Thursday, October 31, 2013


We spent the last few days in the Twin Cities visiting family.  The weather was not the best, with rain and fog and temperatures in the 40s.  Typical upper Midwest fall weather.  The good thing was that our hotel was located only about 1/2 mile from a large wildlife preserve on the Minnesota River (which flows into the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities area).  On our first full day, I took an hour or so to visit the preserve, despite the cold and fog.  I had a great time even though I didn't get much in the way of keepers.

The first shot I took was of a clump of trees located on land adjacent to our hotel that were still sporting their fall colors.  What got my attention were the trees' very dark bark and the fact that a stand of evergreen trees was serving as a backdrop for the subject trees, effectively creating a natural, uncluttered background.

I wanted to minimize the amount of gray sky in the image, so I cut off the tops of the trees to concentrate on the dark bark and fall colors.  My only regret here is that I should have included a bit more of the lighter colored lawn at the bottom of the shot, but there was an asphalt drive running behind the trees and I didn't want to include that in the shot.  Here I set my aperture at f/9 and focused on the tree trunks.  Because I was so close to the trees, the background evergreens were out of focus, which helped to make the dark trunks "pop" a bit more.  Overall I was pretty happy with the composition.

At the wildlife preserve I spent my time along a trail on a bluff overlooking the marsh area adjacent to the river.  A little fog might have helped to create some depth, but on this occasion the fog was quite thick, nearly completely obscuring the distant marsh and river areas.  However, the fog did help to isolate the trees on the bluff.  Here are a couple of shots that featured those trees.

I liked the bare tree in the first of these shots, but it would have helped to have a bit more definition in the distant marsh area.  In the second shot I was able to pull out more of the background in post processing.  

As long as I was shooting bare-limbed trees, I took a few shots of a dead tree. 

Here I set the aperture on f/4 and focused on the dead tree.  My thought was that the leafed tree could provide some context for the overall composition.  I wish that the two brown leaves on the dead tree (which may not have been dead if it was still sporting leaves) could have played a bigger role.  They're sort of lost next to the living tree.

The trail, which was broad and paved, wound through a nice stand of trees that had been allowed to remain in a natural state, with a combination of both living and dead trees.  The fog helped to create a grey atmosphere with just a hint of mystery.

Finally, on our second full day we spent some time on the U of Minnesota campus and I had a little time to look for things to shoot.  Here is another tree that featured fall colors that contrasted with the tree's dark bark.

Again, I took the shot at fairly close range and with the camera set at f/4.  Here my interest was focused on the tree's dark trunk and limbs, and I was interested in the foliage primarily to provide color and to obscure any clutter in the background.  I intentionally kept the overall exposure on the light side to place greater emphasis on the dark bark.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013


The other night a cold front moved through and cleaned out any moisture in the air.  Getting up before dawn, I was hopeful that the air over Lake Michigan would also be clear of any haze or clouds and that I could get some clear shots of first light over the lake.  This was not to be the case, exactly, as there was a low cloud bank sitting a few miles offshore.  Even so, I decided to take some photos from the bluff overlooking the lake at Concordia University in hopes something would turn out.  Besides, I was already there, and how else could I justify standing out in the cold and wind.    After a few aborted attempts, here is the first shot that I kept.

For the record, this was shot with the aperture at a wide-open f/4, and a shutter speed of 1/3 second.  For all of these shots I underexposed by one to two f-stops from what my camera's light meter was recommending.  I was concerned that if I stopped the aperture down too much, the required exposure time would risk camera movement in the breezy conditions, even with a tripod.  I will confess to having worked a fair amount on these photos in post processing, as there wasn't really much to see in the shots as originally downloaded onto my computer.  I did like the meringue effect of the clouds that I was able to bring out.

Then I noticed a ship that had most likely come from the Milwaukee harbor and was heading north.

