Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Beautiful Anemone among the Wannabes

I tend to be fairly meticulous about certain characteristics of any photograph that I'm willing to show to the public. If it's black and white, I want a full range of tones. If in full color, I want the colors to contrast where appropriate to highlight the subject, but to balance overall, as with all other elements of the composition (such as shapes and their placement in the frame). I want lines to have interesting directions, so that they help to move the viewer's eyes around the image. If any portion of the photo (sometimes all of it, but not necessarily so) should be sharp, I want it to be really sharp. I want foreground lines to cross over background lines just so. And so forth.

On the other hand, when I'm looking for natural subjects, such as flowers, I don't insist that they be perfect specimens. There is certainly something special about a portrayal of an unblemished, beautifully formed bunch of blossoms, and sometimes a utopian vision of a single "best" flower against a toneless, texture-free studio background creates an ideal impression. For me, it's often more fun to look for the standout in its natural environment. Besides, sometimes that's the only choice I have.

I went back for another look at the anemones that I've been photographing on and off for a few weeks. More had opened, many already looked tired and worn, but one looked fresh, and seemed to preside over its companions. I was even happy with the existing light, and didn't try to "improve" it with flash or reflectors (which I don't hesitate to do when I feel like it, as seen in other posts recently).

So here she is. I've even given her a title: Beautiful Anemone among the Wannabes.
* Correction * : I had been told by a friend that these were anemones, and there are varieties that do look quite similar. My wife, when she saw this, said "those are Lenten roses", and it seems to me that she's right. Sources like this one from the Missouri Botanical Garden confirm that Helleborus orientalis is what we're looking at. The hellebore is often known as Lenten rose. Native to parts of Greece, Turkey, and Russia, it blooms in late winter, so the behavior I've been observing is not unusual for this plant. I'm not going to change the title of this post, but I'll try to refer to the hellebore or Lenten rose accurately in future. I need to also find some true anemones to photograph!


Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Winter reflection

I only have one photo to show from today's dreary weather. I've always enjoyed using reflections to juxtapose elements of a composition. A puddle brought trees and sky in contact with concrete pavement. Timing the shutter release with water droplet waves, I got the balance I sought.


Monday, February 25, 2013

Puffy birds

The ground-feeding birds were puffed up against the cold today, although the temperature was above the freezing point. I'm not great at identifying bird species, so if you find that I've goofed - whether embarrassingly or understandably - please don't hesitate to correct me in the comments.

Because I don't have a blind, and the migrating visitors weren't going to accept me as unthreatening no matter how long I sat outside, I tried some shots through a window. The results weren't as dreadful as I'd expected, though I certainly wouldn't recommend it if there's any way to shoot through nothing but clear air. At any rate, here are some samples.

 I think this is a tan-striped variation of a White-throated Sparrow:

A Dark-eyed Junco, looking as fluffy as a child's stuffed toy:

I'm pretty sure this is a Wood Thrush:

And two more shots of the sparrow:


Saturday, February 23, 2013

Rainy day fun with cameras

Sometimes a rainy day can feel like a good time to just lie around in bed, especially for an old doggie.

Although I'm not so young myself, rain doesn't bother me. I just happen to prefer winter precipitation in the form of snow. Either way, we need the water. For just a moment this morning, the drizzle made interesting patterns on tree bark. After grabbing this shot with a hand-held telephoto (I'd been hoping to catch some birds feeding on wet terrain), I went for a tripod and another lens, but the bubbly interest was gone, along with the light. The moral of the story: shoot first, question your technique later.

I may have unwittingly started on a path to one of those cliched top ten lists -

   1. The best camera and the best lens are the ones you have with you.
   2. Get the shot first, then go for a better one.
   3. f/8 and be there...

But back to my focus for today. Along with harping on the lack of snow in Raleigh this winter, I've done a couple of posts about flowers that decided to bloom in February as the temperature cycles wildly up and down. Well, one thing about a nice rain pattern is that it can cause droopy blossoms to perk up. So while I'm pleased with the somewhat unusual perspective of the photos I got from ground level shooting up, it was nice to try some more traditional macro shots on the level this afternoon. The drizzle reduced to mist, I worked as the clock approached 5, and enjoyed having the benefit of varying sized drops of moisture on the petals and leaves.

