It’s no big secret that I love being physically active, outdoors, and probably doing something that takes some real effort. Yesterday I joined a group of friends for a long day hike to Berry Creek Falls nestled deep in Big Basin Redwoods State Park. This is one of my very favorite California State Parks not only because it’s historic and stunning, but hey it’s also just a few miles from my home.
Usually when I do this hike I go lightweight and I carry a smaller Canon Rebel XT. That poor little thing finally met its demise late in 2018. We had a good run. I went heavy this time to photograph the falls. When I’m carrying my gear with a plan that means I’m using my 65 liter backpack. I can strap my better tripod to it, carry lunch, plenty of water, a couple of lenses, a warm jacket, emergency gear etc. The weight is just under what I’d carry for a 2 day backpacking trip. This time I used everything but the jacket.
The Artistic Photographs
Photographing this waterfall is both easy and difficult. There’s a viewing platform that’s nice and stable. It’s a long day hike to get here and the condition of the trail will vary depending of recent weather and park funding. This can technically be done with a small travel tripod and a reasonable quality camera. The trick is getting here in quality light. If you start hiking around 9 you can expect to arrive about 11 or 12. On a clear day that makes for a high contrast snapshot that’s not especially pleasant to the eye. Today was overcast and about as close to perfect as you can get near noon. One of the fun details is the prisms that occur. I shot this one with my Canon 5d Mk III, a 3-stop ND filter on my favorite Manfrotto carbon fiber tripod.
I like to help tell the story of the folks hiking the trail. It’s fun for me, fun for them, and gives everybody a keepsake from the trip.
Tara led Sunday’s hike. She’s fun, outgoing, energetic, and all around good people. She’s training for the John Muir Trail section of the Pacific Crest Trail which she expects to take 3 weeks.
Not everything goes to plan. A few minutes after this this fun snapshot @misfittany slipped and the sole of her boot completely fell apart. This is why I carry so much stuff. Today’s gear to the rescue? The cord I use to hang food up in a tree so the critters don’t get it.
For 45 seconds I watched the sun’s light move across Half Dome like a flashlight sweeping across the north face. I wasn’t remotely prepared for this. I was all setup with a telephoto when what I really wanted was my wide angle. I made do with what I had ready to go. Then I saw that storm coming with 4+ miles to hike back in the dark. This was one long, incredible day that I will never forget.
This is a photograph reimagined from a hike out to North Dome with my bud Gary Crabbe in Oct 2016. I had my Canon 70-200 f/4 ready to go with the plan of getting a nice shot of Gary against Half Dome. Then the sun poked between the clouds, lighting up the granite face in a way that I can only hope comes across in this series of photographs. I knew I didn’t have the camera/lens combination that I really wanted for this moment since it was unexpected. So, I filled the frame and ran with it.
I want to do more of this kind of thing. Much, much more.
I spent a fair amount of time with Lightroom and Photoshop to bring the colors about the way that I want to get across. There are competing color temperatures in this so it needed a lot of tweaking. Admittedly there’s still a touch of green that I’m not crazy about in the sky. The funny thing is that there are a lot of reflective surfaces here: the granite, snow, clouds etc. All of these reflect more blues from the sky than you’d really imagine. Bringing that back down to something believable takes some effort (and masking in Photoshop). The foreground is this blazing warm tone: oranges, purples, reds as the sun shone across it. Meanwhile the snow in the background is under cloud cover and is reflecting a lot of blue.
This was shot in a couple of years ago now, and my memory of how it looked isn’t nearly as accurate as how it felt. So here I am trying to bring across how it felt.
A few minutes ago a friend of mine asked about the hike back. That was a great question, so I’ll post my response to Anita here:
We got about a mile before it got genuinely dark. That was a good thing because honestly that first mile it’s kind of hard to pick the trail back up since we were on exposed granite. We made a lot of noise (talking etc) to keep the critters uninterested. By the time we got to the cars it was pretty obvious that we were in for a really good storm. We made it to a little camp site in El Portal where we rode out one hell of a lightning storm. I don’t think I ever slept so soundly. That’s the truth.
