When Your Photography Surprises You

Have you ever ventured out, armed not only with your camera but also with some preconceived notions of the images you want to make? It happens to me on week-long visits to New England as well as on half- or full-day trips closer to home. And does it then also sometimes happen that you end up with images radically different from what you thought you were setting out to take — perhaps because the lighting wasn’t what you expected or that tree wasn’t there anymore or etc., etc., etc.? Sometimes that’s a fun part of the game.

And then there are times I go out with no specific ideas for images but just respond to what’s around me. Again, I like the element of surprise.

Here I want to share two images from my recent trip to the northern New England coast, both of places I’d been and things I’d photographed before.  Each had its own unique element of surprise.

The Sunday I decided to drive along the Maine coast toward Ogunquit was sunny and quite windy. After stopping along the coastal road (Rt 1A) to photograph buildings that took my fancy, I ended up, as I knew I would, at the famous Nubble Light. Nubble is probably the most photographed lighthouse in the USA (if not possibly the world, though I wonder whether Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia might be a competitor) because it’s so accessible — you just walk up to it. No boats, no sneaking onto private property, no long hikes on soft sand — just drive up, park, and get out your gear.

As you well know, ease of access doesn’t guarantee ease of getting a great photograph. For one thing, it was midday, usually not the optimum time to chalk up any photographic masterpieces. Also, on a Sunday afternoon in early spring chances are quite good of getting people wandering into your otherwise perfect composition.

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Well, out of the several images I took, here’s the one I think was best.  What made it work? (1) The clouds. Thank you, Mother Nature. As famed New England foliage expert Jeff Folger observed when he saw it, it looks as if the clouds are emanating from the lighthouse. So, yes, while I did get closer-up images, this with the clouds was “the” image. (2) No people. There was a person off to the left, but I was cropping that side of the image anyway since it had too much superfluous “stuff.”

Photoshop processing, after my usual preliminary moves with the Raw file in Lightroom, was relatively minimal.  I took the image into Nik Viveza, moderately cranked up the Brightness and Structure, and brushed these settings onto the lighthouse and the foreground rocks to make them stand out from the blue water and sky. Back in Photoshop, a very slight degree of opening the shadows in the Shadows and Highlights. And there you have it: my surprise that any of the images taken under less than optimum conditions would be successful.

The second one contained a surprise of a different kind. This is a well-known tree on the New Hampshire coast at Great Island Common (a.k.a. New Castle Common) near Portsmouth.  I first shot it a year ago while out with New England photographer Jeff Sinon, and that time we had the sweet evening light in our favor. This time I was there midday because it took me a good while to find the place due to the weird location of the sign. Actually, I considered this trip a “study” for, hopefully, a revisit later in the day under better lighting conditions, and I used my Olympus SH-1 instead of my Nikon DSLR.

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First, here’s the original. A nicely composed image of this venerable tree, but what boring light! What could be done?

On my way to and from this New England trip I stopped for lunch at the same restaurant. Each time I was seated in a different section, and each of those sections had old oil landscape paintings on the walls in which the colors were not natural but nor were they monochrome. They were sort of a tint. I stared at them and thought there must be a way to recreate this effect in appropriate photographs. Information tucked away in my brain for later use.

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With a completely open mind I decided to take the image into Nik Color Efex Pro 4 and see what the different presets would do. (Remember my post about letting limitations work for you? My current limitation is that my Topaz plug-ins aren’t saving correctly and so I’m making the best of the Nik Suite.) The first preset I clicked (they’re listed in alphabetical order) was Bi-Color Effects.  As you can see from the screenshot, there’s an extensive selection of color combos, and each of those can be tweaked still further.  I tried them until I came to Moss 4. That was it. And — not that I was consciously looking for this — it somehow approximates that effect of hovering between not-quite-natural and not-quite-unnatural that I had observed on those oil paintings.

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Please — let me know what you think! I appreciate your comments. Click here or here if you would like to order a print or other product.

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New Hampshire Scenes: The Intimate Landscape

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No matter what time of year one visits New Hampshire, those grand mountain landscapes are always an irresistible draw for the camera. Especially (but not only) during foliage season, the scenic vistas along the Kancamagus Highway, Bear  Notch Road, and other major routes (think Rt 302 at Bretton Woods) are magnets for photographers of all stripes.

I enjoy photographing those grand scenes — “lofty mountain grandeur,” as the hymn says. And as long as one clear, sunny day is forecast, I’ll be up and out of my motel room well before the crack of dawn to station myself at Chocorua Lake Road and catch the light show (with luck, the light-and-fog show) over the lake and mountain. But what I find more rewarding is shooting the intimate landscape — particularly forest interiors. It’s a quieter, more meditative process, almost as if I’m waiting for something — a tree trunk or a group of rocks, or a particular arrangement of fallen leaves — to call out, “Hey! Here I am! Look at me!”

A clarification: By “intimate landscape” I mean a scene in which the distance between myself and the closest object is fairly small; I don’t mean macro photography.

Here are some “intimate landscape” images I made on my recent visit to the White Mountains.

