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The technical art of capturing alpine wildflowers

26 Aug

Wildflowers are a joy to photograph. The colors, shapes, and sizes can add so much personal expression and emotion to an image. There is a multitude of creative approaches to employ while developing a vision for the subject.  Today, we explore some of the most effective techniques used to capture wildflowers. It is part one of my new series and I hope that you find it useful.

Composition

Fields of wildflowers offer the opportunity for show stopping photographs of epic proportions.  However, the margin for error is even smaller than normal and proper attention to detail must be precise in order to execute a stunning picture.

My first method of approach is to determine a point of view. How low or high do I want to get with my camera? Obviously the lower the perspective, the more prominent your foreground. This technique increases drama and brings your viewer into the picture. However, there are potential hindrances as well.

For instance, what about the flowers directly behind your foreground? Are they colorful and do they add or detract from your image? Would an overview of the area work better than getting low to the ground? Remember, a moving your camera just a few inches up or down or to either side can truly affect your composition,  so be aware of everything you are photographing. Take your time, look around, and experiment.

A stunning floral display accentuated by a glimpse of rare alpine light. The angle of the field of flowers and the varying lengths of growth worked wonderfully for this photograph.

The heighth, width, and overall size of the wildflowers plays a huge part in composition as well. Smaller and stocky wildflowers are generally  easier to capture than taller, lanky ones because they don’t catch as much wind and they don’t obscure other flowers.  On the flip side, the large ones take up more space in your composition and the differences in height can add texture and variety to your pictures as well.

In addition to size, the spacing of flowers is critical. Are the flowers evenly spaced  or do they occur in clumps? Is the color evenly distributed across your image or is it unbalanced?  Finally, are you looking to photograph an entire field or  prominently capture one clump?

My approach:  Find the biggest and best fields of flowers and work around that. I prefer as many flowers in my images as possible.

Best advice:  Experiment with both vertical and horizontal compositions of the same scene. More often than not, I find my first hunch for presentation is wrong when photographing scenes with wildflowers.

Techniques

Wind is the biggest natural obstacle in successfully executing wildflowers shots. It doesn’t take much, just a little breeze to really mess things up. Fortunately, in today’s digital age we can overcome many natural limitations by exercising a little bit of patience and creativity.  Let’s go over some techniques that can help.

Wind played a major factor in the capture of this shot. Multiple blends were necessary to keep the flowers from moving and to blend for depth of field. The differences in color from the previous image are mostly a result of a much warmer white balance or higher color temperature used as the basis for editing this picture.

1) Take off the polarizer – In one of my all time favorite photography books I learned that a polarizer should not be used within an hour of either sunrise or sunset. While this filter can be very useful in reducing glare while photographing wildflowers – if wind is an issue and it is a sunrise or sunset – take it off and spare yourself the extra exposure time.

2) Utilize your ISO speed – Depending on the quality of your camera and the size of your print, ISO speed can be raised considerably without any noticeable decrease in quality.  That is,  if exposure and focus are correct coupled with the right aperture settings.  For example, I recently compared a 16 x 24 print shot at ISO 400 with another shot with the same camera and lens at ISO 100 and I literally could not tell any difference in quality.

Getting back to the flowers – unless it is deathly still – try to keep your exposure times to less than one half of a second to prevent any kind of motion blur in your flowers.

My approach: Take lots of pictures of the same composition and blend out the blurry flowers if necessary.

Best advice:  Be patient – wait for the wind to die down. Even if the light changes – you still have a chance of pulling off a successful blend.

We’ll stop here for today and pick up this topic next week with more tips and techniques for capturing wildflowers. If you like post or have any tips of your own – I’d love to hear from you!

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New Colorado Wildflower Images

14 Aug

I’ve safely and successfully returned from my journey to Colorado and the wildflowers and mountains were spectacular! It was a very productive trip and I am looking forward to sharing my new images with you soon.  My approach to editing has changed with this trip.  I am using a lot more manual focus blending as well as extra blending for dynamic range.

The first the part of the process is reviewing all my images and then selecting the ones that are the sharpest and that have the best light. Next I determine the white balance and tone of the image and then I manually stack them in Photoshop. Once the images are stacked, I hand blend them and then edit for contrast and color.  Lastly, I’ve been returning to the images over the course of several days to give me time to digest what I am seeing and to ensure that my editing is in synch with my final vision. The result is a slower process, but I want to make sure that I am 100% satisfied with the image before I post them publicly.

Currently, I am about 20% of the way through the editing and I am selecting the pictures as they come to me. Here’s the first image I’d like to share with you. It is an image from Clear Lake entitled “Modularity.”  I’d love to hear your thoughts. I hope to share more with you soon as well as tell you more about my trip!

