Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Upon Brume

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: So why do I keep returning to old barns? I suppose the most honest answer is, because they're there. I believe in shooting close to home. Or better yet, because they're still there, and I sense about them, husks that they are, deep and venerable roots. Spirits inhabit these yet, and sometimes they can be caught lurking.

This is the blacksmith's shop at Skarf Mt. I've described it before. As it turns out, smithing was a specialty of the great grandfather of the current generation. This was his shop first, and his children learned forging from him. I'm struck by how the arc of a life continues to shape the present and how it may be transformed over time.

There's that, but there's also the purely visual, the look of old wood as the paint wears and the wood ages, how it catches light or hums softly when there's little light. In photographs it can appear especially painterly. In all likelihood, some of this is wood cut around these fields and hewn on these grounds. The patterns on it's surface tell the story of seasons, of drought and flood, before there was a farm or a blacksmith.

On this particular afternoon there was also the steady patter of the rain gutters. If only I could, I'd paint all that.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Barnyard Thaw

RIED CALLANAN: "As you progress through your photographic career and experience, you learn that oftentimes you photograph from your dreams and your memories and your intuition and your background. It's not just the perception through your eyes."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: Three years of wandering and regular photographing has bred practices and habits worth reflecting on. Why do I regularly return to the same sites?

The snow before the holiday was accompanied by bitter cold, but by Wednesday (Christmas Eve) temperatures had moderated. It was in the bitter cold that I took yesterday's photograph. Although I have shot Skarf Mountain Farm many times, I never saw that angle until I saw it then. What first drew me was the foreground splash of berry brambles against the cracked, aged barn-wood. The big gash in the wall was a feature to be carefully placed. The low sun caught every bit of detail in the wood and the brambles. However, in spite of frequent visits here, I'd never before seen the intriguingly twisted passageway through the barnyard just behind the brambles. How simply and elegantly it let me balance the composition. I'd never seen it that way. Under recent snow and the cold sunlight of the solstice, it was obvious. How had I missed it?

Well, for one thing, I'd never seen it under snow. There are close to two stops of difference between the ground covered by snow and the ground with its usual covering of grass and hardened soil. Under snow, earth and sky unite. I'm reminded of the first thing Freeman Patterson said in his first workshop three summers ago. "It's all about composing tonalities. Learn to see tonalities." Had snow suddenly made it a composition? I spent a long time adjusting placement, height, angle, and zoom to include or exclude various details and to shift the viewer's path through the composition. In fact, there seemed too many good options.

Then this weekend temperatures climbed as high as sixty and the world turned spongy. Naturally, having found the angle in winter's deep freeze, when I was back there Saturday I wanted to see it in thaw. Thick, even fog muffled almost everything as snow condensed to vapor. The density of the fog changed often, but visibility was rarely above 100 feet, often far less. The white snow was off the dark roof of the barns, but snow still led the eye along the ground. The scene composed itself differently. It did so instantly as I looked through the viewfinder. The barns, smothered in fog, loomed somewhat massively, and the snarl of berry brambles were no longer outlined by the setting sun, but made quiet and hung with drops of melting snow.

Looking at the two photographs side by side reminds me of a series of quick decisions I made in standing, zooming, and framing this photograph that were quite different than those I made in the freeze photo, I didn't study this one intently as I had the first, and I made just five quick shots. I was especially aware of wanting to spread out the opposing face of the heifer barn on the right where earlier I had kept trying to pinch it. It was not merely to make more background to the water droplets, but to enhance the broad shape. Shooting it this way was a bit like suddenly hearing the right chord struck on the piano. Very curious, my certainty about this shot and the urge to improvise infinite variations to the earlier one!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Barnyard Freeze

ALBERT CAMUS: "In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY - The wanderer never knows where his path will lead. Yes, I believe in wandering.

I've been thinking a good deal about, among other things, how my shooting process has evolved over the past three years. Many friends who shoot "art landscapes," troll by automobile in search of good shots. From time to time I've done that as well. They drive until something photogenic appears, stop for a few minutes to shoot, and then move on. The more I shoot, the less satisfactory I find this method. The issue for me is less about finding good things to shoot. I believe good photographs can be made anywhere, though I certainly have my preferences for subject matter. The more fundamental issue is attaining the concentration to shoot well.