DSC-2619 sDiana’s Bath. I arrived early enough on a rainy day to be able to shoot without other people getting into the images, but the recent drought hadn’t left much water in this multistream waterfall. I aimed in close and vertically so that the waterfall wouldn’t be lost in a series of rocks and played with the exposure to get a silky-but-not-too-silky look.

 

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Forest interior. After I made enough images of the actual waterfall, I looked around to see what else might be photo-worthy. Immediately I realized that the scene right before me — the photo to the right — was it. It was as if the tree trunks had bent slightly to let the foliage and the light in the distance be seen.

 

The Champney Falls Trail.

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Named for the 19th-century New Hampshire artist Benjamin Champney, this has always been one of the most popular trails along the famed Kancamagus Highway. Not even the fact that the bridge over the stream was destroyed in Hurricane Irene and will not be replaced has changed that. I’ve gotten good forest interiors here before on rainy days, and this time was no exception. When a dry summer has resulted in trees losing leaves rather prematurely, then photograph the leaves on the ground! The varied colors and patterns of those leaves “make” this photo (below), I think. Incidentally, as you can imagine, several of these images required long exposures. It helps that nothing in them was moving, except the water in the waterfalls!

 Shelburne waterfall.

DSC2732 ed sThis little waterfall has to be one of the best-kept secrets in New Hampshire, as waterfalls go. It’s not listed in any of the guides. Unless you park in the pullover next to it, you’ll hardly notice it; it’s quite hidden by trees. Long exposure needed again. I didn’t want murky shadows, nor did I want to include too much more of the waterfall above where the photo ends; it made for too busy an image. I wonder actually how much water there would have been had I tried this spot two days earlier; as I said above, the drought had depleted the water in all the falls. I had planned to shoot at this spot on the previous day and set out going north on Route 16, but by the time I reached Pinkham Notch the rain was so torrential and thus the visibility so nonexistent that I turned back. Aside from the safety factor, shooting in a bit of rain is one thing, but drowning your DSLR? Not a good idea.

I hope you enjoyed these images. I’ll continue with more from this shoot in subsequent posts. If you’d like to see larger versions, or perhaps would like one of these restful scenes decorating your home, click on the images themselves or on this link to my site. Thank you for looking!

Photographing Trees

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It’s not often that a homily preached in church will serve as inspiration for photographs  (much less a blog post about photography), but then Fr. Michael Keane, pastor of St. Anastasia Church in Harriman, NY, isn’t your ordinary priest. He’s dynamic, inspirational, and the sort of guy that bishops everywhere would undoubtedly like to clone, several times over. Last Saturday morning I attended the All Souls Day Mass, and contrary to what one might expect — comparing “dying” nature to the departed souls — Fr. Mike regarded the beauty of the natural world as we’re privileged to enjoy it in the Northeastern USA in the autumn and compared our stunning fall foliage with senior citizens who’ve spent their lives serving and doing good. For trees and for the people, Fr. Mike said, it’s a time of transition, and that’s what he emphasized — transition, not dying.

The metaphor of trees was high on my mind because the previous week I had been privileged to meet renowned photographer Sean Kernan, one of whose major projects is Among Trees. You may have seen the calendars based on this theme with his photos over the past few years, or you can check out that project on Sean’s website or grab a copy of his book by the same name.

With foliage season having just about passed, I had some new images of trees in my own collection as well as some previous images that I now was inspired to process (or, in some cases, to reprocess). Here are a few previews; you can check out my entire (thus far!) Trees Gallery on my Zenfolio site. Hope you enjoy them! If you’re looking for a special gift for someone, all images are available for purchase.

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Light Touch on Catskill Spring

My son Anton (who is arguably a better photographer than I, though we agree that he’s the “landscape master” and I’m the “buildings master”) refers to spring as the “pre-fall” season, meaning that it’s equally rich in color, though colors of a more subtle kind. This year we actually had a spring in the Northeast — as opposed to a winter that stubbornly drags on and then suddenly, and shockingly, morphs into the unbearable heat of summer — which enabled me to get up to the Catskills several times, drive around, and get some good images.
OK, so I’m the reputed “buildings master” and will share those pictures with you in due course, but for now I want to share three landscape images that I made on Mother’s Day, in the Northern Catskills region they call the “mountain top.” I wasn’t looking for these specific sites — just driving around until I saw something that attracted me. The point I want to make is that in each case I used a light touch in the postprocessing. Even if I used several layers or filters, the values were tweaked very little, if at all, beyond the presets. I have no patience with overprocessed, especially oversaturated images of nature; it’s one thing to use one’s processing tools to coax that Raw image into displaying what one actually saw in that scene, quite another to “improve” on nature as if God had a bad eye for color.
Enough preaching! Here’s the first image:

DSC0224  levels 236 sThe first thing you’ll notice is that the original image has been cropped. The sky lent nothing to the overall effect. In Nik Efex Color Pro 4 I made very subtle use of Pro Contrast, Brilliance/Warmth, and Tonal Contrast, and then finished it off with Unsharp Mask at 25 %.

