Autumn Leaves / Autumn Light

From “Sleeping in the Rain” by Gordon Henry in When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through, edited by Joy Harjo:

“It is autumn. Pine smoke hanging over the tops of houses, leaves sleepwalking in gray wind, skeletal trees scratching ghost gray sky.”

From “A Vagabond Song” by Bliss Carman in Three Centuries of American Poetry edited by Allen Mandelbaum and Robert D. Richardson:

There is something in the autumn that is native to my blood —
Touch of manner, hint of mood;
And my heart is like a rhyme,
With the yellow and the purple and the crimson keeping time.


Autumn is my favorite time of year for experimenting with natural light and outdoor photography. With the sun at lower angles as fall and winter proceed through the northern hemisphere, there are several hours in the morning and afternoon where the less direct light produces combinations of shadows and highlights that are fun to explore. The low light angle is of course one of the reasons that trees decked out in their fall color not only seem to glow on their own but also wash their surroundings with more intense reflected and filtered colored light.

You could read a lot about how and why this happens — engage in a bit of study to teach yourself the astronomical characteristics — or you could simply walk around in nature and give extra attention to variations in the quality of the light. I prefer working in this kind of lighting over all others except slightly overcast days, and I usually sleep through golden hour and blue hour comes right during my dog’s soccer lessons.

A couple of my photography books — Expressive Nature Photography by Brenda Tharp and Beyond Auto Mode: A Guide to Taking Control of Your Photography by Jennifer Bebb — have sections devoted to different types of light photographers encounter. Bebb’s is a more detailed discussion, but Tharp’s shorter version is a bit more conducive to using in your own natural experiment.

In a section of her book called “The Angle of Light,” Tharp separates the kinds of sunlight into top-down light, front light, sidelight, and backlight. With respect to the position of the outdoor sun, the terms are pretty straightforward; but here’s a way I like to experience them in nature, with or without a camera.

  1. Find a big-ass tree with plenty of autumn-colored leaves, one you can walk under without hitting your head (safety first!)
  2. Start outside the tree, a couple of feet from the tree’s bottom branches, with your back to the sun.
  3. Examine the light and color on the leaves. Depending on the sun’s position in the sky, the light could be characterized as top-down (if the sun is high in the sky as it would be closer to noon), or front light (earlier in the morning when the sun is closer to the horizon). These two kinds of light produce similar renderings of color and shadow, though top light tends to be brighter and whiter — creating excessive highlights and strong shadow contrasts that may wash out much of the color and some of the tree and leaf detail.
  4. Still outside the tree’s circumference, walk now about a quarter of the circle and observe how the light changes from top-down/front to sidelight. With autumn leaves especially, sidelight can be excellent to work with. It’s easier to expose than top or front light but also begins to reveal some of the effects of backlighting, which makes the leaves appear to glow both to your eyes and to a camera’s sensor.
  5. Continue walking outside the tree until you are directly opposite your starting position, the sun now facing you. Here you’ll experience backlighting, with the leaves looking as if they’re lit up individually, twinkling like Christmas lights. Your eyes will likely love this position; the camera may like it slightly less since it will be challenged to find a correct exposure between the bright light and shadowy contrasts.
  6. Now, walk under the tree, close to the trunk, and repeat the same movements: start with your back to the sun, walk about a quarter of the way around the tree, then walk to where your opposite the starting point. Each of the four lighting variations will still be apparent, but now you’ll see how they change when the light is filtered by the tree’s branches and leaves. Working underneath a large tree — or even in the shadows of a nearby tree — can create a nice balance for all the colors, shadows, and highlights that you photograph, and have the additional advantage of keeping the sun (mostly) out of your eyes.

I took all of the photos in the galleries below — except one (can you tell which one?) — from the backlight or sidelight position. I typically start with the camera’s program mode — which interprets the scene and gives me a starting point for exposure settings — then switch the camera to manual mode, slightly underexposing the image by increasing the shutter speed. For sidelight and backlighting, underexposing the image helps reduce flaring highlights; but with the capabilities of today’s cameras and software like Lightroom, the subject’s details and shadows are still well-captured and can be recovered or emphasized during post-processing.

I use the camera’s exposure bracketing function to get three shots of each scene, one that will use the settings I chose, one that underexposes the image, and one that overexposes the image. Using bracketing like this has a couple of advantages: it helps ensure that I have good focus on at least one of the images (in case the leaves move and try to go blurry); and ensures that I have a few exposure variations to work with in Lightroom from which I can choose the image with the best balance of color, highlights, and detail.