I return to the same places often, though I also try to expand the kinds of places I shoot. The process of returning is consistent with the notion of wandering, since the same place is different every time, and I often find new things that delight me in places I know well. It may be that in becoming familiar with the unchanging forms of a place I become more sensitive to the nuances of the moment. However, the essential trick, wherever I am, is in putting aside expectation - becoming a true wanderer - developing a wanderer's concentration to see and feel what truly engages me.

I've watched the pianist Alfred Brendel in concert. He walks onto the stage without acknowledging the audience, sits quickly, hangs his head as if continuing a meditation begun backstage. I sense this as the gathering of his focus and energy around the sounds he is about to make so that when he releases that first note he is the sound guiding the shape, flow, and accent of every detail of the music. The thought of maintaining that concentration through the bubbling and rushing river of a Schubert sonata for 30 or 40 minutes is beyond my comprehension. Fortunately, for my quite human limitations, the photographer must only seize the stream's energy once in the process of honing the composition. On the other hand, more than the turns of a physical path or road, it may be the twisting course of this stream of engagement that guides the wanderer on his journey.

I've found it's essential to leave the car. I've driven roads repeatedly and seen nothing to shoot until I finally went back and walked there. The car seals me off from all but the visual, and even the visual is greatly circumscribed. All of my senses need to dance if my pictures are to reach beyond the visual. As I begin my walk, I usually leave the camera in my backpack and shoulder my tripod like a rifle. If I have a destination and route in mind it will give way to fancy, but even as I wander from the preset trail, I won't take out my camera until something of the moment overpowers the natural wish to continue. Sometimes I never take my camera out, and I end the day with nothing more than a healthy walk. On the other hand, if the impulse to stop takes over, I may shoot at the same spot for ten minutes or an hour or more. If I stay put it means I'm wandering. Then, one shot leads to another. The more familiar I am with the site, the better I will be able to judge when to move on or where to move next to "follow the stream."

Occasionally my concentration is suddenly broken. It is a feeling akin to descending the stairs to find suddenly one step fewer than expected, and no chance to turn and climb back. However, unlike walking, where destination is the usual goal, wandering is its own reward.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

New England Farmhouse

Roads go ever ever on,

Over rock and under tree,

By caves where never sun has shone,

By streams that never find the sea:

Over snow by winter sown,

And through the merry flowers of June,

Over grass and over stone,

And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever ever on

Under cloud and under star,

Yet feet that wandering have gone

Turn at last to home afar,

Eyes that fire and sword have seen

And horror in the halls of stone

Look at last on meadows green

And trees and hills they long have known.


Sunday, December 21, 2008

Orchard Solstice

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: Strangely familiar yet incongruent, this dance in the orchard at the solstice. A little sugarplum fairy music please, but grotesque and arthritic. I have been enveloped in gray since Friday - this dance in the orchard taken Saturday morning - and today not feeling quite in sync with the storm - worries about bad roads and icy sliding.

I posted Thursday's TODAY'S and went to bed. Despite doubts I had about the weather forecast, I was back on the same, high hill overlooking Twin Elm Farm by 11:15 on Friday, but the lighting guy had put the big diffuser on everything and gone home.

It's decent exercise reaching the top, and I lost track of time shooting my way up. The weatherman said the storm would arrive at noon on Friday. I was bored and ready to give up when I checked my watch. He must have been giving the Twin Elm microcast? I looked at my watch at 12:04 and when I looked up I knew the white glow over the most distant hills was not strange fog but the front line of the snow. If there was an event to be photographed, I was in place, and it was chugging up Oblong Valley. I'm still deciding if there was an event.

The first thing I did was forget everything I learned last winter about photographing in snow. Shutter speed is critical - 1/30th to 1/50th in light to medium wind will keep the flakes from unflaking too much. Only against dark backgrounds will smaller, distant flakes make visible texture. Did I forget or just not switch on a very different mind set?

Gloves - right glove off will speed work if the digits don't go numb. If that doesn't work it's glove liner weather. Some good news: I've finally mastered working with the camera "raincoat." Essential equipment.

The new screen loupe fills with snow - keep it pocketed.

