Okay, let’s have a show of hands: Who read my previous post? If you did, you no doubt remember my lament that photographing a redwood forest isn’t easy. Problem number one is the bright sky that always seems to find its way through even the most dense forest canopy, scattering small patches of sunlight that simply don’t play well with the prevailing shade. Rain clouds darken these highlights significantly, reducing the overhead brightness to a manageable level, painting the entire scene in soft, shadowless light that enables fully saturated color without Photoshop intervention. Unfortunately, rain introduces a new problem for the photographer: it’s wet.
Given that some of the best photography occurs when it’s raining, staying inside is not an option for serious photographers. We all have our own methods for dealing with it–mine starts with making sure I am absolutely dry: waterproof boots and wool socks, rain pants that slide over my regular pants, a waterproof parka, all topped by a wide-brimmed rain hat (every time I don this ensemble I flash back to fourth grade, splashing on the playground during a downpour in my yellow slicker and red galoshes). Waterproofing myself frees me to concentrate entirely on keeping my camera dry. This I achieve with a plastic garbage bag (I keep a box in my car, but if for some reason I don’t have one, I rob a bag from the hotel wastebasket) and an umbrella. The garbage bag slides over the camera when it’s on the tripod, only coming off when I’m ready to compose. Conversely, the umbrella stays closed, opening the second the garbage bag comes off. I don’t stress too much about a few raindrops on my camera; my sole objective is to keep any water from marring my lens element (or more precisely, my polarizer–more on this later). I also keep a lens cloth in a pocket to dab the rogue drop that penetrates my defenses, and a hand towel in my camera bag in case a more extreme measures are required.
The rain was falling pretty hard when Don Smith and I landed the workshop group at Lady Bird Johnson Grove in Redwood National Park; unsure how prepared for the conditions everyone was, so we gave them an hour to meander the grove’s one mile loop. But within fifteen minutes it became pretty clear that the light was special, and everyone seemed to be dealing with the rain fairly well, so we quickly added another hour. Wise move.
My goal when photographing redwoods is to resist the urge to capture too much; instead I seek a single element that stands out. In this image and in the image in my previous post, rather than force a composition, I designed my composition to use the light available to me. The image in my previous post emphasized the light illuminating translucent leaves against the dark forest background; in today’s image, I chose a mossy tree as the focus point of a scene that tries to convey the opulent beauty of a redwood forest. The dramatic light here is on the moss lining the diagonal tree, but the entire forest was shrouded in an ethereal mist that bathed the scene in shadowless light that begged to be photographed.
My previous image used limited depth of field to focus all attention on the luminous leaves and soften the towering redwoods into a background canvas. Here, wanting maximum depth of field and despite the forest’s darkness, I stopped down to f16 and bumped my ISO to compensate. Even at ISO 400, the combination of deep shade, dark sky, and microscopic aperture forced a four-second exposure. Fortunately there was very little breeze, and I was more than content to live with the single blurred fern in the foreground, pretty much the only thing that moved even slightly during my lengthy exposure.
One final, important, and often overlooked element here is the value of a polarizer in shade. Because of the polarizer’s obvious (and often dramatic) ability to darken the sky, many photographers are ignorant of its impact in shade and overcast. The next time you’re photographing in indirect light (shade or overcast), try adding a polarizer and turning it slowly with your eyes on a reflective surface–the effect will be clear. So despite the fact that removing my polarizer would have dropped my shutter speed from four to one second, the harsh glare introduced by that move would have diluted color and created a major distraction. Shade and overcast like this is when my polarizer, uh, “shines.” It’s what enabled me to fully saturate the grove’s deep, primordial green (with no Photoshop augmentation).