Here are the photos, the first two where I found and isolated a single leaf then removed the tree trunk and branches manually with Lightroom brushes

… and these three where I did something similar, but let Lightroom’s masking select the subject (previously described in my post Autumn Daisies 3 of 3). It chose the branches the leaves were attached to (because they were of similar brightness and focus) and I liked that result.

This was a “from under the tree” photo — and you can see in this single image variations between side-lighting on the left and filtered front-lighting (toward the right).

Full backlighting here, the kind where the light coming at me was bright enough that I could barely see the scene in the camera’s viewfinder — which, in real life, is a good way to learn how to rely on what the camera is telling you about your exposure settings rather than what registers (or doesn’t register!) in your eyes. It can be something of a crap-shoot, this approach, but I’ll just take a big handful of such pictures then throw most of them out when I get home. I don’t mind that, though, because I can get some of the nicest bokeh in the background with the light coming through nearby trees.

Below are the same three images, with the backgrounds removed. Here again, I used Lightroom’s new masking and let it select the subject. It did a nearly perfect job picking out these finely detailed branches, filling in black around each needle with very little intervention from me. Doing the same thing by manually brushing the backgrounds would have taken several hours per image because of the tiny spaces between needles — and I probably wouldn’t have even tried — but letting Lightroom do it was nearly instantaneous and gives me a whole boatload of new ideas about post-processing some of my images.

And, finally, here we have an example of a big-ass tree, the kind you can walk around and under to enjoy the lighting. This is backlit, obviously, with the starburst effect created by using an aperture setting of f/22.


Thanks for reading and taking a look!

A White Begonia, an Orange Hibiscus, and a Red Japanese Maple

From “Begonia (Begoniaceae)” in Garden Flora: The Natural and Cultural History of the Plants In Your Garden by Noel Kingsbury:

“Begonias are named for Michel Bégon, a French colonial governor, by botanist Charles Plumier (1646–1704), probably to thank him for giving him a post as an official plant collector in the colonies. They have been used medicinally, while one Chinese species, Begonia fimbristipula, is commercially available as a herb tea….

“Botanical classification is complex and the subject of several recent research projects. These are very much enthusiast plants: currently 66 sections are recognised and some 10,000 cultivars have been raised over time.”

From “Hibiscus (Malvaceae)” in Garden Flora: The Natural and Cultural History of the Plants In Your Garden by Noel Kingsbury:

“There are some 750 species of Hibiscus, whose name is derived from the Greek for the closely related mallow. Overwhelmingly they are found in the world’s tropical regions, both Old and New Worlds, and include trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals….

“In those temperate regions with warm and humid summers, the range in cultivation is boosted by a number of herbaceous perennial species from the U.S. Southeast, which have enormous flowers….”


Hello!

Here we are at the end of the first week of November, and a bit of fall color is finally starting to paint its way into my neighborhood.

Over the past few days, this Japanese Maple in front of my living room window has turned dark red, its leaves casting a red-orange glow over everything in that room. I’m fascinated by the color, because of its unusual intensity and something else: this maple has lived for years in the shade of a gigantic street-side Bradford Pear tree that has made several previous appearances here, but that Pear is no more. It split in two a few months ago during an intense summer thunderstorm, falling against a telephone pole at the sidewalk in front of my house, then last week the remaining half-tree was cut down by city workers. So now the Japanese Maple is no longer hidden in the shade, and when early morning sun lights up this window, it’s gorgeous! The wild-n-crazy begonia growing there looks pretty cool too!



These two galleries show the last of my late summer/early autumn photos.

The first three pictures are blooms from a begonia called “Senator IQ” — one of three I have in pots on a patio table under an umbrella, where it grows well in the moderate light and sends its tiny flowers over the edge of the table to seek out the sun (as plants like to do). I prefer this kind of begonia because its leaves are very dark green — and that with the shade from the patio umbrella makes it easier to highlight the white blooms with minimal background darkening in Lightroom.


Here are some flowers from an “Orange Hibiscus” — which was the name on the handwritten plant tag in the pot I purchased it in. I’m not sure if that’s supposed to be its actual name, or someone just went for the obvious moniker. Anyway, I’ve renamed it OrangeOrangeOrange Hibiscus, because that seems to fit at least as well. The plant was mixed in with other annuals and perennials at the garden center, so I’m not sure if it will hold out through the winter and produce new blooms next year — but it’s still going strong and has added several inches to its leaves and stems despite cooler temperatures and darker days.

