Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A Piece of the Sky

Florida has big sky. When it is painted with clouds and color, it can be breathtaking. Behold an expanse of colorful abstract art as wide as the eyes can see. There are no mountains or trees to disrupt it. Add a distant storm to the scene and it becomes that well known Florida skyscape we all love. For this reason, one may consider a wide angle lens to be the best choice when photographing a Florida skyscape. But I suggest that Florida skies can look more interesting if we zoom in on a piece of the sky.

I wrote a blog a few months ago on my strategy for capturing marsh scenes along the Tamiami Trail. Instead of a wide angle, I used a 70-400 telephoto lens and shot most of my images at focal lengths between 100-150mm. The image at the top was shot at 100mm. Because my camera has a 1.5x cropped sensor, it is really 150mm. More recently, I was on Chokoloskee Bay in my canoe, having got on the water before sunrise. Chokoloskee Bay is a wide expanse of water separated from the sky by only a thin line of mangroves. I typically stand in the middle of the bay where I have a 360 degree view. As usual, there were clouds but before the sun peaked above the horizon, it was uncertain how it would play out. Would there be color or just another lackluster cloud-covered sunrise? I found a location where I could steady my boat with feet touching ground and I waited to see what might happen.

I had a 16-50mm lens attached and decided to handhold it while sitting in the boat. Soon the sun light started to brighten the sky and within seconds, broad strokes of magical colors began to fill the eastern horizon. While handholding the camera, I bumped up the ISO enough to allow a fast enough shutter speed (1/80 to 1/100).

The sky was a confusing mix of dullness and brilliant blazes of reds and yellows, depending on the direction I looked. Rather than go wide and capture a scene of combined dullness and brilliance, I zoomed in on the brilliance. Using 35 to 50mm focal length (53mm to 75mm), I framed the sky in abstract formations of color and shapes. The big sky with its beautiful and bold palette became pieces of abstract paintings as I turned the camera horizontal to vertical and back, playing with all kinds of compositions. After only ten minutes of photographing, I put the camera away as the colors faded.

By all means, go wide when it compels you. But also look more closely at the pieces of sky and the infinite ways they can be framed. Instead of one big shot, you may find several small, but brilliant shots.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

What Attracts You in the First Place

I am a nature and wildlife photographer. This means that I go to the wilderness to photograph. There are many different ways a nature photographer approaches and interacts with her subject; but for me, it is all about the place. It is not a specific scene or type of bird that I look to photograph, rather it is the soul of that place that I attempt to capture. This takes time and lots of visits to that place.

When I go to a place, usually in my canoe, I spend much time examining my surroundings without using the camera. I get attracted to something and approach it from different angles to study the variations of lighting that alter the appearance. I stop and look at something for a very long time and try to figure out what it is about this view that attracts me. I drift along in my canoe and pay attention to how the sun light interacts with the plants and the water. I look for both intimate and wide scenes.

One day, I was paddling east along a water trail as the sun began to rise over the horizon ahead of me. Disturbing the water were hundreds of tiny yellow flowers, blooms of the bladderwort plant that takes root in the water. The flowers stood above the water like tiny little skaters performing on ice as the water was very calm. I was immediately attracted to them and wanted to capture the scene. But how? I paddled around them, looking at front lit and back lit figures. I tried to find a cluster of isolated flowers and create a negative space composition. Finally, I staked out the canoe and settled in to the scene. I gently rocked the boat and added ripples to the water just to see what might happen. Here's what happened.

Behind me, the warm glow of the sun cast upon the mangroves that lined the creek. Their red roots were brilliantly lit and irresistible. With a long lens, I filled the frame with the luscious mangroves and their reflections.

I continued paddling and enjoyed the beautiful morning light on the grasses standing tall in the water. A cluster of them caught my eye as the light bathed them in a warm glow. Several of the grass shoots were bent, creating triangular shapes. The sharp geometry of the organic material appealed to me. I set up the tripod in the water, attached the long lens and composed several images.

