Posted by: kerryl29 | June 18, 2018

Cost of the Endeavor

Recently, I saw a post on a photographic forum I frequent from an individual who was selling some old–12 to 14 years since purchase–gear.  All of it was described as being in perfect working order, most of it in excellent to pristine condition.  While there were a couple of camera bodies in the haul, most of it was in the form of lenses.  While the purpose of the post was to gather information about recommended venues for selling used equipment, I took note of a side issue:  the cost of the gear and the likely return.  The best guess was that the equipment that was being put up for sale originally sold for roughly $20,000 (US).  Making allowances for compounded inflation, that would amount to roughly $26,000 (US) in 2018.  The seller hoped to receive $2500 for everything when it was all said and done, meaning 10 cents on the dollar would be an acceptable, if not good, return.

Secret Beach at Sunrise, Samuel H. Boardman State Park, Oregon

Most durable goods sell for a pittance of their original price on the used market and I don’t know that photographic equipment is all that different, at this point, in terms of resale valuation than the average widget.  But I do know that the price of used photographic gear has declined substantially over the last couple of decades (for a variety of reasons).  Put another way, photography equipment used to hold its value significantly better than it does today.  There was a time when the cost of purchasing a new item could be more easily justified, knowing that a healthy percentage of the price could be retrieved (assuming the item was kept in good condition) by selling it used at a later date.  (Some people I know essentially treated new purchases as glorified rentals…the difference in the purchase and resale price was the effective cost of the rental, deferred over time.)  That philosophy is effectively out the window today.

Jobs Pond, Orleans County, Vermont

This all serves as a stark reminder of just how expensive a hobby photography can be, particularly when the implied (and inferred) disposability of current gear is factored into the equation.  I know of other hobbies that carry a steep “equipment price” for enthusiasts but I’m not aware of anything with the implied ongoing equipment expense for someone “serious” about photography.  This is particularly true in the digital age when the assumption is that people who are serious about the endeavor will upgrade camera bodies, if not necessarily every generation, at least every other generation.  For most camera lines marketed to enthusiasts that new body can be expected to cost north of $1000 (US), often far north.  (The current version of the Nikon D8xx line–my camera body belongs to this model line, though is now two generations old–sells for more than $3000 (US).)  For other hobbies with a significant cost in terms of gear , the expectation is that equipment will be used until it wears out.  With photography, that decidedly is not the expectation.  The assumption is that equipment will be replaced when something “better” comes along and in most cases that’s every couple of years or so.

Sunrise, Coral Cove Park, Palm Beach County, Florida

The good news is, you don’t have to buy in to the marketing hype, as I have noted several times in the past on this blog.  You don’t necessarily need a top end camera and lens line and you almost certainly don’t need to purchase the latest iteration of whatever camera model/make you’ve ultimately bought.

Cades Cove Morning, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Think of your photo equipment as your tool set; your cameras, lenses and accessories are the items you use to carry out your vision.  Period.  There may be compelling, applicable reasons to go with expensive gear, in at least some instances.  And there may not.  That upgrade that’s being touted as so wonderful?  What practical, actionable reason is there to spend several thousand dollars obtaining it?  How, exactly, is it going to impact your photography?  What problem that you have with your current camera (or other piece of gear) is this new product going to solve?  These are the kinds of questions that, answered honestly, will help to ensure that your (likely considerable) investment in photo equipment will actually bare fruit.

Virgin River Intimate black & white, Riverside Walk, Zion National Park, Utah

It was, after much tortured questioning and answering, that I broke down and purchased a new lens recently–my first such purchase in roughly four years:  the Sigma 24-35/2.  I will use this example to flesh out the principles elucidated in this post, next time.

Sunrise Silhouette, Hiawatha National Forest, Michigan

Posted by: kerryl29 | June 11, 2018

Focus Stacking: A Primer

I’ve made countless offhand references to focus stacking on this blog without ever actually describing what it is, let alone outlining the technique behind it.  I did describe what was involved in a post I published five years ago during my guest blogging sting at 1001 Scribbles and I’ve adapted that piece here as part of what will probably be a short series on the subject.

*                     *                     *

The Problem

Depth of Field…it can be the bane of the photographer.  It seems as though we’re constantly dealing with more of it than we want or not enough of it.  As a landscape photographer, I much more frequently have to deal with the latter than the former.

For our purposes, depth of field can be defined as representing the part of a scene that is rendered acceptably sharp in a single exposure.  In that sense, it’s inherently subjective; after all, what you may regard as “acceptably sharp” I may not.  So, while establishing a consensus about sharpness is possible most of the time, in the end depth of field is something that we eyeball.

When it comes to landscapes, I frequently find myself unable to obtain sufficient depth of field without stopping the lens down (i.e. reduce the size of the aperture—increase the f-stop number) to levels best avoided.  (Very small apertures can introduce image softening as a result of diffraction; exactly where diffraction becomes perceptible is dependent upon a variety of variables.  For an in-depth discussion of diffraction, go here.)  Sometimes it’s impossible to obtain the desired depth of field regardless of the aperture used.

All things being equal, shorter focal lengths and narrower apertures produce greater depth of field, but sometimes the desired shot requires more depth of field than you can achieve in a single frame.  This is where the focus stacking technique comes into play.

Redwood Sorrel and Ferns Black & White, Coastal Trail, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, California

Three Frames

Focus Stacking:  Personal History

I first started playing around with focus stacking 12 or 13 years ago, using a program called Helicon Focus.  I originally became interested in focus stacking as a way to solve depth of field problems inherent in closeup work.  (The focus stacking technique was pioneered for this purpose.)  But, not long after procuring the software, I started to wonder why I couldn’t adapt the approach to assist me with solving depth of field conundrums that came up constantly in my landscape photography experiences.

When photographing landscapes, I routinely found that I didn’t have enough depth of field (DOF) to realize my vision; I was usually facing the prospect of shooting with wider focal lengths than I wanted to use, simply to acquire enough sharpness.  As a result I found myself facing background clutter, optical distortion, the inclusion of unwanted elements or all of these things.  It was quite dissatisfying.

During a trip to White Sands National Monument in New Mexico many years ago I found myself facing the usual DOF problems when I decided to try a multi-frame technique to achieve the shot I had visualized–an abstract of dunes layers.  The narrowness of the field of view required a telephoto focal length–something on the order of 200 mm, as I recall–but it was entirely impossible to obtain the necessary DOF in a single frame, regardless of how far I stopped the lens down.  Via a bit of trial and error I determined that I could get everything sharp, from front to back in the frame, with five focus-bracketed exposures at f/8, so that’s what I did.  I didn’t have the opportunity to see if the experiment worked until I returned home (more than a week later) and could bring the group of frames into Helicon Focus but when I did, and carefully examined the result, I was thrilled to discover that the processed single image was sharp as a tack.  A subsequent 12 x 18 inch print served as further confirmation.  (This first focus stacked image is below.)

Dunes Geometry, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

Five Frames

When I saw the final result the gears in my head started to turn.  This approach could open up a world of previously unachievable compositional possibilities.  I’ve been working with this basic mindset–and ever-expanding the use of the focus stacking approach–as I’ve pushed the limits of the software (and as the software itself has objectively improved) in the years since.  I routinely use the technique today.  In my most recent previous blog post–covering the day trip to Cataract Falls–roughly 3/4 of the included images were produced using a focus stacking approach.  Knowing that this approach to DOF problems is in my toolbox has completely changed my thinking in the field.  Images that were once out of the question are now at least open to consideration.

Palmetto Closeup Black & White, Riverbend Park, Palm Beach County, Florida

Five Frames

What Is Focus Stacking?

In general terms, focus stacking refers to the technique of: a) taking two or more shots of the same scene; b) altering the focus point of each shot thereby altering the plane of critical focus to different points of the frame; and c) combining these images in post processing, either manually or via an automated, software-driven process.  Regardless of the specific technique, the key to success is meeting the following criteria:

1) Keep the camera in a fixed position (i.e. use a tripod).

2) Adjust focus in a manner that covers the entire range of the scene that you want to be rendered sharp.  In other words, every bit of the scene that is intended to be sharp must be properly focused in at least one frame.  I generally work from front to back (i.e. beginning with the point of critical sharpness closest to the camera and ending with the point of critical sharpness farthest away from the camera) but there’s no inherent reason why you couldn’t do it the other way around.