I thought it would be worth writing about the creative process and workflow behind this photograph. For a few miles I walked along the trail looking for compositions that I liked. Up high, down low, close to the water, high above. Many things spoke to me here. The whole area was still damp from recent rains and the colors were saturated. There were yellows, oranges, and of course lots of green.
At a turn in the trail I seriously thought about a small cascade. There wasn’t anything especially unique about that cascade and I decided to keep looking. It just didn’t do anything for me at that time. About half a mile later there was a concrete diversion dam. This was a beautiful spot which I wrote about in an earlier post.
Side note:A funny thing about the paragraph above; as I’m developing my blogging style I try to keep in mind how I want this to be read. I want to write it as if I’m talking with a friend over a beer. I started this with “But there were visual elements that compelled me to…” . That may be what I was thinking, but that’s definitely now how I’d say it. So, hang with me please while I get the hang of this.
A lower, rudimentary dam – just concrete and rebar really created a nice vantage point. Some visual elements that had me think about it for a while. I wanted to create a photograph that leads the eye around the frame. As I looked at the scene in the first “A starting point” picture above, I saw the curve of the San Lorenzo River taking up the lower 2/3 of the frame. The river curves, leading the eye to the colorful trees. The reeds half way up the photo do a nice job of framing the river. The rock at the bottom left 1/3 does a nice job of anchoring the scene. The river itself was moving and I thought it would be good to slow down my shutter speed.
Seeing the problems
As I looked at the scene I realized there there were problems. Potentially this would also be a really good topic for a workshop and a blog topic. I’ll try to break this down into bullet points to keep it brief. (note: yeah I kind of failed at the “brief” idea)
The scene was really busy.
The plants (I really want to use a word more interesting than “plants” but does “vegetation” seem like something you’d really hear me say? Probably not) in the center were colorful but they were also total chaos.
The river was nice but it had a lot of distracting reflections
The amount of green was overwhelming. Green on green, with pops of yellow.
I knew that the river would turn this weird unnatural blue in post processing
A gap is in the upper right where the tree line ends and the sky begins. The sky was definitely going to be an uninteresting blown out blob so I composed the shot to omit as much of it as possible.
But here’s the thing — I recognized all of this in the field. I also started thinking about how to approach this in post processing while I was there.
Setting up the shot
I got up on the lower concrete & rebar eyesore dam (it’s really ugly, I’m not mincing words here) and setup my tripod. I stood up and squatted down a few times to decide what height I want to shoot from. I chose a height that was nearly fully extended. I wanted the colorful trees in the background to be in the upper 1/3 of the frame so I setup the lens at 40mm. The composition of photo is very “rule of thirds.” You can see how I placed certain elements in the frame so that the object would be where grid lines would intersect. That’s not an accident.
A lot of reflected light was in the water so I put a circular polarizer on the lens to cut that back some. I wanted a longer exposure and thought that about one second would be nice for the water. This created a problem though; (ooh a semicolon! Fancy schmancy!) stacking circular filters on the lens creates unwanted vignetting. Ditching the circular polarizer wasn’t an option so I decided to use f/16 to reduce the amount of light. I sure didn’t need f/16 for the depth of field. I’m pretty sure this would have been good around f/8. For longer exposures (really anything under 1/40th sec) I like to use a simple remote trigger.
Knowing that I had a lot of depth of field to work with I set my focus manually about 1/3 of the way into the field. That was a pretty good estimate to gauge hyperfocal distance. The result is the elements close to the camera are in sharp focus while my main subject (the colorful trees in the distance) are also in reasonably sharp focus. I use my Canon 5d Mk III’s live view to select where I want to focus, then I zoom in using the zoom buttons on the camera body to tighten it more.
I’m paying attention to the histogram displayed in the live view while I’m working. I set mine up to display values in red, green, and blue rather than the default luminosity. This way I can be sure no individual value is overexposing
Post Processing – Adobe Lightroom
Work in Lightroom was kept very basic with a little exploration into color grading. Most of the work was going to be done in Photoshop. Lightroom was used to bring up the shadows, bring down the highlights. Color temperature was changed to something warmer. The scene was shot in an “open shade” kind of situation which the camera would usually decide is around 6000k.