As the morning wore on, the mood of the place changed. The sun became harsher; but at last, there were clouds in the sky. What a brilliant day! Thick periphyton covered the water completely and this seemed so amazing to me under the wide sky. How can one place have so many interesting characteristics? Chase the light and you will find them.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Seeing the Ordinary in Your Own Way

The wetland prairies are wide open spaces, but they can be intimately explored.
"Photography is (a means by which we)...learn to see the ordinary." David Bailey

I love that quote. When I first read it recently, it made me reflect on something that has been foremost in my conscious for awhile now. I hope to retire in three years and travel around the U.S. as a full time photographer. Nature photographers enjoy our national parks, evident from so many iconic landscape scenes. We all recognize these scenes (i.e. El Capitan or Delicate Arch) and have viewed hundreds of photographs of each. And we are compelled to go there and "Get the Shot". At last, I will have the freedom to get out there.

The small red mangroves on Biscayne Bay are among my favorite subjects to photograph.
I have to admit, standing on an overlook to photograph Horseshoe Bend or hiking to Delicate Arch while negotiating the crowds are not in my travel plans. I honestly do not have a great desire to capture an iconic scene along side so many others doing the same. The reason being is simple, I am spoiled. 99% of my photography is done in solitude and most of the locations where I photograph are not visited normally by other photographers. I have made images from locations that are as far from iconic as anything can be. Crowds of picture takers are not clambering to get to these places.

The unassuming little blue heron allows me to observe its quiet hunting ritual.
While some may find that to be a limitation, I see it as the opposite. I see it as opportunity to learn your unique creativity. By getting to know a location or subject so well without the distraction of others, I have learned to see the ordinary in my own way. In my opinion, uniqueness is the most important ingredient (above talent and hard work) for creating art. For me, it is the perseverance in going back to the same place and insisting that I have yet to capture it well. This is what nourishes my creativity; I keep trying. It is about creating an image that reflects my personal connection to the subject.

With subtle landscapes, water is essential to my photographs .
So while traveling from one iconic location to the next appeals to me in some ways, it is the unique connection to a new place that I look most forward to. But, in the meantime the Everglades and Biscayne Bay are calling me back, again and again.

Water has so many characteristics and behaviors. How can one not want to photograph it?

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Play to Create

Sea weeds appear through the water in a pond behind my house. The evening sunlight reflected beautifully and the wind created gentle ripples.

If you identify yourself as a fine art photographer, it is because you attempt to create photographs that are unique. Your creativity is your reality and exists with a degree of independence that is constrained only by you. How far you take that creativity is totally up to you.

Sometimes, we feel uninspired and nothing seems to be working; poor lighting, lack of interest, etc. In those situations, we can either walk away or we can challenge ourselves to dig deeper into our creativity. Occasional lack of inspiration or a bad day is inevitable, but bad days can be decreased if we allow ourselves to make the time to simply play with no expectations.

As far as flowers go, this one was not inspiring until I decided to use intentional camera movement, such as with this image.
I like to use the "around the house" scenario to describe my version of play. Think of a time when you are home bound for whatever reason; weather, obligations, etc. This is about as far away from an ideal photo opportunity as anything can be for a nature photographer. But sometimes, home can be an experimental playground for photography. Within the constraints of my all too familiar surroundings, I find that I can stretch my creativity a bit more than usual. This is when I simply play.

Corrugated glass in my living room reflects the outdoor colors in an interesting way. I flipped this vertical image from to horizontal. 
Having always been attracted to the abstract, these home experiments have been a means to create abstract images. In so doing, both camera and creative skills are being worked on. I can take these new skills back out into nature and continue seeing things in a fresh way. It is playfulness that I take out there, the idea of viewing a familiar or mundane thing as something visually appealing.

Play with light, composition, or camera technique. Study abstract photography images from others and get inspired. Take the most boring object in your house and make it something new and interesting with your photograph. Do this when you are feeling constrained or uninspired, and then lose those feelings.

A building reflects on the pond behind my house. I threw small stones in the water to create interesting ripples.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Becoming unfamiliar with the familiar

"The two most engaging powers of a photograph are to make new things familiar and familiar things new." William Thackeray

My first shot of Biscayne Bay with a DSLR camera, from the canoe. Somewhat symbolic, this image reveals an opening into the bay (2007).
I am not a travel photographer. Instead, I spend most of my time in only a few specific locations. Indeed, as the subtitle of this blog states, I specialize in south Florida Everglades and Biscayne Bay.

