A Quandary… Again

Advancing Fog — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

Advancing Fog — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

On a foggy morning at nearby Jordan Lake a few weeks ago, I was standing in front of this scene, but without the boat and fishermen, and took several frames. There was nothing I disliked about any of the images, but they seemed to lack a singular focal point. So when a boat began to drift into the frame, I thought it might help in that regard, but it stopped behind the trees. I was able to change my position to place it in the opening on the very left side of the frame, just to the left of its current location, (not where you see it here). But that position created an imbalance that was a bit disturbing. Moving even further to better place the boat wasn’t possible since close by trees interfered with the clear view. Then the boat slowly spun around making it appear more like a smudge rather than the previous side view that had created a separation between the three men in the boat. Faced with the option to wait and hope that the boat drifted into a more desirable position within the frame, or move on to other possibilities, the choice was made for me when the boat headed off for parts unknown! So the only photo with the boat helped somewhat, but created the imbalance and, it was actually kind of distracting being so far toward the edge of the frame.

At home, during the processing, there were two options as well: leave it to the far left where it created that distracting imbalance, or move it to where it would provide better balance and not be such a distraction.

It was easy to use the cloning tool in Photoshop, taking a sample of the boat and “drawing” it in at the desired location, and then “erase” where it was originally. But was it acceptable to change the reality of the scene as it was, just for photographic balance? That was the quandary. It was the same situation as the recent discussion of another foggy photo from that day involving a line of ducks that paddled into a scene I had just photographed. In that one (below; to go to that post, click here ) the side view of the boat, along with the fog worked well, but the birds hadn’t arrived in the frame yet. When they finally did, the boat had drifted in front of the small island and was almost lost in the tangle of underbrush and fog. So the same technique was used as above, except the birds were “sampled” from a completely different frame taken less than a minute after the one without them, and the rest of the frame discarded.

Fishermen in Fog — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

Fishermen in Fog — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

I suppose, in each instance, I have opted to be more pragmatic and create the best image possible from the data gathered, rather than being a purest, only allowing for what was actually seen during those few fleeting moments in time.

I would love to hear some thoughts on your preferred approach to “creating” a desired final photo, and the reasoning behind it, if you care to share them.

Throwback Thursday No. 17

Images from the Film Archives — 1998

Snow Covered Dunes - Island Beach State Park, NJ

Snow Covered Dunes – Island Beach State Park, NJ

One of the crown jewels in the NJ state park system is Island Beach State Park. A narrow, 10 mile long barrier island separating the Atlantic Ocean from Barnegat Bay,  most of which has been left in its natural state except for a few small developed areas for summer bathers and fisherman. It was always a place to go for the day with the kids, and as I began to photograph the state in earnest during the 1990’s, I would ocassionally go there for a sunrise shoot. However, since the park doesn’t open until 8am, to get in early enough for sunrise, I had to pose as a fisherman with a fishing pole stashed in the back seat of the car as proof (but no license).

But there were a few occassions when I would venture there during the winter to photograph the dune system with a blanket of snow, looking out to the ocean. That was never an easy prospect because several things had to fall in place in order for it to happen. Obviously, it had to snow, but not too much to make it impossible to drive there. It had to be one of my two days off from work; and it had to be fresh, because snow melts pretty quickly when it lands on sand, not while there was a blizzard going on either, and preferably, the tide would be coming in since an outgoing tide woukd leave an area without snow, which would have been less impactful. But to get into the park, I would have to leave the car outside the park, somewhere far enough away from the entrance to avoid the prying eyes of the gatekeepers (because they would never believe I was going fishing), and sneak in while trudging through the snow along the beach until inside the park!! Not something as easy as plop down the tripod and click the shutter.

Panorama Discovery cont.

Dusk at Mojave Point — Grand Canyon National Park, AZ © jj raia

Dusk at Mojave Point — Grand Canyon National Park, AZ © jj raia

If you missed the prequel to this post, click here.

