Winter Shapes: Hydrangeas and Japanese Maple Leaves

From Expressive Nature Photography: Design, Composition, and Color in Outdoor Imagery by Brenda Tharp:

“It takes practice to get the look you want, and each situation is unique in what it presents in terms of light, color, and pattern. The best way to determine a reference point for this type of picture is simply to experiment and see what you get.”

From Light on the Landscape: Photographs and Lessons from a Life in Photography by William Neill:

“When trees are bare, their graceful forms are starkly revealed. The tones of beige and gray or black and white form a subtle palette in the landscape. The lines of grass and shrub, ice and fallen leaves, display themselves in simple, elegant designs, like a drawing or etching…. Winter photography offers us options at all scales.”


Hello!

I liked the first quotation above because it accurately expressed what I was trying to do with the photographs in the galleries below. Winter color in my part of the southeastern United States is often an odd mix of monochrome interspersed with bright whites, pale yellows, and greens from those hardy plants that don’t mind temperatures in the forty-to-fifty degree range; so some days I go hunting for washed-out colors and other days I look out for hidden bits of bright color instead. These photos are from a mostly-monochrome day.

The first five photos show the remnants of Japanese Maple leaves still clinging to their branches; and the six that follow are desiccated hydrangea leaves and flowers — all with some color and luminance adjustments (among other things) and with their backgrounds “painted” black.

Given the fine details within each of these photos, Lightroom stumbled a little at automatic subject selection; and I ended out spending quite a few hours carefully mousing around the edges of these leaves and branches to get the look I wanted. In the end, there were only a few photos in this set that I was satisfied with, but decided to post them anyway since that’s what experiments are all about: seeing (and in this case, sharing) what you get. I may take a shot at converting some of these to black and white; they might look good that way, and help reduce what (to me, at least) appear to be flaws in these renderings.

The last gallery, at the end of this post, shows the before-and-after versions of each of the five maple leaf photos and six hydrangea photos.

Thanks for taking a look!





Here are the before-and-after images; there were a lot of details to paint! 🙂


Paperwhites, Quince, and Camellia in Black and White

From Expressive Nature Photography: Design, Composition, and Color in Outdoor Imagery by Brenda Tharp:

“Until color film became reliable, many great photographers brought to light the beauty they saw in nature using black-and-white imagery. Some of them stayed with black and white their entire lives. While Ansel Adams used color in his early commercial work, he chose black and white to express the natural world that he loved. Black-and-white work has long been considered to be art photography.

“Working in black and white will actually strengthen your ability to compose pictures, and to see and use light. In the absence of color, we can see the shapes, lines, forms, and textures that light reveals in the landscape. Color can seduce us away from those things, if we let it. I maintain that you can work in both color and black and white and do well, if you are looking at the elements for their graphic representation and paying attention to tonal values. I still think in color, and I understand the language of color, after so many more years devoted to it…. But the digital darkroom has allowed me to explore black and white more easily again, and now, when I create a black-and-white image, it’s because the color isn’t doing it for me, while light and contrast are.”


“It was a dark and stormy day….”

Actually it wasn’t that stormy until a few minutes ago, but it has been unusually dark — dark gray winter dark — all day long, so despite my camera begging me to take it on an outing, I opted to stay in, keep it dry, and convert a few of my previously posted photos to black and white.

I probably don’t do these conversions often enough, especially since I do find the exercise interesting — more interesting than just pushing the “Black & White” button in Lightroom. The button-push creates a very literal interpretation of the image with the color replaced by gray tones that look pretty flat and lack contrast. The fun comes when you realize that in the color photos the white blossoms aren’t just white but contain blue, aqua, and sometimes yellow or orange; the stems contain green, red, yellow, orange, and a bit of purple; and the backgrounds (for those where I hadn’t already removed it) contain every color Lightroom lets you work with: red, orange, yellow, green, aqua, blue, purple, and magenta.

Playing with the “Black and White Mix” in Lightroom lets you adjust various color channels to bring in more contrast; in this case, I could brighten up the flower petals, dim the backgrounds and stems, and create little black dots or other shapes in the center of those blooms that had yellow or orange filaments in the color photos. After doing that with these photos, I then used Lightroom’s Color Grading to add a little silver/blue to the midtones, shadows, and highlights — which is just something I like (and previously described here, here, and here). For these photos — especially the camellia’s, the last two images — I added more softening than I usually do using Lightroom’s Texture and Clarity adjustments, because they seemed to work well on those big white petals.

