"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag
 

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!

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!







Autumn Daisies (1 of 3)

From Beautiful at All Seasons: Southern Gardening and Beyond by Elizabeth Lawrence:

“Now that fall is at hand, it is time to think of replenishing the flower borders. I am told that no one has flower borders any more, because they are so much trouble to keep, but it seems to me that mine demand comparatively little attention in return for the blooms they provide from early spring until frost. I keep them as full as possible with perennials that take care of themselves: garden forms of phlox, boltonia, loosestrife, pale yellow daylilies in varieties that bloom from May to September, old unimproved shasta daisies, the kind that stays with you….”


Hello!

I’ve been out hunting for some fall color here in my urban forest, but apparently it’s still a little early as our temperatures are just starting to drop out of the sixties and seventies… so now I’m expecting big things from nature’s leaf painters over the next couple of weeks.

Some leaves have started to fall, but only from those trees that shed their leaves early without even bothering to change their colors first — a seriously deranged behavior from those trees, if you ask me. But I did find these delightful batches of daisies that I had looked for earlier in the year, having forgotten that they make their appearance in October and November rather than spring or summer. I posted some similar pictures in November, 2019; if you would like to look at those see Autumn in Atlanta: Photo Mash-Up #2 and Autumn in Atlanta: Photo Mash-Up #4.

This is the first of three posts featuring photos where I tried to take advantage of a nice sunny day to get some fancy lighting on the individual flowers, and the last photo below shows where many of the white daisies spend their time. The second post will feature additional images with color backgrounds … and the third….

For the third post I’m working on black-background variations (of course!) — using a new Lightroom capability that Adobe just released today with version 11 of the software. Adobe has redesigned Lightroom’s masking capabilities, and the program now includes a “Select Subject” function that automatically creates a mask around the photograph’s main subject. Having practiced on some of these daisy photos, I can say that I’m jazzed about the new tool: it works better than I imagined it could and will virtually eliminate my time-consuming brushing around tiny edges of flower petals — reducing what sometimes took several hours to three seconds of clicking a couple of buttons. What will I do with all that saved time? Take more photos, of course!

If you would like to read more about Lightroom’s new masking tools (from What’s new in Lightroom Classic), see…

Experience enhanced editing with Masking; and

Automatically select subject and sky in an image; and

Masking Reimagined, for an overview of the new feature across Adobe’s products.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!






Late Summer/Early Fall Lantana (4 of 4)

From The Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture (Vol. 4) by Liberty Hyde Bailey:

“The culture of the florists’ lantana is relatively simple. It is grown under glass for bloom in cold weather and also in the open in summer. It has been improved in its usefulness as a bedding-plant of late years, largely through the efforts of French hybridists. The older varieties were mostly rather tall and lanky, later coming into bloom, and dropped their flowers badly after rain-storms, but were showy in warm and dry weather. The new varieties are dwarf, spreading and bushy in habit, early and free-flowering, and the heads or umbels of bloom average much larger, with florets in proportion; nor do they drop from the plants as did old varieties in bad weather….

“These newer kinds are not so well known as they should be. They are very desirable for any situation where sun-loving bedding plants are used, in groups or borders, window boxes, baskets and vases.”

From “Bedding Out” in Colour in My Garden (1918) by Louise Beebe Wilder:

“Lantanas were favourite bedding plants of yore….

“I remember that my father alway stood out for two lozenge-shaped beds of Lantana on the terrace in front of our old stone house, and how he gloried in their vivacious colours….”


Hello!

This is the last of four posts featuring photos of lantana plants in my garden. The previous posts are:

Late Summer/Early Fall Lantana (1 of 4)

Late Summer/Early Fall Lantana (2 of 4)

Late Summer/Early Fall Lantana (3 of 4)


Whenever I see the word “yore” (as in the second quotation above) — which is of course not often! — I can’t help but think about the Friends episode called The One with the Apothecary Table, where Rachel Green tries to convince Phoebe Buffay that the apothecary table she bought from Pottery Barn was anciently manufactured in historical White Plains and purchased from a flea market for the “old time pricing” of “one and fifty dollars”. There’s a short clip of the episode here, where the first three and a half minutes include two of the apothecary table scenes.

