hwange N.P., Zimbabwe

A young zebra glances back at me as his mom uses her tail to brush flies away, Hwange N.P., Zimbabwe

SUBJECTS AND YOU

While the above considerations factor into making good images, ultimately it’s really about your relationship with the subject.  In order to get great pictures, it’s best to be into your subjects, to like (or better, love) them.  If you like them enough you’ll spend more time with them and learn lots of interesting stuff about them.  As a result, your photos will come out better.

It’s true that what will make you an accomplished photographer is an ability to shoot anything well.  After all, why not be up for shooting any subject?  Approach it with respect and an open mind.  But don’t get in the habit of settling for easy-access subjects when you really want to shoot something else.  By the way, don’t think your desired subject has to be in a distant exotic locale.  It just has to be what you’re fascinated by.  And you’ll overcome any obstacle to access and photograph it.

As an example, a subject like the high forested Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge, shown below, for a time became a personal quest to shoot in just the right light and weather conditions.  This particular image is of Mystery Ridge, one of the toughest off-trail scrambles in the Gorge.  After hiking it (can you call that hiking?), I wanted badly to photograph it in classic mist-shrouded conditions.

 

Mystery Ridge, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

Here’s another example: I had always wanted to visit and photograph Carlsbad Caverns.  But its out of the way location had been putting me off.  Recently, after coming across some smaller caves in Arkansas, my urge to go was stoked again.  So I made the drive to New Mexico and was so glad I did.

The great thing about going somewhere out of the way is that you so often discover other places you never realized existed.  It makes the trip that much more worthwhile.  Just south of Carlsbad lies the Guadalupe Mountains (image at top).  What a nice bonus they were!

Carlsbad Caverns N.P. above-ground.

Carlsbad Caverns N.P. above-ground.

 

Carlsbad_Caverns_Dec-2014_6D_040

It’s a fantasy-land below ground.

 

No sunset this time, don’t want to be too predictable!  Thanks so much for reading.  Stay tuned for more of this series next Friday.  Have a wonderful weekend.

Friday Foto Talk: Clouds   12 comments

Low clouds and fog filling the Columbia River Gorge help add impact to this image of the Vista House catching day's last light.

Low clouds and fog fill the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon, helping to set off Vista House, subject of this recent image.

I think photographers take clouds for granted.  Most of us seem to believe there is nothing special or difficult about photographing them.  But most of us also seek out clouds when we are out shooting.  So I think they’re worth a second (and third) thought.  Whether doing landscape, outdoor portrait, street, really any photography is made more interesting with clouds.  They make the light that much nicer.

Winter weather brings moody clouds in the forests of western Oregon.

Winter weather brings moody clouds in the forests of western Oregon.

I’ve been going out in bad weather lately, looking for low-clouds and fog to set the typical atmosphere of the oft-stormy Columbia River Gorge near home.  It got me thinking about all the things one needs to consider when including clouds in photographs.  By the way I consider fog to be simply a cloud at ground level; blame the scientist in me.

So here are a few things to keep in mind when including clouds in your compositions:

      • When composing images, use cloud patterns to your advantage.  For example, when clouds form lineear patterns, use them to complement the patterns in your foreground.  They can help to define a vanishing point.  And layered clouds can help bring out the often more subtle layering in your foreground.  Also you can use clouds to help frame things, sort of like a natural vignette.
In this image from the Canyonlands area, Utah, layered clouds help to highlight the layers of color in the landscape.

In this image from the Canyonlands area, Utah, layered clouds help to highlight the layers of color in the landscape.

      • Depending on what you’re shooting, the right amount of cloudiness is key.  So it’s worth trying to match the type of photography you’re doing with the clouds.  Some examples follow.
      • With landscape photography near sunrise or sunset, a broken, partly to mostly cloudy sky can yield amazing light.  The ideal situation is when the low sun peaks underneath the clouds.  The light bounces off and is refracted by the clouds on its way to your subject.  This lengthens wavelengths, making light more orange or red.  It also bounces that reddish light onto the landscape, and generally gives things a beautifully soft glow.  You can easily be skunked too, when the sun sinks into a bank of clouds while the rest of the sky has perfectly scattered clouds.  Nothing ventured nothing gained.
Light can be a little harsh & contrasty in the desert southwest.  Clouds very late in the day help soften things in this image near Moab, Utah.

