Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Landscape Photography Tips - When to get the best light.

Last Thursday I did a little program on Landscape Photography for the Eastman Camera Club.   We had a good turn out, but some people were not able to make it.   I've been asked for copies of my slides and I saw a few people taking pictures of the slides, which is a fine way to take notes.  Rather than sharing my entire presentation without notes, I'm going to give some tips from that program here. This is the first of what I think will be a few posts over the next week or two.


The program was divided into the following five sections from most to least important:
  1. Light
  2. Subject
  3. Composition
  4. Techniques
  5. Gear
Note that gear is listed last.  In my opinion, a high-quality professional camera, lens, and accessories in the hands of someone who doesn't understand the first four points may be a waste of money.  A skilled photographer can make quality photos with a variety of gear.  Some professionals even make and sell photos with their cell phone!  Don't get me wrong - quality camera gear is important, but it is more important to focus on the first four points.

All you really have to have to make great landscape photos is:
  • A camera or lens that lets you shoot wide angles.   I like something that starts around 17mm on a full frame camera or 13mm on a cropped sensor camera.
  • A camera or lens that lets you zoom in and isolate a subject.  A lens that lets you zoom out to somewhere between 200mm and 300mm (full frame equivalent) will meet most of your needs.
  • A tripod.  See my earlier post on tripods.
You will find lenses with focal lengths between the wide angle and telephoto useful. There are a number of other accessories that are useful, but not required.  I'll post about those another day. To quote Forest Gump - That's all I'm going to say about that! (for now).

In my experience, light is the most important factor that goes into making great landscape photos. Unlike photographers who work primarily indoors, a landscape photographer can't control the light. What we can control is when and where we make our photos.

  • Time of day and direction of sunlight
  • Season
  • Cloudy or clear skies
  • Wind
Each of these four factors impact the quality of landscape photos.

Best Time of Day

Golden Hour

The best time of day for landscape photography is the golden hour - the hours after sunrise and before sunset.   At this time of day, the sunlight will be soft, warm and low.  Add some clouds and the golden hour can also be very dramatic. In the photo above, the sun was behind me and lighting up the clouds with a warm orange color. The orange clouds also provided some nice color contrast with the blue sky. This warm cloud color reflected down on the sand, making it appear warmer.  The low angle of the sunlight also emphasized the ripples in the sand adding an interesting foreground element.

Now imagine if you will what this photo would have looked like around mid-day. The sun would have been high overhead and the ripples in the sand would have been almost impossible to see in the photo. Here's a photo made nearby in the early afternoon.
Mid-day
Because the angle of the sunlight is high it's difficult to discern the layers in the dunes and mountains. This makes the photo appear flat and less interesting.  The color does not have that warm pleasing look like the previous photo. The second photo does have a desolate feel to it.  If your shooting a cover for "A Horse With No Name" this may be exactly the right photo to tell that story.

Below is a great example of how the quality of the mid-day and late afternoon sunlight can make all the difference in a photo. The photo on the left was taken at mid-day when the sun was shining down on a creek in a small canyon in Glacier National Park. The light is direct and harsh and the highlights are too bright. The second photo was taken a few hours later on the same day. The light in the second photo was indirect, soft and the tonality is balanced. A few hours makes the difference between a photo destined for the bit bucket and a keeper.  



Besides the golden hour light, there is another reason to shoot around sunrise and sunset. Those are the times when the wind is typically the calmest. If you want to make a photo with a mirror like reflection in a water surface or no movement in vegetation you should try to be there around sunrise. The early morning winds will usually be calmer than those around sunset.
Early Morning Reflections
Don't pack up and leave after the sun sets.  Just before the morning golden hour and after the evening golden hour is what's called the blue hour when the sun is significantly below the horizon.  During the blue hour, the sky will take on a beautiful blue shade.

