Yesterday evening I presented “My Own Backyard” to the Brant Camera Club in Brantford, Ontario.
Regular readers will know of my passion for shooting locally – starting literally right in your own backyard and using it as an exploratorium for testing new equipment, ideas and ways of seeing. Taking that one step further, you can explore local parks and conservation areas (or downtowns for street photography) throughout each of the four seasons, year after year. Over time, you begin to develop a deep knowledge of where potential subjects are and how far along they are in their annual growth, allowing you to predict just when to be out looking. As well, being nearby, you can become the “expert” and be on site when the light is spectacular.
Beware – there’s fungus among us! The mushrooms are out in the forests of southern Ontario! Get out your tripod and your knee pads and get down in the leaf litter from some great close-up photography. But don’t forget your bug repellent, because the mosquitoes are still out there!
The last two weekends, my wife Laura and I have been out along the Bruce Trail. If you’re not familiar with the Bruce Trail, it is Canada’s oldest and longest marked footpath travelling from Niagara Falls in the south along the Niagara Escarpment some 890km to Tobermory in the north. There are dozens of places along the trail to park and hike for a day, often associated with the various conservation areas and provincial parks along the Escarpment, but also along roadsides and at car parks built expressly for Trail users. I would encourage you to make good use of the Bruce Trail for access to some of the most photogenic sites in southern Ontario. But, being a volunteer-maintained trail, consider also becoming a member of the Bruce Trail Conservancy, purchasing the Reference Guide book or Trail app (iOS and Android) or making a contribution to the Conservancy so they can continue their good work keeping the trail up and acquiring more parcels of land to protect the optimum route of the trail.
Our first hike was the Speyside section (east of Guelph, north of Milton, just east of former Hey 25), where we saw the first few mushrooms. Between Bruce Trial hikes, we’ve also been to the Arboretum at the University of Guelph where there are a few different types of fungus. I hesitate to call them all mushrooms as some of what you’ll see are cup fungus, coral fungus, puffballs and slime moulds. Don’t they sound delightful? Beyond that, I’m not at all familiar with the various types of fungus and know very little about the names except for the ones I have looked up.
Saturday was a fungus bonanza, though. We were northeast of Shelburne along a stretch of the Bruce Trail between Boyne River Provincial Park and the Mulmur Hills. The summer has been on the cool and wet side which seems ideal for fungus as well as various species of moss and lichen. There were over a dozen different kinds of fungus and, as our intent was to hike, I only stopped to photograph a few.
So if you have a couple of hours to spare and don’t mind getting your knees dirty, head out to a local woodlot or forest and try your hand (and your patience) with photographing fungus. The nice thing is, they don’t move, so the long exposure times needed for the dark forest floor are not a problem as long as you are using a tripod and cable release or self-timer. Take your time, though, as the set-up and precise focussing can sap your patience.
If you are into trying new techniques, mushrooms are also a good subject to practice the technique of focus-stacking (excellenttutorial here). The files are not something you can process in Photos or Lightroom – you’ll need Affinity Photo (video tutorial) or Photoshop to finish the job. I’ve been experimenting with the technique and may start to use it more, but, for now, I’m still making the majority of my close-up shots the regular way by choosing a small aperture (ƒ22 for full frame; ƒ5.6 to 8 for 1″ sensor) and making a single shot.
Setting up low to the ground and with a tripod is not easy. Before going out, work with your tripod to learn what it’s capable of, and what it cannot do. Some tripods allow the legs to spread out completely, but then you are limited by the centre post. The Manfrotto 055 tripod I recently purchased has a centre post that can be set at a 90° angle – ideal for shooting close-ups near to the ground – and it really works well!
When I’m out hiking, as I was yesterday, rather than bringing the whole kit with D800E, lenses and 055 tripod, I often bring my Sony RX10iii with the monopod portion of my MeFoto RoadTrip tripod. This is a good set-up, but not ideal as I end up having to use ISO 400 and some pretty slow shutter speeds along with the excellent stabilization, to shoot close-up. The Chanterelle above was shot at ƒ5.6 @ 1/13, ISO 400 with a polarizer on the RX10iii on the monopod. It took a few shots to ensure everything was sharp, but I sure wish I had my tripod for this. I think next time I’ll at least have the full MeFoto tripod with me for just a situation like this.