Light can be a little harsh & contrasty in the desert southwest. Clouds late in the day help soften things in this image near Moab, Utah.

      • If you are shooting outdoor portraits, a relatively thin overcast sky can act like a giant soft-box, diffusing the light source so that it falls evenly over your subject.  Of course beautiful light at golden hour can result in wonderful portraits too.  But sometimes the light is just too warm on your subject and you need to adjust for that later on the computer.  Overcast skies give you light that ‘gets out of the way’.  Macro photography is similarly benefited when there is a continuous cloud cover.
This spring tulip has nice even light due to the overcast sky.  Clouds also blessed it with the droplets.

This spring tulip has nice even light due to the overcast sky. Clouds also blessed my subject with water droplets.

      • When low clouds and fog invade your scene, a scenario that’s very common at sunrise, you should not be too disappointed.  Shoot the fog if it looks good, or simply wait for it to lift.  Sometimes it begins to dissipate very soon after sunrise, giving you magical light and atmosphere.
Mist and fog shrouds the celebrated view of Mount Rainier from Reflection Lakes.

Mist and fog shrouds the celebrated view of Mount Rainier from Reflection Lakes.

The images above and below were shot at Mount Rainier National Park as this was happening.  Other photographers had arrived at this popular spot, only to be discouraged by the thick fog.  They drove away as soon as they arrived.  Meantime I was hanging around shooting the fog.  When the sun started breaking through, they rushed back (I heard slamming doors up on the road).  But the transition from fog to full sun was very quick and I was the only one who was able to catch it by the lake (instead of from the road).  I was too busy shooting to feel smug; that came later!

The fog lifts quickly!

The fog lifts quickly!

      • When the cloud cover is heavy and there is very little chance of seeing the sun, certain types of nature and landscape subjects shine.  This is a great time to shoot during the day, with none of the time pressures you feel at golden hour.  Another advantage: it’s a great time to try black and white.
An angry sky in the Columbia River Gorge develops as a warm moist front moves in right after a day of snow and freezing rain.

An angry sky in the Columbia River Gorge develops as a warm moist front moves in right after a day of snow and freezing rain.

      • Low, heavy clouds can lend a moody feel similar to fog.  I will often go out in the worst weather just to see if I can capture one of these moody scenes.  Be selective; featureless cloudy skies do not tend to create this atmosphere as easily.  Go for times of rapid weather changes instead.
The Columbia River Gorge in Oregon draws in clouds and rain, viewed from a small back-road.

Along a back-road in the Columbia River Gorge, with typical clouds and rain.

  

      • A day with continuous cloud cover, however, is a great time to shoot in the forest.  It’s similar to outdoor portrait and macro photography.  The light is even, without the hot spots that plague sunny days in the trees.  Since the light is usually very dim, bring a tripod.  While more open landscapes lack color in these conditions, the forest’s green-dominated colors are richer and more vibrant.  If it has rained recently, use a circular polarizing filter to tame reflections and make colors pop.  If things are real dim and dreary, go with the mood – try black and white.
A small creek in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge rolls through a mossy forest.

A small creek in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge rolls through a mossy forest.

Forest Mist

      • Clouds can easily be the main element in a photo.  If they are interesting enough, you shouldn’t be shy about featuring them in your images.  For instance when crepuscular rays invade a foggy forest (image below), a situation my friend calls “Jesus rays”, I almost always shoot so that the foreground is subtle or completely absent.
Winter is a great time to catch fog in the redwoods of northern California.

Winter is a great time to catch fog in the redwoods of northern California.

      • And speaking of  making clouds the focus of your shots, you can always shoot nothing but sky.  This rarely makes a good image on its own, but can always be combined (composited) with other images that lack a nice sky.  I can count on one hand the times I’ve done this; it’s because I really prefer capturing a single moment (and I’m painfully slow with Photoshop!).  But I continue to shoot interesting skies.  I place them in their own collection inside Lightroom.  Who knows, there may come a day when I want to do more compositing.  I try never to say never.
An early winter storm moves across the Alvord Desert in Oregon.

An early winter storm moves across the Alvord Desert in Oregon.