Blue Hour
As landscape photographers, we can't control the light, but we can control when we make our photographs.  This may involve getting up hours before sunrise and staying out hours after sunset. The middle of the day is reserved for taking naps!

The material in my presentation to the Eastman Camera Club and this post come from my Basic Photography Class.  The class is four two-hour sessions plus a local field trip to practice.  I will be scheduling another class later this year after summer vacation times.  If you would like to be notified when the class is scheduled, send a note to rcsiggins@gmail.com.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Exploring Our Backyard - Phipps Bend

If you've read my blog before you might remember that I am participating in a photography challenge to take at least one photo each week that meets a weekly challenge.  This week's challenge is to make a photo in your own back yard.  I did that, taking a photo of some potted plants.  On Thursday I took the challenge a little further and expanded my "back yard" to Hawkins County Tennessee and the Phipps Bend Wildlife Preserve.

Those who have lived in this area since the late seventies and early eighties will remember Phipps Bend as the site of a TVA nuclear power plant that was never completed.  The project was 40% complete when it was abandoned in 1981, leaving the skeleton of cooling tower base and a few buildings.
Abandoned Cooling Tower Base
Since then, the Phipps Bend Industrial Park has grown up next to the TVA site and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has also created a wildlife preserve between the old site and the Holston River.  A 3-mile out and back hiking trail/gravel road snakes along parallel to the Phipps Bend in the Holston River.  This easy level hike passes by beautiful ponds, wetlands, wide grassy fields, and the river.  We were there to see and hopefully photograph some wild birds.

What we found was a beautiful area full of wildlife, flowers, and yes, some colorful birds.
Yellow Flag "Batman"  Iris

Oxeye Daisy
 With the exception of one hiker and two equestrians on horseback, we didn't see any other people.  We did see more than a dozen white-tailed deer in the tall grass and one large snapping turtle on the trail.
Can you see me?

Indigo Bunting

Orchard Oriole 
These are just a few of the photos I made on this trip.  My bird photography skills need some work and we have plans to go back next week to try again.  I am more happy with some of the other photos from this trip.  I am trying something new to share these photos.  I have made a 2:40 slide show that shows my 27 favorites from that day that tell a story.  I hope this works and you enjoy the show.


Thursday, May 4, 2017

A Fun Little Experiment With Lady Slippers

That catchy little title is meant to get your attention. No, I'm not wearing June's house slippers. This experiment involves photographing the Lady Slipper flower on Buffalo Mountain in Johnson City, Tennessee.

June and I went hiking on the Lady Slipper Loop Trail with our friends Dina and Peter. We had great conditions for close-up flower photography.  It was late in the afternoon, the skies were overcast, and there was no breeze at all. Best of all, these rare wild orchids were abundant along the trail. Thanks to Dina and Peter for guiding us right to the flowers.

This time I brought along my flash and two remote triggers. I don't normally bring these along on hikes but I wanted to try a little experiment with the flash and flowers.  I placed one remote trigger on my Fuji camera and the other on my old Canon flash.  I was using both camera and flash in manual mode so it didn't matter that I was mixing brands. Using the remotes allowed me to hold the flash and point it at the flowers from any direction or distance.  I also used a Rogue Flash Bender on my flash to soften the light.

Here are two examples from my little experiment.

No flash, 1/40 sec, f/2.4

With flash, 1/250 sec, f/2.4
The two photos illustrate how the flash can emphasize the flower while letting the background go dark. The faster shutter speed in the second shot made anything lit only by the ambient light darker. I tried to position the flash to light the flowers without lighting the background.

The problem with this technique is the light from the flash can create harsh shadows on the subject, in this case, the flowers. Here's a series of shots that show what happens when the flash is in different positions.





If you click the first image then use the keyboard arrow keys you can flip through each one to easily see the differences.

The camera and flash settings were the same in each photo. Notice the shadows?  There are bright and dark spots in each photo due to the different position of the flash. I want to have more even light to make a more pleasing flower photo.   

