Throwback Thursday No. 21


Images from the Film Archives — 1991

Barberry, Fern & Lichen - Harriman State Park, NY  © jj raia

Barberry, Fern & Lichen – Harriman State Park, NY © jj raia

One of my favorite destinations in autumn was Harriman State Park, about a 90-minute drive from home, just over the NY/NJ border. At 52,000 acres, it’s the second largest park in NY, with over 200 miles of hiking trails, 31 lakes, scenic drives and great vistas. On this day, I was looking to photograph the barberry, a desiduous evergreen bush whose leaves turn crimson in fall before they drop off leaving thin branches with thorns. I had learned about these bushes many years earlier, before photography, when some friends and I would make an annual trip up to Harriman and spend the day there enjoying autumn, some hotdogs cooked over a fire, and a “few” beers.

There hadn’t been much success photographing wide views of the forest understory covered in a sea of red that afternoon, but I found an intimate spot among some lichen covered rocks where a fern and two barberry branches draped around some circular designed lichen. It was difficult getting the tripod into position, but after a few attempts, was able to center the circles and record it. Since this was taken on a late afternoon with clear skies, being in the shade, the color of the blue/green lichen was enhanced by the film. It was something I would eventually recognize and keep in the back of my mind when photographing in those conditions, and incorporate it into the image, or try to compensate for it. I finally did learn about warming filters to correct the blue cast when photographing in the shade, and eventually broke down and bought one, but rarely used it because, in most cases, I liked the blue tone. Now, at no cost, it’s a simple flick of a slider in Lightroom to color correct an image. Progress!!

One major failure from that day comes to mind though. At one point during the wanderings, I came across a spot where bright yellow leaves were cascading down from the trees like snowflakes. I thought I would be slick and record them as streaks using a 4-second exposure, while the forest itself would remain stationary and sharp. Well, when I got the film back about a week later, I was shocked that there were no streaks in any of the frames!! Just the forest without any cascading leaves!! Did I just imagine them? Another lesson learned: things that are moving through the frame during a very long exposure, may disappear!! If only I could have seen that on the back of the camera as we can now with digital cameras, I would have been able to immediately compensate for my ignorance, and learn a valuable lesson without missing the shot.


Nothing Special

Spring Morning — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

Spring Morning — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

The elusive image at Jordan Lake continues to be elusive. In all likelihood, I may have to wait until next year to make another attempt, since the row of trees I spoke of in recent posts is now leafing out, and they are no longer mere skeletons. But it was a chance to get out of the house and escape the virus lockdown for a couple of hours. It wasn’t that there was no color in the dawn sky, there was some in the sparse clouds, but nothing special. So, I walked the few hundred yards toward the bridge for an unobstructed view of the lake, and found the bushes in the post two weeks ago, were also beginning to leaf out, and the color reflections on the water were not nearly as interesting as then.

Heading Out — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

Heading Out — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

But when a fishing boat was slowly passing under the bridge, if the previous visits were any indication of what would happen next, a quick change from ISO 100 to 400, a faster shutter speed, and larger aperture was made to freeze the boat as it then picked up speed and sped away, leaving a long lasting arc marking its path. Again, nothing special, but something to keep in the practice of anticipating what may occur, and preparing for it.

Throwback Thursday No. 20


Images from the Film Archives 2000

Young Saplings along the Virgin River - Zion NP, UT © jj raia

Young Saplings along the Virgin River – Zion NP, UT © jj raia

One of the most exhilarating hikes to take anywhere in the country, is through the Virgin River Narrows in Utah’s Zion National Park. There is no proper trail, but rather hiking is done mostly in the river itself because the canyon walls rise several hundred feet directly from the river bed, and only occasionally is there a bit of dry land where you can walk and possibly rest. This is not a hike to take lightly either. Flash floods are always a danger, slipping on the rocks throughout the riverbed is always a challenge, and twisting an ankle a real possibility. Proper preparation is essential to enjoying the hike and avoiding the many pitfalls in the way that can make for a very bad day, and is especially important if you’re carrying expensive camera gear.

One thing I bought for this hike was a pair of river walkers (which I still have today); shoes specifically designed to be in water and for this type of hike, with better gripping soles and large openings for drainage. To keep the gear from getting wet should I slip and fall completely in the water (a distinct possibility), was to pack it properly. The camera and lenses were in their usual camera bag which always went inside a backpack when I hiked. But the camera bag for this hike was first placed into two, tightly tied garbage bags before it was put in the backpack, which provided four layers of protection. Food, snacks, water and a fleece jacket were packed as well. And the tripod was used at all times to steady myself while in the moving, thigh-high, cold water. Even though air temperatures were relatively mild in late Sept. and Oct. when I did these hikes, the cold water and lack of sunlight in the canyon could easily lead to hypothermia! So I wore a heavy, long-sleeve fleece first layer and a long-sleeve heavier shirt to keep the core warm.

