Thursday, May 29, 2014

Birdie Bully

Usually the big birds intimidate the smaller ones. Sheer size makes them king of the hill. But not on this day. The small wren had flown it to eat some seeds that had been placed in the hollowed out area of the tree. She was happily eating, minding her own business when this female cardinal arrived on the scene.

The wren's territorial instinct kicked in, and she became belligerent, threatening the much larger cardinal. The one-sided argument went on for a short while, with the cardinal eyeing the little wren but not answering her back. Fairly soon the cardinal decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and flew off to find another source of food.

This little exchange was just one of many similar ones that must take place each and every day around the world among many different animal species. If you happen to be fortunate enough to witness any interesting or comical animal behavior with your camera in hand, shoot as much as of it as you can. It is a rare privilege to witness animal behavior and to be able to record it. The more you photograph animals and insects, the more behavior you will see. And the more you see, the more you will understand and appreciate.

Shutter Speed 1/200 sec.  Aperture f/8.  ISO 400.  Lens: Canon 200-400mm f/4L IS with 2x extender set at 546mm.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III.  Gitzo tripod with Really Right Stuff ballhead and Wimberley Sidekick.

TODAY'S QUOTE: "Life is life's greatest gift. On life's scale of values, the smallest is no less precious to the creature who owns it than the largest."  --Lloyd Biggle Jr.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Bluebells Pink and Bluebells Blue

Spring bluebells are delicate and charming flowers, and are in bloom only for a small number of days each year. They are a rare find in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and I have seen them only along the Cades Cove road. In the past 5 years, I had seen them only once before. So it was a rare treat to see them this past April.

There was a small patch of them in pristine condition one day, and then nearly gone 3 days later. The buds start out as pink, and turn blue as they mature. You can see both stages in this image.

These bluebells were shot in soft light on an otherwise sunny day. They were shaded by overhanging trees, and a few clouds that came and went.

Photographing flowers in soft light, that is light that has no strong shadows or highlights, is my favorite kind of light for flowers. That is a purely personal choice, and is not meant as a value judgment and is not an effort to deter you from photographing in different kinds of light.

Soft light makes exposures easy. That leaves the main considerations to be overall composition and a clean background. Notice the softness of the background in the image above. There are soft greens and darker tones, and nothing is distracting. Nothing interferes with the enjoyment of viewing the flowers.

When photographing flowers, pay very close attention to the elements in the background. Does it distract or interfere? Does it prevent the main subject from standing out? Is it lighter than the main subject? If the answer to any of these questions is "yes," then it would be better to fix those issues before clicking the shutter.

In all photography and in all art, ultimately it is the artist who determines what works best. Others may have opinions, some of them strong, but it is important to go with your gut when it comes to deciding on what works and what does not. No judge, spouse, colleague, or friend should make you seriously question your artistic and creative decisions. Yes, we can always improve. Yes, we can always learn more. But at each stage of our individual journeys we should strive to produce the kinds of images that make us happy and have a positive impact.

Shutter Speed 1/320 sec.  Aperture f/3.5.  ISO 400.  Lens: Canon 100mm macro f/2.8L IS.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III.  Handheld.

TODAY'S QUOTE: "Creativity is contagious. Pass it on."  --Albert Einstein

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Water Veil

Water is life, and moving water becomes its own living organism. Depicting that movement, and hence its life, is one of the joys of photography.

You have read several times in this blog about how to create the feeling and look of moving water. Use a relatively slow shutter speed which allows the flow of the water to be recorded. The length of the exposure depends on the speed of the water, and whether it is moving toward you, as in this image, or across your field of view. Generally a longer exposure is needed when the water is moving toward to you, if you want a silky look. If the water is moving from one side of the image to the other, that is, across your field of view, then a shorter shutter speed will most likely create the same silky look. Always try a variety of shutter speeds since you never know which one will be best for your particular situation. Start at 1/4 sec., and then increase the shutter speed in one-stop increments as far as possible given the conditions.

When photographing a rocky stream like this one, the rocks become the stable point of focus, the basis of the image, with the water being the soft counterpoint. While the water is the main subject, the in-focus rocks help the water look even softer by comparison.

A little hint of green, as in the moss-covered rocks and the leaves, add a much needed touch of color.

A polarizer was used in this image, although I do not often use one. It helped to enhance the greens, and reduced the shine on the wet rocks. If, however, there were reflections in the water that I wanted to record, I would not have used a polarizer since it would have reduced the reflections.

If you want a very long shutter speed, use of a polarizer, or an 8 to 10 stop neutral density filter will enable you to do that.