As I continued exploring Biscayne Bay, I spent more time photographing wading birds. But always, the draw was the mangroves and I looked for those opportunities to capture their reflections (2008).
I began my photographic odyssey in the Everglades and Biscayne Bay and I continue to go back to the same locations as I did over ten years ago when I first took a DSLR camera with me in the canoe. For me as a photographer, I would say that my artistic vision is born out of these places that I am familiar with and have visited countless times. Going back to the same specific location over and over again would appear redundant and boring to many. But I see it differently.

I began exploring mangroves more intimately. At the same time, reflections on the water continued to draw me in (2009).
As I have evolved as a photographer and artist, so has my connection to these familiar places, and in turn, that familiarity has helped me grow as an artist. When you are trying to create an image, a familiar location provides you with a foundation of information from which to draw upon. With this foundation, you are freed up to explore your artistic vision. You can let go of certain necessities that typically take up time and energy; such as navigating around an area, figuring out where to find the optimal lighting, and locating interesting subjects. You know that stuff already, you can now focus more of your attention to the creative process and how you intend to capture a familiar scene with a fresh perspective.

The openness of Biscayne Bay is what stands out the most. Naturally, sunrises take center stage, but were not quite on my radar screen. While I was discovering ways to capture the intimate mangroves, I was also beginning to discover landscape photography techniques and had not yet brought them to the bay (2010).
And with that, it is all about fresh perspective. As we grow artistically, our mind can attend to its creative side more effectively and we can see familiar places and things in new ways. As we learn camera skills and new techniques, we go back to a location with those new skills and capture a scene differently. It's all about being open and allowing your creativity to take over. Rather than go to a familiar location with an expectation or not go back to it at all, we can be open with our approach to imagery and allow ourselves to become unfamiliar with the familiar.

Birds continued to be significant subjects, but I began to spend more time looking for a more fine art approach to photographing them (2011).
While I sometimes wish I was one of those photographers that travels to the most breathtaking locations in the United States and adds one stunning image after another to his or her portfolio, I believe it would have taken me much longer to strengthen my creative side if I was moving from one place to another. I look forward to visiting some of these iconic places, but the time I can reasonably spend in one location will be limited. To put this in perspective, I have been exploring specific locations for ten years and I am still on a quest for that ONE shot. I don't know what is "that ONE shot", but it is what keeps me returning again and again.

I had discovered a new way to capture mangroves using intentional camera movement. This opened my eyes to more possibilities in an attempt to capture mangroves artistically (2012).
And when I do return to a place, sometimes magic happens. I discover new things or old things are seen in a new way. I experiment and do a lot of "Let's see what happens when I do this". It can be much of the same stuff, but with the time and effort to sort through it all, what is left is a little bit of magic that you have discovered in a familiar place. That's what pushes me forward.

With new skills and equipment, I finally brought my landscape techniques to the bay. The ability to stitch multiple images opened up new opportunities (2013).
After years of exploring the bay, I come with more attention to details. Discovering the various qualities of the bay (sky, water, mangroves, seagrasses) meant endless photo possibilities. Attempting to capture them in unique ways is what brings me back (2015).

White ibis rush hour over Biscayne Bay (2016)

Thursday, September 1, 2016

"Yes, It's "Photoshopped. And the problem with that is...?"

The Final Image
I was listening to Youngman Brown's "Your Creative Push" interview with the digital artist, Mike Azevedo recently and something he said made me think of Photoshop's role in fine art photography. Mike shared that he often began a painting in Photoshop and would stop several minutes into it because it just didn't feel right. He might do that four or five times before he felt as if he finally got it and could continue digitally painting his vision. He said the process of "starting over" made him think about what went right and what went wrong. So consequently for the next painting, he could more easily avoid the wrong.
Straight out of the Camera Image 1
Straight out of the Camera Image 2

His description of making several false starts in the process of creating something made me think of a photographer's workflow in Photoshop and the role that Photoshop plays in the creation of a photograph. Unlike Mike Azevedo's paintings, a photograph already exists in a camera. But in no way has it yet been fully developed into what the artist is attempting to create. In this regard, Photoshop (or similar) is essential to the fine art photographer.

