Friday, March 26, 2010

Capturing spring wildflowers in Texas with only one camera, one lens, and one filter

Whenever Texas outdoor photographer Ernesto Santos gets a chance to use his camera, he's well prepared. But now he tells us he's "gearing down" for a monumental four-week photo tour this spring. "I will begin by saying that spring is finally here in south Texas as the warm sunshine and sparkling color of wildflowers return to the Rio Grande Delta. Down here the wildflower season occurs about 3 to 4 weeks ahead of the more famous flower fields in the Hill Country and Panhandle Plains. Although we don’t get a lot of the larger species like Bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrush, it looks like we are in for a great display, nonetheless.

"This spring," says Ernesto, "as I arranged to photograph wildflowers at a ranch near Falcon Lake in Zapata County, I realized it would be a great chance to practice some 'photographic minimalism' by limiting myself to a Nikon D300, a 105 mm Micro-Nikkor f/2.8 AF-S VR, and -- the one filter I could never do without -- my trusty Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer. This, I reasoned, would be good training for the trip to Asia that my wife and I will be taking in May -- since we will be quite limited in terms of how much photo gear we can carry.

"When a friend and I arrived at the ranch we saw the Spanish Dagger Yuccas were already blooming. Usually the first plants of the season to bloom, these yuccas sprout a large spike in the center of their main stalk from which a large head of white blossoms erupts. The image above shows one in full bloom. I used the LB Warming Polarizer here primarily to saturate the bright sky but the warming effect also added a little more dimension to the cream colored blossoms. I also used the pop-up strobe on the D300 to illuminate the dark green spiked leaves and add detail inside the flowers.

"I was happy to see such an abundance of green growth and small pockets of purple, pink, and yellow color covering the ground. I soon found these tiny flowers in a small patch of prairie verbena. The rich purple of the blossoms stopped me in my tracks. I was eager to see what effect my warming polarizer would have on these delicate flowers and the rich green foliage surrounding the little clusters. I took a shot of the flowers from a short distance and came up with this nice composition.

"My success with the polarizer encouraged me to move in closer to get a real micro view of these tiny beauties. I adjusted the exposure settings to increase my lens opening and decrease the depth of field. This also prevented over-exposing the delicate hues of the petals. Choosing a wider aperture also allowed the use of a faster shutter speed to deal with the stiff March breezes coming off the lake. As I turned the bezel on the warming polarizer, I noticed that it not only improved the overall richness of the isolated blossom but it helped darken the background slightly -- which then became a beautiful creamy bokeh. The polarizer also eliminated the errant reflections of the ground clutter to isolate the prairie verbena.

"Moving on, I soon found a number of fineleaf fournerved daisies. I could see that capturing the essence of these tiny flowers would be a challenge. I decided to take the same approach I did with the verbena. So I first took a shot of a cluster of the flowers in a pleasing random array along with some interesting branches in the background. As I had done when shooting the verbena, I rotated the polarizer to punch up the color, eliminate the glare, and add some warmth to the strong branches in the background. This made a nice counterpoint to the dainty yellow daisies.

"By this time, I was totally absorbed in the pursuit of more wildflowers -- even my aching back wasn't going to stop me. At my age, if you want to work with the micro lenses out in the field you have to accept the fact that you are going to WORK -- I may have been a crouching tiger during the action, but I knew I would be paying the price afterwards. Anyway, here is a closer view of the fineleaf daisies in an interesting double-pair composition. I really like how the polarizer increases the acuity of the subjects. Although the wind was blowing consistently, I was still able to freeze the swaying flowers using a fast shutter speed and good timing.

"In this one last view of the fineleaf daisies, we also see the skeleton of a large prickly pear cactus. As the dead cactus decays, it reveals a very interesting grid-like framework that once supported the plant's water-logged cell structure. Here in this shot I found a lone daisy representing the renewal of life from within the fallen cactus. As it sprang out of the cactus framework, it offered a very interesting composition. Again the Singh-Ray polarizer was used to pump up the color and reduce the reflections from the cactus skeleton.

"At this time of year there is beauty at every turn. Even the lowly prickly pear cactus blooms profusely. Before that can happen, however, the plant goes through a process of renewing its pads for the brutally hot and dry summer ahead. As these new pads sprout from the old growth they are quite delicate and offer an incredible hue of fresh bright green.

"Here is a close-up view of the intricate beauty of this process which so often goes unnoticed. At this time, the morning sun was starting to reach overhead and break through the spreading cloud cover. On occasion the glare was a little strong but by exposing this shot while the sun was covered, the polarizer did a great job of eliminating the remaining stray sunlight and boost that gorgeous green color.

"Once the new pads of the prickly pear cactus grow to sufficient size, the sprouting of blossoms begins. Here we see a pad proudly exhibits a row of 'tunas' which eventually become the blossoms themselves. I caught these early in their development when they were still green. Over the coming weeks they will turn a deep crimson and then the flowers will bloom.

"With the morning winding down and our appetites for a Texas barbeque growing, my friend and I met up on a trail. As we headed back to the vehicle we came across exactly what we had come out for so early that morning. There, growing low to the ground, almost unnoticed under a huisache (Acacia) nurse tree was a strawberry pitaya cactus with a lone but beautiful and perfect blossom. The magenta color of the petals was incredible and the yellow interior with the stamen and pollen deposits just took this display over the top.

