Saturday, December 8, 2018

An Ode to a Lone Tree

One of many shapes of a red mangrove.
Among the prints I sell, the long mangrove tree images seem to be the most popular. I don't say this to brag, I am only wondering out loud about lone trees and their appeal. They seem to be quite popular as art subjects but also popular in general. The Instagram account, #lonetree has over three quarter million posts. From Google map searches, you'll learn there is a Lone Tree church residing in Oklahoma, a Lone Tree reservoir in Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska and Utah, a town in Colorado and a small community in Iowa named Lone Tree and a road in TX, a parkway in CO and a Drive in SC with same name. Additional Instagram accounts tell us that many businesses and products including a brewery, designer quilts, farm, cider, golf course, ranch, board & paddle and kitchen & bath rely on the name "Lone Tree".

And we nature photographers clamor to capture the lone tree image. Lone tree photos are so popular that there is at least one lone tree in the world that has reached star fame and that is the willow tree on Lake Wanaka in New Zealand.

Lake Wanaka's famous willow tree, by Justin Black.
Even in the Everglades there is the Z tree, famous for its unique trunk growth. Maybe photographers go after the single tree because it provides a coveted uniqueness that makes one photograph stand out from all the others. Not to mention, trees come in all kinds of varieties, shapes, sizes and color, so they are there for the photographic picking.
Everglades Z tree, by Q T Luong
I mostly photograph red mangrove trees, because, well they are everywhere. When out there photographing, I often notice floating in the water the seedlings that one day take root and grow, both vertically and horizontally. I have observed over time a tiny knee-high mangrove grow to eye level. I have photographed the remains of 50-ft tall mangroves killed by a hurricane storm surge. I have watched the survivors make a come back. And I have watched survivors deteriorate from repeated storm attacks until they finally succumb, and we are left with only a paltry reminder of what once was. The trees are the essence of the Everglades and to me, they are the most beautiful trees in the world. I guess that is why I photograph them. And I go for those lone trees as much as the next photographer.

This little red mangrove will grow by reaching out its roots.
A photographer may see a solitary tree in one way, but what about the viewer? What is it about a lone tree image that draws the viewer in? Is it only the unique quality of it? Actually, it may have nothing to do with the aesthetics of art, rather we can find the answer in science. Scientific studies have shown that looking at trees reduces stress (leave it to scientist to find evidence to support the obvious). Given that images of several trees could have just as calming an effect as a lone tree image, than what is it again, that gives the lone tree a certain edge? Science may not have the answer to that one.

A clinical psychologist purchased my print to hang in her office thinking it would benefit her patients' recovery.
So I set out to figure it out. If you Google search "lone tree" images, you will find several of the willow tree of Lake Wanaka, but you will also see quite a variety of other trees. Each tree has its own character (and of course, for each tree are endless possibilities for images). Even if the tree is clearly dead and stands with only its trunk and a few errant branches, it draws our interest. Is it because the tree is a piece of nature that grows in the same spot and never moves, while most everything else around us is unpredictable? In this regard, the tree may take on a symbolism for such qualities as stability, independence and reliability.

An independent red mangrove stands out from the crowd.

But from an artistic view, there may be something else going on. I asked a photojournalist friend why lone trees are so appealing as art. She thinks its because it represents simplicity and beauty, and many people crave that in their busy lives. This makes sense to me as it becomes increasingly difficult to live simple lives. So we go to nature to relieve our stress and to simplify our life, if only for a short period of time. And for so many of us it seems, art is the only accessible means of capturing a glimpse of nature's simplicity. And the lone tree does not disappoint. The lone tree illustrates beauty in form surrounded by negative space. It stands alone, stalwart and as a true testament to the passage of time. It represents something that was there long before we discovered it and will be there long after we leave. I think our minds (or hearts) crave that comforting connection.

Much evidence that this tree survives the continual onslaught of tides and storms.
The lone tree, no matter what condition it is in reminds us that strength carries us through weathered storms and with the right amount of resolve we are always left standing, sometimes beaten down but still supported by our roots.

On second thought, maybe it isn't about us at all. Maybe a lone tree is just a gentle reminder of nature's existence somewhere out there in the world. Period. Whatever it is, it works.