3) Be sure that each frame overlaps focus with each adjoining frame.  The furthest point in Frame A that is sharp must at least slightly overlap with the nearest point in Frame B that is sharp.

4) Exposure settings (aperture, shutter speed, ISO and, if not shooting RAW, white balance) should be identical for each frame in the stack.  If this isn’t the case, the final stacked frame will likely have issues with uneven tones (though automated stacking programs typically include exposure blending techniques to account for modest differences between frames).  The only thing that should change from frame to frame is the point of focus.

5) Typically, it’s critical that the subject matter itself not move during the process of producing the exposures, though there are some exceptions (patterned moving water, such as a waterfall or stream is one—waves are not), which I’ll discuss in greater detail below.  Over time, as different algorithms have been added to Helicon Focus, altering the manner by which images are stacked, I’ve found that there can, at times, be some wiggle room to the issue of minor movement–with foliage or flowers, for example–from frame to frame.  (More on this later.)

Manual Focus Stacking

I perform manual focus stacking in Photoshop, but any program with layers and masks is suitable.  I have, on rare occasions, done manual stacking work with three frames, but I typically use this approach with only two shots.  (And the truth is, as Helicon Focus (and my own in-field technique) has improved, I do less and less manual focus stacking to the point where, now, I only implement it as a possible end-run when I encounter issues that Helicon can’t handle.)

For landscape shots, the key to using this approach is to have a scene where the upper and lower parts of a frame are at distinct, discrete distances from the camera.  For example, the image below is a two-frame manual stack.  Note how the elements—trees, rocks, etc.—in the upper half of the frame are significantly more distant from the shooting position than those in the lower part of the frame.

Middle Prong of the Pigeon River, Greenbrier, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Two Frames

This image was photographed at f/7.1, and at this aperture, I couldn’t get the entire scene sharp in a single frame.  (The camera I was using becomes diffraction limited at apertures smaller than f/7.1.)  So, I found a focal point that made the foreground and mid-ground sharp (the background was soft) and clicked the shutter.  I then refocused so that the mid-ground and background were sharp, and clicked the shutter again.  I converted both RAW images with identical settings, brought the frames into Photoshoop, and stacked the two shots on top of one another (with the mid-ground/background sharp image on the top), and added a layer mask.  I found the spot—very near the middle of the frame vertically—where both images were sharp and, and painted black over the lower half of the mask to reveal the lower half of the image on the bottom of the stack—the one with the sharp foreground and mid-ground.  And it was that simple—I now had a single sharp frame, from front to back.

Below is another image that I did a two-frame stack of.  In this case, it was very easy to visualize how to pull it off; the only sharp areas were the extreme foreground (the rocks) and the far background (the trees).  Everything in between was naturally soft (the blurred water).  After establishing the exposure criteria I simply focused on the rocks and clicked the shutter, then focused on the trees and clicked the shutter.  The process of assembling the image was essentially the same as with the creek shot above, with the mask line established somewhere in the water.  It didn’t really matter where.

Anderson Falls Nature Preserve, Bartholomew County, Indiana

Two Frames

Note that with both of these images, subject movement between shots wasn’t an issue.  The water movement itself was so tightly patterned and naturally blurred that it’s impossible to detect the masking line between frames.  But beyond that, any foliage movement between frames wouldn’t be detectable since all of the foliage lies in either Frame A or Frame B; there’s no need to line things up since these frames are distinct elements of the final product.  This is not the case with the automated focus stacking approach discussed below.

One reason why I use manual focus stacking so rarely these days is that there can be element alignment problems, even without subject movement from frame to frame.  Changing the plane of focus will literally change the magnification of the elements in the scene, thereby producing offset “ghosting” effects that are particularly evident with distinct lines and shapes.  When it comes to things like moving water in the creek and waterfall of the above images, this effect is undetectable.  But with most other elements, it’s plainly obvious and creates all kind of issues.  These problems can, usually, be cleaned up in post-processing, but it often involves a lot of painstaking work.

Trillium Ravine Preserve, Berrien County, Michigan

Four Frames

The image above is an example of the kind of scene that would be virtually impossible to render acceptably using a simple manual mask/blend approach as the “seam line” between each blended frame would cause alignment issues with every distinct shape that fell along the areas of overlapping areas of focus.  This kind of scene is littered with countless distinct lines and shapes.  Software designed specifically for the purpose of stacking focus-bracketed images adjusts for this magnification problem.

Software-Based Stacking

A more commonly applied approach—both for close-up photography, where depth of field is often extremely limited (sometimes measured in millimeters) and for landscapes and still life shots—is a more automated, software-based stacking process.  There are a number of different packages that you can use, including Helicon Focus and Zerene Stacker.  (As noted throughout this piece, I use Helicon Focus myself, but I’ve heard very good things about Zerene.  Photoshop now includes a focus stacking feature, but I’ve never used it.  The addition of this capability to PS was years away when I started playing around with the technique.)   I almost always use this approach when the number of shots needed to create the final image is greater than two.  And, in fact, I now typically use this approach even with a mere two-image stack.

Fallen Leaves, Eagle Creek Park, Indiana

Eight Frames

In this instance, within the software package of your choice, you select the frames that you want to be part of the stack and then let the software do its thing. You typically do have some options for setting parameters—I advise messing around with the various options (which may include specific processing algorithms, radius settings and thresholds) to see how they impact the final result. Over the years that I’ve been using Helicon Focus I have changed the default settings to obtain what I consider to be better results.)

Crop Rows, Hancock County, Indiana

Ten Frames

I have, at times, combined more than 30 images in a single stack, with extremely magnified close-up images. A more common number, particularly with landscape images, is five to eight though, as noted earlier, I’ve used as few as two images.

7-Frame Close-Up Stack

Seven Frames

Note that with this approach, it’s absolutely critical that the subjects don’t move. Even slight image movement will often result in “ghosting”—a kind of multiple outline artifacting that will show up around subject edges. Over the years, stacking software has gotten better and better at eliminating this ghosting (which, to a degree, inevitably results because changing focus points in the field literally changes the size of the subject as recorded by the camera’s sensor), but movement ghosting of any significance is very hard to eliminate. This problem can often be cleaned up manually in postprocessing, but it can be a tedious exercise indeed if it exists in any quantity.

Pink Canyon, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Nine Frames

As I mentioned above, I’ve found that one of the specific blending options available in Helicon Focus (there are three) can, with some scenes, can render a certain amount of subject movement between frames moot.  Each frame needs to freeze movement independently, but modest element movement between frames can be overcome.  The less plane of focus “intersection” there is throughout the frame, the more likely this approach is to work.  (In the interest of relative brevity I won’t go into the details here but if there’s enough interest I’ll put together a future post on this subject.)

Autumn Overlook, Dark Canyon Loop Trail, Kebler Pass, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado

Two Frames

The Payoff

The best part of focus stacking is realizing that it exists, because realizing that this approach is available can open up an entirely new way of thinking about imagery.  Images that are optically impossible to render in a single frame can be realized using this technique and recognizing the expansion in opportunities can bring a breath of fresh air to your photographic creativity.  Additionally, it’s possible to combine focus stacking with other creativity-inspiring techniques, such as HDR.

Cataract Covered Bridge, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

Two Image Stack/5-Exposure HDR Combination

Posted by: kerryl29 | June 4, 2018

Cataract Falls

A couple of weeks ago I took a half-day trip to Cataract Falls.  Located on a stretch of Mill Creek in west-central Indiana, less than 10 miles south of the small town of Cloverdale, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area is a bit more than an hour’s drive from my Indianapolis-area base.  When a day with a (mostly) favorable forecast came up, I decided to make the ride out there.  I got a mix of clouds and sun, but enough clouds that the trip proved worthwhile.

Upper Falls Area, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

I knew it had been awhile since I’d been to Cataract Falls, but it wasn’t until I checked my files on the evening of the shoot that I determined just how long:  six years.  I had photographed at the falls for the first time in the spring of 2008 and then again in the spring of 2010 and the fall of 2012.  One difference that I noticed immediately when I arrived at the falls–the water level was the lowest I’ve ever seen at this location.

