Monthly Archives: March 2013

f/16 and Be There

Clearing Storm, Mummy Range, Colorado

One well-known axiom of photography goes “f/8 and be there.”  The quote is attributed to (and I had to look this up) New York photojournalist Arthur “Weegee” Fellig, who apparently gave it in reply to a question about how he consistently achieved high quality work.

The meaning behind the quote is fairly simple: ” f/8″ is a versatile, middle-of-the-road aperture that strikes a good compromise between achieving acceptable depth of field while letting in enough light to use a reasonably fast shutter speed to avoid motion blur, and “be there” simply means you can’t capture the image if you’re not there to take it.  Fellig’s formula allows one to shoot quickly without taking undue time to think through the camera settings before hand, undoubtedly a very useful ability for photojournalists capturing fast-moving events.

Landscape photography probably does not conjure up thoughts of fast-moving events in the way that photojournalism does.  Personally, I like taking the time to think about a scene, compose my image, and select the camera settings accordingly.  Don’t be fooled, though – conditions in the landscape can change very fast indeed.  Such was the case for this image, “Clearing Storm, Mummy Range.”

First, the “be there” part.  After spending the better part of an evening driving around Rocky Mountain National Park in a consistently flat, dull, and pouring rain, I was just about prepared to go home.  I figured I would drive the car around one last bend in the road, turn around, and pack it in for the night.  Cresting a rise in the road, though, I was treated to the sight of the trailing edge of the storm, with the rain abating and the sun peeking through the clearing clouds just before it was to set.  The setting sun lit up this view of the Mummy Range like a spotlight.

Now, the “f/8” part.  The sun was going down so fast that I could literally see the light fading on the peaks as I pulled my car over to the side of the road.  I jumped out of the car, fumbled with setting up the tripod and locking down the ball head as I composed the image, all the while observing the light fade as fast as I’ve ever seen it do so.  Fortunately, I keep my aperture set to f/16 by default, so I simply adjusted the shutter speed to get my desired exposure, did a quick manual focus of the lens, and tripped the shutter.

But wait a minute, shouldn’t I have set my aperture to f/8?  Well, no, for landscapes I am of course interested in maximizing my depth of field, and while landscape conditions can change quickly, they still generally don’t change so fast that motion blur is a problem.  So, I’ve modified the axiom for my needs to “f/16 and be there.”  This formula is flexible enough to meet nearly all my landscape shooting needs, saves me time in fast-changing conditions, and generally simplifies my thought process in the field so that I can concentrate on seeing what’s around me.

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Latest Work – “Sylvia’s Tree”

Sylvia's Tree

One of my favorite photographers, Cole Thompson, posted a recent entry on his blog describing “Five Great Locations for Great Images.”  You can read his blog post here.  I thought I would take the opportunity to follow his advice.  This tree is, quite literally, in my neighbor’s front yard.  In the several years I’ve been living at my current address, I’m sure I’ve seen it thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of times, under all sorts of lighting and weather conditions.  I’ve never before or since seen it quite like this, though.

It was a weekend night, and  I was returning home late after spending an evening with friends.  There was a full moon, and though it was fairly calm at ground level, there must have been a really driving wind at altitude, because the clouds were scooting across the sky like nobody’s business.  It was late, I was tired, and this was another one of those situations where I almost didn’t take the shot.  But the scene was such an unusual coming together of circumstances – the full moon, the storm clouds, and the wind and all – that I grabbed my camera out of my house, set up my tripod on my front lawn, and proceeded to capture several frames.  What a sight I must have been, shooting photographs with a tripod-mounted camera pointed at my neighbor’s yard late at night!  In any case, I wholly agree with Cole’s advice on great locations for great images – in this case, my neighbor’s yard!

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Latest Work – “Spire at Rock Cut”

Spire at Rock Cut

Here is an image called “Spire at Rock Cut.”  Rock Cut is a location along Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park where the road passes through a cut in a massive outcropping of rock.  For photographers, I suspect the cut is most well known for providing a dramatic natural frame through which one can photograph Longs Peak, but this image is not that view.  Instead, the spire is the subject of this image – it is this spire that roughly would form the right side of the frame in the more classic view.

