Posted on March 20, 2023
According to the calendar, today is the first day of spring—so…, Happy Spring! On the other hand, here in Northern California Mother Nature is delivering very mixed signals. A few trees are blooming, and every few days the sun pops out long enough to forgo a jacket or sweater—but the rain still seems to be coming several times a week, which means (lots of) snow is still falling in the mountains. And the temperatures remain chilly enough that I’ve only dared a short-sleeve shirt once, and my shorts and sandals are still buried in the closet.
Attempting to jumpstart spring, on Saturday my wife and I took advantage of a brief break between storms to drive up into the foothills to check out some of my favorite poppy spots. Usually by mid-March I’ve made this foothills trip several times and am deep into processing the year’s poppy bounty. But on Saturday’s drive we didn’t see a single poppy. Not. One. Poppy. While I was a little disappointed, I certainly wasn’t surprised.
Despite the wildflower shutout, it was a nice drive, and with definite hints of spring. We saw some blue sky, lots of water in the creeks, and hills covered with that happy emerald green that’s only possible in spring (Californians know what I’m talking about).
Our first stop was the site of what remains one of my favorite, and most successful, poppy images. We found the hillside blanketed with peak green, but no poppies. We stayed long enough for me to pull up the picture on my phone and try to figure out where I’d stood for this shot. The fence persists in a similar state of skewed dilapidation, and as my eyes followed its line I mentally relived scaling the deceptively steep hillside. So steep, in fact, that I jettisoned gear to make it up the steepest spot.
A short distance down the hill from this spot is a road that has been the source of many of my favorite poppy images. Sadly, when we got there we found it gated with a “Road Closed” sign, an all too common site this year. This was the final nail in this year’s poppy photography coffin.
But I wasn’t going to go down easy because all this nostalgia really got my poppy juices flowing. So, with no new poppy images to work on, the next day I decided to dig into the archives and try to uncover some I’d missed in previous years. Since I often don’t have time to process everything from any given shoot, I was hopeful that I wouldn’t need to look too long. Starting with a search of processed poppy images, I quickly identified a rainy day shoot from a few years ago that had potential for untapped opportunities.
It actually rained lightly the entire time I was out there, but some of my favorite photography has happened in the rain. And even though poppies don’t usually open when it rains, I found the raindrops more than enough compensation. And with rain gear in my car for just these situations, I stayed warm and dry. My camera? Not so much. I tried working with an umbrella, but after a few minutes realized I was one arm short and just decided to test the water resistance of my Sony a7RIII. I’m happy to say that it passed with flying colors.
A couple of years ago I wrote an article for “Outdoor Photographer” magazine on what I call creative selective focus. (You can read my blog version of this article here.) In it I write about using minimal depth of field to emphasize very select aspects of a scene, and letting the surrounding scene retreat to a complimentary blur.
If you read the article, you know the 3 primary factors for minimizing depth of field: large aperture (small f-number), long focal length, and close focus point. While I could have used my Sony 90mm f/2.8 macro, for close focus photography I really like the compositional flexibility of a zoom lens, so this afternoon I went with my Sony 100-400 GM lens. To increase my focal length (and shrink my depth of field) further, I added my 2X teleconverter (which, I might add, handled the rain perfectly as well). And to focus even closer, I added 26mm of extension. My original plan was try a few lens/extension-tube/teleconverter configurations (including my macro), but I was having so much fun that I ended up shooting with this setup the entire time.
There’s no free lunch in photography—the downside of adding a teleconverter and extension tubes is significantly reduced light. A 2x teleconverter cuts two stops of light, which means my 100-400 that’s normally wide upon f/5.6 at 400mm, wide open becomes f/11. To compensate for light lost to the smaller aperture, added extension, and a cloudy sky, I shot everything this afternoon at either ISO 1600 or ISO 3200 (grateful that there was no wind).
One of the cool things about this kind of photography is how different the world looks through the viewfinder. I love putting my eye to my camera, moving the lens around, and changing focus slowly to see what snaps into view. In this case I was looking for poppies to isolate from their surroundings, as well as nearby features (like other poppies) that I could soften enough to complement my primary subject without competing. Sometimes I had a general idea of a subject before looking through my camera, other times I’d just explore with my eye to my viewfinder until something stopped me.
Because depth of field shrinks not only with focal length, but also with focus distance, every frame I clicked this afternoon had a paper-thin range of sharpness. With such a shallow depth of field, none of these images would have been possible without a tripod. With my composition set on my tripod, I’d pick a focus point (usually, but not always, a prominent raindrop), focus in my viewfinder until I was pretty certain it was sharp, then magnify the focus point in my viewfinder to confirm and tweak the focus.