Mill Creek–at least at this point of Mill Creek–has the feel of a full-blown river.  There are two main areas of falls–the Upper Falls and, about a mile downstream, the Lower Falls.  The Upper Falls area–which consists of a number of smaller cataracts and cascades and then a 30-foot drop–has the larger number of photographic possibilities.  The Lower Falls area provides the better opportunity to take in Mill Creek itself.

Upper Falls Area Black & White, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

There are some “up top” viewing spots revealing the Upper Falls area, but I invariably make the relatively easy climb down into the gorge.  With my knee-high rubber boots I can wade into the creek itself and, with the water level down on this visit, I was able to access a few spots that would ordinarily be unmanageable.

When I reached the Upper Falls area I discovered that a huge tree had dropped into the creek at some point and was partially lodged over one of the ledges, several hundred feet above the main Upper Falls plunge.  I’m not sure how long this tree has been in place; it certainly wasn’t there six years ago and there was enough bark still left that I doubt it has survived more than one winter, if that.  A good-sized flooding of the creek will surely wash the log downstream, but in the meantime I tried to utilize its presence as a compositional asset, since there was really no avoiding it.

Upper Falls Area, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

Upper Falls Area Black & White, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

Upper Falls Area, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

There’s a covered bridge at the Cataract Falls site.  The bridge was taken out of service and replaced with a modern concrete span for traffic 30 years ago, but it was fully restored about 15 years ago.  I’ve looked this bridge over every time I’ve been to Cataract Falls and 10 years ago I photographed the interior, but despite walking around it extensively, I’d never photographed the structure from the outside.  Until this visit.  Due in part to the lower water flow, I was able to reach the area just above the waterfall depicted in the above images.  If you look at the first photograph in this post, you can see my access point.  I was able to walk around the rocky slab you see near the upper right-hand corner of the image.  I was standing in water just below ankle level; it was moving swiftly, but there wasn’t enough of it to create much force.  From that point, I had a fine view of the bridge’s span, as you can see below.  (The roots of the downed tree are visible on the left-hand side of the frame.)

Cataract Covered Bridge, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

How much lower was the water level?  Here’s an image that I made during my most recent previous visit, in October of 2012.  Note the rock with the leaves sprinkled on it, near the center of the frame.

Upper Falls Area, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

Now compare what you see above with the image below.  That’s the same rock!

Upper Falls Area, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

I played around in the Upper Falls area for a bit more than an hour, and checked out a number of spots but kept returning to the fallen tree, due to its value as a quasi-abstract element.

Upper Falls Area Black & White, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

A paved road leads to a parking area near the Lower Falls.  By the time I got there, there were some rumblings of thunder, though no thunderstorm ever materialized.  The drop at the Lower Falls is about 30 feet overall, with the main waterfall–Lower Falls proper–in the area of 15-20 feet.  Prior to this visit I had never photographed the Lower Falls itself.  Much like the covered bridge, I’ve looked at it each time, but have never found a composition I liked.  This time, for some reason, it was different.  I did my usual “oh yeah, have to look at the Lower Falls” exercise but this time I found something to like about the rocky foreground of the promontory on the east side of the creek.

Lower Falls, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

Just as I was ready to produce this three-image focus bracketed sequence, the sun popped out and a quick glance at the sky indicated that it was going to be at least five minutes before I had the benefit of another cloud serving as a giant diffuser.  Since there was no one else around, I left the camera in place on the tripod and ran up along the creek bed to check out the rapids above the Lower Falls.  I’ve had a lot of success in that area and I wanted to see how the lower water levels would impact shooting opportunities.  When the cloud bank began to cover the sun again I returned and executed the sequence.  Then I picked everything up and moved back to the rapids.

Mill Creek Rapids, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

This is probably my favorite single spot in the Cataract Falls area.  I always check it out and I always end up making at least an image or two (as you’ll see if you check out my website’s Cataract Falls gallery).  There are spots where it’s possible to stand in–or very near–shallow water and have the feel of being right in the middle of the action.

Mill Creek Rapids, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

In all, I was on site for about three hours.  I expect it will be less than six years before my next visit.  This day trip had an added bonus; it was my first in-field experience with the Sigma 24-35 f/2 lens that I purchased late last year.  In fact, all of the images accompanying this post were made with that lens.  I’ll have more to say about the lens itself in a future post.

Posted by: kerryl29 | May 29, 2018

Market Value

I’m going to apologize in advance for what is little more than a rant.  I’ll get back to a more direct presentation of images next time.

Coneflower Morning, Nachusa Grasslands Preserve, Illinois

A few weeks ago I received an e-mail from someone expressing an interest in licensing one or more of my images.  I get requests of this sort from time to time; it’s not an everyday phenomenon, but it happens frequently enough that it’s not a major surprise when it happens.  As a result, my work has been published in magazines, books, brochures and pamphlets, as well as on electronic media.

The requests for usage have emanated from both for-profit and non-profit entities.  When I’m contacted by a non-profit, I’m usually being asked to make what amounts to an “in kind donation.”  That is, the non-profit is asking me to let them use my image without payment.  If I’m sympathetic to the goals of the non-profit and as long as the agreement is of a one-time use/non-exclusive nature–i.e. the requester is licensed to use the image once, only for a single, express purpose and I retain all rights to that image going forward–I’m agreeable.  For example, I have allowed the Nature Conservancy, an organization whose work I strongly support (and, not incidentally, I’ve been a member of for many years), and a number of other smaller, regional environmental and conservation organizations with missions I believe in, to use my images without payment.  When I’m contacted by someone regarding a for-profit project, some kind of remuneration is de rigueur.  Sometimes I’m told that the offer is X–take it or leave it.  Sometimes there’s a negotiation.  Ostensibly I have a fee-schedule, but it’s rarely more than a starting point to a discussion regarding compensation.  I’ve always expressed a willingness to work with someone requesting a license as I recognize that limited funds often back comparatively arcane projects, even those that are technically for-profit.  I have, on more than one occasion, allowed others to use my images (again, one-time, non-exclusive) for a pittance.

Spring Has Sprung, Big Walnut Preserve, Indiana

In this particular instance, the request came from someone (the “senior editor”) who is part of a group based at a large, Midwestern public university, that is putting together a book that is to be published this coming fall.  The publisher is a small press located in the western United States; the subject matter is esoteric.  The original request asked for unspecified use of an unspecified number of hi-res versions of my images.  I was told that I would have to sign a publisher’s agreement.  As compensation I was offered–get ready–a publication credit, nothing more, and was told that “if I was agreeable” I would be sent “screenshots of the requested photo or photos” in question.

I found very little to like about this request and my first instinct–in retrospect, one I probably should have followed–was simply to ignore it.  For one thing, this smelled for all the world like a for-profit (if small-time) process and I was being asked (in not particularly polite terms, I might add) to make what, in a practical sense, was a donation.  There was also the not irrelevant lack of specificity: what images were they interested in using?  How many images?  Why was any definitive description being so coyly avoided?  And why did I have to express my agreement before being told of these rather key pieces of information?  And what kind of an agreement was being proposed?  Couldn’t I see the “publisher’s agreement” before acceding to something?

Potholes, Fall Creek Gorge Preserve, Indiana

But I didn’t ignore the request.  Instead, I sent the following one-sentence reply:

“Before I respond to your request, if I may ask, is this a for-profit publication?”

What I received in reply was the following:

“It is a for-profit publishing company. We are, however, doing this book on a shoestring budget. We can pay around $25 to $35 per photo, if you require a fee.”

Oh, so there is possible remuneration!  Absolutely nothing of the sort was even hinted at in the original note.  I guess the hope was that I’d be so thrilled at the original “generous offer” that I’d simply hand over my images.  Given the “oversight”–I’m being extremely generous here because I don’t believe for one second that this was anything but intentional–regarding compensation, I really should have told them, at this point, to kick rocks, but instead I replied to this note by telling this person that to consider the offer I’d need to know exactly what images they were interested in using and I’d have to see a copy of this publisher’s agreement (because if this wasn’t a non-exclusive one-time limited use arrangement, there would be no agreement of any kind, regardless of compensation).