DSC0226 sThe second image (above) isn’t a different crop of the first — it’s a totally different picture in which I had zoomed in more. Here, in CEP 4’s Brilliance Warmth I used 20 % Warmth and then, in Tonal Contrast, set each value, including Saturation, at only 15 %. Once again, Unsharp Mask at 25 %.

DSC0228 sFinally, the above scene caught my eye as I was driving along one of the main east-west roads up there. Perhaps it’s not spectacular, but the red of the house set into nature’s spring colors made for an attractive, typically Catskill pastoral scene. The horizon needed some straightening, and I did a small amount of cropping on the sides. Then I used some Warmth/Saturation in CEP 4 and, again, 25 % Unsharp Mask.

In all cases these are in addition to the basic Raw processing before bringing the image into CS5.

There you have some views of the Catskills in May. If you’d like to comment, I’d be curious about which of the first two pictures you prefer — the wider-angle or closer view of the trees and mountain.

Leaving Well Enough Alone in Photography

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Sometimes the problem with having an array of editing software and plug-ins on one’s computer is that one can fall into the trap of thinking that one has to use it. Don’t get me wrong–I love my Photoshop, Nik software, Topaz Adjust and all, but the danger of overprocessing is always present; these toys are always screaming out to be used!

Here are two photos I made on my latest visit to the Adirondacks, just after Thanksgiving. It’s of the High Peaks from one of my favorite vantage points, where the Adirondak Loj Road intersects with Route 73. I always shoot in Raw and jpg, and when I uploaded and looked at these particular images in jpg, I loved them just as they came “out of the box.” OK, possibly I cropped the bottoms slightly, but otherwise my first reaction was that they looked just as Asher B. Durand would have painted the scene.

I opened the Raw file of one of the images to try to process it but gave it up as unnecessary–why “improve” on what I already liked as it was? Am I concerned that people won’t think me sufficiently “professional” if I can’t offer an impressive description of my postprocessing?

Interestingly, I included one of these images on one of my 2013 calendars with the theme A Certain Beauty (thank you to the friend who suggested this theme), and when a lady who had bought one of the calendars leafed through it and came to this picture, she commented, “It looks just like an oil painting.”

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Enjoy the Unexpected (or, an afternoon at the Cherry Pond)

Rob Sheppard is one of the best photo bloggers around. He brings a reflective and philosophical dimension to his writing that I don’t think I’ve encountered so consistently since the passing of the late, great Galen Rowell.  In his most recent post, Rob describes how he arrived at his intended photo destination too late for the “good light” — and made the most of it, experiencing things he would have missed had he arrived earlier and then not stayed on. Nature is not bound by arbitrary rules, he says, and he was amply rewarded by being open to (and taking advantage of) what was available instead of being disappointed by something not conforming to rigidly preset expectations.

It was timely that I read Rob’s post when I did, because I had just returned from a few days’ foliage shooting in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and had a similar experience — the difference being that I knew in advance that I was heading right into the unexpected and had to be open to anything. At this time of year, with the seasons changing, the New Hampshire mountains create their own weather, and anything is possible, including experiencing bright sunshine, clouds, rain, snow, and wind all in one day, in fact all in one afternoon. Things can change drastically when you travel a couple of miles. So, all I knew when I headed northwest for the Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge was that it wasn’t likely to be pouring rain, which was fine, all I needed to know, it was the last thing I wanted.

Getting to the Pondicherry trailhead is one thing (I’ve met many native New Hampshirites who’ve never heard of the place); then you have to hike in a good mile or more to where the action is: the shore of Cherry Pond with the spectacular view of Mount Washington and the Presidential Range on the other side. It was quite a windy day, which meant (1) the light and other atmospheric conditions might be changing several times in the course of a minute; (2) there might not be any reflections of the mountains on the pond. It did turn out that the wind occasionally abated enough to create some reflections on the pond, but I discovered that the action of the wind, when it blew, on the water produced its own kind of beauty — a shiny texture. As for the rapidly changing light and other conditions, there was nothing to do but set up the camera, find a good composition that could be tweaked here and there, watch and enjoy nature’s amazing show, and press the shutter button whenever nature’s kaleidoscope produced a new version of the scene in front of me. It was indeed quite spectaular. We’ve heard of son et lumiere — “sound and light” shows, but this was neige et lumiere — snow and light, as the interplay of snow showers and sunlight continuously created different scenes on Mount Washington’s peaks. When I arrived in New Hampshire a few days earlier there was no snow on the mountains. The morning after my visit to the Cherry Pond, Mount Washington could be seen from North Conway completely covered in snow gleaming in the bright sun. Amazing. Sun, snow, and mountains, bless the Lord.

Here’s a selection of images from this shoot. I’m not going to dwell on the technical details — that’s not really important except to say that I tend to do much less processing in straightforward nature shots than in other types of images because I want to let the natural beauty show through, and thus my processing is aimed at helping that along rather than at enhancing the image in a way that suggests that the Creator didn’t get the world quite right.

These and my many other photos (always adding new ones) can be viewed (and purchased) on my Zenfolio site.