I finally called it quits when the rain picked up and the approaching twilight forced too much shutter speed compromise.
Category: Poppies, Sony 100-400 GM, Sony 2X teleconverter, Sony a7R III, wildflowers Tagged: California, nature photography, Poppies, raindrops, Sierra foothills, wildflowers
Posted on April 11, 2021
Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time photographing with my good friend and fellow Sony Artisan Don Smith. Both in workshops and on our personal trips, we’ll head out into the scene or meet back later at the car, and more often than not I’ll have a wide angle lens on my camera, while Don will have a telephoto. Each of us would usually end up with images that pleased us, and I think Don would agree that neither of us could say whose images were “better”—they were just different. But those observations have made me conscious of my wide angle bias, and helped remind me that I may in fact be missing a telephoto opportunity.
What’s it all about?
I’ve always felt strongly that an image needs to be about something, and the photographer’s job is to make it clear to viewers what that something is. I usually accomplish that with my wide lenses by positioning strong elements throughout my frame in a way that creates virtual connecting lines that guide my viewers’ eyes. The problem is, the wider the focal length, the greater the chance of introducing unwanted elements that pull my viewers’ eyes off their prescribed path.
The cure for this problem is often to simplify the scene by going tighter with a telephoto. That doesn’t necessarily mean forgoing the wide version; rather, it can just be a matter of also trying the scene through a telephoto to see what else might be there. If that doesn’t come naturally to you in the field, you might be able to teach yourself how many telephoto shots you left in the field (and to train your eyes in the process) by opening any wide angle image in Photoshop (or your photo editor of choice), setting the crop tool to 2/3 aspect ratio (to match what you see in your viewfinder), and see how many new compositions you can find.
Practicing what I preach
Over the years I’ve gotten better about using my telephoto, but I’d be lying if I said it’s usually the first thing I reach for when I work a landscape. My standard workflow in the field (not conscious, just the way I seem to work naturally) is to start wide and go tighter as I become more familiar with the scene. But last week I got a great reminder of the value of a telephoto as I was driving home from real nice poppy shoot in the foothills near Jackson, California. It was just a few minutes after sunset and my mind was already on dinner when I rounded a bend and saw an oak-studded hillside completely blanketed with poppies.
I was very familiar with this hillside because it’s the site of one of my oldest, and favorite images, captured in spring of 2005 (read the story). A 24×36 print of this 2005 scene graces the wall in my living room above my fireplace. The one thing I’ll never forget about photographing it is how much steeper this hill is than it appears in the image—so steep, in fact, that when I decided to scale it to get a better vantage point, I jettisoned my tripod so I could have two hands free to hold on and pull myself up. While it wasn’t quite mountain climbing, it was steep enough that I’d have rolled all the way to the bottom had I fallen (much like this).
But this time there was no time to ascend the hill because the scene was rapidly darkening (and the photographer is rapidly aging). The conditions weren’t quite as good as back then either: there were no clouds and the sky was completely colorless. But still, it was just so pretty…
I made the split-second decision to brake and pull over. Safely on the shoulder, I quickly hopped out, grabbed my tripod and Sony a7RIV, and surveyed the scene. I wanted to feature one striking oak that stood alone about 2/3 of the way up the hill, and tried to determine the best way to do it. The fence from my old image was not too far off to the right of the tree, but I now try to avoid manmade objects in my scenes—in fact, the 2005 image is the only image in my current portfolio I can think of with anything manmade. Other nearby concerns were a couple of kind of scraggly trees that definitely didn’t merit inclusion, a few brown patches, and several unsightly rocks. And the sky added absolutely nothing.
It was clear that the best way to highlight the oak and poppies was to eliminate all the surrounding distractions with a long telephoto. Given the distance, perhaps 350 yards, I went straight to my Sony 200-600 G lens. For this image I used 500mm, which completely eliminated all the problems. The light was dimming fast, and a slight breeze stirred the poppies, so I bumped my ISO to 400, focused. I ended up taking 18 frames, some a little wider, some a little tighter, but all more than 400mm. Most of my frames were horizontal, but I finished with a couple of verticals just to cover my bases. Then I packed up and headed to dinner.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Category: How-to, Oak trees, Poppies, Sierra foothills, Sony 200-600 G, Sony a7RIV, wildflowers Tagged: California, nature photography, Oak trees, Poppies, Sierra foothills, wildflowers