Here's the really cool part of the experiment.  Remember I said there was no breeze?  Because the camera was on a tripod and the flower was not moving I was able to blend these five shots into one using the HDR tool in Adobe Lightroom.

Blended Image
I used the Lightroom HDR tool because it tends to create a more realistic result. In this case, the shadows and bright spots are smoothed out to a more pleasing image.  The problem is, it also made the background brighter, which I didn't want.  I used one of the darker original images and manually blended it's background into the image using Photoshop.  Turning the image a little made the stem come from one corner and the petal point to the opposite corner for a better composition.


Final Result
This all sounds much more complicated than it really was.  It's actually pretty easy with some basic Lightroom and Photoshop skills.

I learned how to manually control remote flashes while working on my real estate photography skills. It's interesting how skills learned in one area help in a completely different application. There are good reasons to learn new photography skills, even in areas that might not be you favorite.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Big Prints

Some of you may not know this but I sell prints of my photos. I have a pretty wide selection online but have a huge selection available offline. Recently a customer in Chattanooga Tennessee was looking for prints to decorate his new home. I was able to work with him to find the images he wanted.   He wanted all the prints to be in black and white, which I was able to do for him. He chose five canvas prints and four prints on paper.

Reelfoot Lake - Six Foot Wide Gallery Wrap Canvas
 Gallery wrap canvas prints are very popular because they look great and don't have to be framed, saving considerable cost. As you can see, I can sell some very large canvas prints.

Iceland Beach - 45" x 30" Gallery Wrap Canvas
Because of the way the photos are printed on canvas, I can print the same image two or three times larger than traditional prints on paper.
Two 20"x30" Gallery Wrap Canvas Prints
 The canvas wraps around a wooden frame making the print stand out from the wall.
Mt. St. Helens -Five Foot Wide Gallery Wrap Canvas
I can also print on paper or metal, which is another popular option.  With metal prints, the image is printed directly on an aluminum sheet, which is then mounted to float about an inch off the wall. These are great for vibrant color prints.

If you're interested in ordering prints of any of my photos, just drop me a note to rcsiggins@gmail.com.  List prices are available on my website at - http://www.thesiggins.com/Ordering-Prints.  Contact me about discounted prices.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Middle Prong Trail - History, Wildflowers, Water, and Waterfalls!

We explored a new trail Saturday and I want to share it with you.  It's the Middle Prong Trail in the Smoky Mountains National Park.  Now it's not new and we have been on this trail before, but only less than a mile.  Saturday we hiked the four miles to Indian Flats Falls. This trail follows the beautiful Middle Prong River with flowing cascades all along the way.  It also has history and an abundance of spring wildflowers.  And the best part is it is an easy trail.
View From Tremont Road Bridge

The trail begins at the end of Tremont Road, which is a beautiful destination itself.  The trail follows an old railroad grade built by Little River Lumber Company in the early 1900’s and operated until 1939 when they were forced out by the Park Service.  At one time there was an entire logging town, with houses that could be moved by rail, a store, a school, a movie theater, a hotel, and post office. The company removed enough timber to build 10,000 homes, stripping the hillsides of trees. Very little remains of the logging company except for some old steel cables and a single rail along the side of the trail. There are no old growth trees here but the young 80-year-old trees have created a nice wilderness area.

During the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) built bridges and trails in this area and had a camp for 172 men along the trail.  Just off the trail rests an old rusted out car.  The legend is it was a fancy Cadilac that belonged to the CCC Supervisor. When it broke down, the men just pushed it off into the woods and left it.   Not much remains after 80 years in the woods.
Was this a Cadilac?

The trail was lined with miles of wildflowers, including Trillium, Wild Geraniums, Fringed Phacelia, Bluettes, Wild Ginger and more Showy Orchis than we have ever seen before.