Virgin River Canyon — Zion National Park, UT © jj raia

Virgin River Canyon — Zion National Park, UT © jj raia

Since it was a chore to unpack and repack the camera for each photograph, they were only undertaken when absolutely warranted. The image at the top was taken from one of the “land crossings” used when available to make progress much faster, rather than inching along in the river. The pastel of the leaves of these slender, young trees were at peak autumn color, and along with the sandstone walls, made for a harmonious palette. The normal lens was used for a more narrow field of view, making the canyon walls appear closer than would a wider angle lens, keeping the image more abstract rather than leaning toward a scenic, while at the same time, keeping the sky out of the frame. The blue from the sky is clearly evident though in the tonality since the canyon here is completely in shade. But it was the balanced “design” of the dark trunks and pastel leaves accentuated by the blue tones near the bottom, that caused me to stop in the first place.

The second photo of the river was a “slap in the face” photo in that when it was initially seen, all the elements were already in place for a photo. The two trees provided the focal point, while the moving water was a line on which to travel through the scene. A longer shutter speed blurred the flow of water, rather than freezing it with a shorter one. Pretty sure I used a mild wide-angle lens of 45mm (28mm on a full frame), to provide an angle of view to cover the entire scene from the bend in the river and beginning of the cascade beyond the trees, to the end of it in the lower right. Having the flowing water cut by the frame would have sent the viewer directly out of the frame!

I’ve been fortunate to have made this hike several times, the first being in 1979 when it was more the experience rather than photography. Years later, I found these young trees twice during hikes in successive years. On one of the earliest hikes, I ran into a large format photographer with the unusual first name Carr. It turned out to be Carr Clifton, another of my early photographic heroes, and I would run into him again years later, across the country in New Hampshire’s White Mountains along the Swift River. It’s worth remembering that if you are able to take these photo trips, they increase your opportunities for both photography, and meeting some famous photographers. And with so many photo tours and workshops, it now happens pretty often.


The End of Spring

Monet Wisteria — Wake County, NC © jj raia

Monet Wisteria — Wake County, NC © jj raia

If you saw the blog two weeks ago, there were two images of wisteria at peak bloom, a subject that is generally difficult to photograph. Not for any lack of beauty on the part of the flowers themselves, but more for the chaotic way in which they wrap around the branches of trees, with the challenge being to create a composition within the frame that is both balanced and contains a specific focal point or grouping that will initially draw the viewers attention.

Since an area was in bloom a few minutes walk from my house, I headed over there as the sun went down so that the area would be in shade, but with more evenly directional light; something that a completely overcast sky generally lacks. The problem was finding a grouping of the flowers that had a separation from the rest of the trees and other flowers, and when I did find something, the photo still seemed lifeless. I liked the composition with some bright green and yellowish grasses as a base, so I thought to try a blur. Using the 70-300mm zoom to narrow the angle of view and avoid the sky peaking into the frame, the lowest ISO, a polarizer to cut glare, and the smallest aperture, I was able to get the shutter speed down to almost 2-seconds. There was no worry about using an aperture of f/32 and possible diffraction, since the idea was to have the image blurry in the first place.

The longer shutter speed allowed time to move the camera during the exposure; too short an exposure results in a photo that just appears out of focus or there was camera shake. Composing the shot a bit wider than necessary so the main group of wisteria would remain inside the edges of the frame with the camera movements, the camera was moved in a tiny (very tiny) circle to create the blur during the exposure. Several attempts were necessary before the movements were right for the shot, and then took many more afterwards to pick which one worked best. In some of the attempts the angle of the line of grasses was purposely altered somewhat by swiveling the camera off level before beginning the exposure, and moving the camera from that angle. Vertical movements didn’t seem to work at all, and zooming during the exposure, although interesting, was NOT at all what I was looking for. The whole exercise was to create a more painterly approach to the scene.

Taking the photo was just the beginning, though. After some global adjustments in Lightroom, quite a bit of the “painting” was done in Photoshop. A few gaps in foliage or very dark, distracting areas were filled in using the cloning tool; some gaussian blur was applied to the areas surrounding the main group of wisteria; and general cleaning up to avoid any other visual distractions. Back in Lightroom, for some reason I decided to try using the de-haze slider in the negative (left) direction, and liked the effect, but did not want the effect on the wisteria themselves. To accomplish that, using a grad filter drawn for maximum affect completely through the image, the erase brush feature at varying strengths was used to erase the effect from the wisteria, slightly in some areas, more or completely in others. I suppose the same could be accomplished using the brush tool, or in Photoshop with layers and masking, but it seemed much simpler to do in Lightroom.

FREE ebook

A Photographer's Journey — volume 1

A Photographer’s Journey — volume 1


I hope everyone is doing well and staying healthy.