A hurricane survivor stands alone.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Nature in Monochrome

"Color is my day-long obsession, joy and torment." Claude Monet

Recently, I visited northern Michigan (where I spent the first 23 years of my life) and visited an old haunt, the Jordan Valley Watershed. Very fond memories of this wilderness area made me want to go back and attempt to photograph the beauty I remember so well. While there, I couldn't help but think how similar it is to my southern Florida haunts. The photo above helps illustrate this point.  The dominate color is green, but with varying tones, shades and tints. This is, by definition, the meaning of monochrome.

The term monochrome is defined is many ways, but basically it refers to one color or hue and all its variations of light. Paint swatches or sample cards at a paint store are a good way to view monochrome. Consider the photo above and the variations of green from dark to light. If it were a painting, the painter would create those variations by taking basic green and adding black (shading), white (tinting), or gray (toning). Below is an example using orange as the basic hue.

While there are obvious differences between south Florida and northern Michigan wilderness, what strikes me as being similar are the monochromatic color schemes (the exception is in the fall when Michigan trees are bright with reds and yellows). At least that is my photography experience. Green (northern hardwood trees) dominates summer in northern Michigan and here in Florida, water and sky are the primary elements, so blue and all its monochromatic colors dominate.

Given the location where I photograph, it is no wonder most of my images are monochromatic and restrained nature scenes. Why is one compelled to photograph such subtleties that struggle to get the viewer's attention? After all, dramatic scenes of nature is what captures the viewer's eye most consistently. Consequently, photographing the simple and unpretentious side of nature is a test in design and composition. It has led me to study color theory and try to figure out why I am drawn to these scenes and more importantly, how I might capture them in a compelling way.

That has led me to examine the concept of monochrome and how a photograph might use it to its advantage. Color combinations alter the connection between visual sensory input and the brain. What might be considered opposite of monochrome is the concept of complementary colors (yellow and blue, for instance). When applied to a photograph, complementary colors boldly stand out and stimulate the brain; whereas monochrome colors are subtle and calming.

The keel-billed toucan's bill draws the viewer's attention with its complementary colors (green and red, orange and blue). Viewed best when its surroundings are monochrome and subdued.
Compelling images are those that lead the viewer's eyes into the scene. Bold contrasting colors do this very well, such as with the keel-billed toucan above. But how do you grab the viewer's attention with a monochromatic image? Applying subtle variations in tones, shades or tints does not challenge the eyes; rather, monochrome color schemes present visual harmony and simplicity. This is very pleasing, but not necessarily an attention grabber. With that in mind, I use some rules of composition and attempt to compose a scene with a monochromatic palette (either primarily blue or primarily green) that not only leads the viewer into the scene, but also invites them to stick around for awhile.

Below are four examples of monochromatic images shot here in south Florida. Note the similarities across these very different looking images. First, there are many variations of a single color that form patterns throughout the image, leading the eyes through the image. Second, each image has a contrasting subject that serves as a focal point. This simply adds interest and initiates the viewer's attention. Third, the subject is strategically placed in the composition using the rule of thirds. Placing a subject off-center (like one third from the top or from the left) gives the image a dynamic quality and draws the eyes into the remaining image.

Focus point is the mangrove seedling. The horizontal blue monochrome pattern offers a tranquil balance and the darker tones at the top and bottom frame the image. The little grasses add subtle chaos and texture to the scene.

Focus point is the canoe silhouette that is framed beautifully by the symmetry of the clouds and their reflections. Like the photo above, darker tones frame the image at the top and bottom, drawing the viewer's eyes to the middle.

Focus point is the mangrove tree. The monochromatic blues are arranged from top to bottom, which help draw the eyes from the tree to the foreground. The slight movement of the water adds texture to the bottom portion of the image, which adds balance to the tree island on the top portion.

Focus point is the white bird. The monochrome greens of the mangrove trees add so much texture and patterns. Some of those greens appear black and this adds depth to the tree canopy and also creates leading lines to draw the viewer's eyes through the image.

Basically, I attempt to compose an image that can be viewed as such; 1) capture the eye's attention with a subject that stands out, 2) invite the eyes to leave the subject and continue moving through the image, and 3), visually "stepping back" and taking in the entire scene. Did the above images do this for you? Let me know your thoughts and how I can improve them.

To learn more about how I capture scenes like these, please visit my YouTube channel and my "Getting the Shot" blog.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Is Photography Art?

