An excellent tool for a roadside photographer           

I live in a wooded rural location just short of an hour from the city of Kamloops in British Columbia, and it’s so easy to hop in my car to drive along the winding back roads. I suppose I could hike or climb, but truth be told I have the most fun as a roadside photographer.

For years, each spring, my wife and I looked forward to seeing geese hatchings at a near by pond. There are normally two, or sometimes three adults with six or eight goslings hiding in the long grass just across the reed filled pond. However, this spring there are at least eight adult geese and maybe twenty soft yellow goslings residing at the pond.

To photograph them we would stealthily slow the car down and ease to a prolonged stop. Coming to a sudden stop spooks the apprehensive geese causing them to dash away. Do geese “dash”?   Anyway the fearful gaggle of geese would quickly move from sight. And opening the car door to try photographing them is a waste of time.

Having decided on the time of day that gives me the best light, I first slowly drive by so as to determine where I want to stop for the best photos and I shoot from the car. The geese are usually far enough away that anything shorter than a 300mm lens isn’t close enough. Actually, 300mm isn’t really close enough.

In the past twenty plus years Linda and I used countless kinds of equipment to stabilize our lenses. And the best, in my opinion, is a beanbag. A beanbag fits nicely on the car’s windowsill and allows the photographer to nestle down and rest any size lens on it for shake free shooting.

This year I purchased, after months of research and selling off some of my other lenses, the latest Tamron 150-600mm lens. The lens weighs just over four pounds and although it does have vibration control, shooting from a seated position in a car isn’t the best for sharp, shake free photographs. So out comes the beanbag. However,  I quickly realized that big lens demanded a larger beanbag than the one I hastily stitched together years ago.

With a bit of online searching I found a company called Movophoto.com that makes a large and unique beanbag that fits like a saddle over the car window. With my limited sewing skills I could never have made such a perfect beanbag for that big lens. I ordered it, and when it finally arrived I filled it with rice, and although it’s heavy it resides in the car and stays put on the window, so the weight is a good thing. There are a lot of gadgets that I could spend my money on, but for now that beanbag is my favourite.

I slowed my car to a stop next to the pond, shut the engine off, positioned my camera on the large beanbag, and waited for the geese to resume their browsing along the grassy hill beside the pond. At 600mm I was able to frame pretty darn close. Then, when I wanted a different position, I’d just move the car a bit, and take more pictures. I photographed those geese (and some nearby turtles) for about thirty minutes.

Suddenly I heard loud honking from some unseen goose that must have been hiding in the tall pond reeds, and, like a crowd scene from a movie, they all turned at once and rushed into the pond.

I am sure there are experienced photographers that would have set up a blind and waited for hours to get the perfect shot. There is no doubt they will get my respect. But I know where those geese are and what time of day is the best to photograph them. And anyway my car is really comfortable and when I am done I just drive home. I guess I am just a roadside photographer.

Flowers as Portraits   

Easter is about a month away and I expect a few readers will be getting flowers from someone or giving flowers to someone. Those flowers will be a great photo-opp.

A portrait photographer’s studio set-up usually includes a backdrop and lighting equipment. The lighting, from small, or large flash units, is controlled by an array of modifiers that can include reflectors, umbrellas and softboxes. And the backdrop is chosen not so much because it is a flat surface but because it is a background to flatter the subject seated in the foreground.

The lighting illuminates the subject and separates it from that background as well as creates depth and dimensional form.

When producing an outdoor portrait most experienced photographers will begin by placing their subject in front of a neutral background or sometimes erect a backdrop and use either flash, or reflectors, to control the light on their subject and create depth and interest.

However, if I asked those same photographers to make me a good picture of a plant they would likely just kneel down next to some pretty flower and snap the picture with little thought to background or lighting.

After years of doing just that to lazily document some plant that caught my eye, I decided that I wanted more from my images. I realized that it was the shapes and plant forms that drew me to gardens.

