Photographing the Redwoods

April 16th, 2019
by doinlight

Walking among the redwoods is an inspirational experience. But wait, if we’re talking about the redwoods in California, the trees I am thinking about could be 600 miles from the trees that are conjured up in your mind’s eye. That’s because there are two species of redwoods in California – the massive giants found in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the tall ones that hug 450 miles of the fog-shrouded California coast, culminating in the Redwoods National and State Parks of Northern California. While both species are spectacular, each is unique in its own way and photographing them presents dramatically different challenges and opportunities. In this post, I will be taking you through the Coastal Redwoods of Northern California.

The Redwoods National Park was established in 1968. California had already created three state parks, beginning in the 1920s, that encompassed some of the remaining redwood old growth groves – Jedediah Smith, Del Norte Coast and Prairie Creek.  The two park systems were joined in 1994 to create the Redwoods National and State Parks.  Now 139,000 acres of the Northern California coast are under the joint management and protection of the National Park Service and the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

Being along the Northern California coast, temperatures are moderate throughout the year and moisture is plentiful, not only from winter storms but also from life-giving fogs that roll in year-round from the Pacific Ocean.

Fog is an ever-present possibility in the groves and presents unique challenges and opportunities. The light in the groves is soft and delicate and contrasts and, tp some extent, masks the strength and power of the trees. This light is perfect for capturing this more delicate mood of the redwoods. Slightly overexposed images best capture the lite airiness of the fog.  Compositions with strong foregrounds enhance the feeling of depth created by the fog.

Castles in the fog

‘Castles’ in the fog

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4 Steps to Organize Your Images with Lightroom Classic CC

April 6th, 2019
by doinlight

Why Organize?

It doesn’t matter if you’re a casual photographer, a working professional or somewhere in between, sooner or later you’re going to want to find that picture you took four years ago. The first question is, did you even save it and if so, where?  Did you put it on your old laptop; is it on an external drive that you lost track of?

Lightroom Classic provides four powerful tools for keeping track of your image files.  And at the core of all these tools is the Lightroom catalog.

The Lightroom Catalog

If your image is not in the catalog, it’s not in Lightroom.

If your image is not in Lightroom, Lightroom can’t help you find it.

The only images Lightroom knows about are the ones in the catalog.  The catalog does a lot of things for you but the most fundamental thing is keep track of where all your image files are.

How do image files find their way into the catalog?  The most effective way is with the Lightroom Import feature.  Among other things, you specify where you want Lightroom to put your files, on the internal hard drive, external drive or network attached storage device and Lightroom does the rest for you.

It’s worth mentioning that the hard drive where you choose to store your files should be large enough to hold all the files you want to keep track of, both of photographs you’ve taken in the past and ones you anticipate taking in the future.  In general, external drives or storage devices attached to your network will give you the greatest flexibility.

With this as background, here’s an introduction to the four powerful tools that Lightroom provides. These tools will make it much easier for you to find the images you want.

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Polarizing Filters and Blue Skies

March 28th, 2019
by doinlight

What comes to mind when you think of a polarizing filter? It’s probably how it can darken blue skies. This is just one of the many things this versatile polarizer can do. Many photographers swear by them and some go so far as to keep them on their lenses all the time. But as far as darkening blue skies are concerned, polarizers can create more problems than they solve if you’re not careful.

But before getting into all that, just exactly what does a polarizing filter do? How does it darken blue skies?

It all starts with the fact that light is a wave. We speak of the color of light in terms of the frequency of the wave, just as we speak of the pitch of a sound in terms of its frequency. Red light has a lower frequency and blue light, a higher frequency. It’s as if light vibrates – up and down. And most light vibrates in all directions. But some forms of light vibrate in a single direction. This is called polarized light. For example, glaring light bouncing off the highway can be polarized in a horizontal direction. That’s why Polaroid sunglasses work. They block horizontally polarized light while allowing light polarized in the other directions to pass.

The same is true of a blue sky, or at least some of it. Depending on where the sun is, blue sky light is polarized to a greater or lesser extent. If you stand facing the sun and look through your polarizer, you will notice that it has no effect – the sky is not darkened. But if you continue to look through the polarizer and slowly turn away from the sun you will notice the sky gets darker and darker until the sun is directly over your shoulder. Continuing your turn, the sky will get lighter and lighter until the sun is directly behind you.

…as far as darkening blue skies are concerned, polarizers can create more problems than they solve if you’re not careful.

You can tell in which direction the effect is the greatest with this simple trick.

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The Call of the Redwoods

March 19th, 2019
by doinlight

Rhododendron spring 130529

It’s often said that California has everything.  And it’s true.  From the southern border with Mexico to the northern border with Oregon, the state goes from parched desert to lush mountain slopes. 

California also has the oldest living trees in the bristlecone pines of the White Mountains, the most massive trees in the Giant Sequoias of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, and the tallest trees in the Coastal Redwoods along the California coast.

Can you imagine what it is like to experience these trees?  Just think of it.  The oldest bristlecones were seedlings when the pharos of Egypt were laying massive stone upon stone in Giza.  And both the giant sequoias and coastal redwoods were seedlings when Christ was born in Bethlehem.