But in the end the approaching snow did look like fog - very even fog that fell like a scrim instead of swirling like a serpent. It shaded the deep hills behind Twin Elm nicely, emphasizing the narrow valley between them. I considered finishing and posting that shot, but it wasn't right - too muted and bland.

I kept shooting, but the hills were buried in white-out long before the pasture was white. On the way home the roads were icy and they were predicting a second storm to arrive Sunday. How to get in sync?

Saturday's photos were the best of the weekend, but the work was effortful, and the snow was back fiercely on Sunday morning right through, "Meet the Press."

The solid gray continued throughout the day until an hour before sunset. Then, without warning, the lighting guy was back with a bit of razzle dazzle. It would have been a sunset to shoot from some high hill or from the orchard, but the roads were slick, and I was engaged in a dusk shot in the valley. Sometimes it's tough to get in sync with a storm.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Folded into the Batter

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: The last time I was here, autumn leaves still consumed Twin Elm farmstead. I've been sticking close to home since mid-November, shooting mostly at Misty Morning Farm and the nearby orchards. I headed this way because we had some blue sky, promising clouds, and we have reached the solstice. Daylight is hovering at 9 hours and 10 minutes and the setting sun has the best angle for lighting this farmstead.

One never knows what one will get, and I went with no preconceived plans. The clouds never panned out, but with the leaves off the trees and the soft, low light of sunset sculpting the scene, the farmstead lounged out in the valley to have its portrait made, "Olympia." If it also tells a story that seems uniquely New England, I'm satisfied.

Tomorrow they are predicting 5 to 10 inches of snow. I've checked the weather maps and I think we will be between heavy storms both north and south. If snow doesn't stick me in the neighborhood, I may head back to Twin Elm. I'll need to be up on the hill before the snow gets deep.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


GARL RIZBUTH: "The chief aim of art is to communicate something intangible and of the spirit directly, completely, and precisely to other people, often across gulfs of space and time."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: Do kids still remember fireflies? Everyone who grew up in the Northeast back in the fifties and could get away from the city remembers them. They were more numerous than stars, and even a little kid could catch dozens in a half hour. I still live in the Northeast, but I only see a few each summer now, and often they don't look well with their lights stuck in the half position. That's the way they looked when I was a kid and I woke the next morning and looked in the jar, listless and short-circuited.

This is another image rediscovered when reviewing the October Orchard shoots. It caught my attention originally too, but I put it aside for some technical issues that don't bother me at all now. How easily it came as I walked among the peach trees! - the grass so perfectly lit, the composition, everything was just there.  I made just two exposures, two distinct compositions, and I like the other almost as much as this. Because they came so easily, seemed so obvious, I moved on.  Perhaps these are fireflies of the daytime. I'm disappointed only in that the technical problems seem to be a bit exaggerated in this reduced jpg version.

Click here for Firefly Information.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Owls 'n' Elves

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: Act I, scene 1; action: After leaving the October orchard I hiked back down the hill to my car which I had left near Misty Morning Farm. I wasn't expecting to find the proscenium framed with swags and the stage set, as if awaiting players. Jane wanted to call this, "Pyramis and Thisbe." I prefer, "Owls 'n' Elves." I recall someone said, "The play's the thing." Since the viewer must supply the play, the title is also yours to invent. I stick with, "Owls 'n' Elves."

This photo had little processing. Here is a case where the use of HDR would spoil the mystery. I could have revealed considerably more of the dark forest, even from my single image. I chose to raise shadow tones only very slightly. If our monitors are similarly calibrated, when you look beneath the background arch on the left, you should be just barely able to distinguish the suggestion of deep forest. Even now I wonder if I shouldn't reveal a bit more shadow detail. If this photo had included sky, it would have needed HDR to encompass the full tonal spectrum.

But hush! Somewhere, in the darkness at the back, the first player has just entered left. Let the play begin. ...

Friday, December 12, 2008

Orchard Orbits

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: God is the experience of looking at a tree and saying, "Ah!"