A Field of Fringed Phacelia

We also found the remains of a chimney.  The story is the cabin belonged to William "Big Bill" Walker. William noted that God had blessed and granted prosperity to David and other men of olden times who chose to have more than one wife. Bill decided that applied to him as well and he took three different women as his wife, fathering as many as 27 children!

Walker Cabin Chimney

The trail follows the Middle Prong for almost the entire four miles.   There are hundreds of photo opportunities along the river, each one different and beautiful.





Our destination was Indian Flats Falls, which is a series of four modest waterfalls, each approximately 10 to 15 feet high. We stopped in an easily accessible area at the bottom of one waterfall and the top of the next.

Indian Flat Falls

Indian Flat Falls

I have dozens of other photos from this hike but you get the picture.  If you haven't been on this trail I suggest you make plans.  The third week of April was a great time for water and wildflowers.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Know Someone Interested In Nature Photography?

Are you interested in nature photography?  Do you know someone who might be interested in taking photos like these?  Read on...
All photos from 2016 walk
Each year I do a one hour program on nature photography followed by a casual walk/stroll through the woods at Warriors Path photographing nature.  These free programs are part of the 38th Annual Spring Nature Festival at Warriors Path State Park in Kingsport April 21 - 23, 2017.  My talk is Saturday, April 22 from 9 - 10 AM in the Recreation Building on Duck Island.  The walk is 10 - 11:30 in the park.  

The program is suitable for beginner photographers with any kind of camera, including a cell phone. The walk is along a stream where we will find wildflowers and other things to photograph.

No need to register.  Just show up.

Be sure to check out the other programs Friday - Sunday.

Pass this along.  Spread the word.

Friday, April 7, 2017

What Tripod Should I Get?

I have taught some photography classes over the past several months.  One question that keeps coming up in class is "what tripod should I buy?"  This question is not limited to students in the classes.  Friends have sent me notes or come up to me and asked the same question.  It seems like a good reason to put some tripod suggestions down on this virtual paper.

I have had a tripod ever since I got my first SLR film camera.  I probably use them more than many photographers, carrying one for miles on hikes.  For landscape, waterfalls, macro, still life and many other kinds of photography, I find they make the difference in a blurry photo and one that is tack sharp.  Other people find tripods frustrating and get in the way.  It really depends on your style of photography.  If you are in the market for a tripod, read on.

The Tripod Itself

According to The Urban Dictionary, a Tripod is:
  • Three close friends that have known each other for a long time and have such a unique bond that they form a group. These friends are elite to all other people to the point where people bow to them. This friendship is considered to be the highest honor.
  • A Scottish myth of three wild girls so finely in tune with one another that they evolved into one fierce being. The legend goes that they walk the streets of Glasgow under cover of darkness, hunting for parties and unsuspecting victims on whom they bestow their unbelievable chat.

The definition for this blog is "a three-legged stand that supports a camera, telescope or other object that needs to be kept steady."

There are hundreds of tripods for sale at hundreds of online and offline stores.  It's not practical for me to recommend "the best tripod".  There are several websites that rate various models of tripods and tripod heads.   Rather than do my own rating, I'll give you some key criteria to consider when selecting one for your next photographic journey.


Tripod Criteria

Strength/Stability/Load Capacity - The definition of a tripod is that it needs to hold the camera steady. Don't get one that cannot hold your camera and lens without shaking, vibrating, sagging or collapsing.   A tripod has a weight rating or load capacity.  Look for one with a rating higher than the combined weight of your camera and heaviest lens.

Weight - not to be confused with the weight rating.  Think about how you are going to use the tripod and how much you are willing to carry.  What the tripod is made of has a big impact on its weight. Aluminum is light but not very strong.  A strong aluminum tripod is probably going to be heavy. Carbon fiber is both strong and lightweight, but more expensive than aluminum.  In the end, you want a tripod you are willing to carry around.

