Tag Archives: abstract

2014 Bald Head Island Photography Workshop Results

The 2014 Bald Head Island Photography workshop was a great success. We had a wonderful group of nine photographers who sustained their enthusiasm through a grueling schedule and the inevitable sleep deprivation that comes from working with natural light over several days.

I was very impressed by the progress everyone made over the course of the weekend. Most participants  began the workshop only able to use their camera in automatic mode, and during the workshop they were able, for the first time, to create some great images using manual exposure control. I also really appreciated the way the more advanced members of the group were so willing to share their knowledge and help those just getting started.

The workshop began with a social and orientation on Friday evening just after sunset. I advised the participants that if they arrived on the island early it would be a great opportunity to photograph the nearby lighthouse in the late evening light while I was setting up our classroom.

Maggie Zwilling made one of the best images of the workshop before we had even officially started. Kim Hawks photographed Maggie as she was working with the rapidly shifting late day light on the door of the lighthouse. Kim's image on the left shows Maggie while she was hard at work exploring the subject, but also shows how the door appears in a literal sense. Maggie's lovely image on the right shows a recognition of shape, texture, and light, independent of the meaning of the object. In other words, Maggie found a composition not bound by the logic of a door.

Maggie Zwilling made one of the best images of the workshop before we had even officially started. Kim Hawks photographed Maggie as she was working with the rapidly shifting late day light on the door of the lighthouse. Kim’s image on the left shows Maggie while she was hard at work exploring the subject, but also shows how the door appears in a literal sense. Maggie’s lovely image on the right shows a recognition of shape, texture, and light, independent of the meaning of the object. In other words, Maggie found a composition not bound by the logic of a door.

The next morning we all met in the dark before the first light of dawn to prepare for our morning field session in the salt marsh. I knew this was going to be a tough session since almost everyone was about to start shooting for the first time in manual mode. Learning to do this the first time is challenging enough without having to learn how to do it in the dark. But manual exposure skills are necessary for making good images in the rapidly changing, complex light of dawn. We gathered under a porch light so we could see our cameras, and I divided the group into Canon and Nikon users. Then, each group went about making all the necessary settings to their cameras for shooting low pre-dawn light. Fortunately, there were people in both the Canon and Nikon groups that knew how to make these adjustments and could help me get everyone ready to go. Once we were all set, I turned them loose into the marsh.

Making a great image can be difficult if your mind is focused on the technical aspects of photography, like setting a manual exposure for the first time. Despite this challenge most people made some very nice images. I particularly liked this composition by Linda Phillips created in the soft pastel light before sunrise, and one of her first manual exposures.

Making a great image can be difficult if your mind is focused on the technical aspects of photography, like setting a manual exposure for the first time. Despite this challenge most people made some very nice images. I particularly liked this composition by Linda Phillips created in the soft pastel light before sunrise, and one of her first manual exposures.

 

Robin Prak created this image from near the same place Linda created the previous image. The difference is Robin used a long telephoto lens after the sun had passed above the horizon. This morning was also Robin's first experience with manual exposures.

Robin Prak created this image from near the same place Linda created the previous image. The difference is Robin used a long telephoto lens after the sun had passed above the horizon. This morning was also Robin’s first experience with manual exposures.

You can probably tell by now that Maggie has a very recognizable style, black and white, high contrast, and simply elegant compositions. Like her lighthouse door image, this one shows an appreciation of shape, texture, and light, independent of the meaning of the object. Yes, this is a salt marsh, but the image is not bound by the logic of a salt marsh. Her style is so recognizable I probably don't even need to point out that she also shot the next image.

You can probably tell by now that Maggie has a very recognizable style, black and white, high contrast, and simply elegant compositions. Like her lighthouse door image, this one shows an appreciation of shape, texture, and light, independent of the meaning of the object. Yes, this is a salt marsh, but the image is not bound by the logic of a salt marsh. Her style is so recognizable I probably don’t even need to point out that she also shot the next image.

Guess who shot this view of the marsh.

Guess who shot this view of the marsh.

There were a few wildlife photographers in the group. Wildlife photography is a difficult subject to learn if you are also just learning the technical side of operating your camera. You have to not only learn how to operate the camera, but you have to learn to operate it fast enough to keep up with your subjects.