Shutter Speed 2 seconds.  Aperture f/32.  ISO 100.  Lens: Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS, set at 70mm.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III.  Gitzo with Really Right Stuff ballhead with Wimberley Sidekick.

TODAY'S QUOTE: "Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it."  Lao Tzu

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Votes Are In - It's Art, NOT Cheating!

These photos appeared in the blog a few days ago. The photo on the left IS the photo on the right, just cropped in very tightly. I asked for opinions on whether the cropped version was cheating, and many of you wrote in with opinions. Thanks to all of you who weighed in. It was unanimous – Art!

Here are some excerpts of what people said:

“How can anything that beautiful be cheating!”  L.R.

“Love the crop! It showcases the best features of the dwarf iris. Isn’t that one of the best things about digital photography – being able to make changes easily?”  D.L.
“I don’t see how it can be called “cheating’ just because you crop to enhance the photo and make it more artful.”  B.B.

“Definitely not cheating in my opinion. In this case you didn’t see it in the field but so what. The image was there on your sensor.”  B.McC.

“I’m President of our local camera club. My objective is to create a beautiful image, and I don’t really care how I do it. Digital tools are no different from an artist’s application of paint/pencil/whatever. We are all using what we have to express the creativity from our own imaginations.”  P.M.

‘I don’t feel that extensive cropping is cheating. Art is in the eye of the beholder, and if extensive cropping gets me to what I am pleased with, then I do it.”  S.O.

“I believe it is art. The camera is merely a tool that allows us to capture a moment in time. Our tool box allows us to do all sorts of wonderful development of the vision we wish to display. Flexing creative muscles with those tools allows an acceptable photograph to become a beautiful piece of art.”  D.P.

“[This is] art if you want us to see the detail in the ‘heart’ of the iris. I find this to be a compelling image. I do not believe it is cheating.”  A.O’D.

“I find it rather strange that the question arises. If the objective is to create an image which conveys the feeling the photographer intends, how does this differ from the painter or sculptor working to create an emotional response?”  D.M.F.

“I don’t feel this is cheating at all. I feel that my photographs are works of art. The camera is the first step, the computer is the second.”  E.B.

“Definitely ART. I usually take many shots of the entire subject with the intent of cropping. It is sometimes not as easy as one would like to get close enough or in a certain spot to get a shot you are envisioning.”  J.N.

“Art by all means. It’s not cheating any more than any other post processing is.”  S.C.

“I learned early in my photographic pleasures, and understand more each day  -  we do this for what pleases us, not the crowd.”  D.K.

Thanks to all of you for all your thoughtful and articulate comments. I appreciate your taking the time to speak your mind, and for all the kind compliments.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Orange You Glad... got up for sunrise? OK, please forgive my very bad pun. But I was indeed glad that I had awakened at 4AM in order to drive over an hour to this vantage point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and was set up and ready to go long before sunrise.

The sun was coming up over the horizon to my right, out of camera range for this shot. I had taken other views as well, but this one showcases the receding ridges and the mist or "smoke" in the valleys. It is that smoky look that gave the Smokies its name.

This is a calm image. No blazing ball of light, no clouds, just a quiet sunrise in a quiet place. Very special.

This image works primarily because of the strong color, the deep shadows, and the many ridge lines disappearing into the distance. Simple elements, simple colors. It creates a mood, a sense of quiet calm. Which is exactly how this morning was.

Many photographers think they need to use a wide angle lens for this type of shot. But I find that a moderate telephoto lens actually does a better job of capturing what I see and feel. It is a personal choice, but it is based on years of experience. Because a wide angle lens actually expands the apparent distance between you and the far horizon, it causes the distant mountains to look smaller, lower, and farther away. A moderate telephoto lens, on the other hand, tends to compress the distance between you and the distant ridges, making them appear larger and closer. And that is the look I wanted here.

All photographic decisions are a combination of science and art. What do you want to show, and how can you show it? Practice helps you to create the look you are seeking, as well as trying a variety of options at each shooting location. Try some shots with a wide angle lens and others with a telephoto lens, and then decide which look you prefer.  

Shutter Speed 1/25 sec.  Aperture f/25.  ISO 100.  Lens: Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS set at 200mm.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III.  Gitzo tripod with Really Right Stuff ballhead and Wimberley Sidekick.

TODAY'S QUOTE: "The pursuit, even of the best things, ought to be calm and tranquil."  --Marcus Tullius Cicero

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Caped Crusader

This Red-Bellied Woodpecker was in prime condition and held a perfect pose. Today’s blog gets its title from the appearance of the black-and-white feathers across his back which reminded me of an elegant cape or shawl, wrapped around the shoulders.