Sweedler Preserve, Tompkins County, New York

That note was sent nearly three weeks ago; I’m sure everyone reading this will be stunned to learn that I’m still waiting for a reply.  I’m sure that everyone reading this will not be stunned to learn that I sent that note expecting to never receive a reply.

For the record, I don’t believe that the original request was part of a scam.  I believe that the project, as briefly laid out in the first e-mail I received, is essentially as described.  The request was terse, and made with all the warmth of a tarantula, but I don’t think it was technically dishonest in nature.

No.  This was a classic example of something I have seen–directly and indirectly and with increasing frequency–infecting the image-making world:  people who not only want but expect to receive something for nothing as a means to further their own pursuit of profit, even if it’s on a small scale.  What’s particularly obnoxious–at least to me–about this sort of thing is that the people who do this would never return the favor in kind.  I mean, do you think that if I (or anyone else) contacted this editor out of the blue, told her I was working on a book and asked her to edit it in exchange for a written acknowledgment, she’d agree to it?  Me either.  It would be regarded as an outrageous request.  And rightfully so.  Consider, in that light, the felicity of what was being asked of me.

Spring Forest Floor, Forty Acre Rock Heritage Preserve, South Carolina

One of the downsides of the digital age is that the ubiquity of images–and the seemingly infinite means of sharing them–has led to an overarching devaluation of photography, as an enterprise if nothing else.  In fact, intellectual property broadly seems to have fallen to second class status.  Fighting the inherent value of something set by the (theoretically) free market may seem quixotic, but I’m unwilling to capitulate to a formula that implies that I should feel lucky to receive a photo credit in furtherance of someone else’s profit-based enterprise.  That’s not negotiable as far as I’m concerned…and never will be.

Prairie Dawn, Nachusa Grasslands Preserve, Illinois

All of the images accompanying this post were made in nature preserves protected by the Nature Conservancy and like-minded local and regional organizations.

Posted by: kerryl29 | May 21, 2018

Trillium Ravine

Last year, my friend Danny Burk told me about his discovery of an interesting location for spring wildflowers–most particularly, large-leafed white trillium.  If this sounds familiar, you’re not experiencing deja vu.  It was Danny who first told me about the remarkable trillium bloom at Bendix Woods County Park, near South Bend, Indiana, in 2016.  (I related the experience of photographing at Bendix Woods in a spring clearinghouse blog post that year.  We also photographed at Bendix the following spring.)  Danny got a first look at Trillium Ravine Preserve–not far from the town of Niles, in southwest Michigan, after the peak bloom last year but made a point to highlight it as a place to photograph in 2018.

Trillium Ravine–which is only about 20 miles from Bendix Woods, coincidentally–though seemingly quite similar to Bendix in many ways, harbors a number of significant differences as well.  Trillium Ravine is a smaller property than Bendix and the trillium–while numerous–aren’t quite as plentiful as they are Bendix Woods.  This may seem like a negative–and in some respects, it is–but also has some compositional advantages.  In my estimation, Bendix works better for comparatively wider photographs while Trillium Ravine can be a better choice for intimates, as it’s easier to isolate individual flowers and smaller clusters of blooms.  Trillium Ravine, as its name may indicate, also has some interesting topographical features that are essentially absent from Bendix Woods that can also provide some unique image-making opportunities.

Trillium Ravine Preserve, Berrien County, Michigan

The key, as always, to a good photo opportunity in a place like Trillium Ravine is combining peak bloom (which was the better part of two weeks later this year than in 2016 and 2017 due to winter conditions that lingered well into April in the Upper Midwest in 2018) and favorable weather conditions (overcast and light wind).  Threading this needle is always a bit of a hopeful exercise and we ultimately settled on May 6 as the best option; Danny was able to scout the location the day before (which was a full-on sunny day) and confirmed that the blooms were in excellent shape.

Trillium Ravine Preserve, Berrien County, Michigan

I made the roughly two-hour drive from my Chicago area base to the preserve (which is rather hidden, partway down a dead-end secondary road) on the morning of May 6, arriving about a half an hour before I was scheduled to meet Danny.  The preserve–protected by the Michigan Nature Association–contains a single loop trail of approximately a half-mile in length.  As the sun was out when I arrived, I scouted the trail twice–hiking it in both clockwise and counter-clockwise directions–and saw plenty of possibilities.  I wrapped up my second hike moments before Danny arrived and, fortunately for us, the clouds began to roll in.  We ended up with about two hours of cloudy, almost entirely windless conditions.  Early in the afternoon the clouds began to break up and we paused what we were doing, hopeful that we’d get more clouds (which had been the original forecast), but despite hanging around until late afternoon, the skies remained completely clear and a revised forecast indicated that this wouldn’t change with the approach of evening.  Still, we’d been given two hours of virtually ideal conditions; some years that never happens.

Trillium Ravine Preserve, Berrien County, Michigan

It took me a bit of time during my scouting hikes before I adapted to the relative lack of flowers at Trillium Ravine.  “Relative” really is the key word in the previous sentence because, as you can see, there are a lot of blooms at Trillium Ravine.  But there are palpably fewer at the preserve than at Bendix Woods.  I thought to myself, as I was hiking the trail at the Ravine, how gobsmacked I would have been by this location if I hadn’t seen peak bloom at Bendix Woods first; other than Bendix, this is easily the largest number of trillium I’ve seen clustered in a single location anywhere–including any spot in Great Smoky Mountains National Park during the height of the spring bloom.  While the Smokies are a riot of wildflowers in the second half of April, and while there are some impressive stands of trillium in a variety of locations, there’s nothing like the field of white trillium at Trillium Ravine (to say nothing of Bendix Woods).  I was reminded again, of how easily one can be jaded by seeing something akin to perfection in a certain spot and the tendency to downgrade somewhere else because it–superficially at least–pales in comparison.  (This was a theme that popped up when I was in Colorado last fall.)

Trillium Ravine Preserve, Berrien County, Michigan

It didn’t take me long to emphatically put that idea out of my head and focus on the subject matter at hand, which was eminently photogenic.

Trillium Ravine Preserve, Berrien County, Michigan

Trillium Ravine Preserve, Berrien County, Michigan

White Trillium Intimate, Trillium Ravine Preserve, Berrien County, Michigan

Trillium Ravine Preserve, Berrien County, Michigan

Trillium Ravine Preserve, Berrien County, Michigan

Though we never got any more clouds, late in the afternoon we were able to work some tight shots that were in open shade and/or with the benefit of a series of diffusers.

White Trillium Duo, Trillium Ravine Preserve, Berrien County, Michigan

While the white trillium was the star of the show, there were a number of other wildflower species in evidence, and I used my macro lens to work with them.

Blue Phlox Close-Up, Trillium Ravine Preserve, Berrien County, Michigan

Prairie Trillium, Trillium Ravine Preserve, Berrien County, Michigan

Given the proximity of Bendix Woods and Trillium Reserve, the ideal scenario would be to have an entire day during peak bloom that was cloudy with little or no wind, and spend half the daylight hours at the Ravine and the other half at Bendix.  Maybe next year…

Posted by: kerryl29 | May 14, 2018

Photographing Waterfalls (Part III)

In the first two parts of this series on waterfall photography, I mentioned some technical considerations (Part I) and general matters of presentation (Part II).  In this final segment, I’m going to focus my attention on narrower considerations of aesthetics.

A Compositional Element or The Compositional Element?

A fundamental question to ask yourself when preparing to photograph a waterfall is to decide whether you want the waterfall to represent a single element in a broader scene or whether the waterfall is to be the primary (or, in some cases, sole) element of the image.  On some occasions this is a fairly easy decision to make.  Much of the time I spent in Yosemite Valley (and Yosemite National Park more broadly) a year ago I found myself photographing grand scenics which, in numerous instances, happened to include one of the park’s many waterfalls.

