I had been planning to drive up the Lake Michigan coast to photograph those lighthouses in the winter. But we had an unusually warm winter last year. I had to give up the plan. This year, I was watching the weather every week, hoping for a bad wintery weather. A cold front finally went by at end of January. I decided to give a try, even it started to warm up over the weekend.
Frankfort, Michigan was a deserted town in the middle of winter. When I arrived under a heavy snow, the huge resort we checked in probably only had five guests. I am sure I was the only photographer in town. I scouted the area and waited for the gloomy sky to clear. Well, it didn’t clear next morning. There was a plan B. My wife and I decided to head up Old Mission Peninsula for a wine tour instead. This area in Michigan produces some of the finest wines in the country. Fortunately, the taste of wine does not depend on the weather like the photography does. We have never visited so many wineries in a single day.
On the way back to the hotel near dusk, I saw a glimpse of hope. There was a slim gap in the thick cloud at horizon towards west. I drove directly to the pier, put on the cleats, grabbed my gears, headed out to the icy pier. But the sun never came out. I decided to shoot into dark regardless. After a few shots, the light turned blue. There was enough light escaped through the gap in the cloud so that the magical blue hour was visible to the camera sensor.
There is hope in any situation.
When I ventured into White Pocket last spring, one of the areas that caught my immediate attention was these unique sandstone ridges on the ground. They appeared to me like an amphitheater from another planet. I started to work on it as soon as I arrived there. This area slopes towards east, it became obvious to me that the best time to photograph here is at early morning when the sun just lights up the sandstone. After trying various compositions, I determined my favorite angle – shooting the scene with a vertical towards north so that the sandstone ridges lead to the hills at distance.
I arrived at the scene every morning before sunrise. However, I was facing the common dilemma in landscape photography – the light. For three days, the sky towards north was featureless. My composition will not work without an interesting sky because that is where these ridges lead viewer’s attention to. So, I decided to camp one more night before I give up and go back home. The fourth morning when I got out of the tent, the sky was so cloudy that I could not see the stars. But I still hiked in there, even knowing the chance of a good sunrise is slim.
The magic happened at sunrise. The cloud at east opened a narrow gap to let the sun lit up whole sky. I was there, and ready. No need to think about composition and camera settings. I knew exactly what to do. I quickly took a few shots with various exposure compensations. Five minutes later, the light faded away and never returned.
Two exposures that were used for the final image were taken with 16mm, f16, iso200, one with 1/8 second exposure for the foreground, and the other with 1/32 second for the sky.
I loaded both images into two separate layers in Photoshop, with the darker exposure at bottom and the brighter exposure on top. I carefully selected the sky of top layer and deleted it, then merged two images together. More post processing was done to enhance the color and contrast. The result is exactly what I hoped for. The light and composition came together. The light adds warm glow to the sandstone, while the ridges lead attention to the sky.
So, tips of the day are:
In an uncertain or high contrast light condition, always take several pictures with various exposure settings to capture the entire range of light. Memory is cheap but opportunity is priceless.
Don’t give up too easily. The last moment at scene might turn out to be the best moment. But when the moment comes, you better be ready.
Crane is a graceful creature that captures my imagination. Each winter, I take several trips to Jasper Pulaski Wild Life Refuge in Indiana where tens of thousands of cranes congregate in the area during winter migration. They take off at dawn and return at dusk. One can hear them from a couple of miles away. The sight of thousands of cranes taking off at the same time always keep my heart pounding.
The first attempt of photographing bird in flight is to freeze the motion with high shutter speed of at least 1/500 second. But I want a different effect to reveal a sense of motion. My answer is to photograph the bird with a slower shutter speed. How slow? It depends on how fast the bird moves. After many attempts, I found that a shutter speed somewhere close to 1/20 second is ideal for a large bird like a crane. At this shutter speed, the wings will be blurry to the extent that shows movement, but not too slow that becomes a featureless smear. Photographing bird in flight with slow shutter speed is harder than it seems. The challenge is to keep the other parts of body, especially the head, relatively clear. Otherwise, the whole image will look like an out of focus waste. This requires a steady camera support, good panning technique, a lot of practice, and even more luck.
I have my camera supported with a Wimberly Sidekick, which allows me to pan smoothly. The camera is set to continuous focus, and I start to lock on the object, preferably the head, a couple of seconds before I pull the trigger. After a sequence of high speed burst is over, I still follow through with a continuing panning motion. Even so, 90% of the images are total waste that will be deleted immediately after I transfer them to the computer. But when I am lucky, there will be one that captures my imagination.
The “decisive moment”, according to Henri Cartier-Bresson, “it is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression.” A “decisive moment” is what elevates a photograph to a higher level. One of Bresson’s most iconic images, the man leaping over a large puddle and touching it with his heel, showed the “decisive moment” turn an otherwise ordinary image into a master piece.
It is fairly straight forward with photojournalism and wild life photography to capture the moment. In landscape photography, I feel that the “decisive moment” is what gives a photograph its soul. A major problem with landscape photography is that an image is reproducible. Once an image becomes reproducible, it loses some of its value and visual impact, no matter how hard one tries with composition. What is a decisive moment in landscape photography? It could be a special moment in light situation, weather condition, season or movement.