      • When the sun is bright, contrast between the blue sky and white clouds can be pretty intense.  Be careful about overexposing the clouds.  A little overexposure and contrast is okay; viewers expect this in a sky like that.  Programs like Lightroom do a great job of recovering highlights, so you can tame the contrast to some extent.  But no software can recover highlights where exposure is completely blown out (lacking detail).  Sure the sun, moon, and a few other exceptions can look natural when they’re blown out.  But you should avoid it in clouds; you don’t want solid white with zero detail.
Gokyo Lake in Nepal has that distinctive color that only glacial lakes can have.

Gokyo Lake in Nepal, with that distinctive color that only glacial lakes can have.

To deal with the situation of over-exposed clouds, start by turning on your camera’s highlight warning (blinkies) so that you see on your LCD screen where you have blown out highlights.  If your camera doesn’t have that feature, look at your histogram on the LCD and make sure it isn’t climbing way up the right edge.  Or you can simply judge over-bright areas by eye.  Bring down the exposure and re-shoot until the blinkies go away and you recover some detail in the bright portions.  If doing this makes your foreground too dark, use a graduated neutral density filter to darken just the sky and leave the foreground properly exposed. 

The Alvord Desert, southeastern Oregon.  I used a graduated neutral density filter for this high-contrast scene.

The Alvord Desert, southeastern Oregon. I used a graduated neutral density filter for this high-contrast scene.

      • The opposite can happen too.  You can underexpose your sky, especially when you have dark, brooding clouds.  Though you can, as above with highlights, recover shadow details later on the computer, it’s not ideal to do this.  You can end up increasing noise.  It’s better to capture dark clouds either perfectly exposed or somewhat brighter.  You can always darken them on the computer later.  This is much better than brightening.

So let’s take an example.  Say it’s a few hours before sunset and the sky is looking interesting, with broken or layered clouds.  You have some decisions to make.  Of course, as mentioned, you can go to the trouble: burn gas and time…only to be clouded out.  Or you could luck out and get a spectacular show!  It’s a gamble that will, sadly, not usually pan out.  But it’s worth taking that chance.  After all, it’s the only way you’ll get shots with truly amazing light!

      • So you wisely decide to go for it.  Now there are more decisions.  For starters, where to shoot?  If you think the sky will be really awesome, consider water, snow, or some other reflective surface.  Water can reflect those beautiful clouds.  Who doesn’t like double the beauty?
The Lamar River Valley in Yellowstone National Park is a peaceful place at dusk.

The Lamar River Valley in Yellowstone National Park is a peaceful place at dusk.

      • If Mother Nature plays a trick on you and clouds thicken, graying out the sunset, don’t despair.  Wait for a bit.  I have seen gray, boring sunsets turn into truly technicolor skies after sundown.  It doesn’t happen frequently, but on occasion our home star performs a final encore after it’s passed below the horizon.  The atmosphere has a wonderful way of bending the light (it’s how mirages are formed).  Patience and hopeful realism, along with a headlamp to get back to your car, is all you need.  The same thing can happen before sunrise, so try to get there early in case the sunrise itself is dull.
The Grand Tetons in Wyoming appear to have caught fire just after an autumn sunset.

The Grand Tetons in Wyoming appear to have caught fire just after an autumn sunset.

      • Lastly, Mother Nature can also play the opposite trick, clearing the clouds out before golden hour.  Stick with it.  Though clouds are in many ways preferable, remember that a rainy and cloudy stretch has a way of cleaning the atmosphere.  When it clears, it’s a great time to shoot pictures with far-away elements.  For example, distant mountain and desert vistas are beautifully clear and pristine in fresh-scrubbed air.  And if you are using a telephoto lens to capture wildlife, recently cleared air helps get the detail you want in your subjects.
The Colorado Rockies!

The Colorado Rockies!

As always, these images are copyrighted and not available for free download without my permission.  If you are interested in purchase options for any of them, just click on the picture.  Please contact me if you can’t find what you want or have any questions or special requests.  Thanks for reading and have a great weekend!

Clouds gift a colorful sunset the other day at Crown Point in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge.

Clouds gift a colorful sunset the other day at Crown Point in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge.

 

Friday Foto Talk: Reflections, Part II   8 comments

A calm wetland in the Montana Rockies greets the morning.

A calm wetland in the Montana Rockies greets the morning.

This is the second of two parts on that particular part of the light we encounter as photographers: reflection.  Reflected light can really enhance your images, but it is also a potential distraction.  There are several ways to control and use reflected light to your advantage during the capture phase.  There are additional things you can do during post-processing, but this post will focus on the capture phase.

