Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Focus Point

I posted an image on Facebook that I liked, but there was just something missing. Asked Stoney Stone for recommendations that started a short journey of enlightenment.

Here's the original picture:

Stoney recommended cropping the picture to a square because the drooping branches on the right are distracting. Ok, done. But now I think that the gap on the left is distracting!

Time for another crop. Distractions gone, and I really like the delicate curve on the left. But I don't like the vertical format, and the straight browse lines of the leaves do nothing for me where they are.

Another crop, another option. The pretty curve is still there, but the amount of cropping has revealed that the curved branch is not in sharp focus, and it's quite bright. I darkened that edge to subdue it. I also saturated the blue. There are some features I like a lot, and some I'd like to improve upon. For instance, those blue ripples need something stronger in the top-left to balance them.

So now I wish I had shot it right in the first place, paying attention to depth of field and composing it to include only the important part of what I was seeing. I was being lazy and taking a snapshot instead of being a perfectionist on every single photo. Taking snapshots is fine, but you can't turn them into masterpieces when you get home.

Lesson learned? No matter how many years I have done this, focusing in on the real subject and eliminating the distractions is the hardest thing to remember. It doesn't come naturally to me. But when I see the pictures on my monitor, without all the distractions of being there, I sometimes wonder, "what was I thinking!"

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The first Wildflower of Spring

I had a tough weekend. Saturday, I went to Concord to shoot the re-enactment of the first battle of the revolutionary war at the Minuteman National Historical Park. I was there at 11:00, but no action. Then I checked my printout and found that it was scheduled for 1:00, not 11. So I went over to the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. Pretty bleak. There was a nesting redwing and a swan cruising around, but most of the movement was human.

Back to the battle site, but still no action. A ranger said they had had to cancel the re-enactment because of the possible government shutdown. Humbug!  My next stop was the Belmont Audubon center, but again things were looking bleak. Only April 9, after all.

Next I went to Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. This sounds like a lot of jumping around, but it's all on the way home. The trees are still bare, and I didn't see one magnolia or forsythia in bloom.  But the early bulbs were out, so I played with Siberian skrill and Glory of the Snow - two blue beauties that have flowers less than an inch wide and stay low to the ground. I had bought a couple of extension tubes for doing macro photography with my regular lenses, and wanted to get to know them. So I crawled around for an hour and refreshed my macro skills.
Siberian Skrill (2) <- - - - - at Mount Auburn - - - - - -> Snow Glories

Unknown funghi
Sunday, I drove up to Nottingham, NH to find Hepatica. Wow, am I rusty! I got to the park, found the trail, and started walking. Then I realized that I didn't have a trail map, didn't have a wildflower book, and didn't have a clue. I followed the trail across a brook and up a small hill, realizing that I had no idea how or where these things grew. As I left, I saw two SUVs with young guys who looked like they knew what they were doing. Except that one of the cars had two surfboards on it. At least my car wasn't in their way. This time, I drove straight home and shut the door behind me.

Monday morning it was rainy out, chilly and raw. I rode my bike, cleaned the house, and did some office work. The clouds started to clear and the air turned steamy. After Sunday's wildflower bust, I did some research and found a place closer to home that sounded promising - Middlesex Fells. The plan was to get a map, talk to a naturalist, and get oriented. Maybe a little conditioning walk.

The visitors center was wide open, but no one was there. Not looking good. I found a little map and headed toward the Virginia Woods parking lot. Passed it once, passed it twice, passed it a third time. (Note to self: Get a dementia test before you forget!) Finally,  I headed off on the trail, knowing that I still didn't know where I was going, but in a more exploratory mood.

Spring wildflowers bloom before the trees leaf out and block their light. That eliminated the hemlock forest, no light there. Down to the left were oaks and beeches, and not a leaf in sight. As I wandered down the hill, I found a brook with stone bridges and two waterfalls. Later, a small gorge. As the trail circled around a small hill, I saw a flash of white. I turned to look, but it was gone. I should have moved on, but something said to follow my instinct. A few short steps. And there, in the dry duff, there were dozens of little white flowers.
Bloodroot (3)
Bloodroot! Their leaves wrap around them like a little blanket. And they start popping out while they're still under the leaves on the forest floor. So delicate, so beautiful.