Finish the job in Photoshop
Basic RAW edits from Lightroom are exported to Photoshop for more work. I usually break this down into a few groups of edits. I use adjustment layers (I keep looking for a phrase that’s more interesting than “a lot…” but hell…) a lot. The great thing about adjustment layers is that it’s as close to “non destructive editing” as you’re going to get in a raster editor like Photoshop.
So many adjustment layers…
A Levels adjustment layer is added where I am working with red, green, and blue channels. I bring the darkest values of each channel to the edge of the meaningful data in the histogram.
Bring some things up, some things down
My goal is to lead the viewer’s eye around the frame. I added an adjustment layer that darkens most of the image. I painted black into the layer mask with a large brush to bring some brightness back up selectively
Color Grading In the Mid Tones
Raya Pro was used to get the mid tones luminosity mask. If right about now you’re cross eyed and saying “wha???” that’s cool. I wanted to be very selective about how I got creative with color. Admittedly I didn’t go wild but this did have a nice effect. No, this isn’t how I actually saw the scene in front of me, but it is how I wanted to present it. That’s the difference between a photograph and a snapshot. I’ll keep this brief, mostly because this post has gotten to be very long and I’m into beer number two while writing it. The YOST SEO plugin is telling me I’m wording poorly.
Below you can see that I was editing the curves for each color channel. The neat thing is that I’m doing this only in the midtones to keep it selective. No, the screenshot below isn’t really an accurate depiction of the whole thing but it gives you the general idea.
Selective color correction
There was probably a better way to do this. I wanted to add a little more contrast. I also thought at the image was too blue. The levels adjustment layer at bottom brings the middle slider for the blues up, reducing the blues in the midtones. The curves layer darkens the darks values a bit, and really just a little bit. The levels adjustment later up top is where I make a custom mask to keep the edits to a portion of the image.
Essentially the river is reflecting a lot of blue from the sky and I found it distracting. That last levels adjustment layer is to bring those blue tones down to something I liked better.
Selective sharpening and a vignette are added last. Sharpening will be different depending the camera used and the final output. My Canon 5d Mk III needs a little more sharpening in post processing than newer Sony mirrorless cameras. I’ve found that the sharpening can also cause problems when the job goes to print. My favorite high end shop, LightSource SF, adds some custom sharpening. I compensate for this by doing my sharpening in an adjustment layer that can be disabled for printing if needed.
Take a closer look at my sharpening layer. It’s a high-pass filter with a layer mask painted black. I paint white with a big, soft brush on that layer mask so the sharpening is applied only to the parts of the image that I really want. The high-pass filter layer is set to an “overlay” or “soft light” mode. Honestly I can’t tell the difference between the modes by looking at them. No, really.
A vignette is used to further draw the eye around. How do you something brighter? One way is to make everything else darker. I make an organic shape using a Wacom Intuos drawing tablet. That vignette is applied to a curve layer and the white parts of the layer mask make darker areas in the final image.
There’s a fairly well known spot in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park referred to as the Garden Of Eden. Rather than my usual workout at the gym I went for a weighted trail run. Granted the “weight” was my camera pack and tripod.
Colorful Diversion Dam
A dam is in place to keep the river diverted in a more controllable manner. Folks have been using this as a canvas for years and the current “selection” is pretty colorful. My goal here was more than going for a run; I was also scouting the area for an upcoming private photography lesson.
Why yes, I do the occasional private workshop.
Contact me about a workshop some time! The workshops are fun, inexpensive, and run 2-3 hours. We get out and explore locations like the Garden Of Eden not only because are they beautiful, they are also very good object lessons. Shutter speed, depth of field, wide angles, and on top of that you had to hike a little so you had to earn it.
Tonight at Shark Fin Cove. I have to admit that I have a mixed relationship with this place. An iconic Santa Cruz scene that’s been “loved to death”.