   4. To create an interesting photo, find an interesting subject.
   5. Any subject can be interesting if seen imaginatively. [Now, there's a way to challenge yourself!]
   6. Lighting is "everything", which is one reason that...
   7. Timing is everything.
   8. Attempt to perfect things "in the camera", but also understand what you can do in post-processing.
   9. Lists of suggestions do not have to contain ten elements.


Thursday, February 21, 2013

Shooting in midday sun

Generally speaking, outdoor photographers prefer to work during the golden hours - just after sunrise, and as sunset approaches. The reasons are pretty well known, and make sense for a lot of situations and subjects. For example, when the sun is near the horizon, the direction of light creates shadows on the land that bring out texture. The color of the light is usually warm, because it is traveling through a greater expanse of atmosphere before reaching the ground. When the subject is a person, a light source directly overhead (such as noonday sun) casts unflattering shadows from the brow and nose, leaving the eyes in darkness ("raccoon eyes") and the mouth with a slash across it. Late afternoon sun (especially with some cloud cover to act as a diffuser) can be a perfect start to great portrait lighting, as long as the subject doesn't have to squint while looking toward the brightness. It can be better to turn the person away from the sun, using it as a backlight/hair light, while adding another, gentler light source in front of their face. But, that's a subject for another time.

Sometimes the only chance to shoot is in the middle of the day, and it is not impossible to find (or make) good light, especially if your choice of subjects is small animals or plants. Today I enjoyed watching some migrating birds, including some not always seen in my area. There were a pair of red wing black birds, but they were too shy for me to approach and photograph well without preparation. As I am a shameless opportunist who doesn't consider common birds any less fascinating than less common varieties, I took aim at a foraging robin who wasn't quite so skittish. In the first shot, a patch of sun through the trees caught his front and helped it stand out against a shadowed background. The feathers of his wings and underbelly are muted in tone, but the head sparkles.

A moment later, he moved to a spot where all of his topside was lit, and as a bonus for me, some shiny dead leaves reflected a bit of fill light to his belly. I like the attitude caught in this split second.

Meanwhile, the confused flowers blooming in Raleigh three weeks into February made quite a display for me when I got my head all the way down to the ground. I knew that to balance their illumination with the bright sky in the background would require some help, so I made use of a really high-tech piece of equipment - a sheet of aluminum foil, crinkled a bit and shaped into a curve. This reflected light into the little purple umbrellas opened a few inches above me, highlighting their yellow reproductive parts. Working with a wide angle zoom, I used focal lengths ranging from 29mm to 35mm for these shots.

Even pale yellow flowers call for fill light when they face the ground.

The color contrasts were important to me when shooting the purple flowers against blue sky and green leaves, but didn't make as much drama with the pale yellow flowers. I decided to take advantage of the tonal control that black and white offers, and worked the relative contributions of blue and yellow to gain maximum contrast. After a little tweaking of a custom tone curve, I got a pleasing result.

So, in about an hour with the sun near zenith, I managed a few shots that may show some possibilities for making midday light work for photos. 


Monday, February 18, 2013

Watching the sky after sunset

This was one of those days where the afternoon sky didn't hold much interest - until, that is, we were quite close to sunset. Then things began developing quickly in a way that made me determined to get someplace where I could photograph the cloud formations and colors.

I couldn't quite get to a clear view of the western sky until after the sun was below the horizon. Fortunately, that is sometimes when the best show appears. I made my first shot focusing on a lacy tree against the blue that was still dominant about halfway toward zenith.

I found some leftover snow/ice, and wished I had a tripod with me, so that I could try stacking multiple exposures. I wanted to be able to expose for the texture of the snow crystals, yet also catch the tones of the sky. Oh well, it was not to be this time. Instead I tried two different approaches to individual shots.

Oh, but the sky! I wanted to have some foreground and mid-ground interest, but not finding that ideal, I wasn't about to let the changing light show go unrecorded. I made do with a simple horizon silhouette.

Things came together just enough to let me pull off the effect of the blue ice against the orange sky.

Then back to focusing on the sky.

Another compromise that worked, maybe.

All of the photos were shot in a span of 10 minutes plus a few seconds. I would ideally want to be in position and organized well before trying a sunset series, but this was a spur of the moment exercise. You know what? I'm glad I did it. Each time I shoot this way, I'm just a little bit better prepared for the next time I find myself in gorgeous surroundings just when great light makes an appearance.