Kim made an image of me advising Robin about photographing small birds. Robin is a very fast learner and made several great wildlife images during the workshop.

Kim made an image of me advising Robin about photographing small birds. Robin is a very fast learner and made several great wildlife images during the workshop.

I led a nature walk for the Bald Head Island Conservancy the morning before the workshop that dealt with how to be more present and aware in nature so you can be observant enough to find interesting subjects. Since Robin attended that walk and was interested in wildlife photography, I also included how being fully present can help you create wildlife images. Ruby-crowned Kinglets are tiny, fast birds that don't give you much opportunity to even point a camera at them, much less set exposure and focus. Over about half an hour I showed Robin how observing wildlife can result in noticing a repeating behavior pattern. This allowed Robin to create this excellent image by waiting for the kinglet to come to her, rather than a futile attempt to chase after the bird.

I led a nature walk for the Bald Head Island Conservancy the morning before the workshop that dealt with how to be more present and aware in nature so you can be observant enough to find interesting subjects. Since Robin attended that walk and was interested in wildlife photography, I also included how being fully present can help you create wildlife images. Ruby-crowned Kinglets are tiny, fast birds that don’t give you much opportunity to even point a camera at them, much less set exposure and focus. Over about half an hour I showed Robin how observing wildlife can result in noticing a repeating behavior pattern. This allowed Robin to create this excellent image by waiting for the kinglet to come to her, rather than a futile attempt to chase after the bird.

After the mid-day indoor image review session, we all met on the beach for a one mile hike north into the Bald Head Island Natural Area. The hike is well worth the effort to reach a place far from houses and roads, where you can find a great example of a wild maritime grassland habitat. I advised everyone not to be distracted by the sun as it approached the horizon, there are already plenty of photographs of that. Instead, I asked them to pay attention to what that low angle sunlight was doing to the foreground and make that the focus of their compositions. This was not an easy assignment; the maritime grassland has a subtle beauty.

Just as the sun was at the horizon it cast a soft warm glow on everything. Kim captured that glow here by including both the warm sunlit sand and the cool sand in the shadows. These contrasting warm and cool tones are fleeting and easily overlooked. In a simple way, this composition is saying this light is beautiful, important, and worthy of attention.

Just as the sun was at the horizon it cast a soft warm glow on everything. Kim captured that glow here by including both the warm sunlit sand and the cool sand in the shadows. These contrasting warm and cool tones are fleeting and easily overlooked. In a simple way, this composition is saying this light is beautiful, important, and worthy of attention.

Many beginning nature photographers stop too soon and pack up once the sun has gone down. We kept working as the sun disappeared and the light became soft and pastel. Linda created this image after the sun dropped below the horizon, casting the Earth's blue shadow into the pink sky.

Many beginning nature photographers stop too soon and pack up once the sun has gone down. We kept working as the sun disappeared and the light became soft and pastel. Linda created this image after the sun dropped below the horizon, casting the Earth’s blue shadow into the pink sky.

Kim used the soft pastel light after sunset to great effect with this patch of muhly grass. The soft light made the feathery tops of the muhly grass that much softer, and the pastel magenta colors of the sky brought out the magenta tones in the grass.

Kim used the soft pastel light after sunset to great effect with this patch of muhly grass. The soft light made the feathery tops of the muhly grass that much softer, and the pastel magenta colors of the sky brought out the magenta tones in the grass.

We squeezed every last bit of light we could out of that day. Robin demonstrated mastery of manual exposure skills when she was able to capture this image as we were wrapping up in the twilight. By increasing her ISO she was able to achieve a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the motion of the people with what little light was left.

We squeezed every last bit of light we could out of that day. Robin demonstrated mastery of manual exposure skills when she was able to capture this image as we were wrapping up in the twilight. By increasing her ISO she was able to achieve a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the motion of the people with what little light was left.