Step 1: Chromatic Aberration & Lens Distortion Removed
No one disputes the role of the darkroom in film photography, but yet the use of Photoshop has been so widely perceived as nothing more than a crutch for inexperienced or bad photographers; or worse, a method of willful deception. This perception really comes to light when a photograph is disdainfully described as "Photoshopped". But let's get real about this; currently, there is no camera that can capture a scene as our creative selves see it. For the fine art photographer, the process of creating an image only begins with the camera, it does not end with it.

Step 2: Blending two images, dodging/burning, minor cloning
Once the image is uploaded to the software, the development toward full maturity begins. The non-destructive nature of a RAW image file and Photoshop layers is an amazing thing for a fine art photographer. Unlike a painter that uses hard materials, a photographer's digital photo-editing studio allows an image to live on forever and in various forms at the same time. Mistakes made can be reversed with a touch of a button. Nothing is lost and often, images are duplicated. And nothing is final until the artist says it is.

Step 3: Curves Adjustment
As with Mike Azevedo  description of his work, I too have learned what works and what doesn't work through a great amount of trial and error. The learning never stops and the more skilled I am with Photoshop editing, the more capable I am as an artist. It always starts with a vision, but much work goes into making it happen. While I spend hours and days in the field going back to the same location in attempt to capture its most beautiful characteristics and moods, the work I put into an image at home is what pushes me closer to my artistic vision.

Step 4: Vibrance Adjustment

Step 5: Color Balance Adjustment

Friday, August 19, 2016

Long Lens for Landscapes

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, the just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while” – Steve Jobs

I drive the Tamiami Trail, one of Florida's scenic highway dozens of times a year. It is one of the easiest ways to view some of Florida's most beautiful landscapes. But, these are not eye-popping landscapes; and to say they are subtle is an understatement. Without mountains or colorful flowers to jump right out at you, photographing a Florida landscape can be challenging. But, I am always motivated to try!

First things first; think about what it is that attracts you to a scene in the first place. For me, lighting is 90% of it with these landscapes. With a warm morning or evening light, the textures and tones of the grasses are so beautiful and are complemented by the blue sky. Clouds are always a big draw and can really add to the composition. Additionally, water grabs my attention; particularly when clouds reflect. So those are the basic elements, subtle tones in warm light, big sky with clouds, water and reflections. And if I can throw in something else, like a nice tree, or bird, or colorful clouds, that's even better.

When I first ventured to photograph from the trail, it didn't take long to figure out that the best way to do it was with a long lens. Indeed, all my images were created with at least 70mm focal length and as high as 130mm (with the exception of the bird image above which was shot at 400mm). A long focal length works best with these scenes for several reasons. One is that there is no strong foreground elements or leading lines to work with. You have a very low lying landscape that melts into the very large sky. If you go wide (i.e.,16mm)  you take any object in the frame and make it smaller. Basically, whatever tree or cloud that has character will become insignificant. Unless you are going for minimalism, I find that zooming into the scene gives the grasses and water more character as they fill a greater portion of the frame. The layers of textures and tones become stronger and more obvious. Similarly, the clouds appear more dramatic and three-dimensional, as will their reflections.

I also find that vertical compositions work best. This allows me to isolate something more easily; a tiny grass island, a hardwood hammock or water reflections that can lead the eye into the scene and right up to the sky.

The long lens offers another advantage over a wider angle lens in that you get more depth of field. One day, I stopped along the road to photograph as the lighting and storm clouds were dramatic. I did not have my tripod (actually, it was the ballhead that I had forgotten!), so I handheld the camera with the 70-400mm lens and took this image. I set the aperture at f8 and focused on a spot about where the water ended. At home, I examined the image and found it to be relatively sharp throughout, including the tall palm trees. Not bad for handholding!