All photos shot hand-held with a 70-200mm f/2.8 IS

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Hint of snow, hunt for subjects

At 10 am today, I was pleasantly surprised to see very large flakes of snow begin to fall. Precipitation had been predicted, but was expected to start as rain. Temps near the ground were enough above the freezing mark that nothing frozen should have made it all the way down until later in the day, but apparently the local temperature dipped just enough overnight to allow these very soft flakes to survive until they touched the surface. I watched them melt in less than a second, whether they landed on concrete or leaves.

After  about an hour and a half, a little bit of white stuff began to accumulate on pine straw and some leaves. It even showed up on the feathers of hunting birds, like the robin below.

The snow around town was very patchy. Then it turned to rain, and then it quit. I'm pinning my hopes on the chance of a little more precip tonight, which could lead to some photo ops tomorrow.

This is how it looked when it began to fall:

Here's the robin, foraging in the late morning:

And finally, the look of a mix of snow and rain falling between the trees:


Friday, February 15, 2013

Shooting Blind: Winter Flowers seen from below

I've recently posted some shots (here and here) of flowers that were starting to blossom in the middle of winter. We've had roller coaster temperatures in Raleigh for the past month and a half. Hard freezes and spring-like breezes. Not only have daffodils gone crazy all over the area, but some less hardy varieties have also budded. Today some of those opened, so I did a quick, impromptu photo session.

Due, perhaps, to the weather, the stalks were droopy, and the prettiest flower was facing more toward the ground than to the side. It seemed obvious that the best approach would be with the camera at ground level, looking up. The second immediate thought was that I should use a fisheye lens (one yielding a 180ยบ angle of view across the diagonal) to get some drama out of the compositional possibilities. I also knew I would need some supplemental light from a low source to bring out the color and details of the downward facing bloom. I used a flash through a spheroid diffuser.

There are quite a few digital cameras with articulated LCDs that allow one to compose an image while viewing from below, above, or to the side of the camera back. I was using one that doesn't permit that. The Canon 5D Mark III has other advantages that made this shot possible, including a "full frame" sensor that captures the entire view of the 15mm fisheye lens. When a scene is relatively static, I can shoot repeatedly until everything looks the way I want it to. So, I shot "blind", trying to visualize the composition I would get from ground level, and after a few shots, I was satisfied that I'd caught the hoped for effect. Here it is:


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

iPhone photos?

Can cell phone photos be worthy as art? That sounds pretentious! I don't mean it to be. What I have in mind is this: pretty much any type of camera can be used to capture moments with family and friends, or a captivating landscape, or an imaginative abstract still life. The technical quality of the final product will be affected by the device used to create it, but if the framing of the scene works, if the exposure captures the brights/darks/colors you need, if the timing of the shot needn't be as precise as a moment of peak action...well, it's at least possible that the resultant image could be worth viewing regardless of the limitations of the capture device - maybe even of interest to people who weren't there sharing the moment with you. Actually, that goes for the finest, fanciest cameras: if there's nothing interesting about what you choose to photograph, the best machine and the utmost technical precision won't make a great picture. You might make a demonstration that's fascinating to gearhead equipment junkies (I'm describing myself), and there's nothing wrong with that, in my opinion, but that'll be the extent of the value. Of course when it all comes together, when an artistically imagined image is crafted with fine photographic technique, you can get a print that offers what I think of as a bonus value. It can be a sensory and intellectual treat, and also invite you to move in closer, see greater detail. That process of immersion in a high quality, highly detailed print can be part of the aesthetic experience for me. Only a part, but still nice.

There's a popular saying that the best camera is the one you actually have with you when an opportunity presents itself. Even when I'm not working as a photographer or on a photo expedition, I very often have a "serious" camera with me if there's any foreseeable chance for photo fun. On the other hand, there are plenty of times that I can't easily tote a bulky box because of the other stuff in my hands or in my care. What do I always have? A cell phone. It was chosen for its smart phone capabilities, not for the camera, and it's a few years and generations out of date. Nevertheless, it's there, so when I'm walking the dog and the sky gets really dramatic, the best camera in the world for me is - the iPhone in my pocket:

You can see how the sun, even behind a thin layer of cloud, "blew out" the exposure and caused a harsher line around it than the way the transition appeared to the eye. On the plus side, the limited dynamic range caused the trees to go black and gray, so pretty much the only color left is in the small areas of blue sky and slightly pink clouds. I like the effect.