Here you see some of the blooms at various focal lengths through a macro lens. In several of the photos you’ll also see little swatches of pink or magenta near the center of the flower. At first I thought these were artifacts and started removing them in Lightroom, then realized (after a little research) that these magenta/pink highlights are colors in wavelengths intended to attract pollinators and direct them toward … the pollinating spot! Smart plant!


Thanks for reading and taking a look!

Autumn Anemones

From 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names by Diana Wells:

“Anemones used to be called ‘windflowers,’ possibly because they grew on windy sites (anemos is Greek for “wind”)….

“A more compelling derivation is from ‘Naamen,’ which is the Persian for ‘Adonis.’ Anemones were associated with Adonis, with whom Aphrodite (Venus) fell passionately in love when he was born. She tried to protect him from harm by hiding him in the underworld, but was forced by Zeus to share him with the underworld goddess, Persephone. Aphrodite was afraid he might be hurt while hunting, but of course he would not listen to her, so she could only follow him in her swan-drawn chariot….


“One day Adonis tracked down a huge boar and wounded it. It turned on him and gored him. Aphrodite arrived in time to hold him in her arms and weep over him as he died. Some versions of the legend say the anemone grew up from her tears and some that it sprang from his blood as it soaked into the ground….”


Well, another Halloween has come and gone, so I cobbled together this quick set of post-spooky photos, mainly to get the Halloween pictures off my home page. Unlike the Christmas and New Year holidays, Halloween doesn’t seem to linger for long; when it’s over, it’s over (and it’s time to put up the Christmas tree!).

I was fortunate to have captured this rare image of The Great Pumpkin (of the Peanuts tradition) after it completed its October to-do list. Here it is, at rest. I know it’s at rest because I saw it swoop in, land upside down on the bale of straw, then close its mouth and eyes. Snoring may even have been heard. While you are possibly wondering how I’m sure it’s THE Great Pumpkin, I can only say: that’s a REALLY good question.

Here we have two pictures of the less-famous Regular Pumpkin. There was no compelling reason for me to post these photos, except that I liked the contrast between pumpkin-orange and its pumpkin shape, and the dark textured background.

We aren’t yet ready to transition to typical fall colors yet, but last week I did find these dainty anemones catching some fall sun-rays. I’m not quite sure which anemone variety these are; they may be snowdrop anemones, they may be more properly identified as generic Japanese anemones. While some varieties do bloom in the fall, these could as easily be spring or summer varieties blooming in autumn since our summer was warm but not scorching, and fall temperatures stayed in the 50-80 degree range until recently. They may have just kept on blooming through all three seasons.




Thanks for taking a look!

Spooky! Spooky!

From Dracula by Bram Stoker:

“Suddenly, as I turned round, I thought I saw something like a white streak, moving between two dark yew-trees at the side of the churchyard farthest from the tomb…. Then I too moved; but I had to go round headstones and railed-off tombs, and I stumbled over graves. The sky was overcast, and somewhere far off an early cock crew. A little way off, beyond a line of scattered juniper-trees, which marked the pathway to the church, a white, dim figure flitted in the direction of the tomb. The tomb itself was hidden by trees, and I could not see where the figure disappeared….

“The figure stopped, and at the moment a ray of moonlight fell between the masses of driving clouds and showed in startling prominence a dark-haired woman, dressed in the cerements of the grave. We could not see the face, for it was bent down over what we saw to be a fair-haired child. There was a pause and a sharp little cry….”

From The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo:

“The presence of this extraordinary being caused, as it were, a breath of life to circulate throughout the entire cathedral. It seemed as though there escaped from him, at least according to the growing superstitions of the crowd, a mysterious emanation which animated all the stones of Notre-Dame, and made the deep bowels of the ancient church to palpitate….

“He was everywhere about it; in fact, he multiplied himself on all points of the structure…. a fantastic dwarf climbing, writhing, crawling on all fours, descending outside above the abyss, leaping from projection to projection, and going to ransack the belly of some sculptured gorgon; it was Quasimodo dislodging the crows….

“In some obscure corner of the church one came in contact with a sort of living chimera, crouching and scowling; it was Quasimodo engaged in thought… Often at night a hideous form was seen wandering along the frail balustrade of carved lacework… again it was the hunchback of Notre-Dame….