This image has me thinking about my approach to shooting landscapes.  I like to keep things as simple as I can, so I’m usually only thinking of three things when I evaluate if I’m going to click the shutter or not.

First, the quality of the light.  This is by far the most important, and if it’s not there, I don’t shoot.  In this image, the sun had already set over the mountains, out of the frame to the right.  This created a nice glow in the sky as twilight set in, which set off the clouds and evenly illuminated the spire and the mountains in the background.  Check one!

Second, the composition.  If the light is good, but the composition doesn’t work, I don’t shoot.  Here, my eye was attracted to the shape of the spire and the complementary shape of the grayish cloud in the immediate background just behind the spire.  I believe there are several additional shapes and symmetries in the frame, hopefully creating a sense of rhythm.  Check two!

Third is what I just call “camera stuff.”  This is all the technical details associated with operating the camera to get the desired image.  There’s actually a lot of potential details here (you really could become way too obsessed about this, and many people do), but for me it is by far the least important concern, far behind points one and two.  If the light and composition are right, I’ll usually try the shot even if I’m unsure about the camera stuff.  This image is a good example.  Without going through all the technical details, suffice it to say this image was captured just on the edge of being able to use the natural light.  If I had tried five minutes later, I doubt there would have been enough light to show any detail on the spire or the peaks, regardless of how I adjusted the camera.  As it was, I used a relatively long shutter speed of 15 seconds, which created the motion blur in the clouds.  But I got the exposure I wanted out of the camera, so check three!

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Latest Work – “Longs Peak, Curtain of Clouds”

Longs Peak, Curtain of CloudsLongs Peak is fairly photogenic from Trail Ridge Road inside Rocky Mountain National Park.  Depending on where you are, there are several very good vantage points that afford excellent views, and during most summer months, the angle of the setting sun is just right to create dramatic side lighting and shadows, such as seen in this image.

The views are so common, in fact, that I would venture to say if you spend a fair amount of time in the park on a regular basis, you can become somewhat inured to them.  That was the case for me, anyway, when I was spending several nights a week during the summer of 2012 photographing in the park.  Not that I wouldn’t see the views and appreciate them, since they are indeed quite spectacular.  But you can only take so many “trophy” shots of Longs Peak at sunset before they kind of start to look the same.

On this particular evening, there was a stunning show taking place in the sky.  The cloud formations and changing light were simply awesome, just not over Longs Peak.  I had parked my car in a pullout alongside of Trail Ridge Road and hiked a short distance to the north, where I became engrossed in shooting the changing clouds and changing light over the wide, flat expanses of high alpine tundra as the sun went down.  The conditions were changing quickly, and I was absorbed in my viewpoint facing north.  Fortunately, I paused to take in the grandeur of it all, which included a look over my shoulder at the view to the south.  Sure enough, when I wasn’t looking, these clouds had moved in behind Longs Peak, creating to my eye the effect of a curtain, in front of which the peak cut a sharp figure and leading me to title this image “Longs Peak, Curtain of Clouds.”

This image also is one of the first where I was conscious of the idea of apparent contrast.  Apparent contrast is the contrast within the mid-tones of an image, and can lead to perception of improved overall sharpness of an image.  As an aside, it’s my understanding that this is what photographers often are referring to, at least in part, when they say a lens has “good contrast” or “good sharpness.”  Regardless, I used the clarity slider in Adobe Camera Raw (+20) and the structure slider in Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro 2 (+15 in the mid-tones) to try to bring out these qualities in the image, and I noticed a definite increase in my perceived sharpness of the lines defining the peak as well as the details in the clouds behind the peak.

For those who are interested, there is a good article in the February, 2013 issue of Outdoor Photographer discussing apparent contrast and the clarity slider of Adobe Camera Raw.  Regarding the structure slider, I first became aware of this control in Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro 2 from one of my favorite photographers, Bret Edge.  Bret provides great information on using Nik software products on his blog, including a little on the structure slider of Silver Efex Pro 2 here.

But mostly what I remember in creating this image was that I would have missed it entirely if I simply hadn’t paused and looked over my shoulder.  In the field, it’s pretty easy to become very absorbed in photographing the scene you’re working on, at least for me.  But thanks to this image, now I remember you should always check your surroundings to see what else may be developing!

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