During my quest to make my plant and garden photos more than flat, lifeless documents, I discovered the flower photography of Robert Mapplethorpe. His portraits of flowers are always posed and include the kind of dynamic lighting one would expect in photographs of beautiful people. His spectacular and thoughtful compositions of flowers, like orchids and calla lilies, convey moods that to me reveal more with each viewing.

When I photograph people I try to be both creative and flattering with my lighting, remembering that a good portrait should have lasting power. I want future generations to see a portrait of their parent or grandparent and still like it. If one gets too edgy, or trendy, the portrait will not stand the test of time and be discarded when trends change.

I have come to think the same way about photographs of plants. Flowers, of course, are so much easier to photograph than people, especially potted plants. Select a good location, turn the pot until the pose looks good and add light. Plants don’t get tired, nervous or jittery. Maybe that’s why I like photographing flowers, they (almost) always cooperate.

Photographing a plant in the garden or in a pot should be more than quickly pointing a camera at that flower in a garden or a windowsill and releasing the shutter.

Put that boring iPhone away, and take the time to make it more than just a repetitive, unimaginative record. Don’t be in a rush; take time to develop a plan, don’t take the lighting for granted, work with it, and above all, be creative.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photographing a Late Fall Garden   

oregon-grape

thistle-2

thistle

grass

thorns

yellow

I try to wander about in our garden with my camera each and every time the season changes; spring, summer, fall and winter.

I have photographed the changing garden throughout the years and, although it always seems very familiar and comforting, I find myself discovering different ways to capture the life that begins, grows, blossoms and then retreats into sleep. There are times when I have constructed elaborate sets with reflectors to capture and control the light. I have built mini studios much like the controlled indoor setups that portrait photographers are familiar with. I’ve lain in the snow and employed umbrellas on rainy days. However, on this particular day I wanted light, and waited all day for sunlight that seemed reluctant to bring me one day of fall warmth I wanted to photograph before the snow that was predicted in a day or two.

When 3pm rolled around I worried that if I didn’t get something done in the quickly dropping light, other than look out the window, I wouldn’t get any pictures at all.

My camera was waiting with a manual 200mm macro, wireless sender and two light stands with a flash and umbrella mounted on each. However, when I finally walked outside (yep, I already said “quickly dropping light) I realised I was doomed to failure if I relied on taking the time to set up that equipment.

Years ago I was asked to give a lecture to the Abbotsford Photo Arts Club. I won’t go into that long discussion, but the title I chose was, “A problem solving approach to photography”. And I realised that this was the time to move into a problem-solving mode.

I removed the 200mm macro from my camera and replaced it with my wife’s 70-180mm macro. I prefer my old manual lens for close up photography, but that Auto focus zoom macro is really easy to use.

I also put aside the light stands and attached a single flash to an eight-foot TTL flash cord. I could have set things up wireless, but I was going for quick and easy and with the TTL cord I just let the flash hang off my shoulder until I wanted it.

I could have used a high ISO, a wide aperture, and just popped a bit of light for a proper exposure. But a high ISO would increase the ambient light and show the lifeless colours of surrounding foliage. A wide aperture would limit my depth of field, and TTL is fast and easy to light, compose and relight a subject.

I under-exposed my exposure by several stops, and let the dedicated TTL flash (with a diffusor cup) do what it was designed for, to deliver just the right amount of light on my subject.   That gave me a dark background that I could later make completely black by adjusting the contrast in Photoshop.

I didn’t have a lot of time before more clouds moved in making an already dark afternoon even darker, but my portable set-up made things easy and even gave me a moment to pause and watch our three legged, feral cat flee as it ran out from the cover of the shrubbery. Gosh, in spite of the damage to her one back leg, she sure can move.

I had been trying for three days to get some pictures, but unpleasant weather and life in general got in the way. However, with a bit of problem solving and the will to finally get out and do something, a person can end up with a few photographs worth keeping.