The last light of the sun had completely faded by the time we finished the mile hike back down the beach. I decided to offer a bonus astrophotography session since it was a new moon and the Milky Way was high in the sky just after sunset. The night skies can be very impressive on Bald Head Island since it is far enough away from the light pollution of the cities on the mainland. Everyone was able to make images of the Milky Way, which is a subject that requires manual exposure skills. Kim shared this image where she not only capture the light of our own galaxy, but also the light of the Andromeda Galaxy, our nearest spiral galaxy neighbor. You can see the bright glow of Andromeda's central core and the faint spiral arms by looking along the top edge of the photograph, right of center.

The last light of the sun had completely faded by the time we finished the mile hike back down the beach. I decided to offer a bonus astrophotography session since it was a new moon and the Milky Way was high in the sky. The night skies can be very impressive on Bald Head Island since it is far enough away from the light pollution of the cities on the mainland. Everyone was able to make images of the Milky Way, which is a subject that requires manual exposure skills. Kim shared this image where she not only captured the light of our own galaxy, but also the light of the Andromeda Galaxy, our nearest spiral galaxy neighbor. You can see the bright glow of Andromeda’s central core and the faint spiral arms by looking along the top edge of the photograph, right of center.

After a late night photographing the Milky Way, there was not enough sleep before we had to get up for the sunrise shoot on the beach at Cape Fear for our last field session. This time I wanted to put their manual exposure skills to the test. In the darkness just before dawn we reviewed setting a camera up for manual low light photography, then I gave everyone the assignment of photographing the crashing surf as the sky brightened from twilight to sunrise. I asked everyone to try many different shutter speeds until they found one that renders the waves in a pleasing way. There is no right answer, everyone has their own preference, but this assignment demonstrates one of the creative advantages of manual exposure. You can choose the shutter speed you like best and get that result every time. With a camera on automatic you have no say in the matter.

Robin made this image with a slow shutter speed during the soft pastel light before dawn. Slow shutter speeds render moving waves with a painterly effect.

Robin made this image with a slow shutter speed during the soft pastel light before dawn. Slow shutter speeds render moving waves with a painterly effect.

Audrey Dyer made this image of sunlight shining through a crashing wave with a fast shutter speed. A fast enough shutter speed will freeze motion to reveal the beauty of the order within the chaos.

Audrey Dyer made this image of sunlight shining through a crashing wave with a fast shutter speed. A fast enough shutter speed will freeze motion to reveal the beauty of the order within the chaos.

This workshop was made even better by the generous support of the Bald Head Island Association who provided a room and AV equipment for our indoor image review sessions. I am very grateful to them and the participants who agreed to share a few of their photos for this blog post. I have little time for my own photography while teaching so it is great to have a record of what we did, and to be able to share it with those who were not able to join us. Thanks again to everyone that participated and helped make this weekend a success.

Meditation on a Cypress Stump

A few weeks ago I visited New Lake in Hyde County North Carolina with the Carolina Vegetation Survey. We were looking for natural lake shore vegetation, a type of natural community that grows along these shallow bay lakes. No one in our group had been to this lake before so we hoped the community was in good condition. I had seen natural lake shore vegetation at other lakes and they can be quite lovely, large cypress trees marching out into a shallow lake with grasses swaying in the waves. We were disappointed to discover that the cypress trees had been cut long ago. Weathered stumps marked the places where ancient trees once stood. A new forest of young cypress now lined the lake shore.

If I had been alone I might have turned around and gone somewhere else, but the team I was with decided the rest of the vegetation was in good enough condition to sample so we decided to stay the rest of the day.

Carolina Vegetation Survey

Carolina Vegetation Survey

The trees I had hoped for were gone and the light was too harsh for landscapes. After a few minutes of dreary thoughts that were not producing photographs I decided I should see what sort of macro subjects I could find. It did not take long to discover tiny sundew plants growing in the shade of the young cypress trees.

Water Sundew

Water Sundew

 One advantage of young trees is the foliage is easy to reach. These trees were mostly pond-cypress, very similar to the better known bald-cypress but the foliage is more like a rope than a feather and it points up from the stem rather than out.

Pond Cypress Foliage

Pond Cypress Foliage

 After making the pond-cypress foliage photo I was out of ideas so I decided to sit quietly and observe until an idea was revealed to me. There was just one problem, there was no where to sit. The ground went from damp to soggy to shallow lake. The only dry place I could see to sit was the old cypress stumps along the lake shore. Most were weathered into very uncomfortable shapes, but after searching I found one with a very nice dry top that fit my bottom quite nicely.