By the way, I’ve been not posting this week because I’ve been offline, enjoying Mt. Rainier and Olympic National Parks.  Stay tuned for posts on these destinations. Meanwhile here’s a teaser:

Mount Rainier reflected in Bench Lake.

Mount Rainier reflected in Bench Lake.

Note that the images you see on my blog are copyrighted and not available for download without my permission.  If you do have interest in any of them, just click to go to the main gallery part of my website.  Once you have the large, high-res version of the image you like before you, just click “Purchase Options”.  Thanks for your interest, and please contact me if you have any questions.

The upper Snake River, between Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, flows across a wildlife-rich and lonely valley.

The upper Snake River, between Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, flows across a wildlife-rich valley.

Here on a frigid night at Yellowstone National Park, the moon is reflected in a hot pool even though the steam obscures it's shape above.

Here on a frigid night at Yellowstone National Park, the moon is reflected in a hot pool even though the steam obscures it’s shape above.

USING REFLECTIONS TO YOUR ADVANTAGE

      • First the bad news:  Reflections can be distracting, unattractive, and rob your scene of color.  The reason why I often use a circular polarizer on a drizzly cloudy day in the Oregon forest (all 8 months of it!) is that the leaves and needles, the rocks, even the soil, all of it is covered with a thin sheen of water.
      • What to do: If you want to bring out the verdant green of those leaves, the subtle hues of that rock standing in the stream, you need to at least partly block that reflection.  That is what a polarizer does for you.  It will also block the reflection from the top of the stream or lake, allowing you to see (if it’s shallow enough) the color of the rocks, gravel or logs beneath.  Be careful though.  Don’t always rotate the polarizer until the maximum reflected light is blocked. You might want some of that reflection in your image if it’s attractive.  Essentially, if a reflection is not adding color or depth to your image, it is usually taking away in some way.
The evergreen trees are turned gold and reflected in a mountain lake just outside Cave Junction in southwestern Oregon.

The evergreen trees are turned gold and reflected in a mountain lake just outside Cave Junction in southwestern Oregon.

Black and white works well for reflections too, as demonstrated here in the morning mist and fog at Mount Rainier National Park.

Black and white works well for reflections too, as demonstrated here in the morning mist and fog at Mount Rainier National Park.

      • A little more bad news:  Reflections, especially strong ones, can fool your light meter.  The light meter in your camera does not like extremes of light or dark. So it can mess up and underexpose your picture.  This is especially true if you place the center of your frame right on the brightest reflection in your composition.  If you use Live View, the little white square (it’s white on Canon cameras at least) that floats around inside your frame will read mostly that part of the scene and adjust exposure accordingly.
A Himba girl in Namibia is perfectly lighted by virtue of standing in the shade of a hut with blazing sunshine being reflected off the light-colored ground and back up into her smiling face.

A Himba girl in Namibia is perfectly lighted by virtue of standing in the shade of a hut with blazing sunshine being reflected off the light-colored ground and back up into her smiling face.

      • What to do:  Be careful where you place that white square when using Live View.  If you use Live View to frame and focus your shot, you can turn it off right before tripping the shutter.  That way you can use your camera’s (normally excellent) evaluative or matrix metering.  Basically, you want to meter off of not the absolute brightest thing in your frame but a peg or two down.

When I say “meter off of” I mean being in manual mode and pointing the center of your frame at what you wish to meter, setting aperture & shutter speed, then re-framing to get the image you want.  Or you could, if you prefer to be in another mode (say aperture priority), simply point the center of the frame at what you’re metering and press the exposure lock button.  Then while keeping it pressed, re-frame and take the picture.  Whatever you do, it is safest to review your picture on the LCD (including the histogram) right after capture, so you can re-shoot then and there if necessary.

A frog in a high mountain lake at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington is reflected in waters near the shore.

A frog in a high mountain lake at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington is reflected in waters near the shore.

      • Yay, the good news!  Reflections can really add to any image.  The better your sky looks, the more opportunity you’ll have to make y our foreground look better by using reflections.  Let’s take an example.  You are shooting a mountain lake with a beautiful sky where the sun has just set behind the hills.  The light from the sky bounces off the water and gives that part of your photo a lot of interest with the shadows of colorful cloud and azure sky being accentuated in the water.  Instead of getting too excited about that and framing your picture with only water down to the bottom, find an interesting part of the near shore (mud ripples, round rocks, etc.) to include.  If you position yourself right (often you’ll need to get pretty low), the light reflecting off the water can help to light up that extra foreground.  It might just provide rim light around the edges of the rocks.  All this adds depth and texture to your image.
Mount Rainier is reflected in a subalpine pond lined with avalanche lilies.