When photographing birds and wildlife, you take what you can get and hope for the best. You do your best to put yourself in a good position, camera and the proper lens ready, exposure pre-set, and finger poised to fire the shutter quickly.

This shot was taken from a blind, and the dead stump the bird is on was filled with bird seed and other goodies to attract a wide variety of birds. All the birds were completely wild, but the perches and food were positioned in close proximity to the blind in order to maximize the chances of getting good shots.

You can set up prime shooting areas around your home, even if you live in the city. A few well-positioned stumps or branches, sometimes used to block feeders, filled with the types of food the birds in your area like, will create a prime landing zone. Choose your landing zone carefully so that you can be fairly close to the birds but out of their sight. You can either be in a blind, or position your landing zone so that you can shoot through a window, a doorway, or from a deck or porch.

You may have to fill the feeding spots a couple of times on each day you shoot. Once you have filled them, retire to your shooting area and wait for the action. Sometimes the action is fast and furious, with birds flitting in and out quickly, barely lighting long enough for you to get some shots off. But at other times they will stay put longer, allowing you a chance to get some good shots.

A fast shutter speed of about 1/1000 sec. or greater will enable you to stop their fast movements and get sharp images. Depending on the lighting conditions, a high ISO of 800 or 1600 or higher might be needed in order to get such a fast shutter speed. For this shot, the situation was very different. The woodpecker was calm and was not moving, so a shutter speed of only 1/100 sec. was used. I don’t normally recommend using a shutter speed that slow for bird photography, but it worked fine for this shot.

It is best to use a tripod for bird photography, but some people who are very steady do very well hand-holding their cameras.

Shutter Speed 1/100 sec.  Aperture f/11.  ISO 800. Lens: Canon 200-400mm f/4L IS with 2X extender for an effective focal length of 639mm.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III.  Gitzo tripod with Really Right Stuff ballhead and Wimberley Sidekick.

TODAY’S QUOTE: “For man, as for flower and beast and bird, the supreme triumph is to be most vividly, most perfectly alive.”  --D.H. Lawrence

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Cheating Or Art?



How much to crop or optimize an image after it has been shot is a very personal decision. Looking at all possibilities when you are out photographing is the best approach. Try close-ups, try more distant views, shoot some from a high angle and others from a low angle. Stalk your subject by walking all around it if possible to discover a variety of views that might work, and then try them all.

While I generally try to shoot using these concepts, once I get home and view images on my large monitor I still see things I missed. Why I did not see them when I was shooting is a question with no good answer. Sometimes you just see things differently when looking at it on a flat screen rather than in the flesh.

Today’s image is a prime example. I love the dwarf crested iris flowers that bloom all too briefly in the spring in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I must have taken hundreds of different images of them while I was there. But I did not see the After image while I was shooting. It was only after viewing all images on my monitor after I returned home that I saw the heart of this image. The Before image above was all encompassing, and showed the entire flower with its companion flower to the right. The green leaves are nice, the ground nicely blurred out, but still it is not a very exciting or compelling image. The After version is cropped extensively, and optimized to darken the background and enhance the tones of the flower.

While I find the Before image acceptable, I love the After version. It has a lovely flow from lower left to upper right. It showcases the beautiful dimensional bright center of the main petal. It shows the beauty and elegance of the bloom even though much of the entire flower has been cropped away.

Of course you want to get the best photographs you can while shooting, but never hesitate to rethink the image after you get home. If you think of a photograph as an art piece, then is it OK to make significant changes to the crop after you have viewed the image and determined what the heart of the image actually is?

I’m interested in your feedback. Take this opportunity to weigh in on this question. Do you feel that the After image is cheating, that it is too great a departure from the image as shot? Or do you feel that using artistic license to completely re-crop the image after the fact is acceptable? Send your responses to with “Cheating or Art” in the subject line. A report on the votes will appear in a future blog.

Shutter Speed 1/250 sec.  Aperture f/5.  ISO 400.  Lens: Canon 100mm macro f/2.8L IS.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III.  Handheld.

TODAY’S QUOTE: “Artistic license often provokes controversy by offending those who resent the reinterpretation of cherished beliefs or previous works.”

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Twilight Zone

When using my new remote trigger to fire the shutter, strange and unexpected things started happening. I was shooting moving water in the Smokies. Camera and lens were firmly mounted on a sturdy tripod, and all was on solid ground.

I focused and fired the shutter using the remote trigger. Couldn’t wait to see the shot on the view screen on the back of my camera. But, what was that??! The image showed obvious signs of camera shake.

How could that be? I knew the camera, lens, and tripod were all functioning properly. What was going on?