If you can’t get down lower than the shortest leg setting, then think about using a telephoto lens and shooting from further away. As it is, the best close-up/macro lenses for this kind of work are in the 90mm to 150mm range. If you can focus closely enough, a 200mm focal length lens makes an ideal working distance for close-up photography. Again, set this up at home – try practicing on some flowers or even chess pieces. When out in the field, be aware of branches and leaves that may be between the lens and the mushroom that may not be visible in the viewfinder.
Once you’ve found the ideal mushroom in the forest – before you set up the tripod – hand-hold your camera and spend some time finding just the right angle and view. Composition is best done off the tripod; once you’ve found that perfect angle, set up the tripod “under” that point and attach your camera. Adding a polarizing filter will help reduce the glare off wet foliage or smooth bark and leaves.
One cautionary note: Do not pick and eat any of the mushrooms. As delectable as they may look – and they may even look exactly like a mushroom you remember eating – don’t take the chance. There are too many “look-alikes” that might just send you to Emergency!
If you have any questions or comments, please add them below. And I invite you to share this post with others. Thanks for reading!
Gallery Click on any image and use the > < arrows (or your cursor keys) to navigate through.
This morning, I led a one-on-one workshop for artist Susan Leite, a member of the Hamilton Camera Club, who missed my presentation of Creating Compelling Landscapes. Tiffany Falls Conservation Area in Ancaster, Ontario, is one of those near-ideal places to learn about landscapes. A well-maintained, and easily-walked side trail of the Bruce Trail leads up the valley, across two bridges to a platform in front of a class cascade waterfall – Tiffany Falls – some 21m (70 feet) high.
As the point of this morning’s workshop was specifically landscape photography techniques, we were looking for “classic” landscape views that would include a strong foreground element set in the context of the background, connected through the mid-ground with a leading line, a “pathway” that would help the viewer navigate through the photograph. Assembling these elements is the job of the photographer. They are “out there” far more often than many photographers realize; recognizing them and actively, purposefully composing the photograph to include them is what makes them work.
At times, though, it is a challenge: as we noted this morning, much of the valley and river bank has the scrubby-looking remains of cut trees. Trees that naturally fall have an organic look to them; cut trees have sharp, rather obvious and totally un-natural edges where they were chain-sawed. There were also many parts of branches left from the cuttings that have not decomposed as one might expect leaves and small branches would do over a season or a year, so they, too, left (to my eyes anyway) a bit of a slash-and-burn eye-soar to an otherwise beautiful valley. If you have ever felt the need to remove unwanted outgrowth of trees and plants, consider going for a removal service.
So, that’s a bit of the context of the location. The morning, itself, was overcast and still, making for near-ideal conditions for photographing in a forest. The contrast was easily managed; just the sky, filtering through the upper canopy, created difficult lighting. Photographers learn quickly, though, the importance of being flexible and working to the conditions provided by Mother Nature: when given a white sky, work to eliminate it from photos – and that’s we did.
This morning, thanks to the recent rain, Tiffany Creek had an excellent flow. It’s been a cool, wet spring – ideal for gardeners and photographers of nature and landscapes . So often, the rivers and waterfalls of southern Ontario suffer from a lack of water. Not this spring – the rivers have been well-flushed!
The Basic Set-up
Both Susan and I were using “bridge” style cameras – hers, a Lumix FZ-200 with an excellent Leica lens, and my Sony RX10iii – on travel-style tripods (both MeFoto Roadtrips). We had both come to the same conclusion regarding carrying equipment in travel-style conditions: less is more! We were both using ND filters and my Polarizing filter. The ND filters slowed shutter speeds to capture more movement in water; the polarizing filter reduced the glare off the water and foliage (see comparison photo).
We set our cameras to Aperture Priority, using Exposure Compensation to adjust exposure when clipped highlights showed in the histogram. In these situations, shutter speed is less important than the need for adequate depth-of-field to maintain sharpness from foreground through the background. Obviously, in breezy conditions, shutter speed matters, but with the still morning, we had some leeway. With small-sensor bridge cameras, this is achieved in the ƒ5.6 range. On the 1″ sensor Sony, ƒ5.6 is equivalent to ƒ15 on a full-frame system; with Susan’s FZ200’s 1/2.3″ sensor, ƒ5.6 is the same as ƒ31 on a FF system – plenty of depth of field for most landscapes! Any smaller than ƒ5.6 will result in increasingly unsharp edges due diffraction, the bending of light through the smaller aperture.