Maximum Height - you want a tripod that extends to your eye level or higher.  Wait, what?  Why would you want a tripod that puts the camera above your head?   It is because you may be using the tripod on a hill, on the edge of a stream or other situation where one leg extends below your feet.  In those conditions, your tripod will be effectively shorter.  

Many tripods use a center post to make them taller.  The more you extend these center posts, the less stable your camera will be.  My tripod works this way and is fine in most situations.  

Minimum Height - A tripod is a necessity for photographing flowers and other close-up subjects near the ground.  You want a tripod that can place the camera as close to the ground as possible. Most do this by spreading the legs out until they are almost flat. If the tripod has a center post it should be removable.  

Another way to get the camera as low as possible is to mount it upside down on the bottom of the center post.

My tripod will do this and I have used it once.  That should tell you how impractical it is.

Material - the material used in the tripod is the single biggest factor impacting the stability and weight. Most low-cost tripods are made of aluminum. If cost is more important than strength and stability, then you might want an aluminum model.  If stability and strength are more important you may want to buy one made of carbon fiber.  Of course, with great strength comes great cost (sorry Spiderman).  If you use a tripod under cold conditions, you will find the carbon fiber does not feel nearly as cold as aluminum.

Collapsed Size - this is how long the tripod is when completely collapsed.  This is important when traveling by plane.  You will probably want to put your tripod in your checked luggage.  Look for a model that is small enough to fit in your bags. Adorama has a list of five tripods that they consider to be good for travelers.  Remember, Adorama is a camera store and their objective is to sell you one of these tripods.

Independent Legs - if your tripod will always be used on a flat floor in a studio, having legs that move independently may not be important.  If you're like me, you will be using your tripod in places where the ground is nothing like a flat floor.   You may find yourself on the side of a hill or on the edge of a stream.  The least expensive tripods will have bars that tie the legs to a center column and will be difficult to use under these conditions.  
Legs Tied Together
Legs Move Independently
Look for a tripod with independent legs like in the second photo.


Tripod Head 

The tripod head is the part of the tripod where the camera is attached. Some less expensive tripods will come with an integrated head.  Others let you pick the head to go on your tripod.  Some criteria for picking the tripod head include:

Weight Rating - As with the tripod, the tripod head has its own weight rating or load capacity.  Look for one with a rating higher than the combined weight of your camera and heaviest lens.

Weight - The head may be as heavy as the tripod itself.  

Type of Head - tripod heads come in a few basic designs - ball heads, pan/tilt heads, pistol grips and gimbal heads.  

Ball Head
I have always used ball heads because I find they are easy to position the camera in most any position. You maneuver the camera to where you want it and tighten the head by turning one or more knobs. If your head is not strong enough for your camera then you will find the camera moves or sags after you tighten the ball.  This can be very frustrating.

Pan/tilt heads are often the least expensive model and are sometimes built in to inexpensive tripods. They have one or more levers to move the camera. 

Pistol Grips are similar to ball heads except instead of tightening a knob to lock the head in position, you squeeze the pistol grip to move the ball head and release the grip to lock the head in place.  This can be easier to use than the ball head, but I find the grip sticks out and gets in the way.  Plus, it adds weight.

Geared Heads are perfect for those situations where you need exact adjustments in the camera position.  They have three knobs to adjust the three axis.  There is no need to lock them down because once in position, they don't move.  They have a lever that releases the gears for large/quick adjustments.   These are useful for landscapes and artictural photography.

Gimbal Heads are great for large heavy camera and lens combinations. They themselves are large and heavy and often expensive.  
If you are going to use the tripod for video, you may want a head that delivers smooth pans and tilts. A fluid head will allow you to move your camera while videoing without jerky motions.

Those are what I consider key criteria for picking out a tripod.  If you want to shop online, I suggest my three favorite online camera stores

Some common tripod and head brands to look for include Manfroto (what I use), Giottos, Induro, Vanguard, Slik, Benro, and Really Right Stuff (if you have lots of money).