It took me awhile to figure it out, but finally the light bulb in my brain went on. Could the camera shake be the result of the lens’ Image Stabilization, also referred to as IS (that’s Vibration Reduction for you Nikonians!)? Was the remote trigger actually firing the shutter too soon, before the IS could kick in and then settle down?

The short answer is YES. Before you techno gurus jump to conclusions, understand that I always, did I say ALWAYS?, use IS even when the camera is on a tripod. In addition, the lenses I own that have two options for IS – one for tripod use and one for handheld shots – are always, did I say ALWAYS?, set the same regardless of whether I am shooting with a tripod or not.

So I ran a brief experiment. I tried a series of shots fully depressing the remote trigger button quickly. They showed obvious signs of camera shake. Then I took another series of shots where I pressed the remote trigger button halfway down, waited a second or two, and then pressed it the rest of the way. Eureka! No camera shake!

So, while I am no physicist, I have concluded that the lens’ IS mechanism needs a brief moment to do its thing and then settle down before taking the shot. Once I gave it that opportunity, the camera shake issues were a thing of the past.

In case you are wondering why I use IS when tripod mounted, there are two reasons. First, I never lock-up the mirror mechanism, so using IS prevents any mirror movement from causing vibration that impacts on image quality. Second, if I always leave IS on, I never have to remember to turn it on or off.  

Shutter Speed ½ sec.  Aperture f/22.  ISO 100. Lens: Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS, set to 70mm.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III.  Gitzo tripod with Really Right Stuff ballhead.

TODAY’S QUOTE: “Common sense, however it tries, cannot avoid being surprised from time to time.”  --Bertrand Russell

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Lightroom Lesson



It has been awhile since the last Lightroom lesson, so today seemed like a good time to provide another one. Compare the BEFORE and AFTER photos of the dogwood blossom above. Look at the differences in the richness of tones and colors, of the depth, of the dimensionality.

The Before image looks OK until you compare it to the After. The whites are brighter, the greens more lively, the blues richer, and the contrast has been improved. Just a few very simple steps in Lightroom created this transformation which took less than 5 minutes.

This was shot on a sunny day, but the flower was in shadow. You can see some bright sunlight on the edges of the leaves, and the blue sky. In the original, the flower looked muted and flat. To improve the look of this image, and to make it look more like it did when I took the shot, here is what was done:

1. lighten the shadows by moving the Shadows slider to +64
2. soften the image slightly by moving the Clarity slider to -18
3. increase overall Saturation by +47
4. darken the blue sky (using the Blue Luminance slider in the HSL panel) to -22
5. increase the reddish tone on the petals (using the Purple Saturation slider in the HSL panel) to +28
6. brighten the green leaves (using the Green Luminance slider in the HSL panel) to +38

That's it. Six simple steps in just a few minutes improved this image significantly. Note that the information provided is not a recommendation or a template for adjustments to other images. It worked well for this image, but in each case optimization settings must be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Shutter Speed 1/640 sec.  Aperture f/9.  ISO 400. Lens: Canon 100mm macro f/2.8L IS.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III.  Handheld.

TODAY'S QUOTE: "The most courageous act is still to think for yourself."  --Coco Chanel

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Indian Chief

This male cardinal wins the prize for the most unusual head feathers. I was fortunate to have captured this somewhat whimsical moment when the normally pointed topknot was separated into its individual feathers.

It provided a comical view and resulted in a unique image.

The bird stands out from the background partly because of his color, and partly because of shallow depth of field. He and the branches are sharp, while everything else is soft. Shallow depth of field is achieved by using a large lens aperture of approximately f/4 or f/5.6.

The slight oblique angle of the bird, complemented by the opposing oblique angle of the branch, helps to form an interesting composition. So depth of field, color contrast, and positioning of the visual elements combine to create a pleasing image with a comical twist.

Shutter Speed 1/500 sec.  Aperture f/8.  ISO 800.  Lens: Canon 200-400mm f/4L IS set at 400mm.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III.  Gitzo tripod with Really Right Stuff ballhead and Wimberley Sidekick.

TODAY’S QUOTE: “A person without a sense of humor is like a wagon without springs. It’s jolted by every pebble on the road.”  --Henry Ward Beecher

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Shadow Dance

Wild columbine is a lovely flower whose coloration makes it stand out against forest greenery and rocky outcroppings. The muted reds and yellows, and its unusual shape, make this flower a favorite of mine.

Photographing it, however, can be difficult. Because it is a relatively tall and deep flower, keeping all its parts in focus can be a challenge. I prefer to photograph flowers using shallow depth of field, creating a soft out-of-focus background. But there also needs to be enough depth of field to keep most parts of the flower sharp.