The coastal redwoods are the monarchs of these mountains, especially the unlogged old-growth groves….

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The Redwoods Are Calling Me

February 28th, 2019
by doinlight

It’s 6:00 in the morning.  I’m in my car, leaving our Southern California neighborhood and making my way to the freeway.  I’m heading north and have to cross the LA basin which, at this time of day, is not  easy.  But I have a destination that is calling me.  I’m on my way to the redwoods of Northern California, 800 miles from home.  I’m looking forward to feeling small and insignificant and renewed among these magnificent trees.

There are two types of redwood trees in North America and practically all of them are in California.  The coastal redwoods, where I’m headed, are the tallest living organisms on the planet with the tallest topping out at 379 feet.  They are found in groves that span over 450 miles from Big Sur in the south to just across the Oregon border in the north.  They thrive on the fogs that are common along the coast.

The other redwood tree is the Giant Sequoia that grows on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains.  Where the coastal redwoods are tall and slender, the giant sequoia are of enormous girth.  They are considered to be the most massive living organism on the planet.  (But a rumor is spreading that a coastal redwood was found recently that is more massive than the largest giant sequoia, and thereby giving the coastal redwoods both titles.)

I made it out of the LA basin, crossed over the Grapevine on I-5 and into the great central valley of California.  This stretch of I-5 is considered by many to be the most boring highway in the country with mile after mile of pretty much the same, barren landscape.  After what seems like endless hours I turn west towards the Bay Area.  This will be anything but uneventful.

Making it through the East Bay is more than 100 miles of congestion and is not something I look forward to.  In fact, it’s fair to say that I dread it.  I enjoy the Richmond Bridge; I think I like it more than Golden Gate.  But getting there usually requires navigating mile upon mile of stop and go traffic and once it is crossed, there’s more of the same on the other side.  Arg.

But when it’s finally behind me the promise of the serene redwoods comes over me and I’m excited again, re-energized and eager to continue.

Peaceful moment redwoods 160803 SM3129

Reed Simpson Grove in Jedediah Smith State Park.

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Focus Stacking – First Impressions

February 26th, 2019
by doinlight

Background

Depth of Field (DOF) is a staple of near-far landscape photography.  It is used when the composition contains object that are very near to the lens as well as objects that are distant.  Traditionally, it has been achieved by using a wide-angle lens with a small aperture or a tilt-shift lens.  Using this technique, it is possible to have the nearest object one or two feet from the lens and everything is in focus from the object to infinity. 

Racetrack rocks death valley 160222 39731

Depth of field example. The rock is 18″ from the lens but with a wide focal length (16 mm) and a stopped down aperture (f/11) everything is in focus.

The disadvantage of this method is you must use a wide-angle or tilt-shift lens, preferably on a full-frame sensor camera body, and a small aperture.  (In this image, the rock was 18” from the lens.  I used a 16mm lens on a camera with a full-frame sensor and was able to get the needed DOF at f/11.). But small apertures introduce lens diffraction which work against you by softening the entire image.  And what if you don’t have a wide enough lens.  You couldn’t get this shot with a 24mm lens.  And getting any kind of DOF with a telephoto lens is virtually impossible, even with fairly distant subjects.

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Why Lightroom?

February 6th, 2019
by doinlight

I remember when I first tried to process RAW files back in 2002.  I had been shooting JPEG up to that point and heard about RAW files, so I thought I’d give it a try.  I used the only RAW conversion program available to me at the time – Camera RAW in Photoshop 7.1.  It didn’t go well.  I couldn’t figure it out, so I continued to shoot in JPEG. 

Then I heard about a product called RawShooter from a Danish company – Pixmantec.  It had just become available and it was free.  With nothing to lose I downloaded it and checked it out.  It was fantastic.  It was so easy to use.  When the company offered the paid version, RawShooter Premium, I was all in.

Then, on June 26, 2006, Adobe announced they had purchased the ‘technology assets’ of Pixmantec for incorporation into Lightroom which was in the third round of beta testing at the time.  Version 1 was shipped in February of 2007 and us Pixmantec customers were grandfathered in.  With RawShooter Premium no longer available and a free version of Lightroom 1, I switched to it and was pleased to see some of the functionality in RawShooter Premium that I especially liked appear in Lightroom 1 that hadn’t been in any of the beta versions. 

Michael Reichman of Luminous Landscape and Jeff Shewe in the Photoshop Hall of Fame put together a video training course which I grabbed up right away.  And my experience with Lightroom was off to an excellent start.

A Brief History

Lightroom was designed from the start for digital photographers.  The core functionality was to be RAW image conversion.  But digital photographers need a lot more than just that. They needed to be able to organize their image files, edit them, categorize them, tag them, export them, print them and more.  In short, professional digital photographers needed to be able to run all aspects of the creative side of their businesses using Lightroom.  It’s tempting to think of Lightroom as a tool to adjust and enhance our images but as you can see, it’s so much more.