I arrived at the south rim late in the afternoon and wanted to watch the sunset from Mojave Point, which necessitated taking a shuttle bus there. The problem was finding a parking spot!! Even though I was expecting loads of people, it was still a shock to my system at just how many people and cars were there, especially since I was coming from the solitude experienced on the North Rim. There was quite a hike back to the bus stop from where I finally found a spot to park the car, and crowded onto the bus when it arrived.

At Mojave Point, the crowds filled in every inch with a view, and didn’t thin out until after the sun went down. As dusk evened out the light falling on the canyon, eliminating the deep contrast of sunlight and shadows, the true shapes, textures and colors were fully revealed in a way that took my breath away. The image above could have been taken in a single wide-angle frame, but to really emphasise the small details that were actually several miles away (the shortest distance from rim to rim is amazingly 8 miles), a 50mm lens was used to keep the perspective normal, and in a portrait orientation, clicked off a few frames for a panorama, with both exposure and focus in manual. It is a simple technique to correctly record the proper perspective as seen, and achieve much more detail in what appears to be a normal single frame ratio. There was no time to level the tripod, since the light was changing rapidly, so I simply used markings in the viewfinder to keep the horizon in the same relative position frame to frame as it panned across the view. Had I not been convinced to utilize the capabilities of panoramas earlier in the trip, the level of detail would never have been captured in a single frame. Luckily, I was able to get the shot just in time to catch the final shuttle back to the village, and avoid the long hike back!!

Throwback Thursday No. 16

Images from the Film Archives — 1992

Approaching Storm — Kittatinny Ridge, NJ  © jj raia

Approaching Storm — Kittatinny Ridge, NJ © jj raia

Early on, during the time when the emphasis was on photographing New Jersey, much of the effort was dedicated as much to exploring new areas, as it was to actual photography. So in the fall of 1992, I thought to explore Stokes State Forest in the northwest part of the state. There were plenty of roads that laced the area, so a morning of exploration was the theme of that sunny day. Traveling along a one-way road through the forest, I slowly made my way along it, looking for something to catch my eye, but nothing ever did. In the years to come, I never did find anything to photograph along this particular stretch of road as it weaved through the lowland forest. But after several miles, the road did eventually climb to a higher elevation, and it was there I discovered a narrow section, too narrow on which to park and still allow traffic to flow, that offered a fine view over the valley below.

However, I did find a small dirt patch to pull over where the road again widened, grabbed my gear, and walked back along the narrow section, all the time looking out onto the rich autumn colors of the forest below for a composition. As I did so, I noticed some very dark and angry clouds heading my way, and thought to make a hasty retreat back to the car, but I caught a glimpse of a solitary bleached snag standing among the brilliant leaves, just ahead.

Could I get there, get the camera set up and grab the shot before the pending doom? I thought the drama of what was unfolding was worth the risk of getting soaked, so now it was a race against the advancing storm front! Using a polarizer on the normal (80mm f/1.9) lens to fully saturate the colors, I waited a minute or so for the deep shadow of the clouds to completely darken a distant ridge line, while the rest of the trees remained in sunlight. I then clicked off several bracketed frames as the now black clouds got closer, and some very forceful winds began to blast away. I feared that the wind might shake the camera to blur the one-second exposures, but needed to use a small enough aperture to keep everything focus with a wider depth of field. The camera was then broken down, packed into the bag as fast as possible, and made the final click on the closure just as large drops of rain began to fall. Walking as quickly as I could, I raced all the way back to the car and fell in just a moment before the deluge hit and pounded the car. Because of the wind, holding onto the tripod as each exposure was made, must have helped since the photos turned out to be as sharp as I hoped.

I would eventually use this same stretch of road several times for early morning, but never came away with anything that matched, or even came close, to the drama of that day. But the vast expanse of Stokes State Forest itself, would provide many locations for photography in the coming years, as I became more familiar with the area and added to the growing number of NJ photographs.



Panorama Discovery


Mesa Arch Sunrise — Canyonlands NP © jj raia

During a 4-week southwest trip in 2014, after shooting a great sunset, I met two other photographers in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. Jeff was from New Jersey and on a several month cross-country photo trip living out of a tiny Honda Fit, and Walter was a photographer from California living out of a giant Toyota SUV complete with a full-size mattress in the back. The three of us decided to meet up the next morning at 4am to get a preferred spot at Mesa Arch, one of the most iconic sunrise locations in all of the southwest.