The ship was probably a mile or so out and this shot has been cropped some.  The waviness in the lights of the ship I believe represents the up and down movement of the ship during the exposure, which was a full 2 seconds, again at an aperture of f/4.

Looking to the south, I wanted to try to include the first light, the water, and the shore (Fox Point in this case).

The problem was that because my lens was wide open and with the focus on the line between lake and sky to the south, the weeds in the foreground are badly out of focus, which I found to be distracting.  Here's another shot that is perhaps not as distracting.

I cropped this shot down to exclude most of the weeds, but in order to include the radio towers at the far right, I had to retain some of those weeds.  In addition, I noted from the fuzziness of the tower lights  that this shot is not as crisp as I would have liked.  There was really barely enough light to get the camera's AF system to work and not nearly enough for my weak eyes to set the focus manually.

Finally, here is another shot that has been cropped to exclude all weeds.

A bit too simple, I'm afraid, but I did like the way the long exposure had smoothed out the waves on the lake.  This was shot, again at f/4 with an exposure of 1.6 seconds, at 2 f-stops less light than my camera was calling for.

All of the photos were shot at an ISO of 100.  I had tried some shots at higher ISO ratings, but in extreme low-light situations, high ISOs create a great deal of "noise."  And even at an ISO of 100 there was significant noise that I worked in post processing to reduce to a manageable level.


Sunday, October 20, 2013


This time of year the local weather reporters are always showing maps of the Upper Midwest reflecting the status of the fall colors.  Frankly, they always seem to be behind the curve--the colors have generally progressed faster than their maps show.  Or maybe it's just that I like to see a fair amount of green among the yellows, oranges, and reds.  Even so, by this weekend it was getting pretty late by anyone's reckoning, and I thought I should get out and catch what color I could before it is all gone.

On Saturday, the 19th, I visited the "back lot" of the local Unitarian Church, only a couple of miles from our house and a location I have enjoyed many of times in the past.  On Saturday and
Sunday mornings I also visited a woods that forms part of our condominium development.  I wound up taking a lot of shots, usually a sign that I felt good about the opportunities.  In fact, I took a whopping 400 images over the two days.  On the other hand, I have been more assiduous in discarding images that are technically poor or have compositional defects or are simply near-dupicates.  By the end of the weekend I had weaned my images down to about 35, a discard rate of over 90 percent.  I didn't know whether I should be disappointed with my low success rate or pleased that I am getting better (more aggressive) at paring down my library.  Whatever.

So here are some of the shots that I have retained--at least for now.

One of the first photos I took at the Unitarian Church was of a birch tree adjacent to the parking lot.

The tree was being nicely backlit by the morning sun.  However, there were all sorts of distractions around the tree so I decided to limit my shot to that portion of the tree that I could capture without most of the background problems.  I did darken the background a bit in post processing.

There were a number of sumac shrubs bordering the church parking lot.  Many sumacs turn a beautiful red hue in the fall.  However, some of the sumacs here had simply turned yellow, such as the following.

I took a number of sumac shots, but I liked the above one the best because of the composition.  I often put the central stem off-center, but this time I placed it in the center of the image, to preserve the symmetry.

One of the other shrubs at the church featured leaves that varied from green to bright red and that were punctuated by wonderful white berries.  One of the shots I took was of just a clump of the berries.

I intentionally opened up the aperture to f/4 to keep the berries in focus but put the leaves out of focus.  Here I really wanted the subject to be the berries, with the leaves just providing a context.  I liked the "soft" feel of the leaves in this shot, especially the leaf to the left of the berries.  And the single green berry created a nice point of interest.  I also took some wider angle shots, including the following.

Here I was happy to have a lot of the closer leaves in good focus but a lot of the foliage further back blurred out to give the image nice depth.  This was shot at an aperture of f/10.

OK, so even though I was focusing on fall color, the following is a black & white.