This scene is occasionally found on the cover of magazines like Outdoor Photographer. It’s a tricky location to shoot, and I’ll be honest there are a lot of times when this place doesn’t do a lot for me. There’s usually a lot of garbage from visitors who couldn’t be bothered to pick up after themselves, graffiti, or any number of people who want a selfie while I’m trying to compose a photograph here. Usually I patiently wait out that last one.
A fashion shoot was actually happening off to my right and we were all careful to work around each other. I’m grateful for that kind of awareness. The selfie variety… not so much.
This scene is shot from just about every angle; up high behind this perspective, up and to the right, and slightly less often up the cliff and to my left. I think that what really makes this scene work is an interesting foreground. The rock outcropping that I’m standing on here almost always has interesting reflections and leading lines. The algae on the rocks provides a little color contrast. Tonight the sun was setting to the southwest and provided a fun pop of lens flare.
Processing the Image
It’s a little more complicated than it seems; this is a blend of two photographs. It’s nearly impossible to get both the sunset and the foreground exposed the way I like in a single frame, so this is a blend of 2. I can see a good argument for using 3. Actually blending them together is a lot of work and met with varying success. This area is alive and not standing still at all. For example the cliff sides have tall grass swaying in the breeze. To blend the two images together means carefully painting in a mask along the grass.
There are dangers shooting here. A lot of folks along the cliff don’t realize that they’re standing on an overhang. If you’re visiting here please leave no trace, pick up some trash, and be very careful along those cliffs.
Last weekend my daughter and I made a quick run for Taft Point. We were expecting a rain storm soon and I took that to mean that this was going to be the last weekend Glacier Point Road was going to be open for a few months. The Three Brothers were across the valley bathed in a glowing sunset. There was a lot more haze from the ongoing Camp Fire that I dialed down for the sake of this photograph.
In an earlier post I wrote about how wide angle lenses were commonly used in landscape photography. I also hinted that occasionally you might use a telephoto. This is one of those times. Telephotos are excellent for isolating your subject and creative composition. Here I used my Canon 70-200 f/4 L which I prefer for hikes because it is so much lighter than my 70-200 f/2.8.
Haze from lens compression
I was expecting the haze from the smoke to be even more prominent because of lens compression from the telephoto. Honestly it wasn’t much different from when I shot the broader scene with my wide angle. This article on F-Stoppers gives a pretty good explanation for that. Interestingly that article says that lens compression doesn’t exist. I’m not so sure about that, but their writers are paid to research these topics while I’m not. I’ll keep their article in mind.
This is one of those stories that feels like it deserves a much longer post. For the past few years my cousin Debbie and I have ventured into Yosemite looking for wildflowers in the spring. This year was a little different. We had a little extra time, we were excited about exploring parts of Yosemite that we’ve never really spent much time in, and we were both in really good physical condition.
I found a good deal on a stay at the Wawona Hotel (now known as the “Big Trees Lodge”) so we could hike up to Chilnualna Falls. We did our research, and had some pretty good ideas. We both also felt up to the challenge of carrying our favorite gear.
The stretch goal
We had a stretch goal depending on how long it took us to get to the main fall. Above the waterfall are the streams that flow into the falls themselves. I wanted to visit here mostly because it seemed like it would be remote and uncrowded. That was an understatement. We encountered very few people the whole trip and none at all after passing the main waterfall. We had this place to ourselves and it was glorious.
Actually getting to our stretch goal destination was something of a comedy of errors. Note, that’s absolutely normal for us. The trail was washed out and we had to do a little bushwhacking. That meant getting creative crossing yet another stream then essentially losing the trail once we got to the other side. Thankfully some hikers before us stacked up some stone ducks pointing the way.
The primary goal
The primary goal was of course Chilnualna Falls. We backtracked our way here with a minimum of mishaps. I envisioned a long exposure of the water rushing over the middle cascade and flowing to the lower cascade behind me. I had a very wide angle in mind. 17mm on a full frame Canon is really wide and distortion was expected. I liked it and ran with it.
I switched lenses to my Canon 70-200. For some reason I chose to bring my obnoxiously heavy 70-200 f/2.8. In retrospect my 70-200 f/4 would have been a better choice for any of a dozen reasons, but hey this is what I brought and fitness-knucklehead me, I was up for carrying it.