Meditation on a Cypress Stump

Meditation on a Cypress Stump

My photography process has a lot in common with meditation. I sit quietly without thinking and just let the images I see wash over me. I try not to judge or think, I simply observe. After a time an idea for a photograph is usually revealed, provided I can remain open enough to see it.

After sitting there for a time I realized the images of all the stumps I had searched while looking for a place to sit were running through my mind. When I first arrived at the lake I looked at them in a negative way, they represented the loss of something great that once existed. But now I was seeing them without judgment, just the physical objects detached from their meaning. Each was different, weathered, and spectacular in its own way. The Universe had spoken, I needed to photograph the weathered cypress stumps!

Weathered Cypress Stump #1

Weathered Cypress Stump #1

Weathered Cypress Stump #2

Weathered Cypress Stump #2

Accidental Abstraction

For years I have been toying with the idea of making very abstract photographs. One thing that intrigues me about abstract images is how they free the viewer to imagine their own meaning. Also, I find trying a different style or subject matter teaches me things I would not learn from my usual photography. This photograph of storm clouds over Boundary Bay in British Columbia was one early attempt.

Blue

Blue

It was the color and contrast that attracted me to this scene. I used a telephoto lens to isolate the most interesting part of the sky and eliminate the horizon and any sense of scale. Although this is more abstract than my typical landscapes, it is still recognizable as storm clouds.

Another attempt at an abstract image was with a flame azalea flower. The stamens on these flowers are very long and extend quite far from the petals. I pointed a macro lens straight down the center of the flower with the stamens pointing into the lens and with the petals filling the background. A wide aperture resulted in a very shallow depth of field which rendered the petals in the background completely out of focus.

Orange

Orange

I did not want the details in the petals to show because I wanted to make this image more about the color than the structure of the plant. But the sharp focus on the stamens anchors this image in reality and tells the viewer this is a flower.

While these images are more abstract than what I typically create, there was something about them that did not sit well with me. I liked them but they were just not the abstract images I was after. I did not understand what I was missing until I had an interesting accident.

Back in June I was trying to photograph a plant in an open field but it was far too windy. In desperation I dispensed with the tripod since it does no good to hold the camera steady when the plants are swaying in and out of view. Instead, I hand held the camera with the fastest shutter speed I could to avoid camera shake. To improve my odds of a sharp, detailed photograph, I set the camera to allow the shutter to release only when focus had been achieved. Then I manually focused the macro lens to give me the close framing I wanted. My plan was to just keep trying to frame the plant as it moved in the wind and hopefully the camera would only fire when the plant was in focus. My plan worked, by the way, but that is not the point of this story.

While trying to get my body into position for this shot I must have had my finger on the shutter release because the camera suddenly went off. Some random blade of grass had passed through the autofocus sensor at just the right distance and triggered the shutter. You can see the point of focus near the center of the frame.

Green

Green

Although I gave this image little thought at the time, something compelled me to keep it. Only now, seven months later, do I think I understand why. This is just the sort of abstract image I had wanted to make! I usually base my compositions on some unique character of the subject. My earlier attempts at abstract photography were still locked into this way of thinking. Even though they were more abstract than my usual work, the idea for the photograph was still based on something visual about the subject. This composition is completely abstract; it is not based on anything! Maybe now I will be able to consciously break out of my usual pattern and make an abstract image on purpose.

The beach is very different at night

I was reminded how different my experience is from most of the visitors to wild places while waiting for the passenger ferry to take me to Hammocks Beach State Park. Several families were also waiting for the ferry. I could tell from the coolers, lawn chairs, and swimming clothes that they were going over for the day to frolic on the beach. They could tell from my backpack, tripod, wide-brimmed hat, long sleeved shirt, long pants, and hiking boots that I was not. One man asked me if I was going camping. I said “yes.” Then he asked his young son if he would like to go camping sometime. The son said, without hesitation, “no!” The father asked, “why not?” The son said, “There are spooky things at night!”