It was there that Walter strongly suggested I should consider making panoramas instead of single frame images, and so I tried a simple three frame panorama of Mesa Arch which is among the favorites from the entire trip. I did a few more during the remaining weeks of the trip, but had totally forgotten about the one below.

Clearing Storm — Cape Royal, Grand Canyon, AZ © jj raia

Clearing Storm — Cape Royal, Grand Canyon, AZ © jj raia

It was discovered recently while searching through some photos in preparation for a talk about that trip, and wondered why I had no recollection of taking the frames for it, or processing it later on. Generally, when I see a photo of mine, it draws up the memory of its making and where it was, even if there is nothing in the photo itself to indicate the location. But even though I do not recall the making of this particular photo, I do remember several of the other single frame images from that afternoon. And more importantly, I have vivid memories of the entire time spent at Cape Royal on the north rim of the Grand Canyon!!

You would think that such a grand, north rim vista would be a huge draw for folks to witness a sunset there. But unimagineably, I was the only one there to experience the setting sun that day. Amazingly alone, on the rim of the Grand Canyon for a glorious sunset. Who woulda thunk it? Afterward, I made dinner in the empty parking lot, and probably would have done some Milky Way photography had it not been for the heavy cloud cover, but I was content to just soak it all in and spend the night there in solitude after an afternoon of memorable photography.

Throwback Thursday No. 15

Images from the Film Archives — 1999

Rain Soaked Forest - High Point State Park, NJ © jj raia

Rain Soaked Forest – High Point State Park, NJ © jj raia

I always felt that the colors in nature pop a bit more during and just after a hard rain. Tree trunks turn darker and every color gains saturation, giving any scene more contrast. I wanted to find a way to photograph in the rain, but was reluctant to have the medium format camera I was using at the time get wet, being modular with film backs, lenses and viewfinders easily taken apart from the body itself. After seeing some golfers with an umbrella attached to the handle of their cart that they pulled along the fairways, I headed to the local golf store and looked into what it might be that held the umbrella, and if it could be adaptable for my intended use. I ended up buying a contraption that could be clamped to the leg of a tripod, with a tube attached that the straight handle of an umbrella can be placed into and secured. As an added bonus, the tube was adjustable for angle, so no matter what angle the tripod leg may be, the umbrella could be set to vertical…perfect!! Now, with this umbrella holder, I was emboldened to try photography in the rain.

With a forecast of rain the entire day, the prospect of some fog at New Jersey’s highest elevation (1803 ft.) in High Point State Park seemed likely, so I headed out for the 2-plus hour ride to the extreme northwest corner of the state. When I got there, conditions were just as I had hoped with a rain-soaked forest and new spring buds in the trees, but unfortunately, very little fog. Driving slowly around some of the park roads, I looked for something of interest: a twisted tree, or pattern of trunks with a young tree, whatever caught my eye. I searched for quite a while, with the rain getting heavier all the time, until it became a full fledged deluge. The rain was coming down in buckets! Of course, that’s when I spotted an interesting flat rock covered in lichen, surrounded by young beech trees with brilliant green spring leaves and their thin trunks blackened by the heavy rain. What really set the scene off was the soaked, reddish/brown of the leaves from the previous fall on the forest floor. And, most importantly, there was a spot to pull off the road a short distance away.

I put the camera together and on the tripod in the car, and placed a plastic bag over the camera to keep it dry as I walked to the spot, until the umbrella was in place. Standing on the step stool I always kept in the car, I was able to get high enough using the wide 35mm lens (20mm full frame) tilted down, to look through the viewfinder with the tripod at its full extension, and avoid any distracting peeks of sky through the canopy. The umbrella kept everything dry, and I was happy both with the shot, and with the new photo opportunities that would now be available. The umbrella holder would remain attached to the tripod, attracting quite a few questions from other photographers I would run into over the years. I brought it on every day trip, and every trip I eventually took out west; even to Iceland in 2019 where it allowed me to take the photo below, that would have been impossible without it. Even though the digital camera I now use is “weather-sealed”, I don’t believe water and electronics should ever intermingle, and try to avoid it at all costs. To read about that day in Iceland, click here.