We also had a discussion about ISO. To maintain the highest image quality, I always recommend using the lowest ISO that will provide the maximum dynamic range (the difference between pure white and pure black). For many DSLRs, it’s ISO200. For the Sony RX10iii, it’s ISO64; the FZ200, ISO100.
Susan also set up her self-timer to delay each exposure by 2 seconds to eliminate camera shake from shutter activation by hand. Using tripods that were shorter than normal for comfortable viewing, we also chose to use the LCD for final compositions. However, working on a tripod can be very restrictive when composing, so I always recommend using the quick release to remove the camera and actively compose “free-hand” by moving in and out, up and down and side to side. You really need freedom of movement to find that compositional “sweet-spot”, then set-up the tripod to match that precise location.
In the field…
Now for some photos. We both agreed, the ferns and other greenery along the river bank were great foreground objects with lots of detail. As well, the river itself provided and natural pathway through the various scenes. When the river seemed rather straight, it was important to manouevre to “help” it into a more diagonal position; diagonals are always preferred for compositions as they create more dynamic movement than straight lines.
Wandering up the trail took us to this point, where we could just begin to see the waterfall through the trees. The foreground element was in place with the greenery and rocks and the curve of the river became the natural pathway through the scene.
The 1-second exposure provided appropriate movement to the water while the -1 exposure compensation was required to prevent the highlights in the distant waterfall from clipping.
I highly recommend this method of exposure, where you expose as “high” as possible on the histogram without clipping the highlights – commonly referred to as ETTR or Expose To The Right. This allows more photos to be recorded in the shadow areas, reducing the amount of noise when the tonal values of shadow areas are lifted. Due to the beautiful, lower contrast lighting of the morning, this technique wasn’t absolutely essential, but it is good practice to get the most out of any sensor.
The overall appearance of this initial exposure is a bit on the dark side. The shadows are open, and the whites are near white, but the mid-tone greens appear drab rather than lively. That’s okay! The camera is simply a tool for recording a file that can then be processed – just like negatives were processed – into a final photograph that matches the way I saw the scene. The camera can’t do it all. Jpegs from many cameras are excellent, but there are still techniques that can be applied to further improve the photograph. This is way shooting raw files has become the default, especially amongst fine art photographers. It’s the difference between a “machine print” from a negative and a custom print, made by yourself or a professional printer. Learning a few simple manipulations in an app like Lightroom can go a long way to improving your photographs.
Back at home, in Lightroom, I made the following adjustments. Lightroom is designed to be handled “top down” starting with White Balance then moving through Exposure, Contrast, etc. I often start with Whites and Blacks, using Lightroom’s “Auto-Whites” and “Auto-Blacks” feature (NOT the “Auto” button you see there) to pin down the darkest and brightest pixels. Holding the Shift key and double-clicking on the word “Whites”, then doing the same on “Blacks” will do just that.
From there, I move to Exposure. Now, you might think “Wow, +1.20 in Exposure is a lot!”, but it really isn’t. Exposure in Lightroom lifts the mid-tones – exactly the tonal range that needed lifting. Rather than using the sliders, which can be rather clunky and imprecise, I use the number boxes and increase exposure using the cursor key while looking at the photo (not the adjustment slider!). The Cursor will raise the value by 0.10 each time; holding Shift and pressing the cursor will raise the value by 0.33. When making adjustments, it’s better to start out with big leaps and going past the “ideal”, rather than trying to creep up to it in small hops. Once you beyond what”looks good” you’ll know right away; you can then use the fine tuning of 0.10 increments to nail down the ideal increase.
This same principal is true for all the other adjustments: use the cursor keys for +/- 1; Shift-Cursor changes it by +/- 10. The Shadows improved with a small bump to +20. Clarity – the adjustment to raise or lower local contrast – is great for giving very fine separation between light and darks, such as the edges of leaves or the bright water agains the dark. But too much clarity can make the photograph look artificially etched, so +10 “worked”. Bumping the Saturation to +10 gave the leaves just a little more punch.