I've been reflecting lately on art and how nature photographers may or may not identify themselves as artists. This took some time, but I believe I can honestly say that when I make a photograph, I am creating art.  If you are a photographer, ask yourself, "Am I an artist?" Read on and let's walk down that road together and answer that timeless question, "Is Photography Art?".

I found a Huffington Post article titled" "10 Powerful Responses to What is Art?". As I read through each response, it is quite evident that art is individually defined. But as I read them, several resonated.

"Art is something you invest YOURSELF in as a means to communicate." Christian Villanueva, Disney Performer; YouTube Artist.

Consider the amount of time and effort you put into taking a shot. And for what reason? Think about how often you return to a location or the hundreds of photos you shot just to capture a specific subject before you finally achieved your vision. Think about all the time and effort that goes into learning techniques or studying other's photographs or paintings so that you can make a photograph. If that isn't art, what is?

"Art is work. Not only is it my job (lucky!), but being an artist requires a lot of work." Frank Albinder, Grammy award winning conductor.

Creating art, no matter what the form, is not easy. No artist would ever say it is. I work at creating an image and I work hard at improving. Motivation, dedication with a touch of obsession is what drives photography as an art form. It isn't about the equipment and owning the latest and greatest camera. It's about the images we create. If anticipation for the next photo shoot makes you lose sleep, you may very well be an artist!

"It's about sharing the way we experience the world, which for many is an extension of personality." Wm. Joseph Neiters

I love this quote because this gets to the answer of why we take photographs in the first place. Your photographs are an extension of your experiences. For me, it is about being in the wilderness. My photography grew organically from my canoe trips into the Everglades; no one handed me a camera. My wilderness experiences are embedded in my photography. Whatever it is that inspires you to take photographs, it all starts from within and your connection to your subject, regardless of how you acquired a camera. No one is telling you that you have to take photographs; you're telling yourself that.

"The fundamental difference between art and beauty is that art is about who has produced it, whereas beauty depends on who's looking." Chiara Leonardi

When it comes down to it, we take a photograph for our own sake, not for someone else's (ideally!). We want to capture that moment because it speaks to us, and then we try to create art out of it. A bonus is when a complete stranger who doesn't know you from Adam looks at your photograph and sees beauty or something that speaks to them. It doesn't matter that it is a photograph or a painting or whatever, they just like it. The fact that someone enjoys a photograph we created from the heart is simply a bonus.

So, is photography art? A simple question with a simple answer; YES.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

2018: Year of Learning

2018 Learning Goal: Shoot even when the lighting is less than ideal and learn to work with it in the field and in post-processing.

A very belated happy new year to all. As is customary after coming out of the haze of the holiday season and looking a new year straight in the eye, I have resolved to do some things. Goals are always a part of my photography, but 2018 is going to be very different in many ways, the least of which is more time will be devoted to photography.

If there is any take-away message from my 25+ years of teaching at a university, it is that continuous learning is the most essential ingredient to teaching. The second most essential ingredient is knowing how to simplify your explanations. I earned a Ph.D in physiology and can talk circles around a student's head about "gobbledygook" that had very little meaning to him or her. But students will be students and therefore, will ask questions because they want to find the meaning behind something. And that's when I realized that while I thought I had a practical understanding of physiology, I was struggling to explain it to students.

2018 Learning Goal: Experiment with landscape compositions using the telephoto lens; and study the masters. 
It occurred to me that in order to provide a simple answer to a simple question, I needed to somehow connect the basics to my convoluted understanding of physiology. In other words, I had to dig through all those confusing concepts and find the basic foundation underneath them. And then rebuild my understanding with a simplified version in order to convey its practicality to others.

2018 Learning Goal: Master the use of neutral density and polarizer filters and understand how they work!
And that is exactly what I wish to do with my photography this year, I want to get back to the basics. Only this time I will play a dual role, as student who asks the questions and the teacher who answers them.

2018 Learning Goal: Practice shooting fast subjects and master the camera's tracking focus.
So I challenge you to do the same. For example, you may have recently started using manual exposure. What do you really know about exposure and your camera's meter? Do you have a clear understanding of how the camera's meter works? Do you know when and why you need to stop up or stop down? Do you understand how the lens's focal length affects exposure? Make believe you are a teacher and that you have to explain exposure to a student. Do you have a deep enough understanding to do that in a meaningful, yet simplified way?