Horsetail Falls, El Capitan Meadow, Yosemite National Park, California

Yosemite Valley at Sunrise from Tunnel View, Yosemite National Park, California

Upper Yosemite Falls from Sentinel Meadow, Yosemite National Park, California

Vernal Fall and the Merced River from the Mist Trail, Yosemite National Park, California

But on other occasions, in the same location, I made the decision to narrow my visual focus and utilize the waterfall as the primary element in the scene:

Bridalveil Falls, Yosemite National Park, California

Foresta Falls Black & White, Yosemite National Park, California

Bridalveil Falls Rainbow, Yosemite National Park, California

Cascade Falls, Yosemite National Park, California

Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park, California

And, on more than one occasion, my attention was captured by a portion of a waterfall:

Foresta Falls Black & White, Yosemite National Park, California

Tenaya Creek Intimate Black & White, Yosemite National Park, California

Nevada Fall Intimate, Mist Trail, Yosemite National Park, California

Vernal Fall, Mist Trail, Yosemite National Park, California

While the compositional choices are wider at Yosemite than is often the case when photographing waterfalls, the general principle about making choices with waterfalls and their relative prominence in your compositions is widely applicable.  Consider the image sets below.  Each pairing is of the same waterfall, but the “A” and “B” images of each depict the waterfall in question in dramatically different ways.  First, Lower Falls at Stony Brook State Park:

Lower Falls, Stony Brook State Park, New York

Lower Falls Black & White, Stony Brook State Park, New York

Second, South Falls at Silver Fall State Park:

South Falls & Trail Bridge, Silver Falls State Park, Oregon

South Falls Black & White, Silver Falls State Park, Oregon

Third is the waterfall at LaSalle Canyon at Starved Rock State Park:

LaSalle Canyon, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

Behind the Falls, LaSalle Canyon, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

Several things should be apparent:

  1.  How you choose to render the waterfall is a huge factor in the process of determining the impact of the photograph.
  2.   There’s really no objective “right” answer to the question of how best to render the waterfall.
  3.   It would be a mistake not to investigate many different options regarding your perspective because there’s a very good chance that you’ll find multiple options that you like.  The choice regarding depictions is one that will be reflected in a single composition.  As the image pairings above imply, there’s nothing stopping you from depicting the same waterfall in manifold ways.  In fact, you are highly encouraged to consider doing just that.

Move…Yes, Physically, Move Yourself when Photographing

I’ve made this point before, but many photographers have a tendency to fall into a trap of positioning themselves in the most easily accessible spot and photographing a scene at eye level at that spot and moving on.  This approach should be forsaken…basically always, because what I just described is settling and, really, what fun is that?  Not much, I would argue, and not only isn’t it much fun, it rarely leads to particularly evocative or expressive photographs.  The areas where waterfalls reside–the broader landscape of which a waterfall is one element–often lend themselves to careful, copious exploration.

I’ve discussed the notion of “working the scene” multiple times on this blog in the past, most notably here and here.  (Both entries explain the concept in some detail.)  It’s remarkable how often areas around waterfalls lend themselves to this approach.  An integral component of working the scene is moving.  You cannot “work the scene” without relocating and examining different perspectives.  This process is not limited to simply moving to the left and right, up and back.  It also means moving up and down.

The moving around from spot-to-spot part is pretty obvious, and the benefits are pretty well-illustrated, I think, by the variety of perspectives that are reflected in the image pairings above…and below.

Roaring Fork, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Roaring Fork, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Glen Ellis Falls, Pinkham Notch, White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire

Glen Ellis Falls, Pinkham Notch, White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire

Lower Falls, Uncompahgre River, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

Lower Falls, Uncompahgre River, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

The up and down part of the equation is less obvious and frequently overlooked, unfortunately.  Particularly when I want to include a strong foreground–and this principle, incidentally, isn’t limited to photographing scenes including waterfalls–it can be extremely helpful to lower your shooting position.  I’m frequently on my knees when composing these kinds of shots (see below).

LaSalle Canyon, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

Smalls Falls, Franklin County, Maine

Ozone Falls, Ricketts Glen State Park, Pennsylvania

Beauty Creek Waterfall, Jasper National Park, Alberta

Rapids Above Lower Cataract Falls, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

Arethusa Falls, Crawford Notch State Park, New Hampshire

Cascadilla Creek, Cascadilla Gorge, Tompkins County, New York

There is no substitute for moving around and examining different perspectives and the wider the focal length the more likely a modest change in position will substantially impact the overall shot.  To the extent that you’re able to climb into the water to examine additional perspectives, more’s the better.

Top Down

The overwhelming majority of the time, I prefer to shoot upstream, but there are times when a perspective shooting downstream, from atop a waterfall, can be quite dramatic.

Atop Laughing Whitefish Falls, Laughing Whitefish Falls Scenic Site, Michigan

It’s difficult to generalize about when this perspective works and when it doesn’t.  Sometimes, the backdrop is the star of the show and the waterfall itself can provide leading lines, guiding the eye to the background.

Lynn Camp Prong Falls, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Sometimes, the downstream perspective simply has a unique feel to it.  Regardless, when the opportunity to examine this perspective is available–and it quite frequently isn’t–I always make a point to check it out.

Nigel Falls, Banff National Park, Alberta

Something Different

I’m always looking for a different way to capture waterfalls–something at least somewhat off the beaten track.  There’s a tendency, I think, for many to think of waterfalls as rather prosaic subjects, but much of that seems to be a function of “settling,” as I discussed earlier.  Much of what makes photography interesting–at least to me–is the exercise of trying to render subjects via a fresh perspective.  In other words, the subject is no more prosaic than our approach to it.

Cavern Cascade, Watkins Glen State Park, New York

Big Run Falls, State Game Area 13, Sullivan County, Pennsylvania

Lower South Falls Black & White, Silver Falls State Park, Oregon

Hector Falls Intimate Black & White, Schuyler County, New York

Misty Falls, McCormick’s Creek State Park, Indiana

Quasi-Abstracts and Monochromes

Waterfalls are great sources of semi-abstract images.  By “semi” or “quasi” abstract, I’m referring to an image that, when first seen, takes some work to figure out what’s being represented.  (In the case of a true abstract, the viewer generally can’t tell, tangibly speaking, what the image represents.)

Hector Falls, Schuyler County, New York

Waterfall scenes, when viewed narrowly, also frequently make for compelling monochrome images, if for no other reason than that there’s relatively little color to begin with.

Devil’s Bathtub Black & White, Old Man’s Cave Area, Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio

Broken Rock Falls, Old Man’s Cave Area, Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio

Leafy Vortex Black & White, Fall Creek Gorge Preserve, Indiana

It’s not all that difficult to combine the two–semi-abstract and monochrome–with a (relatively) tight waterfall image.  In fact, I’m not sure there’s a landscape element better suited to such imagery.

Brandywine Falls black & white, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio

Water Meet Black & White, Ricketts Glen State Park, Pennsylvania

Upper Dells Black & White, Matthiessen State Park, Illinois

Madison Falls, Olympic National Park, Washington

Screw Auger Falls Black & White, Grafton Notch State Park, Maine

Tangle Falls Intimate Black & White, Jasper National Park, Alberta

Parting Thoughts

Technical specifications aside, I suspect it will come as no surprise when I say that I think of waterfalls as I do any other element of the landscape:  how can I render this subject in an interesting, pleasing manner?  The unique characteristics of waterfalls will inform the process of answering that question, but the same can be said for other elements of a scene–a field of flowers, a grove of trees, a cloud-filled sky and so forth.  Each of these kinds of elements have their own unique characteristics that may cause me to approach them, as subject matter, somewhat differently but the fact that they all guide my approach in some way is a common thrust shared by all.

B Reynolds Falls, Ricketts Glen State Park, Pennsylvania

To the extent possible–and I realize that this is going to sound somewhat ethereal–I always try to let the landscape reveal itself to me, rather than imposing my vision on it…but that’s probably wishful thinking on my part.  It’s not a conscious thing with me, but I’m sure I’m inevitably bringing my own preconceptions along for the ride when examining different compositions.  In the end, I don’t worry about it too much because doing so has a tendency to lead to a kind of artistic paralysis.  And, given the personal nature of the endeavor, “imposing one’s own vision” is, in the end, a significant component of what art, by its very nature, is.