When I arrive at a school for an educational concert, carrying my violin, with no time to pull out heavier camera gear, and the sun flare makes a nice abstract scene out of reflective windows, out comes the phone for a quick shot.

The phone camera has a fixed lens, and the image quality doesn't allow for much cropping, but in the opposite direction there is the possibility of shooting a series of pictures and stitching them into a panorama. The sky is boring in this one, and the pic is not that interesting anyway, but I'm showing it as an example of a technique that I will keep in mind if a good photo op appears around me, but seems to require a wider angle of view. By the way, I shot this while waiting to pick up a friend for a car pool. One can at least practice, to be ready for the occasion when it really matters!

Major cropping might be a no-no for images from a tiny sensor, but that doesn't mean I couldn't take a little off the bottom of this one to balance the composition:

It was shot when I stepped out of my car in a parking lot. You just never know when you'll spot a nice picture waiting for you to capture it.


Monday, February 11, 2013

The murky line between realism and fantasy

Between the wonders of science and the arts, I've always enjoyed so much stimulation that I never felt any need to explore mind altering drugs. Some of the poster art of the 1960's and later clearly does show the influence of psychedelic experience, though, and the genre is so much a part of our culture that strong colors without gradation can be imposed on an image that begins as a photo with full range of tones, and a typical viewer won't bat an eye.

This "outdoor still life" was pretty carefully composed. I used a Canon 17 mm TS-E lens so that I could shift it down to devote most of the image space to the terrazzo floor while keeping the camera level for true verticals. I also tilted the lens downward to make the plane of focus parallel to the floor.

After all the detail work, I thought that the image could use the balancing influence of sprezzatura. Pardon the fancy buzzword, but it seems just right: some appearance of carelessness was needed, but without interfering with any of the geometric accuracy. And as for calling it sprezzatura, well, we've already got some chiaroscuro going here, so...

Only a very small proportion of my photos go through Adobe Photoshop®, but this one cried out for special treatment. I made two copy layers above the original. The middle layer was posterized to four levels. The top layer was converted to a Threshold mask, set slightly above mid tone level. Mode for that layer was set to multiply. Then the opacity of the two new layers was adjusted until I got this result:

The posterization brought out little specks of disorder among the water drops and emphasized the irregular edges of the tiles. Just enough! It also led to the three major color bands on the floor, which added leading lines to the composition. Entropy and order.

With everything balanced just right, it looks as if there is a line separating the reality of the outside world from the psychedelic fantasy of the mysterious porch. As for the shell, I don't know what it means. It's just there. My eyes tend to move between the shell and the bench, with the shell the main subject...but I still can't say that it has any symbolism. I'd be happy to see your ideas in the comments below.


Sunday, February 10, 2013

A quiet walk in the woods

Walking quietly through the woods at dusk...well, actually, walking noisily through the carpet of dead leaves and dry weeds this evening, I mostly didn't see much to photograph besides some interesting trees like this one.

Even though I'm sure any wildlife around could hear me coming from a good distance, I did manage to creep up on a doe. We had a contest to see who could do a better imitation of a statue. She won, but with the technology of image stabilization compensating for my not-quite-motionless hands, I got this photo (at ISO 20,000!) before she darted away.

 That shot will never win any awards, but it enhances my memory of the encounter by providing more detail than I could see with my naked eyes, and freezing it. Shot at 400 mm, and cropped a bit from the original.




Here in southern clime
Tantalizing tales of snow
Turn my thoughts to rime

The New York Times asked readers and Twitter followers to submit haiku related to the Nor'easter that slammed New England Friday and Saturday. The doggerel above was my (very) humble submission. I wish that those of us living in the South could have shared some of the burden of snow and ice. At any rate, because I don't have ready-made fairy tale scenes created by frozen precipitation, I play visually with the things around me even more than I do the rest of the year.

I returned to the tulips that I photographed Friday, and ended up with about a dozen more variations. No simulated snow, but different ways to look at the same bunch of flowers.