If there’s such a thing as post-consumerist humor, The One with the Apothecary Table is a great example, where the characters as a group simultaneously love and hate mass-produced products, yet respond to the subtle (or not so subtle) advertised messages by opening their wallets and stuffing their apartments with objects from a catalog-created theme.

The episode is a fun play on history also. Subsequently asked to identify an historical era other than “yore”, Rachel adds “yesteryear” — and “yesteryear and yore” briefly re-entered American vernacular as a way to describe ambiguous time periods in the past. I’ve used them myself sometimes, sometimes together and sometimes separately; and the cultural pervasiveness of a series like Friends is so strong that almost anyone who hears the terms knows they’re actually a reference to the comedy of the apothecary tables.

Yesteryear — for example, in 2018 or 2019 or 2020 — I wouldn’t have even tried to convert some of the lantana photos from the previous three posts to images with black backgrounds, because the tiny spaces embedded in the central portion of the blooms were too difficult to brush out without bleeding black onto the flowers themselves. Until I spent several weeks practicing — especially on the Lilies on Black Backgrounds series from this past summer (where I describe my black background technique) — I didn’t have enough experience with Lightroom’s brushes to fill these areas with black where the surrounding structure was as intricate as it is on these lantana flowers.

With macro photos like these, depth is largely a contrast and shadow illusion, an illusion that overlooks the fact that all photographs are two-dimensional renderings of what our eyes would perceive three-dimensionally. Bright-to-dark transitions typically register in our minds as front-to-back perspective, and shadows around edges (as muted as they might be) contribute to that recognition. In other words, if I didn’t leave some of the shadows around the edges of the pink flower buds, those image elements would look flat to the eye, and, as a result, the entire image would look unnatural and artificial.

If you look at one of the original images — say this one, of the first photo below — you will see green color from the plant’s stems and leaves surrounding most of the pink center buds. On my “first draft” of these photos, I kept that green intact, but since most of them had no other green, it seemed distracting so I decided to try and get rid of it.

To remove the green without brushing around each of the little pink pillows, I used a Lightroom feathered and circular brush the size of the pink section only and clicked on a bit of green color toward the center. The feathering setting for the brush kept the pink color intact, retained most of the shadows at the edges of each pink bud, and replaced the green with a black that matched the rest of the background with a single press of the mouse button. No more green — and Voila! — the blossoms themselves totally look like they’re suspended in mid-air!

Thanks for reading and taking a look!







Lilies on Black Backgrounds: A Photo Project (1 of 10)

From More Than a Rock: Essays on Art, Creativity, Photography, Nature, and Life by Guy Tal:

“I’m actively working on a number of themes these days. Some involve a specific subject matter, others result from a fascination with specific locations… and some that at this time can only be described as abstract or immature concepts….

“I realized that I need a new word to describe these ongoing efforts and decided on ‘explorations.’ An exploration is sparked by a desire to understand something, to learn about it, to spend time with it, to tell its story (or mine) without defining a specific outcome in advance. Like a project, I know it will often result in something useful (images, portfolios, books, ideas, personal satisfaction, etc.), but until I know what it is, I find ample and sustained reward in merely being engaged in something that interests and fascinates me: a journey that is more important than any preconceived destination.”

From Lilies by Naomi Slade:

“With legions of yellow and orange lilies available, the dedicated lily lover might consider themselves well served by both plant and colour.”


Hello!

If you’ve come around here now and then, you’ve seen that I often use Lightroom brushes on my photos to paint the backgrounds black as a way of accentuating each image’s main subject. I usually do that as an after-thought; that is, when I’m working through my images in post-processing, I decide that the background is a distraction and opt to get rid of it — sometimes partially, most of the time entirely. There are, of course, different ways to create dark backgrounds when shooting; but many of them aren’t really suitable for outdoor photography using natural light… especially for a shooter like me who likes to take only one lens on each shoot, and leave my flash gear or other supplemental lighting at home.

While working on the white lily photos I featured in two previous posts (see White Lilies (1 of 2) and White Lilies (2 of 2), though, I started wondering if I would have taken the photos differently if I was shooting them with the intention of removing the backgrounds afterward in Lightroom. Would I, for example, use different camera settings? think of lighting in a different way? compose the subjects differently?

