When the Light Isn’t Cooperating

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It happens. From your window very early in the morning you see a glint of red beginning in the sky, and you grab your gear and hurry out to your favorite place to make some photos. Maybe you’ll finally get that moonset you’ve been trying for, or catch the sweet light glinting off the top of that mountain.

So you get there and that glint of light is gone, leaving you with nothing but overcast. A rather dull overcast, at that. What to do?

This happened to me on the day after Christmas at Cooper Lake. Sometimes I’ll simply chalk it up to the luck of the draw and look at the positive side: at least I’m out where I can enjoy a nice walk, even if I don’t have any pictures to show for it.

But on this occasion there were several other factors in my favor, too good to be passed up. First, despite the late-December date, there had yet to be snow or a freeze, so that reflections were visible in the lake and not the sheet of white that one expects at this time of year. Second, those reflections were perfect and undisturbed due to the wind being absolutely still. Third, there was great composition potential, especially now that my favorite tree was completely bare of leaves and made a striking foreground element for the lake scene. And related to this, the lack of strong light revealed some compositional ideas I might otherwise not have seen.

And so the camera came out of the bag, the tripod was set up, and I set to work. Except for the less-than-good light, I was pleased with the results.  But what to do about the boring light?

I began experimenting with some of the plug-ins in my processing software. And I mean experimenting. In some cases I ended up with two or three different results that I’ve saved. In some cases I added filter layers, deleted them again, modified the images in other ways. The end results, with which I’m pleased, are what I prefer to call “photo art.”

I want to stress that my idea of photo art is not the same thing as “improving” a boring photograph by bumping up the saturation and other sliders so that the end result is simply an oversaturated, overprocessed image that screams “phony.” Rather, to make photo art a photograph — a good photograph — is my starting point, but the end-point image, while respecting the integrity of the original, doesn’t necessarily look like a photograph — perhaps not at all. (Some viewers of such an image I made a couple of weeks ago on a foggy day thought it looked like a Japanese painting; OK; but I don’t make such claims for myself. Judge for yourself — it’s the image at the top of this blog post.)

Here are two images from last week’s visit to Cooper Lake, one of the images in two different versions.

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Here you see the above-mentioned tree. When it’s covered with leaves you have to somehow work around it so that it doesn’t obliterate some interesting parts of the mountains, but when it’s bare like this, it’s perfect. On this occasion it even helped to fill in some of the “empty” sky space that didn’t have clouds. In this version I used Topaz Adjust’s Medium Pop Grunge preset in the HDR Collection. (In all cases this “finishing touch” is preceded by basic processing in Lightroom and then usually some further processing in Photoshop, especially increasing the contrast and often the details or structure. Nik Viveza is an especially powerful tool for this.)

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Same image again, this time processed with the Cerulean Tea Rose preset in Topaz BW Effects Cyanotype Collection. Here I went into the Creative Effects and increased the Feature Boost, since I wanted more detail than what the preset on its own was giving me. Then, back in Photoshop, I lightened the shadows very slightly.

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I always knew that something could be made of those branches sticking up out of the water, and ironically, the poor light this day facilitated that. I played around quite extensively with this image and came up with three similar versions, the chief difference being the amount of pink tint, ranging from none at all to more pronounced. This is the middle one on that spectrum, and I think it’s my favorite of the three. It took two layers of Viveza plus a layer from the Topaz BW Effects palette. I especially like Viveza for the ability to select  adjustments and then brush them on to only certain parts of the image, and I often use this to accentuate something in the image to which I wish to draw attention, such as the Brightness and Structure in the two trees here.

Which version of the wide-angle image do you prefer? Please leave a note in your comments; I’d like to hear from you.

All images in this post are for sale. Please visit my new Photo Art Gallery at my FAA website.

 

In the Steps of Jervis McEntee

Do you go into mourning once the fall foliage season has ended? Is that it for photography until next summer mercifully cools to an end or, at best. until a blanket of snow adds some brightness to what’s often referred to as “stick season”?

That needn’t be the case. I’ve contended that “there is beauty in bleakness” ever since my trips to Arctic Sweden in the 1990s, and that includes the bleakness of November par excellence. One of my most enduring and endearing photographic memories is of a shoot at Copperas Pond in the Adirondacks a number of years ago. The subdued, diffused light provided by the pale sun made the delicate red berries — I’m not sure what they are, but here’s a photo of some similar berries from last winter in the Catskills — stand out.

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But what about the wider landscape? Is it possible to extract a usable photograph out of the vast, brown sea of bare trees that confront us as we survey a wide-angle landscape during that time between the colorful leaves and the white snow?