 

March is Here Again

The train goes by

Notch Hill Church

 

From winter's storm

Lost during winter’s storm

 

Lakeshore in spring

Desolate beach

 

Just before spring

Waiting for planting season

 

ReConstruction

Reconstruction

 

Winter tree in spring

Winter tree waiting for spring

 

Yes, March is here again. Those who have been reading my posts for a while know that I approach this month with a foreboding feeling. The optimism of January and the hopefulness of February have now passed.

Last year I wrote about the uninspiring landscape of this month and the frustration of photographers who are ready for something other than falling snow and icy roads. I quipped about useless forays into the countryside to photograph hungry coyotes, wandering deer, or sad little birds that hung about through the winter.

However, just when I was ready to be moody and join others gloomily complaining about the weather, Mother Nature has thrown a wrench in the spokes with spring-like weather.

I traditionally expect March to come “In like a lion and out like a lamb”, but not so this year. February 2015 is being heralded as the second warmest ever recorded here in British Columbia. What is a guy to do? I wasn’t ready for spring.

The landscape is mostly snow-less, but I know there is green growth beneath that drab, lifeless end of winter brown. So with that in mind, my wife, Linda, and I decided in spite of that lingering pale hue that we would pack our cameras and take a drive along the ice free Thompson River to see if we could find something worth pointing our cameras at.

I had decided to mount my trusty 18-200mm lens on my camera. I like that easy to use lens. It may not be the sharpest lens in many collections, but it is versatile, lightweight, and doesn’t take up much room. Besides that I can always tweak its slight lack of sharpness in Photoshop.

As we drove up the river valley I wondered if I would find anything in the lifeless landscape to photograph. We are so conditioned to search for colour when we set out to do scenics that we forget to look at the structure as the scene unfolds in front of us.

We talked and drove without finding anything to photograph and eventually stopped for lunch in the small lakeside town of Sorrento. I just couldn’t get motivated and after that big meal was about to resign myself to just returning home to sleep it off. But as I paid for our lunch, Linda talked to some local people who suggested we check out the old church at Notch Hill. I was surprised when they said that decrepit 1920s church was still there. Well, it was just barely there, and under some slow restoration.

As I selected different angles to photograph that decaying building I realized I should be photographing its transition in the landscape. I was seeing things wrong and falling prey to words of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar who said, “beware of the ides of March”. It’s what is changing and emerging that I should capture, not try to photograph the bloom of spring when it isn’t here yet.

I began to look for the story that happens between one season and the next, the shoulder season. I realized my photographic goal should be to select subjects that visually talk about that moment just after winter and just before spring.

I am sure one could still wander up into the mountains and continue photographing winter or search for some hot location in the city with early growth. But for those that are always creating photography challenges for themselves, I suggest that as with that old Notch Hill church, this year’s March photography challenge should be about something between the seasons.

I look forward to your comments. Thanks, John

My website is at www.enmanscamera.com

Having Fun Lighting Flowers With Off Camera Flash

Spring Crocus    Crokus5

The snow has finally, and at last, left the north side of our house. It’s barely been gone about two weeks, however, that means two weeks of new growth in my wife’s garden.

I had been making notes in preparation for a workshop on using flash outdoors that I will be leading the first two Sundays in May, when my wife mentioned the crocuses were coming up everywhere, and I thought I would take a look to see if there were any left after a weekend visit from our two granddaughters who like to pick flowers, and I thought it might be nice to walk around her garden.

As it turned out the girls hadn’t got them all, and, anyway, there were many more coming up thru the ground every day. Discovering there were lots remaining I decided I should select a couple plants to photograph before the bloom was over.

Keeping in mind that I have been thinking about the upcoming outdoor lighting class I thought why not photograph the flowers just as I would do a portrait of a person.

I got out my small 2’x2’ backdrop and placed it behind some of the flowers. That small backdrop, especially constructed for flowers and other small items, is made of black velvet material attached to sharpened dowels that easily poke into the ground.

I mounted two Nikon wireless flashes on light stands, and put a 40-inch umbrella on one that I placed shoulder height to my right, and a 30-inch on the other positioned low to the ground and to the left.