So making those choices is a delicate balancing act. For this shot, an f/stop of f/4 was enough to keep the main flower sharp while allowing the mirror-image flower in the background to go pleasingly soft.

I tried several different f/stops and then chose my favorite after downloading all images at the end of the day.

Shutter Speed 1/250 sec.  Aperture f/4.  ISO 800.  Lens: Canon 100mm macro f/2.8 L IS.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III.  Handheld.

TODAY’S QUOTE: “Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance.”  --Carl Sandburg

Monday, May 5, 2014

Perfect Ending To A Perfect Day

My several weeks in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was an incredible opportunity to get immersed in photography all day, every day, for many days in a row. Usually my days are filled with a combination of work, personal responsibilities, and some photography, but this was a unique opportunity to get away, and just explore and shoot.

This was shot on my last evening in the park, and the late afternoon light was perfect. We had been searching for a good view of the stream with soft evening light. Usually when I shoot moving water I prefer the view looking upstream. That provides good views of the rushing water spilling over rocks, creating a series of miniature waterfalls. But looking downstream instead, the view took my breath away. This was the light and the view I had been hoping for.

I quickly set the camera up on the tripod and began to shoot. There was a slight breeze, so I did not want the shutter speed to be too long since that would have tended to blur the motion of the leaves and branches. But I wanted to be able to represent the water's movement somewhat, and create a silky look. With a shutter speed of 2.5 seconds, and being careful to time each exposure for when the wind was least, I got the look I wanted.

When shooting moving water, if you want to show the water's movement and create a silky look to the water, set your ISO at 100, and your aperture as small as you can (f/22 or f/32) for maximum depth of field. Then focus on the closest object that you want to be sharp (in this case it was the rock in the lower right), and everything else in the image will be rendered acceptably sharp.

With your camera set on Aperture Priority, the shutter speed will set itself, usually slow enough to show the motion of the water. If the shutter speed is not slow enough for your taste, you can use a polarizer or a neutral density filter or both to cut the amount of light entering the lens and thus enabling a slower shutter speed.

It is hard to express the excitement of seeing a scene that was all I had hoped for and more. And the fact that it was on the last night of my trip made it even more special. I took many shots until the light changed and the magical scene was gone. When photographing either early or late in the day, it is important to understand that the light changes very quickly. The moment is fleeting, and it is important to shoot many exposures quickly. It is also important to be able to enjoy the moment, as well as the photos you are capturing. Look with your eyes and feel with your heart, in addition to experiencing the excitement of the photographic opportunity. 

I'd like to thank my friend CL for making this wonderful opportunity possible. She invited me to accompany her on a multi-week trip to the Smokies. Using her RV as a base enabled us to stay close to the action, and put all the beauty and photographic opportunities of the Smokies within easy reach. This full immersion in photographing an area is a luxury I have not had before. Generally I move on to new areas after a few days, but there is much to be said for being in one place for a longer time, being able to return to a location on another day if the flowers or the light is not right, or just to repeat a great shooting spot. This was a great opportunity to slow down, and REALLY appreciate all that was around me. So thanks, CL, for the kind and generous invitation, the wonderful shooting options, and for all the fun!

Shutter Speed 2.5 seconds.  Aperture f/32.  ISO 100.  Lens: Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS, set at 200mm.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III. Gitzo tripod with Really Right Stuff ballhead.

TODAY'S QUOTE: "Slow down and everything you are chasing will come around and catch you."  --John De Paola

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Strings Of Pearls

On rare occasions everything falls into place. The right atmospheric conditions, the right light, the unexpected opportunity. This was one of those times. Overnight rain, clear morning skies, and prolific spiders building their webs all came together to create the opportunity to photograph this beautiful sight.

I could be melodramatic and say that this was a once in a lifetime occurrence. But that would not be far from the truth. I have never seen such a perfect web, with such perfectly spaced water droplets, lit beautifully, with a simple non-distracting background.  

There were several webs to choose from, all backlit in the early morning light. The water droplets from the overnight rain were still hanging onto the webs, evenly spaced and perfect.

I had the liberty of selecting the best web to photograph. This one was nearly perfectly formed. If you ever stumble across a similar photographic opportunity, consider yourself very lucky, and photograph it with gusto and deep gratitude. In over 30 years of being a professional photographer, this was the first time I have encountered such an opportunity.

Shutter Speed 1/1600 sec.  Aperture f/5.  ISO 400.  Lens: Canon 100mm macro f/2.8L IS.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III.  Handheld.

TODAY’S QUOTE: “I will prepare and someday my chance will come.”  --Abraham Lincoln