Chagrin River Falls, South Chagrin Reservation, Cleveland Metroparks, Ohio

Posted by: kerryl29 | May 7, 2018

Photographing Waterfalls (Part II)

In the previous segment of this series, we discussed some of the technical considerations surrounding waterfall photography.  The emphasis of this installment will be on the aesthetic side of the endeavor.  It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: there will be no objective truths revealed in this post for the simple reason that they don’t exist.  My intention here will be to provide some things for you to consider that may (or may not) help you uncover and reveal your creative side when photographing waterfalls.

Rendering the Water

As I noted last time, one thing that you’ll need to determine is how you want the water part of a waterfall image to look.  While there’s obviously a technical component to this topic (as revealed in the previous post), the decision itself is essentially an aesthetic one.  The technical side is about how to turn the crank—how to go about the business of obtaining the look you’re after.

Bond Falls, Bond Falls Scenic Site, Michigan

I almost always prefer a silky look to waterfalls and cascades, but that is:  a) a matter of personal taste; and b) almost always true.  There are exceptions, such as the image below where I much preferred the abstract look of this sectional falls shot, which was very deliberately taken at a relatively quick 1/50 second.

Blackwater Falls Abstract Black & White, Blackwater Falls State Park, West Virginia

How you render the flow of the water will play an important role in the mood that is established by the image, so be sure to keep that in mind when setting up your shot.  For instance, a “freeze frame” approach, as in the Blackwater Falls image immediately above, tends to instill a sense of tension, while the a longer shutter speed rendering of flowing water tends to produce more of a calming effect.  Of course, the other elements of a scene–objects, shapes, colors, textures, etc.–may add or detract from these foundational moods, so a holistic approach to the scene is recommended.

Lower Emerald Pool, Zion National Park, Utah

All of It or Just Some of It?

Many photographers reflexively feel the need to include all of a waterfall—from the very top to the splash pool at the bottom—in every image.  While there are many times when you will want to do just that, don’t feel a compulsion to do so.  It‘s quite possible to produce a compelling waterfall image without including the entirety of the entity in a single frame.  In fact, sometimes you’ll find that the image is more compelling when you don’t include all of it.

Sometimes photographing an entire waterfall means also including a hot spot in trees above the waterfall, or a patch of unappealing gray sky or some other undesirable element that serves as a distraction.  In such instances, experiment by omitting part of the falls from the frame.

Eagle Falls, Cumberland Falls State Park, Kentucky

Conversely, the bottom of a waterfall may itself be an unattractive feature, filled with logs and other debris.  Or, you may instill a sense of mystery in your shot by hiding the bottom of a waterfall.

Waterfall, Ash Cave, Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio

You may find that simply shooting sections of waterfalls—possibly excluding both the top and the bottom—can produce something interesting and unusual.

Blackwater Falls Sectional Black & White, Blackwater Falls State Park, West Virginia

Taughannock Falls Intimate Black & White, Taughannock Falls State Park, New York

The Rest of the Scene

One thing that just about every photographer new to waterfall shooting does is take a head-on shot of the cataract.  And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that…as long as you investigate other options as well.  Sometimes head-on shots of waterfalls can be extremely evoking in their simplicity but there are many ways to assemble scenes that include waterfalls as one of numerous elements.

Grotto Falls, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Lower North Falls, Silver Falls State Park, Oregon

Eagle Cliff Falls, Havana Glen, Schuyler County, New York

The real key is to investigate many different angles, rather than simply settling for the most easily accessible spot.  Whenever I shoot around water I wear a pair of knee-high waterproof rubber boots, which makes it possible to photograph from places that ordinarily wouldn’t be under consideration—whether that means tramping through water to get to a more compelling perspective or literally standing in water when making the image.

Ottawa Canyon, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

I’m always on the lookout for interesting foregrounds to incorporate into the image, to add a bit of complementary spice to what otherwise might be a fairly prosaic shot.

Waterfall #1, McCormick’s Creek State Park, Indiana

Elowah Falls, John B. Yeon State Park, Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Oregon

Sometimes it’s possible to get behind the waterfall, which can often lead to a unique perspective.

Memorial Falls, Alger County, Michigan

Behind the Falls Black & White, LaSalle Canyon, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

What the Eye Can’t See

Occasionally, you’ll see the makings of an eddy or whirlpool or other feature that can’t be seen with the naked eye when shooting around waterfalls.  When you come across such opportunities, experimenting with long shutter speeds can at times produce remarkable waterfall-related elements that otherwise would go unrevealed.

Lake Falls Black & White, Matthiessen State Park, Illinois

Cascadilla Falls, Cascadilla Gorge, Tompkins County, New York

Don’t Settle

In the end, the thing to do when shooting waterfalls is to remain creative and dogged.  The key to producing compelling images of waterfalls is to remember that each cataract is as different as the most effective way to render it.  There are few better opportunities to “work a scene” than when photographing around waterfalls, so take the readily apparent shot, if you must, and then look around and see how else you might present your subject to the world.  I’ll delve more deeply into some composition-related waterfall issues in the third and final installment of this series.

Panther Falls Abstract Black & White, Banff National Park, Alberta

Posted by: kerryl29 | April 30, 2018

Photographing Waterfalls (Part I)

Waterfalls are among the most popular photographic subjects in the natural world, and why not?  They’re attractive and you can find them all over the place.  I devoted an entire photo trip to waterfalls a couple of years ago, so I’ve put my money where my mouth is.  But there are a number of considerations to take into account when photographing cataracts and that’s the subject of this three-part post.  In the first installment I’ll deal with technical considerations; next time, we’ll consider the aesthetic side of the endeavor.  The final segment will address specific issues of composition as they pertain to waterfalls.

Establishing Exposure (and the Limitations of Doing So)

I discussed the exposure triad when I was guest blogging on 1001 Scribbles a few years ago.  (If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, have a look here.  At some point, I’ll probably adapt the linked entry on this blog for potential future reference.  The linked piece can be read in conjunction with another, broader entry on technical considerations in the field.)  This comes very much into play when photographing waterfalls.

Elakala Falls, Blackwater Falls State Park, West Virginia

The key to obtaining a good exposure using a digital camera with just about any scene is avoiding blowing (i.e. overexposing) the highlights.  This is certainly true of waterfalls because the waterfalls themselves—the whitewater, specifically—frequently represent the brightest tonal value in the frame.  Back in the film era, the general rule of thumb was to spot meter off the brightest white and open up two stops (and bracket a half-stop, to be super safe) .  You’d correctly expose the highlights and all the other tones would naturally fall into place.  This is still pretty good advice as a starting point in the digital era.  Be sure to check your histogram (and, if you have the capability, check each color channel’s individual histogram to make sure you haven’t blown any of them—blue is ordinarily the most likely to be overexposed for this subject matter) for confirmation.

Middle Falls, Old Man’s Cave Area, Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio

One problem with waterfall exposure is that the parts of the scene excluding the whitewater are often naturally underexposed.  The dynamic range of such scenes—this is particularly true when waterfalls are set in deep canyons or gorges—is often extremely wide and the avoidance of overexposing the highlights, as discussed above, will often lead to deeply underexposed mid-tones and shadows.  This is unavoidable in a single frame, but today’s digital cameras, with unprecedented amounts of dynamic range render this less of a problem than was the case with exposure latitude-challenged transparency films. Less of a problem doesn’t mean no problem, however, and you’ll very likely find yourself wanting to pull up the shadows to render more detail. There are a number of ways of going about this including (but not limited to) a technique that I outlined a few years ago that I’ve found to be very effective.  Whichever approach you choose, simply be aware that you’re almost certain to want to apply some adjustments to deal with this endemic limitation.

Brandywine Falls Black & White, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio

Shutter Speed Considerations (Including Filters)

Among the most important decisions you’ll want to make when shooting waterfalls is how to render the look of the water itself.  We’ll talk about the aesthetic considerations at some length in the next installment, but for now consider that your choices range from freezing the water (which requires a relatively fast shutter speed) to the so-called “silky look,” which demands a comparatively slow shutter speed.  How slow?  Well, it depends on the nature of the waterfall itself (speed and volume of the water, the nature of the drop, etc.) but you can expect to need to shoot no faster than 1/15 second and possibly significantly slower than that.