I found the answer in two exhibitions of Jervis McEntee, the 19th-century landscape painter who worked mostly (if not exclusively) near or in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Even McEntee was unusual in admitting that November was his favorite time to paint. Fortunately, both exhibitions — one in Kingston and the other (open until December 13) at SUNY New Paltz — and their catalogues carried examples of the works he created at this visually challenging time of year, so I was able to study them before going out on my own November shoot.

The secret, I think, is to work with the bleakness, not against it — that is, to accept it and decide how to make it an advantage rather than try to “correct” it by (for example) enhancing the values of your Vibrance or Saturation slider or going too heavy with filters. For illustrations, here are two of the images I made from my November shoot at Ringwood Manor in Northern New Jersey. Ringwood is one of those places that offers photo opportunities in every season and in almost every kind of light. What could I do with it on a late, rather heavily overcast afternoon in November?

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The first thing the above image needed was a dialing down of the green grass; having been a loyal Fuji Velvia shooter back in the film days, I tend to keep the setting on my Nikon DSLRs on Vivid, which gives that characteristic saturated green. Then, the browns in the image needed the reverse: a bit of enhancement. Finally, to get a hint of a “painterly” look I used the BuzSim preset in Topaz Simplify 4 and increased the detail just a bit.

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This image also benefited from BuzSim and an increase in the detail, as well as an overall dialing down of the saturation.

I think I succeeded in getting what I wanted from these images. I learned from McEntee’s paintings, not because I wanted to “imitate” them and turn my photographs into paintings but because I wanted to see how I could produce what are still recognizably photographs, but ones that show the November landscape to its best advantage and that it is possible to do this.

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PhotoPlus Dazzles New York City

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October is about fall foliage and about Halloween, but for the thousands of photography enthusiasts who descend on the Javits Center on Manhattan’s West Side each year, it’s also about the grand PhotoPlus Expo. Sponsored by PDN, the PhotoPlus Expo, which comes to New York every October, is nothing short of Photographer’s Heaven for anyone who owns a camera. It offers seminars, workshops, portfolio reviews, and, for those who want just “the basics,” an amazing array of exhibits by vendors of everything a photographer needs, from the highest-end DSLRs to postprocessing software, file storage, books, and lens tissues–plus anything else you can imagine if you’re a photography professional or enthusiast.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn Friday October 24 I took a quick swing through the exhibits to see two of my favorite photographers — local New York guys at that! — who also happen to be outstanding teachers, each in his own way. Robert J. Rodriguez, Jr., who is known especially but not exclusively for his work in the Hudson Valley, was there in his capacity as ambassador for Canson Infinity, the manufacturers of high-quality (to put it mildly) photographic paper. Read his recent blogpost to see how Robert came to represent Canson Infinity. I took a quick photo of him posing next to two of the images he had chosen to exhibit at their booth this year.

Then I caught Rick Sammon while addressed a crowd of people at the Canon exhibit. One of OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACanon’s renowned Explorers of Light. Rick was also, I believe, signing copies of his latest book, Creative Visualization for Photographers, during PhotoPlus. I’ll be featuring reviews of Rick’s book as well as of Robert’s e-book Insights from the Creative Path in this blog soon.

If you live in the New York area and have never attended PhotoPlus, I recommend you give it a try. It’s always on the last full weekend in October.

Fall Foliage Questions? Ask Jeff Folger

The Old Barn

The Old Barn

It’s getting to be that season again: fall foliage, when we head out with our cameras to capture nature going out literally in a blaze of glory. Due to the unseasonably warm weather we’ve had in the Northeast, the foliage in the New York and New England areas is on the late side this year.  My friends from the New England Photography Guild are reporting the colors slowly and gradually developing, and Dr. Robert Kozlow, who has just published his third book of photographs of New Hampshire, tells me it may well be mid-October or later before the colors peak there.

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 Autumn Color Splash

If you want literally up-to-the-minute information on New England foliage, you should be following photographer/blogger Jeff Folger, who with good reason is nicknamed Jeff Foliage. Come this time of year, he hits the road to drive everywhere and report on what he sees. And Jeff reports not only on the status of the foliage itself — he’ll also recommend places to stay when you’re in the area, always places where he himself has stayed, no guesswork here. Check out his blog here.

During the non-foliage season (notice how fall foliage is so important that the other times of yearDSC-2678 s are referred to in the negative), Jeff is busy monitoring all sorts of meteorological reports so he can offer educated prognoses on what sort of a foliage season will await us in New England.  And not only does he offer the information on his blog — he also replies to personal questions, including requests for recommendations for driving tours, etc. (always with the disclaimer that this is not scientific but educated guesswork based on years of experience and research).

Jeff is also a stunning photographer. You can view his work on his Fine Art America website and purchase not only prints but also a wide array of photo products. Click here for a look.