The Heart of Lightroom – the Catalog

With the introduction of layers in Photoshop, the notion of non-destructive enhancements was introduced.  The idea is that the original image is priceless and if adjustments change it and they don’t work out, you’re in trouble.  You can’t start over again.  So, Photoshop introduced layers.  Virtually all of the adjustments you could apply to the original file could be applied in layers stacked one on top of the other.

To give the photographer the ability to make adjustments non-destructively, Lightroom took a different approach.  The developers created a catalog that is at the heart of Lightroom.  Understanding how the catalog works is key to getting the most out of Lightroom.

Simply put, the catalog keeps track of virtually everything about the image files.  First, it knows the location of the file – the hard drive it is on and the folder it is in.  When Lightroom creates a JPEG preview file that it uses when it displays the image on your monitor, the catalog knows the name of the preview file and where it is. If you use the star method of ranking files or you flag them or assign a color to them, all that data is kept in the catalog. 

And when you make adjustments such as Exposure or Contrast or Highlights or Saturation or any of the other available adjustments, every one of them are kept in the catalog as a simple list.  This gives you a full history of all of the adjustments.  If you decide to start over, since the original RAW file hasn’t been changed, you can keep the original list and create a new list.  This gives you the ability to try different approaches for an image.  And the original RAW file remains unchanged.

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The Qualities of a Powerful Landscape Photograph

January 29th, 2019
by doinlight

I think we all understand that serious landscape photography does not document nature but interprets it.  A well-made landscape photograph captures the photographer’s response to what was experienced and is able to convey this response to the viewer.

The Professional Photographers Association has 12 criteria by which they judge their competitions.  Granted, the PPA membership consists of very few fine art landscape photographers but still, the criteria of a great photograph are pretty much the same.

Here are the twelve criteria (the order is my own):

1.    Impact

2.    Composition

3.    Center of Interest

4.    Lighting

5.    Color Balance

6.    Technical Excellence

7.    Story Telling

8.    Creativity

9.    Style

10.  Presentation

11.  Subject Matter

12.  Technique

I mention these because there’s a lot that goes in to making a great photograph and these criteria provide a framework in knowing what to look for.  But rather that exploring these criteria in words, let’s look at a few photographs.  And let’s do it by looking at two examples of the same image – what it looked like when it came out of the camera and what it became when transformed in the digital darkroom.

Image 1

The first image is a scene in the mountains of Southern California.  I was wondering by myself along a remote trail.  The sun was sinking lower and lower in the sky and I was thrilled climbing the trails and walking among the trees and rocks.  I came upon this scene and it just felt right.  I had to capture it.

San jacinto 180720 SM37804

The mid-afternoon light is actually quite nice.  It’s not spectacular but it’s very pleasant and doesn’t pose any exposure challenges. The shadows make for interesting patterns on the forest floor.  And I tried for a composition that captured the energy and harmony I was feeling while at the same time portraying the stately strength of the trees.  And the center of interest is the rocks that form a sort of path that leads up to the trees on the right.  The trail leads out of the frame on the right, inviting the viewer to explore what lies beyond.

It’s a very nice picture but now it’s time to make it even nicer.  An effective way to add impact is to increase the contrast.  (This will be a recurring theme.) The shadows can be darkened along with the midtones.  Care is taken, however, to not lose detail in the shadows.  You also have to be careful with the clouds.  They have more detail that the RAW image doesn’t show, detail that can be coaxed out.

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Finding the Soul of a Photograph

January 11th, 2019
by doinlight

I often get asked if I manipulate my photographs.  My answer is always, “Yes, of course!”  But no one has ever asked, “Why?”  And I have an answer for that too.  “Because my camera doesn’t know what I’m feeling.”

For me, making a photograph is making art. I want to do more than capture where I’ve been and what I’ve seen.  I want to share with you what I feel when I’m out there.  And that is often more intense than what my eyes see.

I was in Long Valley last summer preparing for a photography class I was teaching for the Mount San Jacinto Natural History Association.  It was midday and I was walking around wearing my amber tinted Polaroid sun glasses.  Why do I mention my sun glasses?  Because I was getting very excited about what I was seeing.  And for those of you that know about midday light, it is anything but exciting.  But the amber tint of the glasses and the effect of the polarization on the sky and foliage got me excited.  Added to that was how good it felt to be back in these mountains after an absence of 15 years.

I want to share what I feel…. And that is often more intense than what my eyes see.

So, I asked myself if it was OK to make photographs that reflected my mental state when it contradicted the physical reality of what my eyes saw. 

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JPEG or RAW

January 7th, 2019
by doinlight

Our digital cameras give us a choice of two file formats in which our images are stored – JPEG and RAW.  In fact, some digital cameras only store images in JPEG format.  What’s the difference and is one preferred over the other?  Let’s take a look at each.

But before we begin, I was curious what JPEG stands for, so I looked it up.  It’s pretty weird – Joint Photographic Experts Group.  Strange indeed.  But. be that as it may, JPEG is widely used.  Practically every image you see on the web is JPEG although you occasionally see other formats.  If you use a lab to print your photographs, there’s a good chance they will ask you to send them JPEG files.

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