Top Internet Websites for Trip Planning

4 Jul

One of the questions I was asked in a recent interview about photography was in regards to how I did my research to  information for the places that I go.  We’ve covered this topic before and today I thought it would be helpful  to list the top websites that I use for trip research. Most of these are pretty obvious, but I’ll explain to you how I use them.

Google
There are a couple different ways to use Google for Internet searches. The web search is the obvious primary function. The search topics I look for are the names of hikes or places and pictures.  One useful feature of this site  is the Google Images. This is an excellent way to find information. Not only is the search done by pictures, but it takes the user to the landing pages of those images. Sometimes this kills two birds with one stone. Instead of searching for articles containing your keywords, you do a keyword search on pictures and clicking on the image takes you to information on the pictures.

Amazon
For online book or map purchases, I believe Amazon is the best retailer. The navigation features of the website are user friendly, they offer suggestions for related products, and the prices and customer service are generally very good. I almost always use Amazon to purchase maps and guide books for areas outside of my home state, where it is harder to find information at your local bookstore.

Flickr
Flickr is probably my favorite site for obtaining or viewing images on places I am interested in visiting.  It is not necessary to have a membership in order to search and see results on their site. You can see my Flickr page here.

You Tube
I like this site for hard to find areas, especially when it comes to backpacking trips. Videos often times give even more significant and realistic impression of the places you are trying to research.

Nps.gov
NPS has several useful features that are sometimes worth checking out depending on when and where you are traveling. Each park has its own website so the layout and usefulness varies from site to site. Thus some sites have information and navigation features that are easier to use and find than others. The top reasons I visit are for viewing general park maps, getting contact information for the ranger stations, useful links for the weather and activities, and checking the park’s webcams.

Weather.com
In the last ten days before a trip, there is no site that gets more use than this one. The only other site that has a longer extended forecast is accuweather.com Other weather sites that I frequent are weatherundergound.com, who also has the best mobile site for weather and weather.gov, which is the national weather service’s web page that also gives the most detailed information available on issues like forest fires and storm advisories.

Trip Advisor.com
This is my default site for doing research on hotels and places to stay. I think Trip Advisor has the best and most honest reviews online. To books the hotels, it usually works best if you just go to the hotel’s actual website. Another useful site that I usually refer to for reviews is hotels.com, although I don’t trust the reviews on it nearly as much. It has a useful search feature of organizing hotels by cost, which is normally very accurate and current, and includes last minute deals.

I hope you had a wonderful holiday and found this information helpful.  If there are any websites that you love to use that I didn’t include please feel free to let me know. It always rewarding to hear from users!

Find Your Creative Vision Part 4 – Abstract Images

10 Jun

This week’s blog is on how to to craft successful abstract images in landscape photography. We will talk about what to look for, how to express yourself, and also discuss technical tips in the field. I also want to give you a brief professional update as a lot is going on. We recently returned from a wonderful eight day trip to Oregon. More on that in a later blog. Next week we are preparing for our first trip to San Diego to participate in the renowned La Jolla Festival of Fine Arts.

Today our focus is on abstracts. Abstracts offer a lot of opportunity for a number of reasons and make a fine addition to any landscape photographer’s portfolio. To begin, abstract images are less contingent upon spectacular light. In many cases soft, diffused light works best. This is usually true for abstracts involving plants and trees. Depending on the size of your subject and the photographer, wily shooters can use their bodies, jackets, reflectors or anything else capable of casting a shadow on their subject matter. So sometimes you don’t even have to wait for the light!

In other instances, photographers use the reflected glow of the sun to help add drama and color to their images. This works best while shooting in slot canyons or while shooting intimate scenes of water that capture the varied colors of reflected light. Below is a demonstration of how different kinds of direct light can affect the color quality of abstract images.

Taken in the morning

Taken in the afternoon

Taken in the afternoon

Abstract photos normally normally rely on repetition or pattern. This can be expressed in colors, lines, shapes and accentuated by depth. This type of image best allows the photographer a means to express him or herself creatively in ways that will set them apart from others in the field.

I used a high contrast interpretation of this mescal agave plant to accentuate its dominant features and colors.

Another critical consideration is the photographer’s technical execution in the field. This can be the make or break difference in determining the dramatic impact of the image. Considerations such as what aperture to use to showcase depth of field, what kind of exposure works best to capture the subject matter and it colors, will using a filter, like a polarizer, help improve the scene? These are all personal choices left up to each photographer. The best advice I can give is just to experiment with local subject matter. My best abstracts have all been local. There is something about familiarity when it comes to abstracts that has really helped me find my style. It difficult to put into words, I guess it is more of an instinct than it is a tangible quality.