Needing to shoot low, I used my favorite garden tripod, the uniquely flexible Benbo. The Benbo tripod allows each leg to be independently positioned, and instead of a vertical center column configuration most tripods have, the Benbo has a column that fits off center and when the legs, that go in almost any direction, are splayed out flat, the camera can be positioned just off the ground.

I mounted my 200mm macro lens on my camera. That focal length let me situate the camera several feet away from my subject crocuses, and I wouldn’t have to put an end to the new growth coming up everywhere in my wife’s garden while still letting me have a close focus.

The exposure was made exactly the same way I would have made it as if photographing a person in an outdoor studio; slightly underexpose the ambient light, reposition the flashes for the best light direction, and continue to make tests until I got the lighting that would flatter the subject.

Lighting a subject with off-camera flash is fun, and putting up a backdrop ensures that it is even more so. It doesn’t matter who, or what, the subject is. There isn’t really a choice when I have a chance to use a flash because I use a flash always. For me it is all about adding light. It was also really nice to spend some time outdoors in the garden and see it coming to life in the spring.

I always appreciate your comments. Thanks, John

My website is at www.enmanscamera.com

 

 

TTL Flash Photography in my Wife’s Garden

Tulip 1 Blue Muscari Arbis Sempervivum Pennesetum grass - fountain grass

This is beginning to be a busy spring. I expect that isn’t news to those in my area that have spent all day doing yard work the past few days. But for many photographers thoughts kept wandering to, “That could make a good picture.”

I really wanted to do some photography in my wife’s garden. The nights are still cold, but the days have been almost hot, and with that heat the first of her flowers are beginning to bloom. My goal is always to photograph what happens in the garden with the changing seasons.

There is always something in the garden no matter the weather, be it snow, rain, or like today, high clouds. The slight overcast day was perfect for my subjects. Bright sunny days increase the contrast of scenes, making it hard to capture details in the extremes and I wanted to retain what details I could. The diffused daylight reduced the number of f/stops from black to white.

My setup is a 200mm macro lens and depending on my mood and the light, either a ring-flash, a reflector, or as I used this afternoon, a wireless, off-camera flash.  Outdoor portraits, whether of people or flowers, in my opinion, aren’t that interesting when one only relies on illumination from the sun. Flash, on or off-camera, or even a reflector, adds dimension and depth that makes for a much better image.

I mounted my flash on a small 2-foot stand and carried a tiny six-inch tripod if I needed the light to be lower to the ground, and I this time I didn’t use a tripod because the few flowers were close to the ground and I prefer shooting very low level. That means almost every shot is made while lying on the ground.

By the time I could get out to the garden the sun was low and, sometimes, a heavy overcast. Perfect light. All I had to do was put the flash to one side and adjust my shutterspeed to decrease the bright ambient light.  Today’s TTL (through the lens) flash is amazing.  Previous generations recall when the flash/camera sync speed was limiting and we could only use a flash at 1/60th of a second! How did one survive?  Today I moved my shutter between 200th of a second and 8000th of a second. That gave me lots of control over the ambient light and easily allowed me to move my aperture to increase or decrease depth of field. My advice is check your camera’s manual, read about, and set the camera to hi-speed flash sync, if available.

I’ll include a brief explanation of TTL flash. When the shutter is tripped, the light from the flash fires off and hits the subject. Then that light from the flash bounces back to the camera, and a sensor reads it as it builds up exposure. The in-camera computer determines when the light has massed enough light for the correct exposure and turns off the flash.

The photographer controls the flash rather than the flash controlling our photography. With TTL technology the camera’s computer provides the correct exposure regardless of the aperture, or flash-to-subject distance.  TTL technology puts the control of depth-of-field back into the hands of the photographer.

Most of the time I kept my flash on TTL, increasing or decreasing the power depending on how far I positioned the flash from a flower, and only selected manual flash as I began loosing the light.