In this shot I wanted to feature these spent flower heads at varying distances, and therefore at varying levels of focus.  Things didn't work out exactly as I planned and I wound up cropping what I got.  Moreover, the colors were drab browns and grays, which I just didn't like, so I converted the image to black & white.

Here is a shot of a tired leaf, also at the church.

Even though the leaf was somewhat indifferent and has a hole eaten through it, I was happy with the image's resolution.  I used my Tamron macro lens and a tripod, which helped a lot.  It also helped that the leaf was essentially flat, so that all of it was essentially in a single plane perpendicular to the lens.  I took the shot at an aperture of f/4, nicely blurring out any background elements.  The shot as taken was simply of the complete leaf, not very interesting.  So I decided to crop it down a bit to create a little mystery, perhaps.

On to the woods adjacent to our subdivision.  The woods are relatively dense and have been left in a "natural" state for many years.  Even so, they are not overrun with low growing plants, so moving around is pretty easy.  The floor of the woods is covered with leaves and other miscellaneous detritus, offering numerous opportunities for shots.  The only problem is the low-light conditions.  Here is a relatively typical shot of the floor.

Is it too obvious that I have positioned the yellow leaf in the upper right corner as a point of interest?  I didn't actually place the leaf there, but I took the shot with the leaf's position in mind.  The woods also presented something of a puzzle.

I was attracted by the what I took to be morning dew on this oak leaf.  However, I don't know the composition of the red drops.  Blood?  Seems too translucent, but I couldn't think of any other explanations.  Again, I cropped this shot down quite a bit to emphasize the dew drops and to keep the shot from looking too mundane (hopefully).

Here is a leaf that had remained bright green, even though it had been chomped on by one or more insects.

Again, I chose to crop the image down to avoid the shot appearing too mundane.  I wish that I had taken more care to remove the piece of grass in the upper right and the yellow stem below the leaf's base.

Here is a general shot of the woods that I liked.

Here I wanted to feature both the yellow leaves on the floor of the woods and the three tree trunks.  I did like this overall composition.  This was shot at f/9, with the focus on the tree trunks.

One of the things I found myself doing was to take shots of clumps of colored leaves and with trees or the general woods as a background.  I wanted to keep the leaves in focus and allow the background to go out of focus, retaining just enough focus to make the background recognizable but without distracting from the subject leaves in the foreground.  Here are a few of my attempts along these lines.

This last shot is probably the best of the lot, as it includes a dark foreground trunk to help "explain" the source of the leaves.  And here is another shot that worked well.

The background is perhaps a bit too indefinite, but I liked the shot's overall soft pastel feel.  This was taken at an aperture of f/4.  

Below is a shot of a dying fern that I was able to contrast nicely with a dark background.  

Finally, here is a shot of a couple of overlapping leaves, again set against a dark background.  Shot at f/4.

The shot's composition worked for me. 


Friday, October 18, 2013


Whenever I haven't taken my camera out for a week or so, I start feeling compelled to do some shooting.  I think I may have a bit of an addiction going.  In any event, even when I'm not feeling inspired, I can almost always find something of interest at the Mitchell Domes.  So Friday morning I grabbed my camera and macro lens and made yet another trip there.

This time I decided to focus (figuratively) on depth of field.  With macro depth of field is critical, so I generally keep my camera set to Aperture Priority so that I have control over that variable.  And since I am using a tripod with my macro lens, shutter speed is generally not much of an issue, unless there is a breeze that is moving the plants around.

One of the first opportunities in the Desert Dome was a group of barrel cacti that were catching some of the morning sunlight.  I decided to shoot the cacti from a low level to capture the top of the closest cactus, which was getting some backlighting, and that is where I set the focus.  That meant that I had to position the camera about a foot off the ground.  I also wanted to include the cacti behind the subject cactus for context.  Here is the first shot I took, at f/10.

I liked that the background cacti were somewhat out of focus but still recognizable, and I was happy with the amount of detail available in the needles on top.  However, I decided I would also like to see what the shot would look like at different apertures.  Here is one at a wide-open f/3.2.

