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 (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 (1917 edition) 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!