Mount Rainier is reflected in a subalpine pond lined with avalanche lilies.

A building in downtown Portland reflects the golden light of the setting sun.

A building in downtown Portland reflects the golden light of the setting sun.

      • More good news:  Reflections give you so many more options.  They are really a good friend if you’re into abstracts.  The way sunlit water behaves in streams or in the wind provides fascinating compositions.  In cities you can much more easily shoot into the sun when there are abundant reflective surfaces.  You can put away the flash when you’re photographing someone under a tree or the eave of a building if there is an adjacent marble patio or walk.  You can play around with mirror effects, using store or car windows to put figures & faces in very compelling spots within your compositions.
An example of an abstract composition using reflections: water from springs collects in Snow Canyon, Utah.

An example of an abstract composition using reflections: water from springs collects in Snow Canyon, Utah.

Reflections are all around you.  They make up, after all, approximately one half of the natural light you use as a photographer.  Use them to your advantage, be aware of their ability to intrude on your images, and above all, have fun with them.

An empty beach along the lower Columbia River in Oregon glows with a colorful summer sunset.

An empty beach along the lower Columbia River in Oregon glows with a colorful summer sunset.

Friday Foto Talk: Reflections, Part I   18 comments

The Grand Tetons in Wyoming are reflected in the Snake River.

The Grand Tetons in Wyoming are reflected in the Snake River.

Although I should probably get busy and write the follow-up posts to those series I have going right now on this blog (patterns, life in the universe, the Cascades, etc.), I just can’t help going with what is on my mind at the moment.  What I’ve thought about off and on all day long is light, so that is what I’ll post on for this week’s Friday Foto Talk.

Photographers of all stripes know the importance of good light.  You either create it in the form of strobes, flashes and such, or you take advantage of nature’s own brand (which is of course the finest).  Here in the Pacific NW, we have seen a seemingly unending succession of clear days lately.  Although you can always find something to shoot no matter the light, clear skies mean high contrast and a short golden hour.  But we’ve had clouds move in the last couple days, and I’m elated.

This simple shot from Oregon's Cascade Mountains takes advantage of water's ability to reflect beautiful light that is being itself reflected from the fir trees.

This simple shot from Oregon’s Cascade Mountains takes advantage of water’s ability to reflect beautiful light that is being itself reflected from the fir trees.

If you are serious about photography, you should (no MUST) take advantage of good light.  That means getting  out during the golden hours straddling sunrise and sunset.  You might be excused for not doing this when skies are clear.  But when clouds move in, covering part of the sky, you need to do your best to drop everything and get your butt out there to shoot early or late in the day.

This shot from the Okavango Delta would lack a clear subject if the tree was not reflected so nicely.

This shot from the Okavango Delta would lack a clear subject if the tree was not reflected so nicely.

When the light turns beautiful, I typically seek out ways to magnify that great light.  What can I say, I’m greedy!  There are two ways that light rays can interact with a nice cloud-studded atmosphere in order to sweeten themselves.  One way is refraction, the bending and skittering of light rays between and through molecules of cloud and air. The other way is reflection, the simple bouncing of light from some reflective surface.  Great light is always a combination of these two, and this post focuses on the second: reflection.

Yesterday evening we got the first truly good light we’ve seen in quite some time.  I celebrated by going to my special spot where I never see another person, let alone photographer.  What makes this place so special is the quiet waters of the lower Columbia, ready to take on and make even better all the beautiful light that the heavens can give her.  I went to see her sparkling show, and as mostly happens, she did not disappoint (image below).

Color on the Lower Columbia!

Color on the Lower Columbia!

TYPES OF REFLECTIVE SURFACES

      •  Water: The most common of all reflective surfaces is really your go-to, especially if you’re a landscape photographer.  Whenever you’re looking up at the sky a few hours before sunset and thinking “this could really develop into something”, you should first think of places near water.  Even if you’re not much of a landscape person, maybe you like shooting people/action pictures on a pretty day, remember that everybody likes water, including your potential subjects.
The Lamar River Valley in Yellowstone National Park is a peaceful place at dusk.

