Tuesday, April 30, 2013

My Photography Was All Wet

All photos can be viewed large size by clicking on them.  The Smoky Mountain photos are available for purchase here.

Kind of a strange title for a blog post.  What in the world is he talking about?   Photography that's not good?  Ideas that are all wet? Developing film? Are you interested yet?

I'm talking about what I did this last weekend.   The forecast was for up to 2 inches of rain in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Saturday and Sunday with locally heavy down pours and possible lightning.  Sound like a good time to stay in doors and wait for better weather right?   No way!   Time to grab the camera and head to the mountains!

There have been times when I've been out taking pictures on a bright sunny cloudless day and people I meet will say something like "What a great day to be out taking pictures.  It's it beautiful?"  I'll smile and say something like "It sure is a beautiful day" but in my mind I'm wishing for clouds and even a little rain.  You might be thinking my head should be examined.

Bright sunny days are not great conditions to take landscape photos, especially during the hours between an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset.  At these times the light can make taking photos very difficult.   The bright sunlight can make parts of a scene extremely bright while other parts are in deep dark shadows.  Under these high contrast conditions it is hard to find an exposure that works for both the bright and dark areas.   Expose for the bright spots and the shadows are very dark without any details.  Expose for the shadows and the bright parts are over exposed, sometimes to the point of being solid white with no details.  HDR photography can be used to overcome these conditions but even with HDR techniques it can be difficult to get to a realistic photo that is pleasing to look at.

Stormy days are the opposite.  If the entire scene is in the shadow of clouds then the difference between the brightest and darkest areas of a photo are not as extreme.  You can more easily come up with a single exposure that covers the entire range of light in the scene.   Gone are the dark shadows and blown out bright highlights.   Partly cloudy may not work if you are still dealing with bright sunny and cloudy spots in a scene.  You need a solid overcast day.

Rainy days are even better.  When foliage is wet it can bring out the vibrant colors in the green leaves, brown soil, and colorful flowers.   It's important to use a polarizing filter when there is any water on the subjects, even when it is dark and cloudy.   A polarizer will cut the reflection off wet leaves and other surfaces and allow the dark rich colors to be captured, as in the photo below.  It was really pouring when I took this one, but the 2 1/2 second exposure allowed me to blur the water and make the raindrops "disappear".

So, when the forecast was for a rainy weekend June and I made reservations at our favorite hotel in Townsend Tennessee and headed for the mountains.   I am blessed to have a wife who is willing to go away on a weekend of wet rainy weather and drive around looking for that shot of a flowering dogwood hanging over the far bank of a rushing  stream or the wildflower covered in rain drops.  

These dark wet days are also the best time to take photos of streams and waterfalls.  The low light conditions allow me to get slow exposures that create the silky white water effect that I really like.  In the first photo above, I was able to get a long six second exposure making the water soft while keeping the rocks sharp and well defined.

Some of the best conditions can be at the end of a storm when the skies start to clear.  If this occurs in the early morning or late afternoon God may put on a dramatic show of sunlight and storm clouds that can be breathtaking.  I didn't get these conditions this weekend but there was a time when the rain stopped and the clouds started to lift.  I took 8 vertical (portrait orientation) shots and stitched them together to create this wide panorama of Cades Cove.  You can see the brilliant colors in the field and some of the fog hanging in the mountains.

There are some conditions where bright sunny days are good for landscape photos.  In this example from Glacier National Park, the sunlight was behind me and evenly lit the field and mountains, without harsh light or dark shadows.  The 6,600 foot altitude made the sky deep blue, which made the mountains stand out.  This shot wouldn't have worked on a cloudy day.

Bottom line is don't let the weather keep you from going out, taking some photos, and enjoying God's creation.  Figure out what works well under the conditions God has given you and shoot it.


Monday, April 1, 2013

Nail the Focus with Live View

Well it looks like wildflower season may actually arrive here in East Tennessee before summer does.   The day time temps are forecast to be 50 - 60 this week with some sunny days.  I saw my first wildflowers last Friday.  With the wet winter-spring and extended cold weather we've had I expect the blooms to start popping out all over any day now. 

Wildflowers are great macro photography subjects.  I suspect many of you will be like me out in the field (literally) with your macro lens trying to get that great image that is perfectly focused on exactly the right spot to make your composition.  If you're like me, you'll struggle with the focusing.  Here's some tips to help you "nail the focus" on your macro shots.

First, put your lens on a good sturdy tripod.  Good macros can be made hand held, but they can be challenging.

Second, use a wired or wireless remote shutter release. If you don't have one, use your camera's shutter timer so you are not touching the camera when the shutter trips.

Third, turn off auto-focus and set your lens to manual focus.   When you're shooting a small intimate scene like a wildflower your depth of field where the subject is in focus will be extremely shallow.  It is important to compose your shot and manually focus so that the most important part of the composition is in focus.  The auto focus may be great, but it will often focus on the wrong thing, ruining the shot.

There are a lot of factors working against you being able to manually focus a macro shot.   The camera may be low to the ground, requiring you to either lay on the ground or get into a contorted position that makes yoga look easy in order to be able to look through the viewfinder.  I wear glasses with the "no-line bifocal" feature, which means the focus on the bottom of my glasses is different from the middle or top.  If I'm in a position where it's difficult to line up my glasses with the viewfinder then manually focusing through the viewfinder is frustrating because it never appears to be in focus.

Fourth, manually focusing a macro shot involves minute manual adjustments. It's hard to tell when you have the focus where you want it.  Any slight movement of the focus ring, camera or subject can ruin the focus.

The good news is most modern DSLRs have a Live View feature that can help over come the manual focus challenge.   In Live View mode you're seeing what will be in the image before you take the shot, but you're seeing it on the camera's LCD.  Live View enables you to view and compose the shot without fighting to get in position to look through the view finder.  You see the image while you manually focus so you are able to get the focus right and on the right spot.  If you have a camera with an articulating LCD display then you have even greater flexibility.

Both Canon and Nikon DSLRs have a digital zoom feature while in Live View mode which works like zooming in to the image in post processing.  What I do is pick a place where I want the focus to be as sharp as possible then use the Live View zoom to get down to where I can see the smallest details on the LCD while manually focusing.   You'll be able to see how just touching the focus ring on the lens can change the focus.

Of course, to make this possible your camera must be on a tripod.  Any camera or subject movement will make manual focus nearly impossible.  If you are hand holding and/or the subject is moving you might be better off in auto focus mode.

Live View manual focusing is not just for macro shots.  I've been using it to get more accurate manual focusing in my landscape shots.

The way Live View works varies by manufacturer and camera model.  You'll want to break down and actually read your owners manual and then practice a bit before heading out into the fields of flowers, bugs and other subjects in the intimate world of macro photography.

These and other macro flower photos are available online in the flower gallery on my website.

Like this blog post?  Share it with your friends.  Want to know when new posts are out?  Sign up in the Subscribe Via Email box on the blog website.