Another disclaimer: The photos in this post aren’t Jeff’s but mine, taken, of course, last year or earlier. (And they’re for sale; click on the image for information.} This year’s burst of color still awaits the attention of my camera.

Amazing Photographer Trio Sheds Light on Letchworth

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Letchworth Village: sounds like the name of a pretty New England town, or perhaps a new condo development with all the latest amenities. It’s neither. Letchworth Village is a blot on the history of New York State, certainly a black mark on the state’s treatment of what we now call marginalized people. Located in Rockland County and opened in 1911, Letchworth was a residential institution for the mentally and physically challenged, adults as well as children. It was built on 2,600 acres of woodland and fields and, at the height of its existence, had 130-plus buildings and more than 4,000 patients, and was touted as the ideal place for the mentally challenged to be.

It was anything but. Rumors of mistreatment circulated. Not only were the residents exploited to “benefit the state,” as the Head Psychiatrist’s report from 1921 implied — he advocated that “idiots” not be accepted because they could not do the heavy work (e.g., loading coal, building roads) to which the “morons” and “imbeciles” were assigned — but they were also used for medical experiments, including otherwise untested polio vaccines four years before the Salk vaccine trials began. Overpopulation was a problem already ten years after the facility opened.

In 1946 photographer Irving Haberman made a set of photos that first alerted the outside world to the appalling conditions — the filth, overcrowding, neglect — in which Letchworth’s residents, especially the children, lived. Then in 1972, Geraldo Rivera included a report on Letchworth in an ABC News documentary that focused on a similar institution on Staten Island. This report eventually led to extensive reform of disabilities services throughout the USA but had little immediate effect on conditions at Letchworth.

Photographer Lynn Ronan with two of her pictures

Photographer Lynn Ronan with two of her pictures

Letchworth was permanently closed in 1996. Today it stands in ruins. A few buildings have been recycled for other uses. The others may well be demolished sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, they and the adjoining cemetery stand as silent, accusing testimony to 85 years of state-sponsored gross maltreatment of vulnerable people.

Three local photographers have been making images of what’s left of Letchworth Village and

Camille LaPlaca-Post and some of her images

Camille LaPlaca-Post and some of her images

are now presenting them in an exhibit titled “Letchworth Village: Finding the Human Element in Abandoned Places.” Those of you who are familiar with my work know that this sort of subject matter is right up my alley, but I’ve actually never been to Letchworth. Having gone to the opening reception for this exhibit yesterday, I can say that viewing these photographs is as intense an experience as actually visiting the site.

George Garbeck with two of his photographs

George Garbeck with two of his photographs

The photographers — Lynn Ronan, Camille LaPlaca-Post, and George Garbeck — are all membersOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA of the prestigious Ridgewood (NJ) Camera Club. Each has a uniquely personal way of responding to and interpreting the “human element” in this abandoned place — or, perhaps I should say, more than one personal way: What impressed me most about the exhibit as a whole is that each photographer captured different aspects of the subject matter and, in the postprocessing, interpreted the image as s/he saw fit, whether color, black-and-white, or infrared, whether tending toward the documentary or the very creatively artistic — and yet it all comes together; there is still a unity about it in which a response to this place called Letchworth Village is uppermost and the individuality of each photographer serves that purpose.  It’s moving, chilling, and appalling all at the same time. I’m hoping to return and see it once more at least.

“Letchworth Village” is on exhibit at the Suffern Free Library, 210 Lafayette Avenue, Suffern, NY until the end of September. Lafayette Avenue is the same as Route 59, and the library is on the left if you’re going east. Click here for opening times.  If you’re anywhere near the neighborhood, absolutely don’t miss this exhibit.

6 Steps to Better Nature Photography — Review of Rob Sheppard’s New Book

6-Steps-Paper-RevHere is a fine new print book (which contains a downloadable video component) by master photographer and teacher Rob Sheppard.  6 Steps to Better Nature Photography lives up to its name.  It’s not about technical basics, nor about postprocessing—there are any number of good books on the market (e-books as well as print) that cover those topics—but about six essential considerations for anyone who wants to improve their nature photography to be aware of, take to heart, and put into practice.

What is more basic, more essential to photography than light? And so Rob opens with light. A beginning photographer can be so focused (pun intended) on the subject that he or she is totally unaware of how the light—its presence, absence, quality—is affecting the scene. (It’s a trap into which even experienced photographers can fall.) Chase the light, yes, but cultivate an awareness of how it interacts with your subject. On the theory that a picture is worth 1,000 words, Rob provides three of his own stunning photographs from Acadia National Park as examples of how light at different times of day affects the subject and thus how the image is composed accordingly.