32 - Storm Surf at Diamond Beach — Iceland  © jj raia

Storm Surf at Diamond Beach — Iceland © jj raia

Window Photography

Treetops and Crescent Moon — Wake County, NC © jj raia

Treetops and Crescent Moon — Wake County, NC © jj raia

I am always waking up early and peeking out the window to see what the new day has in store. Sometimes I have time to get dressed and run out the door to get to a nearby location and shoot what might be an interesting sunrise, while other times, there is no time at all, and I just sit back and enjoy the show. On this day, I knew in a few moments, the increasing light would make the disc of the moon completely disappear leaving only the crescent, and the veil of clouds would probably lighten or vanish, eliminating most of the contrast in the sky. At this time of day, just as the eastern sky begins to lighten, the clouds are actually darker than the sky; the opposite of expectations during the middle of the day. All I could do was grab the tripod, mount the camera and change to the 70-300mm zoom to get in close enough so the moon would not look like a blemish in the frame. The only thing left to do was open the window; and luckily, the one I peered out is the only one without a screen, to provide a clean and unobstructed view of what was going on.

The treetops were left in to give it some context and a sense of place, and it was fortunate that there was a singular pine almost directly under the moon, to break up the uniformity of the tree line a bit. But it was the gauzy nature of the clouds that gave the sky the texture and inspiration to photograph it, rather than simply enjoying the view and crawling back into bed.

The final image is actually two horizontal images merged together as a panorama. The reasoning behind that option was to zoom in to make the moon large enough for it to be prominent, but not too large to shout it was placed in the sky with some fancy trick in software, and then add the trees below in a second shot at the same zoom. Zooming in that far also  provided a secondary purpose that eliminated almost all of the distractions just outside the edges of the frame.

I have used the same technique where the zoom of each panorama frame is different, as in the photo below where the moon and the lit fog was at 200mm, while the surf and lower fog bank was at 70mm. Incidentally, the upper half itself was two separate frames; one being for a properly exposed  moon being lit through the haze shortly before sunrise, and another for the properly exposed sky and fog. These two were blended in separate layers with everything masked out except the moon over the properly exposed sky. Then the top and bottom were blended together along the fog bank at the horizon line.

Moonset and Fog — Sonoma Coast, CA © jj raia

Moonset and Fog — Sonoma Coast, CA © jj raia

Sometimes things inspire you to take photographs even though the resulting images are not anywhere near epic quality, but it is always a good idea to just keep shooting whenever the spirit moves you to do so, and keep the creative juices flowing. It keeps you in practice for when something epic does happen. And in the case of the crescent moon, a few minutes later you can be comfortably sipping a cup of hot coffee while still in your pj’s waiting for everyone else to wake up. The moonset was a different matter since I was living out of an SUV at the time on the 3-week photo trip through California in 2017. No hot coffee… no PJ’s!!


Throwback Thursday No. 14

Images from the Film Archives — 1994 and 1997

Meadow of of Loosestrife — Troy Meadows, NJ © jj raia

Meadow of of Loosestrife — Troy Meadows, NJ © jj raia

In early August of 1993, we were driving my daughter to a summer camp in northern New Jersey when I spotted a large field of purple flowers along the interstate with a solitary tree standing among them. The whole scene was backed by the edge of a forest that I thought would make a solid background to set off the tree. It was just a flash as I passed the spot at 65mph, but the mental image stayed with me, and I knew I would have to return to try to photograph it in the morning. The location figured to have some good side-lighting, so I was excited to about the prospects.