The Lamar River Valley in Yellowstone National Park is a peaceful place at dusk.

      • Ice/Snow:  Okay I hear ya, these are really water in another form.  But their character is very different.  Ice can indeed act very much like water, in a mirror-like way.  Ice can also refract light, so you’ll get a great combination of effects in some circumstances.  Snow also reflects light, but in a very scattered way.  No mirror here.  I’ve found that depending on the angle of the sunlight and the character of the snow, you can get some pretty fine effects when the light bounces off snow.  You’ve heard Eskimos have a bunch of different words for snow.  Well I think photographers can learn something from Inuits (call them Inuits not Eskimos).
Snow reflects the setting sun from Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood, Oregon.

Snow reflects the setting sun from Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood, Oregon.

      • Rock:  Light-colored rock can reflect light in a very unique way.  Some of the magic of Ansel Adams’ images of the Sierra Nevada were because of the play of light and shadow on the bright granite walls of the mountains.  The color of the rock can impart a definite tone to your subjects (see image below).  Even dark rock, like basalt, can if it is weathered smoothly reflect light in a subtle but attractive manner.
In this evening shot at Zion National Park, the old cabin takes on the color of the canyon walls after the sky's ambient light is reflected from them.

In this evening shot at Zion National Park, the old cabin takes on the color of the canyon walls after the sky’s ambient light is reflected from them.

      • Leaves:  Pay attention to small reflectors.  Leaves can act to bounce light toward or away from you.  Leaves transmit light too, so like ice the angle is worth taking note of and getting right.  You might have either a distracting or a pleasing reflection off the leaves in your composition.
      • Buildings:  The walls and especially the windows on buildings in your cityscapes will invariably reflect some light back at you.  Often the color saturation in light coming from the sky is enhanced when it bounces from the windows of a building.  With walls, it’s basically like rocks.  The lighter-colored and smoother they are, the more reflection you will get.  Again, you’ll need to decide whether the angle of reflection is giving you a distracting or pleasing result.
A Portland, Oregon cityscape is improved by the sky's beautiful light being reflected off the skyscraper.

A Portland, Oregon cityscape is improved by the sky’s beautiful light being reflected off the skyscraper.

      • Bright Ground:  The surfaces you walk on are natural reflectors.  Human-made surfaces tend to be brighter than natural ones, but there are exceptions. Beaches & snow are the best examples, but deposits of calcite (Pamukkale in Turkey or Mammoth in Yellowstone), white granite & marble bedrock, etc. can really bounce the light.  In areas where marble monuments or temples are found, or where the sidewalks and patios are particularly clean and bright, you can use reflection from the ground in several ways.  Providing fill light for portraits is the most obvious example, but you can also use it as you would a body of water during sunrise or sunset.
The nice directional light on this Nicaraguan man's face came largely from the strong sun being reflected off the nearby beach.

The nice directional light on this Nicaraguan man’s face came largely from the strong sun being reflected off the nearby beach.

      • Body Parts:  Eyes are very small but very important reflectors.  Everyone knows about red eye.  To avoid it, don’t use flash on your camera directed right at the person.  But plain old reflection from eyes is something to get just right.  Some of this is done on the computer, but it’s possible to have too much catch-light in a person’s eyes.  Some is good but too much light (or too obvious a reflection of the photographer) is often not attractive.  I won’t mention bald heads, since that is striking a bit too close to home!
This pretty young woman's eyes act as mirrors in this image from Cambodia, creating good catchlights.  But my own reflection is almost too obvious.

This pretty young woman’s eyes mirror the light in this image from Cambodia, creating catchlights. But my own reflection is almost too obvious.

      • Clouds:  Yes, clouds themselves can be a very effective secondary source of light.  When the sun that just set (or has not quite risen) is bouncing light off a large bank of clouds turned a fiery color, you often have enough light (and gorgeous light it is) to turn away from the sunset and photograph the scene behind you.  After sunset it would normally be pretty dark and colorless.  But with this sort of reflection you are given the gift of golden hour plus!  I’ve even noticed that if you have clouds on the opposite side of the sky, light can be reflected twice.  So if you’re shooting a smaller subject that would otherwise be a silhouette, you get some fill light that provides some details. This is a fairly rare & special situation, more common in the desert southwest.  When this late light bounces around, off of different cloud banks & off rock faces, maybe even water as well, you should thank the photography gods and shoot like a maniac!
This picture in Death Valley, California is directed at an angle to the setting sun.  It takes advantage of red-orange light reflected (and refracted) by the clouds back down on the salt flats.  The salt in turn reflects the light, but with a unique tinge created by interaction of the warm light with the salt crystals.