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: In contrast to yesterday's image, this one, I thought, suggested destination. Then again, the serpentine vine climbing up from the shadows leads in a different direction, and I thought of calling this, "Genesis," but I'd rather not push such a strong meaning onto the image. Perhaps it is presumptuous to suggest beginning or end; it is enough simply to recognize the wheeling shadows of the orchard as it orbits through space.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Peach Orchard, October 6th #2

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: We are again in October's orchard wonderland. This photo more than others seems to me to suggest the start of the journey. We stand as if in a shadowed vestibule ready to enter a garden of delights. Two trees invite us in and motion us on to the sunlit area behind where more trees await. But stand a moment and let your eye explore the path.

This is a single exposure with minimal processing.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Autumn Bower

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: The shady place on the bright day is the photographer's nightmare. As shooting nightmares go, this is a pretty bad one, and I post it as much for technical issues as for any aesthetic qualities it may or may not have. I had timed my shoot to be in the orchard when the low sun lit up the red and yellow vines. Shooting from a distance as in yesterday's image could be handled with a single exposure. I didn't care if detail was lost in the dark boughs of the distant trees. It was their overall gawky form I needed.

In contrast, this close-up only works if we can see the leafy vines covering the shadowed side of the boughs. Standing there I saw those vines clearly. My photograph could not encompass that range. Setting the exposure to preserve the bright leaves left the shadowed area in black gunk. Fortunately, back in October, looking ahead to taking up HDR, I made a number of images in bracketed sets.

However, processing this set of images for HDR created new problems. There was a constant wind that vibrated leaves and branches of a certain length. When I processed my images for HDR the software was unable to resolve some of this movement. Along the left foreground especially, leaves that were frozen in the individual pre-HDR images appeared multiple times in the combined HDR. You can see a bit of this remaining about 1/8th of the way across the bottom from the left corner and in the far right corner.

Even more damaging was the way HDR processing spoiled a key detail of the shot. In very bright sections the original photos showed crisp veins in leaves rendered translucent by the bright sun. In the HDR version these details were smudged unacceptably.

HDR created a few less significant problems as well. In the right corner and in shadowed areas there is more noise than I expected. This is a result of not making a high enough exposure to get the darkest tones of the image into the mid-range tonalities. I've since read that it's advisable for the left third of the histogram to be blank in the highest exposure to get the dark tones well exposed.

To resolve the problems in the photo above, I found it was possible to combine an HDR and an ordinary image, making use of the parts of each that showed details best. Most of the image is a regular, unprocessed image. I chose one that handled bright areas well. The HDR version is the source of dark areas and good transitions to the lighter areas. Using an eraser with a soft, gradient edge I removed sections of the top, non-HDR image to expose the underlying HDR. The areas of the HDR exposed are along the shadowed areas and some sections where shadow and light mingle.

It's very easy to use HDR to stretch tonalities in very extreme and unnatural ways, and it can be useful for creating surreal or expressionistic distortions. My aim here, however, was only to open up the shadows and restore what was missing. I could have brightened the shadow considerably, but chose only small adjustments. Too much HDR and highs and lows are saturated but compressed. To me such images scream "HDR."

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Peach Orchard, October 6th

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: It seems a world away now. I have to look back and remind myself. Just two months ago was there really a Van Gogh (or even Jackson Pollock) galaxy of light and color in these orchards to be snapped? I hadn't expected it - the pyrotechnics - this peach orchard garlanded in poison ivy and stung by the setting sun.

This peach orchard lies on the north side of of Baldwin Hill. The land slopes so gently that it's hard to find the top, but once there I can look northeast to Mt. Tom, the next big hill. Mt. Tom is a tall cone of rock. Baldwin Hill is a broad, fertile dome. Much of it is planted with old orchards. The apple orchards are at the top and descend down the eastern slope, but there is an open view southwest as well, thus the shots of the apple orchard backed by setting sun. The land has been farmed there since the mid 1700s, and the same family still runs the orchards.

In early October I was pretty much splitting my time between shooting here and at Hilltop Pond. The first of those pond photos were taken about when this was shot (1), (2), (3), (4).

Monday, December 8, 2008

Apple Orchard Friday

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: I've been working with high dynamic range processing (HDR) for almost a week. HDR isn't new, but it's new for me, and it is changing the way I look and see as a photographer. Whether HDR leads to more literal representation of what I see is my personal choice, but it does permit greater fidelity between the world seen and the world photographed.