As the little plants come out, they put up leaves. It's like a teaser of what's coming.  I try to figure out what kind of leaves they are: Trout lilies. wild geraniums. wood violets. Spring is here, with lots more to come. Things are looking up!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

In Praise of Point-an-Shoot Cameras

There's a new camera in the family, a Canon SX30IS. It's a beauty. I got it for Gary before he took a trip to Texas where he would be seeing spring flowers in an arboretum and migrating shorebirds at an NWR. Gary loves wildlife and has been carrying a big DSLR with a huge 500mm lens in a backpack for quite some time. I decided to upgrade his equipment. He took the SX30 to Texas and when he returned, he gathered up all the old hand-me-down equipment I had loaned him over the years and returned it to me. So I guess the gift was a hit.
We went together to photograph the full moonset at Nubble Light. I climbed down the rocks for foreground. He stayed on the hill and shot the lighthouse at his level. We wandered around until sunset, shooting whatever we saw. Some guy was playing bagpipes, and I listened as I concentrated on the moonlight. After dark, he drove home and we chatted. It was a nice evening together.

The next morning, I loaded my photos onto my computer. I was pretty happy with them, although they were somewhat homogeneous. I had crawled around on the rocks a lot so I was emotionally invested in that wide view with lots of foreground. The colors were pretty, and I had gotten some images of the Nubble that were a bit different from the norm.

I think I looked at his pictures out of politeness, expecting to tell him that I liked his new camera. You know, photo-snob. But HOLY COW, he got some really great stuff. His compositions were impeccable, as always. The lighting was great, color was fine, and he got what I didn't: close-ups of the lighthouse tower and the moon. His shots were the perfect complement to mine - a product of our different vision, not camera capability.

He even got the bagpiper! I was in la-la land, I guess. But including this detail makes the photo essay in my mind much more interesting.

Oh, I knew I should have zoomed in, but my telephoto lens is heavy, and my mobility is  poor on wet, rocky cliffs, so I just left it behind.  Gary got the shots. I loaded his images into Lightroom and made sure to put his name in the copyright field, knowing I wouldn't be able to tell the difference later. Our sense of composition is very similar, as you can see, and the camera makes the technical issues non-existent.

I've always thought of compact cameras as toys. Great to take downtown, when I'm in a street-shooting mood. Ok for flowers where I want to get unusual angles. Fine to slip in a small bag for a wedding reception. But for serious shooting, for publication in calendars and magazines, I always use my DSLR. Now I'm not so sure. The newer cameras have all the features - and more - that my DSLR has. For under $200, you can now get a camera with exposure compensation, bracketing, HDR, macro focusing, various shooting modes - all kinds of goodies. True, the SX30 cost almost $400, but that gave us the zoom capability to replace that 500mm monster for wildlife shots.

One difference became apparent in the post-processing. Because the SX30 produces only JPG files, it has much less to work with than a camera that produces RAW files.  It's not filesize, the SX30 produces a 10 megapixel file. But the jpg format just doesn't have the detail that raw files have. 

Nevertheless, I got it to look sort of bright and dreamy, like my own shots of that moonrise. I wouldn't usually do this to his stuff, but I wanted to really explore whether this camera could produce images I would use for calendars.

I think the answer is yes. Even in automatic mode, today's compact cameras produce amazing pictures. The current generation of point-and-shoot cameras have more features than DSLRs that cost thousands of dollars. They're lighter, more flexible, and small enough to be with you always.

I'm not going to throw away my EOS. I know it inside-out. I can operate it in the dark with my eyes closed. I love my EOS.

But I may need to learn how to use all those buttons on my compact after all.

Good Morning, Spring!

This is the first morning we three watched the sunrise on the deck. The air is rich with the babble of songbirds, once a monotone of chickadees but now a full symphony to spring.

I had intended to photograph the Arnold Arboretum this morning. Last night's visions of bare branches rising ghostly from the spring fog gave way to visions of sugarplums during a night with many wakings. So when Maya the cat marched around on my pillow at 5:00, I barely stopped snoring long enough to tell her, "More night-night".

By 6:00, it was too late for ghostly fog, so we (I) brought two heated kitty beds outside with my coffee and enjoyed the music. The sun rose orange in a peach-and-aqua sky.

It's such a luxury just watching the dawn without shooting it. Almost immediately, someone turned off the symphony. Sun's up. Time to get to work. 

But first, here's a photo from yesterday's sunrise rainbow. A breathtaking sight that had me running for a good position. Enjoy!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The End of Winter

Winter is over. It paid us a farewell visit yesterday, on April Fool's day, but this morning my backyard park is full of kids playing soccer and the trees are busy pushing out buds again. Soon I'll be searching for hepatica and arbutus at the wildflower garden. But right now, I'm wondering where winter went and why I don't feel like I got enough photos.
Christmas in Boston
I spent most of December in Boston, doing winter and Christmas shots. There were a few more shots I wanted to get, but I saved them for days when I couldn't get out of town.  December always seems to get eaten up by the holidays, but it's not really winter anyway, right? Oh well, next year.