For instance, I live in the desert. So when I am out and about I am looking at desert landscaping and watching the plants for patterns or shapes that interest me. I might find one that I like and maybe the scene doesn’t work or I don’t have my camera gear, but it gives me an idea of something that interests me that I continue to look for in the future. That’s my suggestion to you. When you are around mundane subject matter, pay attention to the little things – even if you don’t get shots it can inspire you for the future.

Saguaro Bulbs

Speaking of which, I hope you find this article inspiring. Please let me know if you do!

Finding Your Creative Vision Part 3 – The Black and White

5 May

“Both the grand and the intimate aspects of nature can be revealed in the expressive photograph. Both can stir enduring affirmations and discoveries, and can surely help the spectator in his search for identification with the vast world of natural beauty and wonder surrounding him.”
— Ansel Adams

Contemporary landscape photography is dominated by digital images of saturated and vibrant color. The popularity of this style is obvious and it oftentimes overshadows the traditional and subtle effectiveness of just using black and white. However, by no means is black and white photography passe. Today, we’ll discuss some of the most important processes involved in capturing and presenting your images in black and white.

Having a Vision

One of the most critical steps for the photographer to think in terms of black and white. What I mean is at the time of capture you should be envisioning a black and white finished product for your photograph. While this doesn’t always have to be the case, it certainly does help. You may be wondering, how does one go about developing this type of mindset?

One key is for the photographer to focus on finding black and white compositions when they are in the field. A prime way of accomplishing this is through the careful examination of subject matter and light. Black and white photography is most effective when there is a full spectrum of tone between white and black with many different shades of grey. Two common means of illustration are the primary colors of the subject and/or the light during the time of capture.

This is an image of Yellowstone Lake taken at the beginning of October as the area’s lovely fall weather was deteriorating into the freezing grip of winter. The water level here was low thus exposing many of the rocks in the lake. During capture, it was very cold and windy and a huge snow storm was moving in. The colors were fairly mute and because it was in the late afternoon and extremely overcast I knew this would lend well to black and white.

Once again, the key with black and white is to offer the viewer the full spectrum of tones so the eye can easily differentiate between the shades. Form is also accentuated in black and white. The effective use of contrast to emphasize form is often a key to the aesthetic success of your image. Here I like the forms of the rocks in the water. I also like the powerful U-shape formed by the exposed bank in the lake.

Styles

Stylistically, several types of prominent landscapes translate well into black and white photography. Here is a short list to keep in mind next time your are in the field: aspen trees, dead trees, raging creeks, sand dunes, barns, and snow capped peaks.

Processing

While this blog post was not designed to get into the specific technical aspects behind black and white processing, I will briefly discuss a couple important factors. How and when you convert your image to black and white is a subjective call. I’ve experimented with it several ways and I don’t particularly have a preference. It can be done at the beginning or end of your work flow and by a number of different ways in the same programs. (There are also third party plug ins that effectively facilitate the conversion too). If you are looking to have a finished product in both color and black and white I suggest just convert and tweak at the end of your work flow, unless you want to completely edit the picture twice.

Finally, the white balance you choose will also affect your image’s final appearance. What color tone do you want? A neutral grey? Blue? Or maybe slightly yellow? Those are subjective calls and a lot depends on personal preference and what you are trying to communicate…
For example, look closely at the image below and then compare to the one above. Notice the difference in the tone? The Yellowstone Lake shot is bluer, while the image beneath is more of a neutral grey.

Hopefully this post provided you with a little creative inspiration and approach to capturing and presenting your images in black and white, until next time have a great weekend!

Finding Your Creative Vision Part 2 – Seasonal Images

28 Apr

The difference between a seasonal image and the grand scenic (see last post) is the subject matter is based primarily on and around the seasonal element within the landscape. In other words, it is the time of year that makes the image.

The most common images that come to mind are forest scenes. The forest makes excellent seasonal subject matter, especially trees captured in the brilliance of fall, or draped in snow, or possibly cloaked in their freshest colors of the spring. Let’s take a look at one of my personal favorite seasonal images.

This was captured back in the fall of 2006 during my first and only visit to The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Without the water, I probably wouldn’t have taken this shot, but it is the time of year that brings this image to life. Let’s dissect the composition.