As I was working on these, I started wondering if I would have composed any of the images differently if I intended them to be black-and-white images instead of color. I already know that I often compose with the idea of removing backgrounds in mind, so it would seem that I might do something different on a shoot if I was intentionally trying to produce grayscale images. Like many people, I suppose, I shoot in color because Lightroom lets you convert color to black-and-white, but not black-and-white to color. Theoretically, the camera captures more shadow and contrast variations by shooting in color then converting; but I’ve never tried it so I think it might be worth switching the camera to black-and-white mode to see what happens. Also, creatively speaking, sometimes it’s good to work within an artificial constraint like this just to learn from it.

Below are the black-and-white images, paperwhites followed by quince then two camellia blossoms. After that, I’ve included a single gallery showing the color and black-and-white versions for comparison.

Thanks for taking a look!






Seven Magnolia Blooms

From Garden Flora: The Natural and Cultural History of the Plants In Your Garden by Noel Kingsbury:

“Named for French botanist Pierre Magnol (1638–1715), Magnolia is a famously old genus. It is also hard to define; current thinking suggests 200-plus species. Some botanists favour splitting it, others dumping the entire Magnoliaceae into it. The fossil record is rich, with family members dating back 98 million years, and Magnolia itself being of Cretaceous origin, i.e., contemporary with the dinosaurs but before bees: it is thought the first magnolias were pollinated by beetles.

“Magnolia flower buds are used for treating sinus problems in Chinese herbalism, and the bark… is prescribed for a wide range of conditions, although it does contains high levels of alkaloids and concerns have been raised over its safety. Flowers are used for flavouring, or at least ornamenting, certain Chinese teas, while buds are deep fried and eaten as a spring delicacy; they are somewhat tasteless, but the petals make an attractive addition to a salad….

“Wreaths of
M. grandiflora foliage are traditional in the American South (they dry slowly and can be kept for months), and the flower, an emblem of the Confederate army in the U.S. Civil War, remains a potent symbol of the white American South…The 1989 film Steel Magnolias conjures up an image of something beautiful but also very tough; the tree symbolised the character of the women in the film….”


Despite making over sixty trips to Oakland Cemetery’s gardens over the past year, I hadn’t previously turned my camera toward any of the large magnolia trees growing on the property, some originally planted in the late 1800s and still thriving. They tower in height second only to the gigantic oak trees for which the property was originally named (see Early Landscapes: The Trees of Oakland), produce an enormous volume of blooms, and shed leaves as large as footballs that drop in a circle surrounding each tree’s trunk. The circles are as wide in diameter as the trees are tall, and as thick and bouncy as the beds of discarded pine needles you might find in any ancient forest.

Magnolia tree branches are some of the densest and most twisty-looking structures in the plant kingdom, I swear, making it a challenge to find a focal point for composing a photo. It’s also true that very few of their flowers are at a height I can get too without a ladder, which of course doesn’t fit in my photo bag. Nevertheless, with a zoom lens and the luck of finding a few branches hanging low to the ground (like the fourth photo below) I took a few dozen photos of the blooms that I could zoom in close enough to “fill the frame” — expecting I could figure out how to isolate the blooms from the entangled branches once I got at them in Lightroom.

Here are the first three, where I kept most of the leaves directly attached to the bloom stems in the frame, while blacking out all the rest.

Here’s one of the few flowers I found close enough to the ground (about five feet up) that I could get a shot that included the Internal structure of the flower, conveniently framed by an old and highly photogenic stone wall. If you’d like to get a closer look, click here.

Here are the last three, where I isolated just the flower — or, in the last photo, isolated the flower with a few of the leaves that (for reasons only the tree understands) were all reversed, showing the yellow-gold backs of the leaves instead of their dark green fronts.


Here are before-and-after versions of the seven photos, with most of the adjustments complete in both versions, but where I turned off the black background mask to show the blossoms in their original context: a mass of leaves and lots of blown-out highlights from sunlight filtering through the branches. It was a fun experiment to see if I could get results I wanted from the originals: creating the illusion that I’d taken macro photos of the magnolia blooms when, in reality, I used a zoom lens and stood about twenty feet from the trees to get these photos. It was also a lot of work — about two days of brushing black over the backgrounds and fine-tuning the mask — but I’m glad I gave it a shot.

Select any image in the gallery if you would like to compare the before and after versions in a slideshow.


Thanks for reading and taking a look!