I shot this image on Friday. Last Sunday I would have passed it by. There are more than 8 stops of information in this image from the darkest pixels to the lightest, far more than film or digital cameras can record in one image. (Five clean stops of light is about the best one can expect from current DSLRs. After that the top starts losing saturation and the bottom gets noisy.) As one brightens this exposure, the sky loses all detail long before the foreground tree gets any. Nor is it just that detail is lost. Even in situations where the dynamic range is less extreme, over-exposed sky quickly bleeds into dark areas. This would spoil the crisp texture of branches in this shot.

To make this image I shot multiple images at shutter speeds ranging from 1/20th of a second to 1/5000th of a second. My goal was shots that encompassed the darkest and lightest tones and filled out a fair sampling of the middle. The software suggests shooting two stops above and two stops below the correct exposure. In fact, this picture required more to encompass the intensity of the setting sun. I checked the trailing lines at both ends of the histogram until I saw they had ended in all three primary colors.

I've found orchards, unless on or surrounded by some pretty steep hills, to be especially difficult to shoot. I photographed in the neighboring peach orchard through much of the fall. The grotesque contortions of the branches, the trees' neat rows, the foliage, fruit and flower all appeal to my photographic tastes, and, except when the winter wind blows, they are beautiful places to walk. At the orchards on the top of Baldwin Hill especially, the dance of the fruit trees wants to whirl in partnership with the sky, and often the best skies lie close to the sun. Until this week, I looked at such scenes with the knowledge that my image would be mostly silhouette. Knowing I can put detail into the shadows lets my camera enter new worlds.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Apple Orchard Sunday 2

S.T. COLERIDGE: "Those [winds] which mould yon clouds in lazy flakes."

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Apple Orchard Sunday

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: I walked today, but the lighting guy had closed up shop and gone home. Sometimes it's like that. The last good shooting day for me was Sunday. Although the sun broke through only occasionally and weakly, the clouds provided interest, and after using up the last of the subeams at Misty Morning Farm, I threw myself recklessly into the orchards on top of Baldwin Hill. Of many experiments, the husky alto of this music seemed to suit the moment.

TECHNICAL - Some time ago several friends recommended high dynamic range (HDR) processing. After shooting this I began fooling with the software. To use it, one needs images shot at different exposures. This image is about as good as modern cameras can record in the situation above. Where the sun breaks through the image is overexposed, burnt out, the pixels have been blown away. At the same time, where the trees are in silhouette the image is underexposed, there is not enough light, detail has been lost.

I've been preparing to shoot HDR for some time, taking three images to preserve detail at both ends of the histogram. I wish I'd shot this for HDR to see what I could have done with the finished image. On another occasion I might have chosen not to shoot in such unpromising light, but somehow, on Sunday this silhouette seemed right, and I'm not sure HDR could have gotten closer to the mood.

This is best viewed full screen. In fact, zoom in and you'll see the exposure was carefully calibrated to preserve much of the shadow detail.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Misty Morning Vegetable Garden, Nov. 29, 2008

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: Saturday was a dark day with mighty clouds that hovered but never pounced. The bite of winter was in the air, and the dark season had digested most of the landscape. I set out more to walk and get my daily exercise than to photograph, but as I reached the bottom of the pasture below Misty Morning Farm, the landscape began to awaken. The swampy lowland between Misty Morning Farm and Dyer Farm offered welcome colors and textures though no shots yet. Even occasional, "theater lights," didn't make a picture, but on another day the pond behind these swamps might offer eye-catching reflections. I made note.

I'd never been to the bottom of this meadow, though I'd considered it last winter when it was covered in snow. The rewards seemed not promising enough then to justify the difficult trudge in snowshoes to the bottom and back; the hill is so steep that I thought the barns, set back at the top, would be hidden when I got to the bottom. Even in the spring it was too soft to walk comfortably. Now that the ground was frozen, I was scoping it to plan if/how I might shoot it when the snow returned. In fact, the barns were out of sight from the bottom, but there were other opportunities further up where rooftops and gables came into view, and I slowly wound my way back to the top exploring all the angles.

When I'd had enough I headed out for the rest of my hike. On the way, I passed the vegetable garden. The last time I was here colorful baskets full with tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, and squash lay beside rows of old leaves, stained and sunbeaten but green. The last of the Misty Morning's bounty was being harvested.