This picture in Death Valley, California is directed at an angle to the setting sun. It takes advantage of red-orange light reflected (and refracted) by the clouds back down on the salt flats. The salt in turn reflects the light, but with a unique tinge created by interaction of the warm light with the salt crystals.

Stay tuned next Friday for Part II of Reflections, where I’ll discuss ways you can use reflections to your advantage when you capture images.  If you are interested in any of these images, just click on them to go to the high-res. version.  Then once you have the full-size image you’re interested in, click “Purchase Options”.  If you have any questions at all, please contact me.  Thanks for reading!

Much-needed light is provided by the moon's reflection from clouds in this evening shot from Mt. Rainier National Park

Much-needed light is provided by the moon’s reflection from clouds in this evening shot from Mt. Rainier National Park

Friday Foto Talk: Shooting at Sunrise & Sunset – Part I   7 comments

Sunrise on the north side of Mt Hood from the pastoral Hood River Valley, Oregon.

Sunrise on the north side of Mt Hood from the pastoral Hood River Valley, Oregon.

I moderated a discussion last night with my photo club, all about photography at sunrise and sunset.  Not surprisingly, I found it difficult to narrow things down so we could avoid talking all night.  Photographing at sunrise and sunset covers a lot of ground: things like technique, equipment and style, along with issues like safety and locations (including avoiding over-photographed subjects).

In this first part of a two-part post, I’ll go through some important things to think about when planning and setting out to shoot at sunrise and sunset, things I’ve learned over the years, and equipment to bring along.  Tune in next Friday for Part II, which will cover what types of things to shoot when the sun is low, plus tips on how best to capture them.

Sunset is not just for landscapes: Portland, Oregon's street fair known as First Thursday.

Sunset is not just for landscapes: Portland, Oregon’s street fair known as First Thursday.

Tips

      • Planning – The Photographer’s Ephemeris:  Google and download this free application (there is a charge for mobile versions) so you can see rising and setting times for both sun and moon, along with a map-based view of rising and setting directions for any location you specify.  
      • Planning – Research:  While you’re traveling about your local area, be aware of where the sun has risen and will set, and whether it offers some opportunity for nice shots in good light.  Read about nice viewpoints on hiking websites or guidebooks.  Talk to friends.  But don’t stress on planning things to a tee; get out and see what happens (see Location below).
      • Planning – Timing & Scouting:  For sunset, when the light builds in quality and then after sunset slowly transitions to the subtle beauty of blue hour, it’s okay to not have a specific location picked out.  Pick out a general area and see how things shape up light-wise when you get there.  But leave plenty of time, arriving up to a couple hours before sunset time.  For sunrise, it’s important to scout beforehand (the day or weekend before).  You want a more specific idea of where you’ll shoot from compared to sunset.  Still, arrive anywhere from a half hour to an hour before sunrise.  The progress of the light is the reverse of that at sunset, so things happen more quickly to start out, with blue hour being first to appear and the light quality fading more slowly.
      • Location – Where?  I’ve found this to be something many photographers have trouble with – where to go?  Although you can certainly get recommendations from photog. friends as a way to start out, I recommend finding your own spots.  Drive out to areas you know are scenic late in the day towards sunset.  Stop and take pictures at places you find compelling or beautiful.  While you’re doing that, try to imagine if it would be good for sunrise too.  Go anywhere you know has a relatively clear horizon towards the east and/or west, someplace scenic.  This is winging it I realize, but it works to get you away from over-shot locales.  Use others for inspiration or information of course.  And there’s nothing wrong with photographing a popular spot in great light.  But you will benefit in the long run to find your own compositions.
      • Location – General:  For me at least, bodies of water nearly always help a picture, especially at sunrise or sunset.  Because of its reflectivity, water helps with contrast, and it can also act as a beautiful mirror.  Also look for relatively un-vegetated areas (such as desert or grassland).  As with water, the bright, reflective nature of these landscapes help with contrast, especially when shooting into the sun.  As you get better at exposure and use of filters, go for darker landscapes.
      • Location – Elevation:  An elevated position (your classic viewpoint) is always worth looking for, though shooting from lower down, next to water or down the length of a valley framed by trees for example, is also a good plan.
The sunflower-like arrowleaf balsamroot blooms in profusion below a darkening dusk sky in the rocky terrain of the eastern Columbia River Gorge in Washington.