But what I prefer is tack sharpness throughout. While the image above is acceptable on one level, it is not my first choice. To get that sharpness throughout, I use an image stacking technique and multiple images. With camera on tripod (attached to the lens collar) and cable release, I set the aperture at f8, ISO at 100 or 200, and then set the shutter speed for correct exposure. I manually focus on the farthest vegetation (usually a tall tree that sticks out). I use magnification on the LCD to adjust the focus precisely. Then I take a shot. Next, I rotate the lens slightly to move the focus in closer and take another shot. I continue this until I have the closest foreground element in focus. For the scene below, I took six shots.

At home, I examine each one and pick only those that are sharpest near the focus point. With f8 aperture, I can get total sharpness with fewer images, like three or four. But I always start with more images, just for good measure. Then I load them as layers into Photoshop, auto-align and blend them. The results are great in that sharpness is revealed from the foreground to the background.

To compose an image, I move around and looks at the clouds and how they interact with the other elements in the frame. I should also say that I had a polarizing filter on the lens when I was shooting these palm hammock trees. This helps to add contrast and remove glare from the water. The sun was behind me and to my left, which is also an important consideration. If it had been directly behind me, the trees and clouds would look flat.

In a way, these scenes are a study in patterns and tones. For the last image below, I liked the horizontal path of the clouds, adding more layers to the scene. I placed the lens where the shadowed grasses would appear in the foreground, adding some depth to the scene. 

To summarize:
  • Gear: tripod, long zoom lens (70-200mm would work great) and cable release
  • Polarizer filter is very useful when shooting a couple hours or more after sunrise
  • Early mornings or late evenings for better light
  • Attach your long lens to the ballhead using the collar. This allows you to rotate the lens for horizontal and vertical shots.
  • If you are shooting along side a road, be mindful of traffic, especially big trucks that will blow by quickly. This will cause your tripod to move, so weight it down or wait until there is no traffic to take your shot.
  • Move around, look for the composition. Consider possible foreground elements.
  • A simple rule to follow if you don't intend to focus stack, is to use an aperture with a wide depth of field (f8 to f16) and focus on something about one third from the bottom frame.
The next time you are driving on a scenic highway, get out and shoot!

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Birds and Light

When photographing birds, there are many things to consider to create an image. For me, a successful image (one that I do not delete!) must meet several criteria. One of those criteria is good light. Because 99% of my bird photography is in the morning, I have to be an early riser. There is no getting around it, the best lighting occurs about 15-30 min following sunrise and lasts only about two hours. Those taken later in the morning are hit or miss.This is why I am in my canoe before sunrise so that I can arrive at the bird location at the right time.

To best illustrate this, I use the great white egret as an example. The first image below was shot at approximately 30 minutes after sunrise, about 7:15 am. Notice the white feathers appear warm and soft. The lighting is very pleasing with the sun relatively low in the sky. The clouds in the background really help make those feathers pop out!

The next image was taken about one hour following sunrise. The feathers appear somewhat warm, but not as much as the previous image. More shadows are evident on the feathers as the sun's angle is much higher.

Here's one taken about 1 1/2 hours after sunrise. As the sun continues to rise, I look for those shots where the bird's wings are in the most upright position to avoid shadowing.

This is also important when attempting to capture birds in flight. With the sun directs light down toward the top of the bird, the underside of the wings are shadowed. Since we are looking up at the wings, we see shadows and therefore, don't see the feather details. It simply is not attractive! Does this mean we have to put the camera away? Not necessarily. Here, I attempt to catch the bird as it banks or makes a turn so the underside of the wings face me. The sun will light up those beautiful feathers as seen in this next shot, taken about 2 hours following sunrise.

In contrast, beyond those first two hours following sunrise, lighting is more harsh, white feathers can easily be blown out and shadows become darker. At the rookery, I often photograph interactions between chicks and adults. Wings flap in all directions. Here's one taken about two hours after sunrise. With wings in the right position, shadowing is reduced and more manageable when I do my post-processing.

What happens after that first two hours? Here are two examples of why I rarely keep a shot taken late in the morning. Both were taken near 10 am, three hours following sunrise. Notice the sharp contrast on the feathers, from blown out whites to dark shadows. Feather detail is easily lost. In this lighting situation, wing and face position are critical, which is why these shots are hit or miss.

When I photograph birds, I want to create an image that illustrates their most beautiful feature, the feathers. Lighting is key to achieving this goal.