Tag Archives: John Fan

Sense behind Sensor (2) – Let There be Light!

Light is essential to human existence, so it is to photography.  The word “photography” is originated from Greek, meaning “drawing with light”.  Light is the single most important component in a photograph.   Without light, the camera records nothing.

While the light is essential for photography, quality light is essential for quality photography.  Landscape and nature photographers go out in the dark and return in the dark just to seek the golden light of sunrise and sunset for its brilliant color.  But quality light is not just limited to sunrise and sunset, soft light of blue hours pre-dawn and post dusk is my most favorite light for landscape, overcast light filtered through cloudy sky is perfect for flower photos, even the harsh light in the middle of day can be quality light if the shadow is the main interest.  There is no best light, just the best light to satisfy the artistic vision of a photographer.

I traveled to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park last spring to seek the soft light it is famous for.  In the field of Cades Cove, a dead tree in the middle of field caught my attention.  It was an ordinary dead tree that I would have it cut down if it were in my backyard.  But I envisioned what it might look like in the golden light of Smoky.

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I came by three days in a row to wait for the quality light I had in mind.  The first morning was too foggy that I couldn’t even see the tree from the road.  The second morning was opposite, no fog at all.  The third morning, the valley was filled with light fog.  The soft light through the fog turned dead tree into lively golden branches.  What an extraordinary transformation!

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Good Morning

A few months later, I was at Ruby Beach in Olympic National Park.  It is a popular beach with great scenery.  However, it is also well known for its often gloomy sky at sunset.  Without quality light, it was just a tourist snap shot.

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I came back the second evening.  The light was much better.  Most photographers would photograph the sea stacks from the side because the golden light would lit up the rocks.  But I wanted to do something different.  I saw an opportunity because there was some light fog hanging over the beach to diffuse the light.  I decided to stand behind rocks to shoot straight into the sun.  I carefully positioned my camera at a position that the sun was barely peeking out behind the rock to create sun burst effect.  Too much sun would cause to too much contrast for camera sensor to handle.  At the same time, I framed my shot so that my composition took advantage of the shadow on the sand as leading lines to lead viewer’s attention into the main object.

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The Golden Beach

Light is the life.  A photograph can’t live without light.

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Bald Eagles on Mississippi

The bald eagle is American national bird because of its association with authority and statehood.  Its majestic beauty and great strength attract thousands of bird watchers and photographers to the Mississippi River bank, where bald eagles feed on the fishes near the dams during winter months.

I always come to Loc & Dam 14 on Mississippi each winter.  Like anything else in nature, it has been hit or miss.  Sometimes, I can only see a couple of eagles flying far and away for a whole afternoon.  Two weeks ago, I hit the jackpot.   It had been a harsh week that temperature stayed in single digit for the entire week.  A heavy snow covered field that eagles had nowhere else to find food supply but to come to the unfrozen open water under the dam.  The light was great and the action was none stop from the time we arrived around 11:00am to sunset.

Here Comes the Fish

I have photographed bald eagles catching fish over Mississippi hundreds of times.  But at the moment it races down to the water surface to grab the fish, it has never failed to electrify my brain and keep my heart singing.  This is the moment that is worth photographing for a lifetime as it my heart praises the creator of this magnificent creature.

Good Catch

Crabapple in the Snow

Crabapple is one of the most common trees in Midwest.  But in the world of long and hash winter, crabapple is like a spice on an otherwise tasteless dish.  It had been snowing for a couple of days in Midwest.  I finally can’t take it anymore.  So I decided to go out to Morton Arboretum to photograph some crabapple trees to brighten up my day.  Just when I was photographing this tree, strong wind blew the snow up in the air, helped me to filter out distracting elements at distance.

Crabapple in the Wind

After hundreds of crabapple pictures on my hard drive, I decided to try a new angle.  So I put my tripod on a higher ground over a smaller tree.  The flip screen of my Sony A99 comes handy when I compose the picture from underneath.  At this angle, the background is finally pure.

Fire in the Snow

Angel’s Hair

Zion National Park is gem in the rough southwest desert. It is a popular destination for tourists as well as photographers. I have visited the park many times. What made me to go back to Zion National Park again and again was not its towering mountains, it was the Virgin River that cuts through the valley kept my creativity flowing. The valley is very narrow, the water flows rapidly and the cliffs on both sides are nearly vertical. When the sun shines on the red rock cliffs, their reflection on the river creates interesting colors and patterns.  I could walk along the river bank an entire day to search for inspiration and never got bored.  The texture of water and the color of reflection change rapidly every moment.  I often spent half an hour just to stare at the water in front of me.