In January, I took some short trips. I spent a few hours on the Cape, but the fresh snow melted so I went home before noon. I spent a day on the North Shore (of MA) and did a quick day-trip to Vermont, but mostly I went to Maine and vegged out.

Pemaquid Sunset

Then I spent three weeks mostly in Maine. I did get some shots I've wanted for ages - Acadia National Park, Pemaquid and Nubble Lighthouses at sunset, Camden at sunrise, and a trip to the Rangeley area. So I guess I can check off Maine.

In late February, I took another quickie trip to Vermont. Are you kidding? A quick trip from Boston to Vermont? Sure, I CAN do it, but why? Woodstock by sunrise, drive around frenetically looking for tripod holes, home in time to feed the starving feline crowd and crash. Really need to stop doing impossible day-trips (no, I didn't stop - read March)

St Paddys Day parade in CT
Then came March. Catch-up time. I spent several days in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and got some lovely mountain pix.  Suddenly it was mid-March and I realized that winter was ending! So of course, I went crazy and tried to cover all of New England in a week.

Spring lambs in RI
  • 3/12: Hartford CT Saint Paddy's Day parade. Essex, CT River eagle fest (no eagles left, of course)
  • 3/13: Lincoln, MA - Drumlin Farm for maple sap and baby farm animals, and Great Meadows NWR for ???? - Well, just because I was there.
  • 3/14: Bristol, RI - Blithewold for crocuses, Colt SP for spring lambs. Winter ducks at Sachuest Pt. Planned to go to the Roger Williams zoo, but rained out.
  • 3/15: Vermont - Woodstock, Killington, Rt 7 along the Green Mtns, Williston, Waterbury. I bagged all 5 mountains over 5000 ft. See it here
  • 3/16: Boston: the Flower Show. See it here
  • Supermoon at Scituate LH
  • 3/17: Mason, NH: Parker's Maple Barn. Did a photo essay on maple sugaring. See it here
  • 3/18: York, Maine - shot the sunset/moonrise at Nubble Light.
  • 3/19: Scituate, MA - shot the full SUPERMOON at Scituate Light.
  • 3/20: Crashed, burned, and hardly moved for a week. Sure, there were a couple of beach sunrises and some birds, but nothing big.
  • 3/27: Maine Maple Sunday! See it here.

    So here it is, April already. I ride a stationary bike most mornings, and today I spent my ride studying the normal bloom times of wildflowers. Believe it or not, the wildflowers are scheduled to start within a week. I wonder if they know? Certainly the Vermont wildflowers have no idea, but maybe you'll find me somewhere in Massachusetts, crawling around in the woods, trying to get that quintessential shot of a Spring Beauty soon.

    Spring beauty

    Monday, January 24, 2011

    Blue Ice

    I've spent the afternoon playing with blue ice. Not the real stuff, way too cold, but a picture of frozen salt water in Downeast Maine.  I liked the patterns in the ice, and I liked the blueness in the photo I took, but wanted to see what else could be done with it.

    I was thinking about the work of a facebook friend, Stoney Stone, while I shot the ice. "How would Stoney frame it?"  One of the great benefits of being part of a group of photographers is that you get to learn from everyone, experts and newbies too. The influence of other people challenges me, surprises me, and broadens my imagination.

    Stoney messaged me with some advice, which gave me a starting point. So I'll show you the road he took me down, and you can decide if you like the results. To some, it will be like looking at all the "white" paint chips in the big hardware store. I thought it was interesting enough to share.

    Here's the original picture in Adobe Lightroom, with my white balance set on Auto.  I really like the patches of color created by the light and shadow, and the warm reflections at the top where the ice was shiny. But it's too blue!

    On Stoney's suggestion, I processed it in Photoshop :
       Image -
       Adjustments -
       Hue/Saturation -
    Decreased the Blue until it looked slightly blue but not neon. The ice has a much more delicate look.
    Then I tried playing with the original in Lightroom. Decreased the blue, increased the red and orange. Not bad.

    Next I took the original picture and changed the white balance to shade, which corrects for the blue hue. It looks more blue here than it does in Lightroom, but you can still see the difference.

    Finally, I took the picture with the corrected white balance and processed it with Photomatix Pro, which is HDR software. I couldn't do real HDR processing because I hadn't shot bracketed photos. But part of the HDR processing is a thing called Tone Mapping which brings out the details in both shadows and highlights.  These colors are much closer to what I saw this morning, and that warm reflection really shows up. 