I had forgotten about that feeling of being afraid to go into wild places at night. I love wild places, and the night can sometimes be most impressive. When the sun is high at the beach, I struggle. The sun takes a lot out of you, especially when you have fair skin. My favorite time at the beach is when the sun is near the horizon or at night.

When the sun is near the horizon, it highlights the patterns formed by the wind on the sand. I have always been fascinated by these patterns. The same shape line will repeat over and over again but with slight variations.

Sand Pattern #1

Sand Pattern

The beach is very different at night. It becomes a soft and gentle place. Soft starlight is bright enough to see by when it is clear, and if you are far enough from city lights, the stars can be spectacular.

Beach by Starlight

Beach by Starlight

Another universe

Last month I went to Swift Creek Bluffs to see if I could find some salamanders to photograph. I don’t have much experience with salamanders, so I did not have much luck. I knew they layed their eggs in ephemeral pools. These pools dry up in the summer, so there are no fish to eat the eggs. I found lots of egg masses in the pools but did not find any salamanders. I spent the rest of the morning photographing wildflowers and ferns and then headed back to my truck. I often run into people I know here, and this time I bumped into “Rock” Turner. With a nickname like “Rock”, you might expect him to be either a brute or a geologist, but this guy loves reptiles and amphibians. You have to put his nickname together with his last name to get the joke. Oh, and you have to know a little about what is involved in finding these sorts of critters.

 When I saw Rock I thought, “this is my chance!” I asked if he could help me find some Salamanders. He agreed with his typical enthusiasm. We found several slimy salamanders, but they did not want to be photographed. Then Rock came up holding a salamander egg mass. I had seen them just beneath the surface of the water earlier, but I never tried picking them up. Out of the murky water it was easy to see lots of interesting details and color. Looking into this jiggling mass of gelatin in Rock’s hands was like looking into another universe. I had Rock hold the egg mass in the sunlight as I tried to make a photograph. He did not get his nickname for being “rock” steady, and every little body movement was making the egg mass jiggle. He had to hold his breath and brace his arms against a log to try and stop the egg mass from jiggling. After a bit of effort, I was able to make a sharp photograph, but because I was looking down into his hands, I was not able to get rid of the sky reflected on the surface of the egg mass. Still, I liked the idea of the photograph and decided I would come back another day after I figured out how to solve the sky reflection problem.

Spotted Salamander Eggs

Spotted Salamander Eggs

I came back about a week later thinking I would be able to do something similar and block the sky reflection. That trip was a total bust; nothing I tried would completely eliminate the sky reflection. I just could not get the image I wanted. I wanted the image to feel like you were in amongst the salamander eggs, like being in another universe. But as long as you can see the reflections on the surface of the gelatin, it gives you the impression you are on the outside looking in. Then I remembered the miniature aquarium I built.

Back in 2002, I was making photographs to tell the success story of the salmon habitat restoration work of the Alouette River Management Society. I wanted to make photographs of the young fry in the river as part of that photo essay. I spent a lot of time chasing those little fry with my camera under water, but they were just too small and fast to make a decent photograph. To solve the problem I built a small aquarium designed to keep the fry within the depth of field of my macro lens so I could get an up-close and detailed photograph. This little aquarium was made out of two 4 inch square pieces of glass and a piece of metal strap used to bundle lumber. I attached it all together with silicon adhesive. It cost me nothing to make since I had all these materials lying about. It worked great; the only difficult part was catching the fry. This photograph, by the way, has been published more than any of my other images.

Steelhead Trout Fry

Steelhead Trout Fry

Anyway, I realized that if I put the salamander egg mass inside the aquarium, I could shoot horizontally rather than down and eliminate the sky reflection problem. Also, by pressing the gelatin up against the glass, it would eliminate any hint of the surface of the gelatin and give the impression of being inside it.

Spotted Salamander Eggs

Spotted Salamander Eggs

The last piece of the puzzle was the lighting. The ambient light was too soft and did not provide the high contrast I had seen that first day with Rock. I tried several different flash setups and decided the one I liked best was one flash from directly above. This gave the eggs a strong spherical shape and helped define the bodies of the young salamanders.

Spotted Salamander Eggs

Spotted Salamander Eggs