That will be my approach this year. And if I can't give myself a correct and simple explanation, I will hit the books until I get it. Ask questions and learn the answers. Do it because you love it.

2018 Learning Goal: Master the use of selective masking in Photoshop.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Ten Thousand Islands Project - Part 4

Nothing like drinking coffee with a morning view like this one.
I love being in the Ten Thousand Islands and am quite happy even when I don't come home with great images. Good thing, because most of the time, I'll be out there for days and don't "get the shot". Much of this is simply the nature of nature photography; we never have control over our natural environment. I go out there sometimes for up to 9 or 10 days and may get lucky during that time; but mostly I don't. Most of the time I'm in the wrong place at the wrong time, the lighting is not pleasing, the birds are absent, the water levels are too high or too low, the sky is cloudless or too cloudy or the winds are blowing too hard. And for this trip, I knew there would be significant changes from hurricane Irma.

For this fourth and final entry about my recent trip into the islands, I highlight the fact that you often have to try to make the best out of what is given to you when it comes to traveling and nature photography.

My final day in the islands began on Picnic Key and ended 11 miles later on Chokoloskee Island.

Our trip through the Ten Thousand Islands, a total of about 25 miles.
On the beach of Picnic Key, the sun rises behind the canopy of trees, so this is not a beach to view a sunrise. On the other hand, once the sun clears the canopies, there is about 20-30 minutes of sweet light on parts of the beach and the mangrove shoreline of nearby Tiger Key. On these trips, I have to go with the flow and the flow was pushing me off the island before 9 am. Meanwhile, I had to break camp and get everything loaded into the canoe. There was no time to do any serious photography this morning. You take what you can get.

Looking due west, composing an image from the beach can be challenging, but the clouds can help.
I had only about 30 minutes to photograph, so I took advantage of the beautiful light. I worked it as best as possible while hand-holding the camera. Because the backside of the beach was shadowed by trees, I aimed at the western horizon while including water, and worked with the clouds to compose some vertical (above) and horizontal (below) images.

Again, looking west, the trees off to the right are all shadowed as the sun rises behind a canopy of trees behind me. So capturing the shoreline with some foreground interest is not easy under these conditions. 
I walked along the shoreline and looked upon the extensive tree damage and wondered how I might capture the scene. Trees were mostly shadowed or sidelit, and it just did not look right. But then, the light changed. Clouds began to cover the sun; the effect was to even out the light (diffuse vs specular) over the trees so that more detail could be revealed, such as you see below.

Trees looked like they were bulldozed by hurricane Irma. Cloud cover allowed a diffuse light to capture the details of the damage and the new growth.
Soon, I had to put away the camera and get in my canoe for our journey back home. By that time, the sky was mostly cloudless and I spent the next few hours paddling into the relentless sun. I had one expectation for the paddle home and that was to photograph a lone mangrove tree that I discovered a year ago. We would be passing it today on our route. When I first discovered it, I was attracted to its character that I decided I would try to photograph it again, but under better conditions. Unfortunately today I would not have much time to spend with the tree and besides, I expected there would not be much left to it after the hurricane.

That's the way it goes out here. You take what you get and work with that.

I discovered this red mangrove last year and intended to come back to it when I could capture it in the evening or during early morning light.

And this is what is left of that beautiful red mangrove tree.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Ten Thousand Islands Project - Part 3

I liked this piece of driftwood that stood out away from all the downed trees. Most of my compositions taken that evening included it in the foreground.
As often as I photograph in the Ten Thousand Islands, I never know what to expect when I get out there. On this recent trip, my second day was a serendipitous study in black and white on Panther Key (see previous blog). For the third day, I wanted color as I anticipated a sunset from Picnic Key. All I needed was a clear view of the sky, clouds and interesting foreground subjects. Unfortunately (or fortunately), Picnic Key is a complicated mixture of beach, storm debris, and tidal flats. You never know what your going to get on any given day.

Our 6-mile route from Panther Key (top left corner) to Picnic Key.

My rudimentary attempt to show the direction of the setting sun (red) and the rising sun (yellow) from where I stood on Picnic Key.
Clear view. Naturally in the gulf, you can observe sunsets every day. Picnic Key's beach is one of many that offers a clear view. But it comes with a caveat; it happens only a few months out of the year. That's because the setting and rising points of the sun change every day. Notice the big island to the left of Picnic Key in the above photo. That island blocks the view of the sunset from February to October. So if you want a clear view of a sunset from Picnic Key, you have to be there from November through February.