And indeed, composition is the second step Rob covers—specifically, how to go beyond relying on your zoom lens and standing in one spot, zooming in and out to vary your compositions.  Different kinds of lenses influence how the viewer perceives the difference between the foreground and background in a photo, and Rob wants to make you aware of this; he also points out that a macro lens isn’t your only choice if you wish to make close-ups. I remember Rob teaching this very effectively in an online course several years ago. It can be a complicated topic, and I think that the presentation of this “step” could have been improved a tad just by some tweaking of the layout and formatting.

Rob Sheppard cares deeply about the environment—not simply as a collection of photographic subjects but as a living thing, a divine creation; and not only the environment as a whole or as a general concept, but every individual facet of it, from a mountain to an insect or a tiny flower. This reverence (that really is the correct word) is what, more than anything else, informs his approach to his work and to teaching it. Thus in the third step more than anywhere else, about macro and close-up photography, his knowledge of nature, of the habits of living things, comes into play. First, you can’t get pictures of insects the way he does without knowing something about how that insect behaves. Second, whatever kind of postprocessing he does, the end result remains a photograph that tells you some kind of story or conveys some information about the subject – about its natural surroundings and/or its behavior. He doesn’t exploit his subjects as raw material for “digital art,” for example.  The many inserts headed “The Nature of the Photo” not only inform you about Rob’s subjects; they also inspire and challenge you to find out something about the subjects you’re likely to encounter in your neck of the woods.

Again, Rob’s reverence for his subjects inform step four, “Avoiding Boring Photos of Nature” (if you’ve ever read his “Nature Photography Manifesto,” available as an e-book, you’ll know what I mean). This alone is worth the price of the book. You could do worse than write some of them out on index cards and tape them up where you’ll see them regularly.

Rob has been evolving into a master black-and-white photographer and, in step five, shares the fruits of his experience by outlining general principles to keep in mind if you aim to create effective black-and-white images. In step six he covers practical information about something every photographer is going to encounter while out shooting – the weather.

Rob Sheppard presents himself as an experienced photographer who is passionately in love with his craft and eager to share from is knowledge and expertise with the reader. But he never comes across as a big-shot know-it-all. He’s still on a journey too; in fact, the first words in the book are “It’s a Journey.” That’s what makes him entirely credible and what instills complete confidence in you, the reader/learner.

6 Steps to Better Nature Photography includes a video course on composition. The URL is in the back of the book, and you can watch the segments or download them to watch when you want so you needn’t be online to take advantage.  The information is basic but essential and, as always, benefits from Rob’s gifts as a teacher “live” as well as in print. Click on the title of the book or on the image of the cover and you’ll get right through to the relevant page on Rob’s website.

A Little Viveza Goes a Long Way

I don’t like to overprocess photos unless I deliberately want a sort of painterly look that may end up resembling something other than a photograph. For that, some of my favorite presents are in Topaz Labs’ Adjust. But for a photo that’s going to remain a photo and just wants that little something extra, I’m increasingly finding that Google’s Nik Viveza is a powerful yet minimalistic tool.

Screenshot 2015-07-30 20.38.27Viveza has four basic settings: Brightness, Contrast, Saturation, and Structure. You can use the sliders to determine how much you want (or don’t want) of each of these parameters, and there is also a Brush Tool that allows you to select a particular feature in the image to which to apply your edit.

A picture is worth a thousand words. So let me explain further using a few recently processed (or reprocessed) images.

First I sometimes use Viveza to give an overall livelier tone to my image — a bit more “punch,”one might say. That’s what I’ve done to this image of the interior of the Higher Grounds Coffee Co. in Windham, and to this picture of Main Street in Phoenicia. Both towns are in the Catskill Mountains of New York. I did not amp up the saturation of the coffee shop interior to an unnatural level, by the way. Not my style.

But as I said, Viveza’s Brush Tool is a very effective way to apply an edit to a selected part of a photograph.

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In these two images from the Mountain Top Historical Society’s campus in Haines Falls, I increased the structure and brushed the new setting onto the tree stump in the image on the left because I wanted the detail in the venerable old stump to stand in contrast to tne summer’s new greenery, which in places is ever so slightly blurred due to the breeze that was blowing that day.

In the image on the right I increased the Brightness and Structure and brushed these onto the rock to draw the viewer’s attention to the rock.

I did something similar with Motif no. 1 in this photo (below) of that famous building, ensuring that the enhanced Brightness and Structure would catch the viewer’s eye.

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If, like me, you want to give a bit of a “pop” to your photo without going overboard — something nice and subtle — I would recommend trying Nik Viveza 2.

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To learn more about Nik Viveza 2,click here to visit the website.

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To purchase any of my photos on the page, click the photo to get to my Fine Art America site.