    I'm not sure I'm done playing with this image yet, but I really like what I've done so far and I really like what I've learned. And I really like the fact that there's always someone to ask for advice when I need it.  Thanks, Stoney!

    By the way, you can visit Stoney at

      Tuesday, January 4, 2011

      Light at Nubble Light

      After last week's blizzard, I went to Maine to capture the Nubble. The prospect of getting beautiful snow pictures was really exciting - I love winter!  So I arrived before sunrise and shot the changing light. It was a totally cloudless day, not the best for photography, but I like the pictures I got. There was snow on the ground and the light was really clear.

      Then I wandered up the coast a way, eventually making it to Kennebunk, and wandered back. It was a challenging day for photos. The clear, crisp air and full sun created very contrasty conditions. Since cameras can't capture both sunlit snow and deep shadow, I ended up post-processing most of my images in Adobe Lightroom to control the contrast. Most of the shots I kept were taken with the sun behind me - what photographers call "flat, frontal lighting". 

      Most photos look better when the sun is on the right or left of the subject. These angles create attractive shadows which show the shape of the subject and give a feeling of depth. I like shooting into the sun for special atmospheric effects like fog and God rays. And I love shooting in rain, snow, and even cloudy days. But direct sunshine? Not so much!

      Despite the stark light, I did manage to get some calendar shots out of the trip.

      Antique shop in Wells
      Perkins Cove in Ogunquit

      Laudholm Farm in Wells
      Capt Lord Mansion in Kennebunkport

      I arrived back at Cape Neddick about 30 minutes before sunset and looked around for a variety of views. This is the lobster trap Christmas tree at Fox's Lobster. Yes, I did Photoshop out some phone wires here.


      My goal for the day was to capture the Christmas decorations at Nubble Light. So I walked around the tiny park that overlooks it. There's not much chance of getting any really new views without a boat, but I did find a spot where the power lines didn't show, and a few variations with rocks in the foreground, and I managed to not fall into the ocean.
      The sun was close to the horizon and the light was a warm peach tone as I waited for the Christmas lights to come on.

      ... And waited,

      ... And waited.

      ... And finally realized that there would not be Christmas lights tonight, not even the lighthouse beacon. The blizzard had caused power outages on the coast, and I had found one.  No lights at all!

      The day was not a complete loss. While I was waiting, I had taken some lovely images of the Nubble at dusk. And, after it got dark, another photographer introduced himself and we chatted for a while. Lighthouse images and a new friend - not a bad day!

      Don't feel too bad for me - here's last year's image!

      See more of my new work in my gallery on Photoshelter.

      Saturday, January 1, 2011

      Happy New Year

      The holiday season is fast approaching its end, highlighted on New Years Eve by First Night Boston. I know there are other First Night celebrations, but this is mine and I love it. I used to work for First Night Boston, until I was replaced by a platoon of volunteers with digital cameras. Now that's progress!

      Anyway, I brought out a couple of old pictures to share with you. Back in the day, I actually did do portraits and concerts and happy people celebrating. There are so many opportunities to try different things at a day-long event like this, it's really fun. First nights are alcohol-free, with family events during the day and cultural events at night.

      Boston's New Years Eve celebration has two fireworks launches - one around 7:00 and the second at midnight. For early-birding party-poopers like me, that's terrific. The early "Family fireworks" happen at the Boston Common. You can shoot them with ice sculptures, outdoor entertainment, and the ice skating rink. It's an unusual opportunity to shoot fireworks with a foreground.  The midnight fireworks are launched from Boston Harbor, so you need to be in East Boston to get a good view of fireworks over the city skyline.

      This picture shows last night's fireworks over the Frog Pond skating rink and some of the million spectators who cheered them on.

      Of course, many New Years Eve events offer opportunities other than fireworks. Like ice sculptures. I am in awe of the artists who carve these short-lived creations.  To take a block of ice, carve it with chainsaws, blow-torches, ice picks, and whatever, and then simply let it melt away would drive me crazy. I would want more permanence. But the ice sculptors work their medium to its best advantage, and the finished product is lovely to photograph. My camera's automatic exposure works quite well on ice sculptures. The ice picks up the colors in the lights around it and shows the textures beautifully. The worst problem is getting close enough to the displays to photograph them!

      A couple of years ago, there was snow in the air on New Years Eve. The snow picked up the light and made Boston Common look magical. The lights twinkled, the air was filled with gold, and the fireworks were almost anti-climactic. I don't like crowds, but I love First night.