My one horizontal composition that at least shows some of the hurricane destruction. The sun was setting off to the right of the frame as I faced south. 
Clouds. After I arrived on the island, fluffy cumulus types speckled the sky but soon disappeared all together. A blank sky filled my view as I played the waiting game on the beach before sunset. It's those cloudless skies that I dread most. Without clouds at sunset, the sky will be a large blank space providing nothing more than a bright ball on the horizon. As luck would have it, about 2 hours before sunset, the sky became blanketed with stratocirrus clouds. Perfect.

Foreground Interest. I gathered my camera, tripod and filters and walked the beach about an hour before sunset. The beach had changed dramatically from hurricane Irma. Earlier, I had found an interesting driftwood that might serve well in the foreground. I also anticipated that the incoming tide would not be high enough to cover the beach, leaving me with interesting textures to place in the scene.

As I look over my photos from this trip, once again, Picnic Key appears differently than from previous visits, a shapeshifter if you will. And this is why I keep coming back.

As the sun set, the clouds darkened with a purple hue. There's that driftwood piece again.

For comparison, below are three images from the past, to give you a sense of change.

Picnic Key, November 2016. Liking the cloud formations, I captured this low tide scene midday with a polarizing filter on the lens.

November 2013, this was one of my first attempts at getting a long exposure image on Picnic Key. Low tide revealed significant debris from previous storm damage.

One afternoon in February 2009, heavy fog rolled in on Picnic Key. This interesting piece of driftwood has long since disappeared.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Ten Thousand Islands Project - Part 2

The driftwood piece makes an interesting stand-alone foreground object, but without the clouds, there is little to work with. I added a sepia filter to soften the image. This is two images combined into one.

If you haven't yet, please check out Part 1 to get caught up, as I continue my story.

For my second day in the islands, I saw black and white. After capturing a few images in the morning light from our cramped campsite, I got in the canoe and paddled about 2/3 mile to the other end of Panther Key.

Red circle shows where we camped, yellow circle shows where I photographed.
I wasn't feeling inspired. It was after 9 am and the sweet morning light was long gone. If I was going to photograph anything, I would have to rely completely on composition. But I was in no rush, the light was not changing much like it does during early or late hours of the day. In a situation like this, I let go of all expectations. I grab the camera and simply walk around snapping photos. I look at scenes through the viewfinder and experiment with different compositions. After awhile, this is enough to give me some ideas and start preparing to put more effort into getting a shot.

As I continued the casual walkabout, I began to pay closer attention to details. Interesting driftwood lay about in various formations, cumulus clouds were forming in the sky and I began to see possibilities for interesting compositions. And I saw them in black and white. I went back to the boat and gathered up the tripod, filters and remote control.

Black and white (BW) photos are not my forte'. It's a tricky thing because any photo can be converted to BW with a click of a button. Despite this, I have so few BW images. At least in landscape photography, there is a very high standard set by Ansel Adams and then of course Florida's own, Clyde Butcher. Because of this, BW photography is, well... intimidating! Images look best in BW only under certain conditions. There are two elements that seem to really matter, lighting that adds contrasts and surfaces that have textures. I would also add that composition is key. So if you don't have any of that, a BW image really falls flat.

Some water mixed with the tidal flat added more texture to the scene. The top left corner cloud helps balance out the foreground driftwood. This is two images combined to make one.

There I was on the tidal flats of hurricane swept Panther Key and I had all the essential elements to work with; lots of contrast and shadows, interesting driftwood, and textures in the sand, wood and clouds. I would have to let go of that awful thought of being compared to other photographers and simply try to capture what it was I felt that morning. I walked among the dead left by hurricane Irma; and it felt like black and white to me. For the final one below, I offer you the color version just for kicks.

For the next blog, I move on to Picnic Key where I bring color back into the images; lots of color.

I liked the textured ripples in the sand and how they and the driftwood lead you into the scene.

A strong leading line for a vertical composition.

This one was captured on Picnic Key a couple days later. The clouds provided lots of texture to the scene.

I personally like the color version better, but I'm a sucker for blue.