With the gross changes made, it was now time to look at how I might shape the photograph using graduated filters and local adjustment brushes. Here is the photo with those initial tonal adjustments. It’s bright and has a three-dimensional presence. But, to me, the foreground area in front of me seems just a bit too bright. Pulling in a Graduated Mask with decreased Exposure, seemed to work except the greens seemed dinghy, so I increased the Clarity and Contrast. This allowed the greens in the mask to better match the greens in the rest of the photograph.
This shows the area that was masked, followed by the resulting photo.
This is an improvement, but now the water in the river seems a bit dinghy. I felt the whites of the turbulence should have better separation from the darker river bed. Using an Adjustment Brush, I painted over the river water, adding additional contrast (30), reducing the shadow values by -30 and increasing the clarity by 40 to provide that local contrast separation. lastly, I made the tones cooler using the Colour Temperature adjustment. I find the rock of the river beds in this area to be rather yellow, often with algae; cooling it down a little helps to “restore” the river, if only photographically.
This photo shows the area of that was “brushed”. These Grad Mask and Adjustment Brush features of Lightroom allow an almost infinite series of adjustments, that I find even more intuitive than Photoshop layers. As well, they add virtually nothing to the overall file size as they are simply instructions in a text file as opposed to pixel-level changes. To accomplish the same “feats” in Photoshop, would bloat the file to be 3, 4, 5, even 10x larger than the original. It’s the beauty, and simplicity, of non-destructive editing.
Finally, the photograph was coming together, but needed a little more “massaging”. First, I’ll take you back to my printing days in the darkroom. Often we would introduce a very light vignetting of about 10%. It’s not apparent to the viewer, but it acts in an almost subliminal way to contain the eye within the photograph, especially in prints that would be matted in white then framed. The white mat draws the eye to the outside; the vignetting helps to pull it back in again. Lightroom has Vignetting under “Effects” and, really, -5 to -10 should be enough, but not too much to make it obvious.
Lastly, I felt the scene could use a little cropping and straightening, as shown in this photo. Ideally, this is done in the field and I lament having to do so on screen, but adding a slight “Transform” of -10 on the Horizontal and +20 in Aspect returned the image to what I remember of the scene. There is, now, a progression of light from the top, where one would expect it, gradually dimming to the bottom, where one would expect it to be darker, given the canopy of trees above.
In the gallery below, I’ve included the four progression images so you can see the subtle changes that may not be apparent looking at them separately as they are presented above. As well, you’ll find a few other photographs from this morning. If you have any questions, be sure to add them to the comments below.
We have had our share of beautiful weather this autumn here in southern Ontario although lately, it has “normalized”. At the same time, Laura and I have been out hiking almost every weekend rain, shine or, in the case of last weekend, snow. I’m really working hard at capturing at least one truly worthwhile photograph from each outing. So far, so good, but I also know that won’t always be the case.
Here is a gallery of the best from the last two months. All are made with the Sony RX-10iii which has become my go-to camera as of late, particularly because of its ease of use while hiking. On the last few outings, I’ve taken with me the monopod leg of the MeFOTO tripod. This has been a fantastic addition, allowing me to make photos that would be otherwise impossible late in the afternoon. Yes, I could be hefting a tripod and my D800E kit, but really, these photos will stand up to the needs of cards, photo books and fine art prints. I’m loving this change. Anyone interested in a used D800E and lenses? 🙂
Okay – so I have been trying for an hour to load photos into a gallery as I’ve done countless times before, but I keep getting a WordPress HTTP error – very frustrating!! So I will direct you to my Flickr Photostream to see the most recent photos. Enjoy!
My family and I are keen supporters of the Bruce Trail and have been for decades now. Growing up on Hamilton’s East Mountain, I remember when the Bruce Trail was first being routed. We hiked it as kids from the end of Fennell Ave. to Albion Falls.
If you aren’t already a member, I encourage anyone who is photographing in southern Ontario to purchase a membership. You probably don’t realize how often you are using the Bruce Trail or one of its many side trails: Webster’s Falls, Tews Falls, Rattlesnake Point, Hilton Falls, Crawford Lake, Mono Cliffs, Kolapore Uplands, Bruce Peninsula … the list of places accessed via the Bruce Trail goes on and on.