Digging Deeper

Jordan Lake 2-26-2020 © jj raia

Lakeside Fog – Jordan Lake, NC RAW © jj raia


In yesterday’s post, I neglected to mention some important points in processing the original RAW image above, into the image below. The original draw was the several layers of trees in the fog, with each layer more hidden as the layers receded in the distance. But a major problem needed to be addressed before it could be more than a lackluster image. There was no discernible point of focus where the viewers eye can initially land. Without that point of focus, the eye will just wander around the frame, unsuccessfully searching for something of interest on which to pause. So how to “create” a subtle point of focus?

Since all the trees in the first row were about the same tone, the trees on the left of that row were lightened while the trees on the right half were left darker to make them stand out a bit more. Then the understory along the waterline, and the water close to shore, was lightened to be closer in tone to the surrounding trees, and to make the darker trees on the right side stand out even more. The final step was to slightly lighten the fog under the tops of the darker trees to really draw the eye to that spot in the frame even though there is very little difference in tonal values throughout the image.

Lakeside Fog — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

Lakeside Fog — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

There was the usual cleanup and some other very minor adjustments, but those three things were what created a subtle focal point in an otherwise low contrast, mediocre image, and made it slightly better than it was originally. These same measures can be utilized on a good photo and step it up a notch. More important though, is realizing that processing in most instances, can achieve your goal for any image. Now, if only those ducks would float by again!

Hint of Spring

Fishermen in Fog — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

Fishermen in Fog — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

Lucky for me, when she was at the gym, my wife texted me early the other morning that there was fog around. Otherwise, I might have missed it since most of the window blinds throughout the house are closed in the morning, and I missed any forecast for the possibility of fog for that day. So I got dressed, grabbed my gear, and headed out toward a few different spots to search for a composition with trees; preferably an oak or a beech tree still holding onto its leaves that I could isolate in the mist. Very unsuccessful in those attempts, so I headed off to Jordan Lake where I eventually ran into the same friends from a few weeks ago, again, also in search of foggy photos. We were at a spot where there were views from both sides of the road, and with water levels high, some trees were left standing in water. I found a row of trees jutting out into the lake (below), that showed the first hint of spring buds standing before a thick fog bank that mostly hid a forest behind.

Foggy Flood — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

Foggy Flood — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

The fog continually shifted, flowing in and out of the area in so many different patterns, sometimes in a massive cloud obliterating everything but things very close by. Other times there were multiple levels of fog, drifting and morphing into differing shapes and bands that had us shifting positions as we tried to be where the fog displayed the most interest.

Lakeside Fog — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

Lakeside Fog — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

We thought that the fog had drifted from the area and began hiking back toward our cars when we saw another bank of fog heading in our direction. From a nearby spot overlooking the lake, we could see a few small islands that were being enveloped, with another larger island in its path. Good fortune was with us since a couple of boats were near the island with fishermen aboard for an added story to the photo. The two separate bands of fog going across the island were a bit unique by partially obscuring the treetops, yet still revealing the tree shapes closer to the ground (photo at top).

It was a simple process to set the camera up for a proper exposure and just wait for the fog to roll across the scene; the boat to be off to the side of the island, laying broadside in the water to show a separation between the two fishermen; and preferably pointing into the frame toward the island as it slowly drifted by, all the while taking differing frames in hope of capturing the best shape of the fog across the island, which actually provided a nice leading line right toward the fishing boat. Not too much to ask for, right? The plan was to combine the frames with the best fog and the best boat angle during post processing. As it turned out, although I didn’t know it at the time, the frame with the best fog and boat angle were captured in a single frame!!

Once the boat drifted in front of the island, it was lost among the tangle of branches and for all intents and purposes, that frame sequence was over. But what complicated things was a small group of ducks heading into the frame along the foreground, so I kept shooting a few more frames to include them. With the boat nearly lost in front of the island, the only use for those frames was to include the ducks in some other combined frames. In any case, the option was there to do so. Not much artistic license was utilized by blending in those ducks since they were taken mere seconds after that single frame at the top.

Waters Edge in Fog — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

Waters Edge in Fog — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

I never did find an image of a solitary tree in the foggy forest that day even though I tried in several places. The closest I came was this scene along the edge of the lake. I may return to that spot again if there is fog in the near future in hopes of additional spring buds spread throughout the frame, instead of just in the top right corner. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.