The sunflower-like arrowleaf balsamroot blooms in profusion below a darkening dusk sky in the rocky terrain of the eastern Columbia River Gorge in Washington.

      • Light:  This is of course one of the two most important things that will determine how good your photos turn out (the other being your subject/composition).  Clouds and unsettled weather are good for a number of reasons.  But when the sun sets into a thick bank of clouds well before the light gets good, I don’t think you’ll tend to agree with this wisdom.  I always consider clouds better than a clear sky, but whether this turns out to be the case for any given sunset or sunrise is another thing.  One thing is certain: when the sun peeks out from beneath gorgeous, colorful and dramatic clouds just before setting, putting forth beautiful crepuscular rays (a.k.a. Jesus rays), you will thank yourself for ignoring the threatening weather or rain earlier and heading out.  Clouds can also turn outrageous colors after the sun sets.  But good luck predicting any of this hours before sunset.  Believe me I’ve tried.
      • Composition – Elements:  Picking out silhouettes is a great idea when shooting toward the sun.  They must be recognizable and nearly black to work (expose for the bright sky behind the silhouetted object).  Also worthwhile during iffy weather is keeping an eye out on the scene away from the sun.  Golden light and rainbows are not an uncommon reward.  Reflections are also worth looking for, either in water or (in the case of cityscapes) on buildings.
      • Composition – Depth:  As any photography 101 book will tell you, try to find beautiful or interesting foreground elements to put in the bottom or at the sides of your frame, and get close to them (a few feet is not too close!).  Try for a photo with great depth, your aperture at f/22 or similar.  But never think this is always the best choice.  Other types of compositions, say with the closest elements a hundred or more yards away or even an image that is all background and sky, are not “amateur” or the lessor image in any sense.  They will provide variety to your pictures, and often have more impact (and sharpness) than photos with a lot of depth.
      • Composition – Your Frame:  You’ve heard of the rule of thirds, and not centering elements in the middle of your frame.  When you’re shooting at sunset or sunrise, the sky and landscape often contrast greatly with each other.  Unless you have strong subsidiary layering (such as a strong line of hills or trees, a reflection), it’s usually not a good idea to center the horizon line.  Decide which is more interesting, above or below the horizon, and shoot with that taking up roughly 2/3 or more of the frame.  If your decision here wasn’t a slam-dunk, quickly raise or lower the camera so you’re emphasizing the opposite section.  There’s nothing wrong with hedging your bets!
The Painted Hills in central Oregon takes on deep hues at dusk.

The Painted Hills in central Oregon takes on deep hues at dusk.

      • Equipment:  

Bring a good solid tripod with ball-head.  And use it!  If you don’t like using your shutter-delay mode, also get a cable release.  

A wide-angle lens, offering a focal length no longer than about 27 mm. (35 mm equivalent) is really necessary for most landscape photography, including sunset and sunrise.  A focal length on the order of 15 mm. or so will give you an ultrawide view and help to make everything in your frame sharp from front to back (if you use a small aperture – f/22 for example).  Don’t leave your normal or long focal-length lenses home however.  Many of my best sunset and sunrise photos were taken at focal lengths of 50 mm., 100 mm., even 200 mm. or more!  

For filters, bring a graduated neutral density filter or two, the rectangular (not screw-in) type.  Singh-Ray makes an excellent one, and a 3-stop grad. is a great first purchase.  Also I highly recommend a circular polarizer.

Bring a flashlight or headlamp whether doing sunset or sunrise.  There’s nothing worse than dropping an item and not being able to search for it in the grass because of low-light.

Totally optional but nice to have are knee pads for getting down low near your foreground without denting your knee on a sharp rock.  Also if you’re anything like me and love to get very near to a watery foreground, bring or wear rubber boots (“wellies”).  Some photogs. even bring hip waders.  Or you can do what I often do and simply wear warm wool socks, old sneakers and quick-drying pants.  It will toughen you up getting your feet and legs wet, and you can then claim that you “suffer for your art”.

The sun goes down with a show of glory along the Redwood Coast, northern California.

The sun goes down with a show of glory along the Redwood Coast, northern California.

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