You don’t need a membership to hike the trail, but, being a volunteer-driven organization, buying a membership helps with “the upkeep” and keeps you informed of club events. Better yet, consider making a donation; the Bruce Trail Conservancy is currently seeking donations to assist with the creation of a new nature reserve between Hogg’s Falls and Eugenia in the Beaver Valley.
So, if you’re looking for a project, a reason to photograph, consider visiting the Bruce Trail Conservancy Nature Reserves – and get our photographing!
Back at the end of July, Kerry Little, his son Michael and I spent some time backpacking in to Stormhaven for a couple of nights then camping at Cyprus Lake. Our goal: serious photography (for Michael is was downtime and reading). The result: Success.
I was looking forward to putting the 18-35mm zoom through its paces to see just what it would do under real shooting conditions. It did not disappoint. In fact, looking over my LR uploads from the trip, 93% of the photos I made were with that lens; 55% of all photos were at 18mm. I can’t say enough about having this focal length available to me. It is so creative and gives an even stronger sense of “being there”.
I was also looking forward to being in a place dark enough for some astrophotography. Originally, our plan was to be at Lake Superior Provincial Park and Pukaskwa National Park, but that fell through due to brake trouble. So, Bruce Peninsula, being a Dark Sky Preserve, was a great second option. Having an 18mm focal length was part of my motivation, but pushing the D800E to its limit with long exposures was also a goal. You see, I think it is important to push our equipment to the limit not just to learn what it is capable of, but also to break new ground in our own photography. I didn’t go as far as doing a few hundred exposures to get star trails (that’s for another time when I have access to my laptop for uploading full cards!), but I did enjoy the results from single exposures of 25 to 30sec at ISO3200. I read up on it ahead of time at Dave Morrow’s site – very helpful! Also, the iPad add Sky Guide was helpful.
Ideally, I would have done this from Stormhaven – a hike-in only site – due to its distance from the lights of Tobermory. Despite this old body, I made it in with a 30kg pack with energy to spare. Stormhaven is a great location; from the beach there is a clear view to the north with sunrise (and Cave Point) to the right and sunset to the left. Unfortunately, we had rain to deal with. After a clear start to our second day, it teemed rain the rest of the day until late in the afternoon. We were under the tarp for our brunch (we’re up at 5:30am before sunrise for photography, so it’s brunch at 10am or so) and in our tents for much of the day until the rain finally stopped at about 4:30pm. Cloud obscured the sky each night making astrophotography impossible. However, from the shore of Cyprus Lake, it turned out quite well.
My third goal for the trip was to spend some time doing long exposures of Georgian Bay. As it turned out, Kerry had an NDx3.0 (10 stop neutral density) filter which reduced exposures 1/30 all the way to 30 seconds (the rather unfortunate limit on a D800E without using the Bulb setting – I don’t wear a watch and my “on-board metronome” from my black and white darkroom days is a bit rusty! 🙂 I often used ISO50 to achieve this long exposure and sometimes used a polarizing filter as well, although the polarizer was primarily used to enrich the colours of foliage, rock and water by reducing glare. Success, again. I have since ordered a Hoya Pro ND500 (9-stop ND) as well as the Pro1 NDx0.8 (3 stops), more commonly used for slowing shutter speeds along rivers. I’ll write more about working with long exposures sometime soon.
After Stormhaven, we camped at Cyprus Lake. Car camping is always so depressing after wilderness camping. It’s loud and dusty with car traffic and the toilets are never as nice as they are in wilderness settings! That being said, the first evening I had a wonderful few hours of hiking and photography. Starting out from Tamarack campground, I had no expectations of what I would find, given how crowded the park was with partiers who only wanted to get to the Grotto. I hiked to the coast and began taking advantage of the beautiful evening light. I went from set-up to set-up completely losing track of time until I realized my shutter speeds were getting rather long (see The Trail – 13sec at ƒ16 – which I made at 9pm). It was one of those blocks of time I get about 3 times a year when practicalities go out the window in favour of pure creativity.
Here is a gallery of photographs to peruse from the trip. A few, and perhaps my favourites, are black-and-whites. As well, I put in colour versions of similar set-ups to some of the B&Ws for comparison purposes.
If you have any comments or questions about the photos, Bruce Peninsula or about photography in general, please I’d love to hear them – don’t hesitate to add a comment or email me directly. Enjoy!