Books on garden photography recommend morning when everything is fresh, but I didn’t get a chance till late in the afternoon, as I was occupied building a temporary yard for six new chicks. We had an early morning marauder a few months ago, probably a bobcat, reducing my laying hens to two. I now have reinforced the chicken yard and think everybody’s safe now. I’ll give the garden another couple week’s growth and try for that fresh morning (and hopefully some overcast) light.

I’ll repeat what I wrote about garden photography last February, “Just about anytime is good for a dedicated photographer to make photographs. My advice is to be creative, have fun, and don’t worry about failures. Open them up on the computer, learn something from them, then quickly delete.  Of course, some tweaking with PhotoShop always helps and, for those photographers that are like me trying for something different, anytime and any conditions will be just fine.”

I always appreciate your comments. Thanks, John

My website is at www.enmanscamera.com

Reflections on the Medium of Photography

    

This morning as I sat on our front deck I could feel a warm summer like breeze. I drank my coffee, I was reading, and I mused on how much fun spring photography is.  I like to take scenic pictures anytime, whether winter, spring, summer or fall and I feel that with each season’s change comes excitement.

The night before I had been moving some books around in my overflowing photographic library, and I came across an older stack of little booklets distributed by the Hasselblad camera company, and thought I’d review one in particular entitled “Black and White Photography” by Ansel Adams.  I enjoy looking at his photography and especially reading his essays and thoughts on photography.

So as I sat enjoying my coffee it was from that booklet that I chose to read about what Ansel Adams had to say about photography, and I began to reflect on the exciting medium of photography so many of us are passionately involved in.

I don’t know about my regular readers, but I am continually composing pictures of everything, whether I have my camera or not. I see light and shadow and put subjects together mentally in a photograph thinking about what would work in my composition and what wouldn’t.  I also enjoy looking at other photographers’ work, and I thumb through books and choose websites that have photographers’ galleries. Of course that is a great way to learn, but I like looking at photographs and reading what other photographers have to say about photography.

Here is a quote I borrowed from Hasselblad’s “ Black and White Photography” booklet printed in 1980.  While discussing the Art of Photography, Adams explains, “Photography is an analytic medium. Painting is a synthetic medium (in the best sense of the term). Photography is primarily an act of discovery and recognition (based on intention, experience, function, and ego). The photographer cannot escape the world around him. The image of the lens is a dominant factor. His viewpoint, his visualization of the final image and the particular technical procedures necessary to make this visualization valid and effective – these are the essential elements of photography.”

Currently, it is an exciting time period with continual leaps being made in camera technology and both Nikon and Canon have just released spectacular new models. However, I have concern that so many photographers spend so much time talking about equipment and the acquisition of it and that they often forget to think about the photograph.  A friend that I hadn’t seen in months stopped by the other day and all he could talk about was the latest cameras and hoped he had the money to get the newest Nikon.  When I asked him if he had been out doing any interesting photography all he said was “I haven’t really had the time,” and turned the discussion back to camera equipment. I was disappointed that he was more interested in the equipment than about photography.

The latest cameras and lenses are really fun to talk about, but one needs to leave some time to talk about personal photographs made with their cameras and also find more time to actually make those photographs.

In the Hasselblad booklet Adams also discussed black and white photography, but the information on black and white printmaking isn’t applicable to current digital technology. Personally, I really enjoy converting images to black and white, and so for those that are also interested in converting their images to black and white I recommend readers try the computer program Silver EFX pro by http://www.niksoftware.com.

For those who don’t know who Ansel Adams was they should go to http://www.anseladams.com and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ansel_Adams. Those readers curious about Hasselblad cameras should go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hasselblad.

I enjoy almost anything about photography. Talking about it, reading about it, looking at other photographer’s work, and of course, pointing my own camera and releasing the shutter to make my own pictures. In closing here are the words of one of Adam’s contemporaries, Edward Weston. “Photography suits the temper of this age – of active bodies and minds. It is a perfect medium for one whose mind is teeming with ideas, imagery, for a prolific worker who would be slowed down by painting or sculpting, for one who sees quickly and acts decisively, accurately.”

www.enmanscamera.com

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