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

Winter Shapes: Japanese Maple Leaves (2 of 2)

From The Tree: A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live, and Why They Matter by Colin Tudge:

“[Trees] do not dwell only in the present. They remember the past, and they anticipate the future.

“How trees remember, I do not know: I have not been able to find out. But they do. At least, what they do now may depend very much on what happened to them in the past. Thus if you shake a tree, it will subsequently grow thicker and sturdier. They ‘remember’ that they were shaken in the past. Wind is the natural shaker, and plants grown outdoors grow thicker than those in greenhouses, even in the same amount of light….

“Most trees, like most plants of all kinds, are also aware of the passing seasons: what time of year it is and — crucially — what is soon to follow. Deciduous trees lose their leaves as winter approaches (or, in the seasonal tropics, as the dry season approaches) and enter a state of dormancy. This is not a simple shutting down. Dormancy takes weeks of preparation. Before trees shed their leaves they withdraw much of the nutrient that’s within them, including the protein of the chlorophyll, leaving some of the other pigments behind to provide at least some of the glorious autumn colors; and they stop up the vessel ends that service the leaves with cork, to conserve water.

“How do the temperate trees of the north know that winter is approaching? How can they tell, when it is still high summer? There are many clues to season, including temperature and rainfall. But shifts in temperature and rain are capricious; they are not the kind of reliable signal to run your life by….

“The one invariable, at any particular latitude on any particular date, is the length of the day. So at least in high latitudes, where day length varies enormously from season to season, plants in general take this as their principal guide to action — while allowing themselves to be fine-tuned by other cues, including temperature. So temperate trees invariably produce their leaves and/or flowers in the spring, marching to the rigid drum of solar astronomy; but they adjust their exact date of blossoming to the local weather. This phenomenon — judging time of year by length of day — is called ‘photoperiodism.'”


This is the second of two posts with photographs focused on the shapes of desiccated Japanese Maple leaves, that I took in early January. The first post is Winter Shapes: Japanese Maple Leaves (1 of 2).

Thanks for taking a look!

Winter Shapes: Japanese Maple Leaves (1 of 2)

From A Garden of Marvels by Ruth Kassinger:

Deciduous trees… have evolved to deal with surviving cold months. In winter, the energy that a tree’s leaves are able to generate during short daylight hours is less than the energy required to maintain cell function in the leaves. In addition, the loss of water through transpiration exceeds the amount that the roots are able to absorb when groundwater is locked up in ice. So, in autumn, deciduous trees cut their losses. First, thanks to hormonal signals, they drain the sucrose from their leaves and send it to their roots and branches for storage. Then they seal off the leaves at their bases with a corky substance. Without water and nutrients, the leaves’ cells die. In the spring, the trees send stored sugar dissolved in water up the xylem to fuel the growth of new leaves and branches.”

From “The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens in Three Centuries of American Poetry edited by Allen Mandelbaum and Robert D. Richardson:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place….


January is a great month for hunting down those natural shapes of things that are most apparent only in the winter. For this post (and the next one) I scoured the trees for shreds of Japanese Maple leaves, those that still clung on and held an interesting form despite many days of rain, wind, and cold. Their tenaciousness is admirable — don’t you think?

Even though it was a cloudy day, there was enough sunlight breaking through so that some of the leaves — all but those in the last three images — got touched with a bit of backlighting, just enough so that they looked like the were glowing against the blue-gray skies.

Thanks for taking a look!

Cherry Blossoms on Black

From “White, Black, and Gray” in The Art of the Photograph by Art Wolfe and Rob Sheppard:

“White, black, and gray are neutral colors, meaning that they do not have a color! Okay, that’s silly, we know, but truthfully, these colors do not have hues of red, blue, yellow, and so on, and a hue is color. Some people define a neutral color as one that does not attract attention to itself, which isn’t a bad way to look at them. They tend to be colors that sit peacefully in a photograph without competing with other colors. Though an important aside is that spots of white anywhere in a photograph will often attract attention away from your subject….

“However you want to define neutral colors, they are important in photography because of their influence, which can be huge, on other colors. If you have a very colorful subject and put it against a black background or a white background, the color will look different. Color against black will tend to look richer and stronger…. Black will make even solid colors look like they are glowing. It is a dramatic way to use color. Color against white will tend to be less vibrant and more solid looking, such as the translucent fall leaves against a harsh overcast sky…. White can make pastel colors look even more pastel. White also gives a very elegant look to colors and is not as obviously dramatic as black.”

From “Making Pictures” in Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature by Alva Noe:

“[With] digital photography, it’s pretty easy, and pretty cheap, to make pictures. Making a digital snapshot can hardly be compared to drawing something painstakingly from life. But drawing and amateur photography do have this in common: making pictures… is a way of paying attention to what you are depicting. And so, it is a way of seeing. It is a special way of attending to what you see, just as dancing can be a special way of paying attention to the music you hear. Pictures are bound up with seeing, but not only with seeing; they are bound up also with thinking about what we see, and with the interest we take in what we see….”


For this post, I took a few of the photos from the previous two posts (see Found Blooms! (1 of 2) and Found Blooms! (2 of 2)) and processed them on black backgrounds. As I briefly mentioned previously (see Autumn Daisies (1 of 3)), I’ve been using Lightroom’s reimagined masking to create these black-background images. Lightroom’s ability to select backgrounds, subjects, and individual objects from the photo simplifies the process of converting them to black quite a bit, especially if the subject is clearly focused, well-colored, and distinct from the background. While it doesn’t completely eliminate the brushing needed to fine-tune the appearance of edge details, it does reduce it enough to move the process a long at a faster clip than in the olden days of earlier last year.

Software tools are at their best for us, though, if they prompt us to think differently about what we’re doing. With brushing reduced and the ability to select objects from the photo (to do so, you roughly scribble on the object with the mouse and let Lightroom create a mask for it), I end out re-thinking the content I want to include in the final image. The first photo below is a good example, where I selected the two leaves as objects, then the flower, then all of the remaining stems — then inverted them all so the background is masked instead of the plant. From there, it’s just a matter of reducing exposure, whites, and shadows to their darkest values and — tada! — the background is now black. With brushing, the most difficult section of this photo would have been the thin leaf and flower stems; with object selection, these elements are chosen by Lightroom with great accuracy and need only minimal cleanup with a brush to keep their detail intact.

As you might gather from the first quote above, I’ve been puzzling about whether or not to try some of these images on white backgrounds instead of black. The process would nearly be the same; yet when I experiment with it, I don’t like the results as much — though I’m beginning to see how some photos (with lighter colored subjects, more translucent subjects, or maybe those that are backlit) might work on white.

As the quote suggests, white shows through elements of the subjects more starkly and becomes distracting; and parts of the image that are farther from the camera (and therefore are darker or less in focus) that tend to fade out and blend with the black become more prominent, effectively flattening the appearance of the image and making it look like a cutout since much of what we perceive as contrast and depth is lost. On the very last pair of images below, I show the white background paired with an alternative: softening the image overall (using Nik Color Efex Pro) to reduce contrast between the flowers and leaves and the background, and adding a bit color behind the subject to make it slightly off-white instead of pure white. This seems to work better, in my opinion… and is a little easier on the eyes!

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

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