“Then, said the women of the neighborhood, the whole church took on something fantastic, supernatural, horrible; eyes and mouths were opened, here and there; one heard the dogs, the monsters, and the gargoyles of stone, which keep watch night and day, with outstretched neck and open jaws, around the monstrous cathedral, barking.”


Room for rent in small Victorian castle. Prime location; quiet residents and neighbors. Some ghosts, mostly harmless. Short walk to Vampire Park…


… and the Gargoyles are ADORABLE!


Happy Halloween!

Autumn Daisies (3 of 3)

From The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson:

“Eleanor went alone into the hills above Hill House, not really intending to arrive at any place in particular, not even caring where or how she went, wanting only to be secret and out from under the heavy dark wood of the house. She found a small spot where the grass was soft and dry and lay down, wondering how many years it had been since she had lain on soft grass to be alone to think. Around her the trees and wild flowers, with that oddly courteous air of natural things suddenly interrupted in their pressing occupations of growing and dying, turned toward her with attention….

“Idly Eleanor picked a wild daisy, which died in her fingers, and, lying on the grass, looked up into its dead face. There was nothing in her mind beyond an overwhelming wild happiness. She pulled at the daisy, and wondered, smiling at herself, What am I going to do? What am I going to do?”

From “Hell” in White and Other Tales of Ruin by Tim Lebbon:

“Chele was squatting on her haunches, picking at the lush green grass, sniffing it, running her hands across the bright daisies that grew in profusion between the coach and the trees….

“Dark things darted in the air around her head and she waved them away. I waited for them to attack her, pierce her skin and puncture her insides, but then a couple landed on her arm and they were only flies.”


Halloween approaches, so I was pleased to find a couple of daisy-related references (quoted above) in some spooky stories. My Invisible Man costume has been fetched from the dry cleaners, and I’m all set for my traditional participation in the festivities. I do still have to pick up a few severed heads of broccoli; I normally hack it into florets and dispense them in tiny orange bags. Gotta keep those kids healthy, don’t you think? Maybe I’ll splurge this year and include some dismembered baby carrots and a ranch-dip potion. Or Vampire Beets! Everybody loves Vampire Beets!


For this last post in my series of autumn daisies, I’ve included an example showing how much easier it is now to remove backgrounds from images with the newest release of Adobe Lightroom Classic, version 11. For comparison, see Lilies on Black Backgrounds: A Photo Project (1 of 10), where I describe the detailed (and often tedious) brushing actions required to isolate and change a background to black. With the new version, I can accomplish the same thing with a few mouse clicks.

Here, for example, is a before screenshot of one of the images in the first gallery below, with all my adjustments completed except the background change:

To get started, I first chose “Select Subject” from Lightroom’s local adjustments panel…

… and Lightroom created a mask over what it determined to be the photo’s subject. Lightroom included all four flowers and a bit of the background between the cluster of three and the fourth flower, but that’s okay.

Because I wanted to work on the background rather than the flowers, I then chose “Invert” to flip the mask…

… and Lightroom switched the mask from the foreground to the background.

I decided to exclude the fourth flower from the final image, so I selected “Add” to increase the coverage of the mask and then chose “Brush” to use a brush to do that.

Then I brushed over the fourth flower (swoop-swoop)…

… and, finally, I changed the background to all black by setting these sliders (or using the preset I previously created)…

… and it’s done!

It took way-much longer to write this description than it did to actually make the background changes. And — for this technique that I use so often — there are two huge timesavers. First, Adobe’s mask is consistent throughout the background; meaning, I don’t have to repeatedly brush over certain bright areas to effectively cover them up. And, second, there’s no need for me to zoom in and out to carefully brush around the flower petals manually — which was the most time consuming step in creating these masks in the olden days of… last week!

Occasionally, if the subject is a little fuzzy around the edges or the background at those edges is of similar brightness, I’ll make a few additional adjustments with the brush. But wherever there’s decent contrast between subject and background, that’s unnecessary. For the photos in these galleries, the only image that took a little extra effort was the fourth one below, the cluster of seventeen white daisies now floating on black. All the others were 1-2-3-done!

If you would like to learn more about Adobe’s new Lightroom masking functions, I included links to their help documentation in the first post in this series: Autumn Daisies (1 of 3).

Thanks for taking a look!