If you go with the silky look—and most people do—there are some significant implications.  The first is that handholding your camera is basically out of the question.  To render the non-water parts of the frame sharp but the water itself blurred, you’re going to need to utilize a tripod.  (Of course, you should be doing this anyway when practicing landscape photography, but I digress…)

Sol Duc Falls, Olympic National Park, Washington

Obtaining the shutter speed you want may require some special equipment.  Depending on lighting conditions, simply stopping down the lens as far as it will go isn’t a good idea (it has negative implications for image sharpness, in the form of diffraction) and may not get you where you want to be with regard to the shutter speed anyway.  The same goes for dropping the ISO as low as it can be set–it may not provide you with the shutter speed you want.  A polarizing filter will help slow down the shutter speed—as much as two stops—and has other benefits as well.  A polarizer will usually reduce glare and reflections on wet rocks, for example; the vast, vast majority of my waterfall images have been made with the assistance of a polarizer, and it’s a must have accessory when shooting around water generally.  I covered the subject of polarizing filters at some length in an entry on the 1001 Scribbles blog a couple of years ago.

You may also want to invest in one or more neutral density filters to help obtain slow shutter speeds.  If you’re unfamiliar with neutral density filters I discussed them in this post on 1001 Scribbles.  (The filter series is another I may adapt for use on this blog in the future.)

St. Louis Canyon Waterfall, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

One potential problem is when the slow shutter speed you may want to use makes it difficult to keep other elements of the scene—wind-blown foliage or flowers, for instance—sharp.  If you do very little waterfall shooting, you may be surprised just how frequently this matter crops up, because I’m here to tell you, it’s a very common matter.  The conundrum can occasionally be solved by shooting multiple images and hand blending them in post processing, but sometimes that’s simply not practical.  In that instance…well, there’s not much that you can do about it except wait for a lull in the breeze.  On my trip to Colorado last fall I ran into this matter on a windy day when attempting to photograph rapids on the San Miguel River.  I spent a solid 20 minutes waiting for enough of a lull to successfully obtain one image–the last shot before the epilogue posted on the Day 14 entry.  Sometimes there’s no technical solution to a problem at specific point in time.

Upper Falls Area, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana


The aperture to use when photographing waterfalls may not be as simple as selecting the f-stop that best allows you to obtain your desired shutter speed to render the exposure you need. That’s because aperture also has depth of field implications and depending on your composition, you may need to prioritize depth of field. There are times, when photographing certain scenes, that both shutter speed and aperture draw more or less equal priority and waterfall/creekside shooting is a good example of such an occasion. In this entry written five years ago I discuss in-the-field shooting considerations covering a variety of situations, including the shutter speed/aperture matter mentioned here.

Up Next

In the second post in this series, we’ll discuss some of the artistic considerations that surround waterfall photography.

Lower Falls, Enfield Glen, Robert H. Treman State Park, New York

Posted by: kerryl29 | April 23, 2018

An Approach for Growth

Roughly 7 1/2 years ago I posted an entry on this blog entitled “Critiquing Critiques.”  The piece was essentially a missive about the critique process and its role–or lack thereof–in my development as a photographer.  I’ve long wanted to expand a bit on this subject; hence this post, which is an adaptation of an essay I wrote as a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles back in 2014.

*                                       *                                        *

Many moons ago, after I’d mastered the technical aspects of photography, I set about trying to further the aesthetic side of the endeavor.  The logical approach, it seemed to me at the time, was to ask for critiques from other photographers.  It seemed intuitive that such an approach would provide substantial assistance in my quest to develop creatively.

Battleship Rock, Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico

I was wrong.  Critiques from others did me little, if any, good.  I found many of the critiques—most of which were highly positive (perhaps unfortunately)–to be fairly prosaic, for one thing, but even with thoughtful, well-meaning constructive criticism, I found myself at least as likely to disagree with the thrust of the criticism as I was to gain anything from it.  The vast majority of the time I would receive someone’s suggestion, think carefully about it…and end up rejecting it, for any one of a number of reasons.  When this happens repeatedly, over a period of months or years, it doesn’t seem unreasonable–to me, anyway–to consider whether the entire process is a helpful one.

Aspen Hillside, Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico

In more recent years I’ve had a fairly large number of requests from other—presumably developing—photographers asking me to critique their work.  I’m almost always willing, but with a couple of caveats, the first being that I never got much out of this process myself (as noted above).  The second limitation is that I see these kinds of critiques as little more than “one man’s opinion,” and I’m far from certain that anyone ought to take anyone’s opinion about something I believe to be as inherently subjective as the aesthetics of art all that seriously.  Surely that doubt applies every bit as much to my opinion of someone’s art as anyone else’s.  In the end, my greatest concern when someone asks me to critique their imagery is that what someone else–especially someone new to the medium–will do in the end–if they take my critiques too seriously–is end up photographing more like me and that obviously shouldn’t be anyone’s goal.

Monument Cove Evening, Acadia National Park, Maine

Before anyone gets bent out of shape about any of this, let me clarify that I’m not saying that it’s impossible for anyone to benefit from the critique of their work by others.  I have a number of photographer friends who swear that such a process was more helpful to them in their development than anything else.  All I’m saying is that I don’t feel that it was helpful to me.

But, somewhat ironically, I do feel that the critique process was more helpful to my artistic development than anything else.

Au Sable Channel, Pinery Provincial Park, Ontario

Huh? Did I not just contradict everything I wrote in the four preceding paragraphs?  No. I really did benefit tremendously from the critique process.  But it was the process of critiquing the images of others—often silently—that assisted me, not having others critique my work.  Allow me to explain; this ongoing exercise helped me and it’s possible that it will help some of you with your own photographic development.  It’s really quite simple.

Schoodic Peninsula Black & White, Acadia National Park, Maine

Step 1: Look at images—lots of them. Include any and all photographic genres in which you’re interested and include the work of a multitude of photographers—and don’t necessarily limit yourself to those whose work you like—cast a broad brush.

Step 2: When you look at an image, give yourself a few seconds to simply react to it—and note that reaction, be it like, dislike, ambivalence, whatever.

Baughman Rock Overlook at Sunrise, Ohiopyle State Park, Pennsylvania

Step 3: Analyze the reaction recorded in Step 2. Why did you have the reaction you had?  What is it about the image in question that elicited your visceral response?  Be as specific and complete as possible.  (By all means, feel free to look at the image again to facilitate the process.)  This is the most difficult step of all, in my view, but it’s assuredly the most important—the critique itself.  You may well take some time before you’re able to routinely—and honestly—fulfill this step, but don’t be frustrated and definitely don’t get caught up in the notion of discovering the “correct” answer.  There isn’t one, at least not in any objective sense.   And keep in mind that since the point of this exercise is to benefit you, there’s no need to share your feelings with anyone else so be brutally honest in your silent assessment.  The more honest you are in this process the more quickly you’re likely to see any advantages it will give you in terms of your own development.

Bisti Arch Moonrise, Bisti Badlands, New Mexico

Step 4: After running through steps 1-3 on at least a few dozen images, step back and attempt to summarize to yourself:  are you detecting any patterns outlining what you like/dislike and why? You may have to run though many, many images before you’re able to answer this question in the affirmative but, eventually, you’re likely to do so.  This is where the process should concretely help you in your own photographic endeavors, because once you’re able to obtain a better feel for what appeals to you and why you can apply that knowledge directly in the field.

Jones Mill Run Dam Black & White, Laurel Hill State Park, Pennsylvania

And understand—this isn’t about copying someone else’s technique or duplicating their images.  It’s about using the power of observation to better understand yourself and, as a result, your ever-developing art.

Lake Falls black & white, Matthiessen State Park, Illinois

Posted by: kerryl29 | April 16, 2018

Fog: In Depth

I’ve discussed the subject of fog and photography before on this blog, but it’s been nearly seven years since I posted an entry dedicated to this matter and I feel it’s time for a refresh.  Besides, the earlier post on the topic of fog did little more than discuss things on a general level and I think it’s time to flesh out some considerations.  Not incidentally, thanks to a comment from David on the Colorado, Day 11 post some weeks ago, for inspiring me to think about and expand upon the subject of fog and photography.

In the 2011 post “The Great Equalizer,” I spent some time discussing some of the technical benefits of photographing foggy landscapes–ease of metering, lack of dynamic range concerns, etc.–that are present in instances with heavy mist, such as the Halfmoon Lake image below.