"My photo buddy and I took turns getting our shots of this cactus blossom, but it became obvious that my images taken with the LB Warming Polarizer really improved the overall color rendition and helped accentuate the fine "gold dust" of the pollen sprinkled on the petals.

"As the big trip to Asia approaches, I'm feeling more and more confident that I can survive four weeks of photography with a relatively compact photo kit -- my wife's Nikon D5000, my D300 and 'our" 18-55, 10-24 and 70-300 lenses. Plus, of course, my Singh-Ray filters."

To follow Ernesto's photo adventures and enjoy his many award-winning images, visit his website.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The degree of excitement in your images may be related to the colors in your snow

From his home in Olympia, Washington, outdoor photographer Kevin McNeal has visited many of the nation's natural wonders; this winter he chose Grand Tetons National Park. "Ever since I started this journey into digital photography," says Kevin, "certain images have stuck in my mind. One of those has been photographing the Grand Tetons in the wintertime. Several times over the last few years, I have tried to make the trip, but the conditions were never right. Ideal weather can be very rare in winter, but finally the time was right. This meant a twenty-hour drive through snowstorms, black ice, and whiteouts to get there -- but it was really worth it! The snow was still on the trees, wildlife was abundant, and the larger-than-life Grand Tetons were surrounded by a winter wonderland.

"Photography in winter can be a most challenging experience in many ways. Too often people associate winter photography with neutral white colors. By injecting color into your winter images you have the ability to create visual excitement that will really stand out.

"One of the best times to capture the magic of winter is at sunrise or sunset when the light transforms the white snow into a dazzling burst of warmth and color. To provide this color, I like to use the LB ColorCombo to maximize the warmer tones of the light. A good example is the alpenglow which is found on mountain peaks during sunrise and sunset. To really make my winter images stand out, I want the most exciting color I can get in each one. The LB ColorCombo with its built-in warming polarizer and color intensifier helped bring out the full range of color in my images. I spent three mornings in a row trying to capture the pinnacle of light, and on the last morning I got the image I had always been looking for.

"One of the advantages to winter photography is when an accumulation of snow transforms the landscape into a completely new scene. It takes on new characteristics and shapes. The challenge is to emphasize these shapes, textures, and forms while also providing visual depth in the image. To achieve this depth, I try to include as many layers in composition as possible. The inclusion of a background element such as the sky invites the viewer on a visual journey into the image. The LB ColorCombo polarizer gives the sky a saturated boost of color that makes any winter scene look better. When you include the added interest of depth, you create a cohesiveness between warmer and cooler tones. Once again, the polarizer injects the necessary color into the image.

"The LB ColorCombo has another way of enhancing my winter images. Snow can be a very difficult subject to photograph in terms of exposure. If you underexpose the snow it becomes a dull gray. However, if you overexpose the snow, you blow out the details and lose its textural interest. By using the polarizer when exposing for the snow, I can reduce the glare reflecting off the snow to allow more details and textures to come through. When trying to make a winter landscape stand out, one of my goals is to highlight the snow crystals in the foreground. While the textures and luminosity highlight the foreground, the saturated color in the sky ties the image together.

"When shooting winter scenes I look for ways to inject color into the areas of white. I also want the foreground subject to complement the scene rather then compete for attention. Finding a balance between the two creates a more cohesive image. Look for subjects of warmth to inject into the scene to contrast with the cool tones of snow.

In this image, I used the LB ColorCombo’s ability to warm up images to bring out as much of the color in the barn while allowing the snow to remain cool. To add visual strength to a winter image, I frame it so that warmer tones are adjacent to cooler tones and then try to emphasize any patterns or shapes that can add depth to the image. This is why it is essential to have the LB ColorCombo that can bring out the best color in my images.

"As mentioned earlier, the magical hours of light early in the day and late afternoon provide the best opportunities to inject color into a winter scene. The LB ColorCombo's built-in color intensifier and the reflective snow combine to add the necessary warm tones.

"In this image, I wanted to capture the color reflected off the water and mirror what was happening with the rest of the scene. I rotated the ColorCombo's polarizer to the point where I could minimize the glare and at the same time bring out even more saturation in the water. The polarizer allowed me to use a longer shutter speed, which gave the water a more silky look. With the combination of the longer shutter speed and the boost in color, I was able to create a mood within the image. When evaluating a scene for color, I always try to pre-visualize where the color will stand out most and how that will affect the secondary subjects.

"Another key to winter images is trying to create a softer glow that gives a painterly feel to the image. With the subject of snow and warm light, it is easy to take this one more step. The added warmth to the image from the LB ColorCombo -- combined with the longer exposure -- creates a dichotomy of mood for the viewer. The two extremes of exposure and warmer tones work to complement each other by creating tension in the image, and thus injecting more impact into the scene.

"Using the LB ColorCombo," says Kevin, "allows me to maximize the colors in my subjects and bring an exciting mood to my winter images that would otherwise be lacking." To learn more about Kevin and keep up with his current projects, be sure to stop by his website and do some exploring.