I thought this shot really lost something.  The background cacti were a little more out of focus, and that was OK.  The problem was with the needles of the foreground cactus.  I thought their blurriness was just too distracting.  Next I tried a much narrower aperture, this time f/32.

The background cacti are now in much better focus, but I think that is a problem.  The foreground needles are getting lost.  So my choice here was the first shot.

Another subject in the Desert Dome was some sort of succulent that I have shot a number of times in the past.  This plant has very three-dimensional "leaves" that are perhaps a foot high.  They start out green but then turn yellow and eventually black as they die off.  I wanted to highlight a dead leaf against a green and yellow background.  Here is the first shot.

This was taken at a relatively wide open aperture of f/5.6.  As a result, the background leaves are pretty much blurred out.  They provide a pleasant background, but it is difficult to identify them as other leaves in different stages.  Moreover, the spike at the top of the leaf is somewhat out of focus.  Here is a second shot taken at f/11.

Now the background is more intelligible.  In addition, the spike at the top of the foreground leaf is in better focus.  Finally, here is a shot taken at f/22.

Here the black leaf is in a bit better focus but there is still some blurriness in the background leaves.  I finally decided that I liked this shot the best of the three.  The black leaf is interesting . . . sort of . . . but it's not the worst thing to have the background in sufficient focus to be part of the subject matter.

One of the things I keep trying to do is to focus on just a leaf edge, allowing the remainder of the leaf to fall out of focus.  Here is one of my attempts, shot at an aperture of f/22.

This seems like a  very narrow aperture that should keep a lot of the image in pretty good focus.  But in this case I was extremely close (maybe 2-3 inches) from the ledge of the leaf edge, and, as a result, the depth of field was still extremely shallow.  The composition's just too simple, I think.

Here is another leaf shot.  In this case I was focusing on the closer edge at an aperture of f/8, taken from a distance of perhaps 10-12 inches.

A more interesting composition, I think.  In these situations it becomes important to find a stretch of edge that is relatively straight so that when I position the lens an an angle perpendicular to the line of the leaf edge, I am able to keep a reasonable length of the leaf edge in good focus.  Having "live view" really helps in situations like this.

Here is a shot of the petal of an orchid that illustrates that same idea.

This was taken at an aperture of f/8 but at a very close distance from the petal's edge.  Even though the edge of the petal is meandering, much of the front edge is at about the same distance from the lens.  Here I was just interested in creating an abstract, so I didn't care that the remainder of the flower had fallen out of focus.  This shot is cropped some so that the distance across the image is only perhaps 1-1/2 inches.

Here is another orchid shot.

Because orchids tend to be so "three-dimensional," it is hard to keep everything in focus at close range.  This was taken at f/45.

And finally here is a clump of bright daisy-like flowers from the Show Dome.  Here I just wanted to flood the image with flowers from edge to edge.

This was taken from a much greater distance than those above, so depth of field was not as much of an issue.  Even so, I took this at f/16.


Saturday, October 12, 2013


With the advancing fall season, sunrise is arriving later and later and is now occurring well after 7 am.  I get up way before that time.  The other morning when I went for coffee, there was a thick fog and I decided to grab my camera.  The first shot I took was of a grocery store parking lot, not the most photogenic of locales, but I liked the way the lights were illuminating the fog.

As I've indicated before, fog provides some real advantages for landscape photography.  The fact that the fog appears denser with distance provides some palpable depth to scenes that might otherwise seem flat.  In addition, it can serve to hide or at least minimize a number of background distractions, focusing attention on the primary subject of the photo.  So after rooting around in the parking lot for a few minutes, I drove over to Virmond Park to get some more fog shots before sunrise.

I have a favorite tree in the park that I have shot any number of times.