I always try to arrive at the scene at least half an hour before sunrise. At Zion National Park, it means getting up early to catch the first bus into Zion Valley. My plan was to photograph the mountain at sunrise. I took some pictures at sunrise. But I was disappointed because there is no cloud in the sky. The sunrise was not spectacular. But I did not leave.

Shortly after sunrise, the sun lit up the red rock cliff like a fire. Because there is no cloud, the light was extremely intense and the color of red cliff reflected on the river was so rich that the river in front of me looked as if it was painted in red. My attention was immediately attracted to the reflection on water.  After stared at the reflection for a while, I suddenly visualized the hair of a beautiful woman floating in front of me.

I quickly acted upon my new found inspiration.  I put my telephoto lens on the camera, mounted camera on my tripod and started to experiment with different shutter speed. My experience told me I should use a fraction of a second shutter speed in this situation.  The water would look too milky with long shutter speed, and too static with short shutter speed.  After some test shots, I finally settled at 1/4 second, where the texture of water started to look like hairs. Once the shutter speed was decided, the choice of other exposure parameters became simple. I had to maintain a large depth of field to keep the image sharp throughout, so I set the aperture at f/13. At this point, light was very intense that I had to lower ISO to 50 to get proper exposure. I would add a neutral density filter in front of the lens if ISO50 were still not low enough.

The river runs fast that the texture in the water changed rapidly. Every photograph looked different. I kept chasing after the reflection on water and photographed until the color faded away.

Back at home, I chose this picture out of nearly one hundred pictures I took at the scene because I like the white water stream that created contrast red reflection and its position in the frame. The post processing started with some general adjustments to contrast and brightness.

One difficulty I ran into immediately was the bright areas on water that made color looked washed out. Here I created a dodge and burn layer, then used Tony Kuyper Luminosity Mask Actions to create luminosity masks over light areas. I chose a brush tool with about 10% luminosity and then darkened bright areas by brushing black color on the dodge and burn layer. This helped me to recover details in highlight region to enhance the smooth texture in the water.

HINTS

  1. Always pay attentions to details. In an iconic place where grand landscape is dominate; study the surround in great details will lead you to pleasant surprises.
  2. Any light is good light for a specific purpose. Don’t give up when you think the light is not as good as you expected.
  3. Use shutter speed as a creative tool. When photographing moving subject, always experiment with various shutter speed to achieve different effects.
  4. Never stop imagine. Imagination is the source of creativity.

 

Angel’s Hair

Storm Chaser

Storm Chaser

When I arrived at the Great Sand Dunes National Park, a thunder storm was approaching fast. I decided not to climb up the great sand dune, but shot from foot of the dune instead to avoid the lighting and heavy rain.  Just when I was trying to find my composition, two brave young men went right pass me and climbed all the way to the top.

The rain was pouring and lighting was none stop.  As I put away my equipment, I couldn’t stop turning my head to watch these two brave souls.  What was the view on the other side of dune?  It was only reserved for the challengers.

Flying under Stars

Flying under Stars

It was so windy at South Coyote Buttes that I could not sleep well the first night we camped out there.  So I got up at 2:00am and crawled out of the tent.  The night in the desert is always colder than what you are prepared for.  I put on all the cloths I can find, still couldn’t stop the constant shivering.  But the cold air will not stop a diehard landscape photographer.  I headed out anyway.  After half an hour of hiking, my body and spirit were finally warmed up to the task ahead of me.

I knew exactly where to go and what to shot in the dark because I did my homework during the day.  I set my tripod down, took a couple of test shots with high iso and quickly determined my composition.  I wanted to include all the foreground elements as well as the clouds and stars.  So I decided to take two shots and stitch them later.  I did not want to see the start trails in picture, so a 30 second exposure is the maximum I can use.   I tilted camera up slightly and took the exposure for the sky.  The second exposure was for the foreground.  I tilted camera downward slightly to include the foreground elements.  For the foreground shot, I was not limited by exposure time.  So I reduced iso to reduce noise and reduced aperture to gain depth of field.