First, the most obvious aspect of the image is the light shining through the yellow foliage in the background. This leads the viewers eyes through the scene and it also creates a powerful v shape in the background forest, accentuating form. (That shape is somewhat mimicked by the shape of the rock ledge spillway in the foreground) .The color of the trees also help convey depth to the scene by breaking up the monotony of the towering green rhododendron in the mid ground.

Lastly, look at the leaves on the moss covered rocks. The burnt orange/brownish colors compliment the green of the rocks and provide more visual interest as well. Combined with the background, this type of scenery is only evident diuring a small window of time each year. In my opinion, that is the distinguishing feature of this image – the season.

In this image, taken in Colorado last fall, I used the thinning aspen trees to create depth and accentuate form while utilizing the yellow and green color combo again. Another scene available only during the late fall. This image is inherently much more abstract than the previous one.

In summary, the seasonal image doesn’t utilize the drama of nature’s finest moments to the extent the grand scenic does. Skies may or may not be part of the scene and if they are, there is usually no dramatic color. From a creative standpoint, the seasonal image often plays to the photographer’s resourcefulness in finding a composition where others might not see one. After all, it is hard to miss a grand scenic! While the use of light is vitally important in all landscape photography, the grand scenic is heavily dependent on spectacular light, while there is a greater range of acceptable light when composing a seasonal image.

Stayed tuned for the next segment of Finding Your Creative Vision, hopefully I’ll have that to you by Monday or Tuesday. Have a great weekend!

Finding Your Creative Edge in Landscape Photography Pt.1 – The Grand Scenic

27 Apr

What is the difference between a good landscape photographer and a great one? What separates the top photographers in this genre from the many others trying to emulate them? Is it luck, time in the field, or maybe they have more technical and even physical skills? It couldn’t possibly be their camera equipment could it? Well, what is it?

Today we are starting a new series that I hope will answer these questions and more. My goal is to provide you with a more fundamental understanding of landscape photography and to inspire you to think outside the box to find your own creative advantages.

After several years of regularly studying landscape photographs from an artist’s perspective, I’ve begun to see more clearly the creative nuances many of the top pros use to hone their craft. Before we dive into the creative aspects of the genre, it is important to have a fundamental grasp of the different types of images that are common in this field. I call these sub-genres and we’ll briefly discuss each as it relates to overall understanding of landscape photography. We’ll start with just about everyone’s favorite type of the image – the grand scenic.

If you follow my work at all then you’ve probably seen this image before. Entitled Celestial Alignment, this is probably my favorite grand scenic in my current gallery of images. What exactly is a grand scenic?

Well, I’ll take the definition out of one of my all time favorite photography books entitled “Photographing the Landscape, the Art of Seeing” by John Fielder. This is how Fielder describes this type of image…. "Grand scenics often contain all....(the) photographic toppings, and they employ their use in ways that heighten their impact. Colors are usually complementary, forms are unique and pleasing, the moment clearly transitory, the perspective implies great depth, and the view takes in what is only necessary to make a great composition."

To paraphrase, he is saying a grand scenic normally means a scene with a wide and deep view. This usually includes some type of dramatic sky or at least soft, warm light that compliments and/or accentuates the subject matter. The composition also needs to be precise and well balanced, with strong continuity from side to side and front to back.

Let’s take a look at the image above and examine the foreground elements. There is a definite near to far perspective, with the strongest hoodoos placed in a position that looks out and diagonally across the scene to the sun rising over the horizon. This creates a fluid perspective leading the viewer through the scene, starting in the foreground.

In my opinion, this is also an example of a balanced scene. If you cover up half (any way) of the photograph you’ll see what I mean. No one half is any stronger than the other. If you look at the placement of the sun within the picture, it is classically approximately 1/3rd of the way in from the right and 1/3rd of the way down from the top. In the mid ground, the forest of trees in the canyon breaks up the monotony of the shades of deep oranges and reds produced by the brilliant light reflecting off the natural color of the rocks. Additionally, look at the sides of the image. All the elements are clean, thoughtfully arranged, and cohesive.

Finally, the sky is brilliant and clearly transitory. Anyone who has spent time in the field during the magic hours can surely see this is not a “normal” sunrise. It was highly unusual with the moment lasting approximately three to four minutes.

Capturing a grand scenic is one of the most rewarding experiences in landscape photography because of the rarity of the event. In another sense, the images require a less than average amount of artistic creativity to get them right.

Certainly, in most cases, they require a high level of technical competence having to deal with the high dynamic range of light while executing in the field and in the digital dark room. However, outside of that aspect and the ability to see a strong composition, most of the creative work gets overshadowed by the spectacle of natural phenomena captured.

Well, I’ll wrap this up today and by Thursday we’ll discuss another type of image.

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