The tree, which stands only about 20 feet high, is nicely formed, and sits in the middle of a large open area, allowing focus to remain on it.  Here the fog helped to reveal the distance between the tree and other trees and shrubbery close to the edge of the bluff overlooking Lake Michigan.  The fog ensured also that the tree would not get "lost" among the other foliage.  I have taken this shot many of times, positioning the tree on the right and allowing the taller trees in the left background to provide balance to the composition.  This time I also took a shot positioning the tree on the left.

This also worked well, I thought, in fact, perhaps better than the previous shot.  In this case, the fog really helped to separate foreground from background.

Subconsciously, perhaps, waiting for the sunrise, I took a few closeup shots of the park's abundant thistle population.

Even though this shot was backlit by the brightening sky, I thought it helped to lighten up the thistle to the point that its distinctive violet color was evident.  This was taken at f/6.3 for 1/50 second.  I had plenty of aperture to completely blur out the background, and of course the fog helped.  However, there is just enough color to indicate that there is some sort of landscape in the background--green grass, dark foliage, lighter sky.  I thought it was important to include the thistle's leaves to provide more balance.  The shutter speed should have been enough to quiet down any camera shake, but there is a little "softness" in the resolution--a breeze maybe.

Here is another thistle shot that I kept as a silhouette.  I think of this as three adults and a child.

This also was shot at f/6.3, but the shutter speed was 1/100 second, and the resolution is much sharper.

I noticed a nice spiderweb that was being lit by the morning sky.  Unfortunately, a breeze had sprung up and was moving the web back and forth.  This was the best of the shots that I got.

It was about this time that the sun decided to make its appearance above the horizon, and when I first looked at this shot I thought perhaps I had captured the sun as well as the web--a pretty neat shot.  However, on reflection, I believe the red circle is just a lens flare resulting from the very beginnings of the sun's appearance.  I say this because I realized at this point that I might have a shot that featured the sunrise in connection with "my" tree.  So here is one of the sun a few moments later when it had just cleared the horizon.

Note that the sun's appearance is oblate, not spherical.  That's why I am sure that the web shot above is not of the sun itself.  Still cool, though.

Here is a final, closer shot I took of the sun under the tree.

This was taken at f/9 for 1/200 second, in an attempt to keep both the sun and the tree in reasonable focus.  I underexposed the shot 2/3 of an f-stop from what my camera's light meter called for.  I'm pretty happy with it, all in all.


Friday, October 11, 2013


The government shutdown during our recent trip to Washington DC required us to reevaluate our itinerary, and one of our alternative choices was the Washington National Cathedral, located in the city's northwest quadrant.  The cathedral, impressive both as to size and construction, is actually an Episcopal church.

Here are a couple of shots of the exterior.

And following is a closer shot of the dormered buttresses shown in the above photo.

The church features a large number of impressive stained glass windows, but I was particularly drawn to the following "stellar" scene.

And here is a detail from another of the windows.

The cathedral's skeletal structure was also impressive,

including pillars lit by the sunlight streaming through the stained glass.

The church was ornate but did not have the abundance of statuary typical of Roman Catholic churches. However, it did include a nice statue of Washington.

Over and above the complications stemming from the colored light coming through the stained glass, the lighting in the church created significant challenges for photography.  And the lighting for the Washington statue was especially difficult, so I finally decided to convert it to a black & white to avoid the problem.

I thought the gothic arches were particularly attractive.  Here are a couple of those.

In the first of these shots, the camera wanted the walls surrounding the window to be orange and the arch closer to the camera to be violet.  I had to work hard in post processing to calm the colors down.  The camera also wanted to "blow out" the light coming through the window, but again I was able to pull out some detail in post processing.

In this second shot I especially liked the lighting on the arching and how it framed the stained glass window behind it.  My regret is that I clipped the top of the arch.  There's no way to recover what wasn't included in the shot in the first place.

Finally, the church's exterior includes a number of gargoyles.  Here is one of those.

Note the face peeking out from the gargoyle's chest.  The architect was just having fun, I think.