Halfmoon Lake in Fog, Hiawatha National Forest, Michigan

In this essay, I’m going to turn my attention to the aesthetic/emotional side of things.  For instance, the fog in the Halfmoon Lake shot introduces a palpable sense of mood to the shot, with the associated impact of creating a water color-like expression.  Instead of the rich fall colors of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula bursting through with vivid power, the fog’s impact is to hold the color riot back behind the barricades.  It’s a softer, more subtle presentation–for better or worse.

There Is No Bad Fog

On my first visit to the Smoky Mountains region, in the fall of 2004, I went to an overlook on the Foothills Parkway one morning.  The fog was so thick, the vista was completely hidden.  I mean, it was impossible to see anything situated more than 50 feet from one’s position.  Bad fog, right?  Wrong.  I simply wasn’t using the fog to my advantage.  I didn’t completely understand what that meant at the time.

Rhododendrons and Redwoods in Fog, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, California

The kind of fog I found on the Foothills Parkway that morning was best suited for a much more intimate treatment, the kind of scene I sought out deliberately when I was in California’s coastal redwood country in the spring of 2017–as epitomized by the image above.  Opportunities of this kind are everywhere in the Smokies (not to mention many other places); you simply have to be of the mindset to recognize the situation for what it is.

And, this isn’t to say that the Foothills Parkway overlooks are bad places to be when fog is present; you simply need a different kind of fog (i.e. not as thick and confined mostly to the valleys).  By the time I made a subsequent trip to the Smokies, I understood this maxim, as the image below demonstrates.

Sunrise, Foothills Parkway, Tennessee

In fact, this kind of fog–spotty, collected in certain places but not others–can be a tremendous asset when photographing from overlooks, as it adds another dimension and a sense of mystery to broad vistas.  In such instances, the goal is to place yourself literally above the fog.

Ohio Pass Overlook, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado

Yosemite Valley in Fog from Tunnel View Black & White, Yosemite National Park, California

Swift Creek Overlook at Sunrise, Red River Gorge, Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky

Pacific Sunset, Baker Beach Recreation Area, Oregon

Sunrise, Bear Rocks Preserve, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia

These images all have different elements in them and produce different emotional responses as a result.  But fog is present in all of them and in each instance–including the Foothills Parkway sunrise photograph–there’s a notable contrast between the segment of the scene obscured, in part or in whole, and the area that is not.  That’s an entirely different dynamic than exists in the Halfmoon Lake image at the top of this piece, where it’s as though a curtain of partial opacity cloaks the entire frame.

How thick and how ubiquitous the fog is leads to different approaches.  At times, from overlooks, I’ve found myself more or less shooting into foggy windows, of varying opacity.

Morning Fog, Oxford County, Maine

Gorge Sunrise, Letchworth State Park, New York

Foggy Morning, Swift Creek Overlook, Red River Gorge, Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky

Mt. Sneffels in Morning Fog Black & White, County Road 7, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

Ten Peaks at Sunrise, Moraine Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta

Swift Creek Overlook black & white, Red River Gorge, Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky

In the above set of instances, I was never really “above” the fog, which is typically a sure-fire ticket to something good.  In these cases, I was always at fog level relative to the subject matter, dependent upon the whims of a drifting, ever-changing band of obscurity.  The content of these scenes was changing constantly as the fog, lifting and drifting, thickening and thinning, revealed or cloaked various elements of the landscape.  The key was vigilance; being prepared to capture something compelling at the moment it appeared.

At Ground Level

Though the above image sets may belie it, the vast majority of the time when I’m interfacing with fog it’s at ground level, not at a high level viewpoint.  While the matter of fog thickness remains a critical component of the process of recognizing and exercising photographic opportunities, they’re expressed differently when at ground level.  As the story of the Foothills Parkway experience demonstrates, when thick fog is present, the vista is more or less non-existent.  Some degree of fog-thinning is necessary to execute the image; exactly how to go about the execution depends on the thickness of the fog, among other things.

At ground level, that’s not the case.  There’s always compelling imagery to be made at ground level, regardless of the thickness of the fog.  In this instance, how thick the fog is will dictate how to go about–rather than whether to go about–finding the most compelling images.

The same thick fog that eliminates the vista image will often create a ground level scene that otherwise likely wouldn’t exist.  Thick fog can utterly remove what I call the “cluttered background problem”–scenes that aren’t compelling because of copious, detailed, distracting background elements.  Thick fog removes that problem, working to create marvelously simple compositions that don’t exist under normal conditions.

Foggy Sunrise, Sauk County, Wisconsin

Foggy Morning black & white, Ft. Harrison State Park, Indiana

Pilings in Morning Fog, Tillamook Bay, Oregon

These are scenes for which, without fog, no one would offer a second glance.

Special Effects

Since fog often forms at or near daybreak, it can produce some marvelous interactions with light, oftentimes as the fog burns off with the rising sun.

Androscoggin River Sunrise, Oxford County, Maine

Foggy Sunrise, Everglades National Park, Florida

Sunlight and fog, of varying opacity, can produce some very interesting effects…

Newfound Gap at Sunrise, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Mt. Abraham Details, David Thompson Country, Alberta

Misty El Capitan Meadow, Yosemite National Park, California

…and those effects can be particularly bewitching when a forest canopy is part of the mix.

Long Pine Lake at Sunrise, Long Pine Key, Everglades National Park, Florida

Coastal Trail, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, California

October Light, Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, West Virginia

Under the right set of circumstances, with the influence of fog, light itself can become the key element of an image.

Mood, Mystery & Monochrome

Fog almost literally always adds an element of mood to an image.  Exactly what kind of mood varies depending on the nature of the fog–and the other elements–included in the frame.  The inclination is to assume that the kind of mood enhanced by fog is…well, moody…but that’s not always the case, as the image below indicates.

Pyramid Mountain from Patricia Lake at Sunrise, Jasper National Park, Alberta

This image has fog and it has mood, but it’s definitely not a “moody” photograph, in the common parlance.  There is an element of mystery, however, with the crest of Pyramid Mountain peeking out of a window in the mist–and that impact is magnified by the reflection.

But a more traditional sense of moodiness comes across when the fog is thicker even, sometimes, when the underlying elements are colorful.

Aspens in Fog, Last Dollar Road, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

Lake Willoughby in Fog, Orleans County, Vermont

Council Lake in Morning Fog, Hiawatha National Forest, Michigan

It’s much easier to create a moody feel when the underlying image is largely devoid of color.

Jordan Pond in Fog, Acadia National Park, Maine

Foggy Trees, Yoho Valley Road, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

Foggy images–moody or not–often work remarkably well in monochrome.

Foggy Anchorage Black & White, Tillamook Bay, Tillamook County, Oregon

Ruby Beach Surf Black & White, Olympic National Park, Washington

Much of the reason why these conversions often work is that fog sucks a lot of the color out of the scene to begin with.  The seaside scenes in the above set are particularly good illustrations of this; I recall while standing amid the marine layer fog on these Pacific coast beaches that I was standing in a world that was a literal illustration of shades of gray.  It was natural to remove what remained of the dull color.

Misty El Capitan Meadow Black & White, Yosemite National Park, California

Rampart Ponds Black & White, Banff National Park, Alberta

Foresta Falls Black & White, Yosemite National Park, California

But not infrequently, even with the presence of a significant amount of color, the foggy dominance compresses all of the tonal values and begs for the more contrast-heavy treatment that black and white enables.  This in turn, places greater emphasis on lines, shapes, patterns and details present within the frame.

End Game

The presence of fog makes for great images; exactly what images you should be looking for in these instances depends on the very nature of that fog.  How is its presence transforming the landscape?  General rules of thumb–where to look for images when the fog is thick, when it’s thinner and more limited in its placement, when its doing a dance with sunlight–are worth remembering and the above examples can provide some guidelines.  But, as is the case with photography generally, the exercise is ultimately about seeing–in real time or as an exercise in visual memory.  The rules of thumb will provide some guidance about the kinds of places to go but the specific images?  You’ll know them when you see them.

Fog & Sun, Bear Rocks Preserve, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia

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