To produce pitch-black backgrounds in Lightroom, I reuse a brush preset I created with these settings…

… which will change all brushed areas in the image to their darkest possible values, with saturation and noise set as shown to blur and soften any blips of light or color that still want to peek through the darkened background elements. After completing a “first draft” on a set of photos — adjusting exposure and colors, removing spots, and sometimes cropping — I use a Lightroom brush to outline around the edges of the subject like this:

The outline brush is feathered — as you can see above from the soft edges of the fluorescent green masking — since the shape of the subject varies throughout and its boundaries consist of curved lines and contours. Think of this like painting a wall where there is floor molding of a different color: one of the first things you might do is pick a small brush of suitable size (and bristle density) to paint a thin line of the wall color just above the molding. If you use a brush that’s too large, you’ll likely slop paint onto the molding you’re trying to protect, and have to remove it. If I zoom into a section of the photo I’m working on, you can see something similar near the top of the bloom…

… where the green mask covers part of the petal. I remove that with Lightroom’s Erase brush, and zoom in along all the edges of the flower to remove the mask from any other areas where it’s bled onto the subject.

I then use the same sized brush but without feathering to outline the subject one more time…

… and finally use a larger brush — also without feathering — to paint the rest of the background, effectively converting it to all-black. Turning off the feathering for these last two steps is like using a wider paintbrush in our wall-painting metaphor: you can cover a larger area quickly with more paint and fewer strokes (or mouse movements!).

Here’s the transition through the three steps, first with the mask showing and then with the mask turned off. Turning the mask off and on repeatedly as I apply it lets me see my progress and make sure that I’ve covered everything behind the flower.

The most time-consuming part of this workflow is the first step — outlining the subject with the feathered brush — so I tackle that right off the bat and then finish the rest of the background like a guy slinging finger-paint on poster paper. I’ve experimented a little with doing the same thing in Photoshop instead of Lightroom; and while it’s sometimes easier to mask the subject then flip the background black in Photoshop — the most detailed masking in Photoshop or Lightroom seem to require about the same amount of effort. So I stick with Lightroom, and don’t have to add Photoshop to my workflow to get these results.

With all this in mind, I altered how I took the photos for this series of posts to allow for what I’ve learned about making it easier and more accurate to convert their backgrounds to all-black. Selecting and masking around the subject works best when it’s as in-focus as possible, with good contrast and sharpness between the foreground and background. Since the amount of light and color that reaches the camera’s sensor is determined by a combination of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings — the exposure triangle — I wanted to figure out if different exposure settings would improve my ability to remove the backgrounds.

So I started with an assumption that a higher ISO setting would give me more flexibility in choosing shutter speed and aperture, and experimented with ISOs in the range of 800 to 3200 to see what worked best. ISO 3200 introduced a bit too much grain into the photos; and while I could remove a lot of it in Lightroom, the images ended out softer than I wanted with porous edges around the subject that were difficult to mask. ISO 800 or 1600 provided a good balance between sharpness and grain, so I took about half of the photos at ISO 800 and half at ISO 1600. Either setting gave me what I wanted: a few extra stops of available light with an aperture setting that increased depth of field so that the flower blossoms were well-focused from front to back. Shutter speed settings didn’t matter that much; I only needed a high enough shutter speed to eliminate camera shake and stop the flowers from dancing in a light summer breeze. Any shutter speed greater than 100 worked good enough.

I took all of the photos with the same lens — a Sony 18-250mm zoom lens — whose great advantage is that (though it’s not technically a macro lens) I can get as close as 18 inches from a subject, and get decent focus even when zoomed to 250 millimeters. This lens works well at Oakland cemetery’s gardens since many of the planted areas are set two or three feet above ground level, or the flowers are blooming where I can’t get close enough to use a macro lens. Finally, since I was going to remove the backgrounds anyway, I could take the photographs from different angles, and could disregard random plants, trees, sticks, or stones that might distract from the subject.

There will be about 100 photos in this project, which is why this post is “1 of 10”. Over the past few weeks, I’ve tried to take a few pictures of ever lily variety I could find at the gardens and ended out with photos of a couple dozen different kinds — colors ranging from yellow to orange, pink to red, and magenta to purple. As I overheard someone telling her friends as they passed me hunched over a batch of lilies: “There’s so many flowers here! It’s like going to the botanical garden, but it’s free!”

🙂

If you read this far: bless you! Below are the first ten photos; more soon!





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