Time to go.
We stayed for a while and enjoyed the place until it was obviously time to go. We needed to hussle back downhill before we ran out of daylight entirely. Along the way I couldn’t help but stop and photograph the beautiful scenes unfolding in front of me.
My tripod was strapped to my pack and I just didn’t have time to dawdle much. The remaining shots where hand held at higher ISO. These were moments that I just wanted to capture. It was something of an attempt to take this home with me and remember the experience.
While passing these last scenes I could here the voice of Gary Crabbe reminding me these words of wisdom:
If it looks good, shoot it. If it looks better shoot it again
Often I don’t need to go very far to capture a beautiful scene. There are plenty of times when I simply need to go out my front door. Feb 1st, 2018 was one of those times. The full moon was setting behind some wispy clouds. I literally walked outside with my tripod and a good Canon 200mm to capture it.
I like to make photographs of many topics but I’m going to be totally open with you. There are subjects I’m utterly not interested in. If I wanted something to go totally bananas on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or Google Plus (hey, I actually used Google Plus a lot. No really! I’ll talk about that some other time) then I’d post pictures of fluffy kittens or overly processed portraits of people who were already beautiful to start with. That’s not my thing.
I’m moved most by landscapes. Why landscapes? To quote Dan Mitchell
I’m fortunate to live in a (photographically speaking) “target rich environment.”
I live in the Santa Cruz Mountains; a “target rich environment” among target rich environments. I’ve lived in California for most of my life (there were a couple of years in Las Vegas. Ask me about that over a beer or two some time).
I look around me and I see art everywhere. The rich patterns and textures in redwood groves. The sheer height of even second-growth redwoods. The fascinating, curling bark of the manzanita tree. The deer wandering through my back yard. The darned turkeys that stubbornly walk down my little street when I’m late for work. The occasional mountain lion (I’ll write about that story again soon. It was one of those blog posts that I let bluehost delete when I gave them the proverbial finger). Often I photograph those scenes in color, but there’s something about redwoods that seem appropriate for black and white.
I often walk through this area looking for inspiration. Today I stopped to study this one grove. I was attracted to the repetition of forms, how the trees framed the one in the middle, and the small amount of depth in the scene. Something clearly in front, back, and in the middle. This particular morning was overcast; absolutely ideal for shooting in this forest. The light catches the bark and seems to bend around the tree enhancing the sense of volume. I must have walked past this grove a hundred times without ever thinking about it. This time I stopped and really looked into the forest. That may seem overly deep considering I just wrote about how I misspelled “photography” on my own header image — and then left it in because it’s funny. But that’s how I feel when I’m in this space.
While studying the way the light played on the bark I decided that black and white was the most meaningful approach for me. Bring this up. Bring this down. Enhance the bright parts of the bark just a little. Bring down some of the shadows, but don’t let them get totally buried. Add a nice organic vignette to emphasize the subject in the middle of the frame. Add a twist of lemon. Just right.
I always appreciate comments and re-shares of my posts. Contact me for prints or licensing. Join me for a hike in the SCM (Santa Cruz Mountains). Or even better buy a print or two from my sales site. Right here again, you know, just in case it got lost up there.
I had an idea for a scene on the west side of Santa Cruz. There are a few staircases that lead surfers into the ocean but one in particular just didn’t really do anything for me — until I had an idea. I had envisioned the staircase in sharp focus while the waves washed over it. Shortly after the idea formed the weather and tide cooperated perfectly. The tide was high and the sky overcast.
The great thing about the overcast sky was that just after sunrise a bright band would appear over the horizon between the ocean and the clouds. Some time with Photoshop created exactly the look I wanted.
Step Into My Office #3 is born
I had another idea involving elements that moved and elements that kept still. I was hoping for a surfer to come up the staircase. This involved a 3-stop neutral density filter. For shots like these I often manually focus on the part of the image that I want in sharpest focus. This may vary if I’m going for hyperfocal depth of field. Soon enough a surfer approached and started coming up the staircase.
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