During my recent trip to Oregon, my first stop was Cannon Beach. This is a beautiful place by any standard. However, Cannon Beach and its famous sea stack have been shot to death. I don’t know how many millions of photos have that rock in the frames. My chance of capture anything unique is fairly low. Then, one night, I was wondering on the beach at sunset. The sunset was not spectacular, but I did not leave. 15 minutes after the sunset, the sky at west became more interesting and I noticed orange reflection on the wet sand. As the wave retreated, it left behind wet sand as smooth as a mirror. At an angle towards the west, the reflection was the most visible. With each wave, the reflection left behind was different. I quickly setup my tripod and started to compose the image. I chose a position where the distant light house was in between two rocks that were closer, and more importantly, to avoid that famous sea stack on the beach. I tried several times to time my exposure at the right moment when waves advanced on the beach. Finally, I captured one moment where reflection was at the exact position as I wanted. 15 minutes later, the light started to fade away and the show was over.
I have been a Sony user since A100 first came out. Now my usual travel gear consists of a A900 body with a Zeiss 16-35mm, and a A77 with a 70-400mm. I bought A77 ever since it came out last year. Many trips and thousands of images later with both cameras in the field, often used at the same time, I would like to give some of my perspectives on pros and cons of electronic viewfinder vs optical viewfinder.
A900 sports one of the best OVF on the market. It is large and it is bright. What more can you ask? In the meantime, A77 has the best EVF on the market. Even the upcoming A99 uses the same EVF A77 has. The resolution is so high that my eye can not tell it is an EVF under the right light condition
Disadvantage of an EVF:
1. Lose of light. Is 0.3EV lose of light significant in real world? Probably not. Nevertheless, it is a lost light. My A77 is noisier than A900. But that can be attributed to sensor size.
2. Slight hesitation in a high speed burst. The image I see on EVF is the last image I took, not the image I am about to take. Again, A77’s burst rate is so high that it has never affected my shooting.
3. Difficulty in high contrast situation. When shooting under the midday bright sun, highlights can be washed out and shadows can be blacked out when looking through EVF. This can be annoying. On the other hand, my picture will turn out just like that, with washed out highlights and blacked out shadows. As a landscape photographer, I rarely shoot under the midday bright sun anyway.
4. Shortened battery life. With A900, I can shoot all day without changing battery. Not for A77, a spare is necessary.
Advantage of an EVF:
1. What you see is what you get, exposure wise. Adjusting exposure compensation, I can see the image changes brightness.
2. Information overlay. I can overlay all kinds of information on EVF. For example, I can overlay histogram right at the corner of the EVF by press a button. Making the right exposure has become an easy task.
3. Auto-focus while in a high speed burst. Often, my first image is out of focus. By the second image in the sequence, the focus has caught up with the bird in fly.
4. Taking pictures under the dim light. When I shoot at night, I can see the image through EVF. It is grainy, but it is an image that can aid my composition. I can even compose, adjust exposure, and auto-focus with a 10 stop ND filter under normal light condition.
Given the pros and cons of EVF, I am at the point that I would not go out to buy a camera solely based on what kind of viewfinder it has. The decision will be based on other capabilities such as image quality, speed, handling, etc. This alone is an huge advancement for EVF system. I would not mind trade in my A900 for a A99 if the later gives me 2 stops lower high iso noise level. Is the future with EVF or OVF? I am not sure. It largely depends on the general acceptance of EVF. But one thing I am certain is that OVF will not get much better, and EVF will definitely improve over time.
During my recent adventure, I decided to shoot Milky Way at White Pockets. I got up very early and walked in there in total darkness. Even with the help of a GPS, I could not figure out the exact location I scouted during the day. Fortunately, this is White Pockets, I can just setup my camera and shoot in any direction. It will turn out just fine.
The picture was blended with two exposures taken about an hour apart without moving the camera. The first exposure was taken about two hours before sunrise with f2.8, 30sec, ISO3200. 30 second exposure time was chosen to minimize the movement of stars. The difficulty of this exposure was to decide the composition when foreground elements were in total darkness. I used a flashlight to illuminate the foreground element while I looked through view finder. Then I took a few test shots with 10sec exposure at ISO 6400, and made fine adjustment after each shot. When the final composition was determined, I set the focal distance at infinity and made a couple of exposures. At that time, the sky was becoming less dark that Milky Way was fading away.
In the first exposure, the foreground was completely black. To reveal some details in foreground, I decided to take a second exposure at pre-dawn. I left camera untouched on the tripod and waited in there for an hour or so until it was close to dawn when foreground was visible. Then I made a second exposure with f/8.0 30s ISO 400. I used manual focus to set focus at hyper focal distance.
Back at home, I loaded both images into two separate layers in Photoshop. First exposure at bottom and the second exposure on top. I carefully selected the sky of second exposure and deleted it, then merged two images together.
White Pockets is a surreal place. I wanted to make a surreal image to capture viewer’s imagination. I decided to convert the image to black and white and add some blue filter in photoshop to give it some out of this world feel. The Milky Way, the foreground, as well as the choice of monochrome theme helped to emphasize the mood.
As remote as White Pocket is, I encountered two to three tour groups every day. Fortunately, most of them were only interested in afternoon short hikes and a few snap shots. They were long gone before sunset, when I emerged from my afternoon nap and started to do real work. It worked well for the first two days. Things went down hill on the third day, there came a Japanese photography tour group. They were a determined group with a single purpose in mind, that was to congregate on anyone who had a tripod. At one point, my frustration overtook my concentration that I dropped my camera on the ground. Ten minutes later, my friend David knocked his tripod over, with the camera and his priced Leica lens.
There were talks about starting a permit system at White Pocket just like the Coyote Butts to protect the fragile landscape. Now I can see why it is necessary.
After a frustrating evening, I decided to do some night photography. Night time at White Pocket is a magic moment. I had the whole area to myself, with the companion of some coyotes. Although I knew the coyotes do not attack human, the coyote sing under the night sky still made my hairs standing up. It was two days before the full moon. The ground was so well lit that I did not have any trouble to capture the foreground.