To help pass some of the free time we seem to have lately, I’ve made Volume-1 of the
3-ebook series
A Photographer’s Journey
available FREE for download from Blurb through this weekend, April 19th.
138 pages with 122 photos and some photo info. Sometime on Monday (when I wake up) it will go back up to full price.
Just click the link below to download the FREE ebook.


A Photographers Journey — Volume I


Pencil Orchids © jj raia

Pencil Orchids © jj raia

Since there is no rational reason to relentlessly continue the Throwback Thursday posts without pause, a brief respite seemed in order this week. It appears that it has already come to my wife’s attention that my walking aimlessly around the house has become noticeable. Reluctant (VIRUS!!) to go out of the house for spring landscape supplies (dirt, lots of mulch, flowers, new lawnmower, which is another story), and continue the normal spring spruce up in our yard, like many folks around the world, I have found some extra time on my hands. And as with any void, we try to fill it. So I grabbed the camera and photographed the most obvious subject in the house to be found: a recently acquired orchid. Nicely in bloom, but being basically white, it lacked much impact that color might have provided for any photo with it as the subject. So this whole time-filler was beginning with one foot over the edge of the cliff above the abyss of failure.

The only critical problem photographing these flowers was to expose them brightly enough, yet retain all the delicate detail, shadings and textures in each petal, without blowing out any highlights.


Quiet Dawn — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

Quiet Dawn — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

Last year during spring, I discovered a spot on the fringes of Jordan Lake, and concentrated my photoshoots there as the buds came out, returning many mornings during the last two weeks in March under varying conditions of sunshine, clouds and fog. It’s not that it was some secret location hidden from view that required any hiking, rather it was right along a main road, but had just never driven by during that time of year. Going there several times allowed a familiarity with what the area had to offer, which helped a lot in where to look for compositions as the season ran its course.

This spring it seems that a different spot on the lake has been the focus of attention. The main draw is a singular line of trees with lake water in front of, and behind them, which is generally an area of calm for good reflections in both. The idea has been to photograph these trees silhouetted against the backdrop of a spectacular sunrise sky that includes all those reflections. Being there several times this year, also in sunshine, clouds and fog, has been an added bonus, but the reflection/sky shot has so far been elusive. One day the forecast was for a partly cloudy sunrise and good possibilities, only to find a complete overcast. The next morning indicated a complete overcast, but that day I found a misty morning instead. Looking toward any horizon was a bank of fog/mist that would block any color at sunrise, yet directly above was a somewhat clear sky through haze.

Aiming the camera toward the east without sunlight, did not result in much, but as learned through years of heeding the advice, “always turn around” to see what’s happening behind you, so now looking west, I saw that the low level fog/mist had a gentle blush of soft pastel. To show more of how the color stretched across the sky, and the slight fog hugging the opposite shoreline, a simple two panel (horizontal frame) panorama was used for the image at the top, using the 70mm end of a zoom, to retain the detail in the trees on the left, and especially, the singular tree at the end. Using a wider angle lens and cropping to get the same view, would have decreased the definition contained in that area of the frame. Simply put, the number of pixels was almost doubled in the pano, while the crop would cut them nearly in half!! More pixels, more sharp detail.

Throwback Thursday No. 19


Images from the Film Archives — 1992

The Range from Cascade - Adirondacks, NY © jj raia

The Range from Cascade – Adirondacks, NY © jj raia

On my second trip to NY’s Adirondacks in 1992, I read about a hike up Cascade Mountain that offered the classic view of the High Peaks range and a 360º panorama. It made the list of shots I wanted, and I ended up making the climb on the day after one of cold rain. I saw that some of the mountaintops had been coated with the first snow of the season, but felt that most of it would probably melt during the course of the sunny day I made the climb. I gave myself plenty of time for the 2-1/2 hour climb to reach the summit in the afternoon, so I could spend time there and get some good late afternoon light. As I neared the top, I was encouraged to see the beginnings of snow, and as I reached the summit, all the weathered trees remained completely coated. Every needle of every evergreen was encapsulated in a white frosting of snow and hoar frost. It was like another world! It was my first experience atop a mountain for photography and made me realize just how exhilarating it could be, and why so many photographers aim for this kind of image.

There were a few things I recall about composing the image. First of course, was to have a view that allowed for the snow to be somewhat side lit to accentuate the contours and details of the trees, and give the scene depth. Second was to place all the trees in a somewhat balanced position within the frame, having the central cluster of a tree and bushes surrounded on either side by the singular smaller tree and mid-distance mountain top on the left side, balancing the trees on the right. And third, adjusting the height of the tripod so the very tip of the central tree fell in front of the darker areas of The High Peaks Range in the far distance. I do remember fine tuning the tripod position so that the tip of the small tree on the left fell inside the shadowed area of the mountainside far beyond so it too would be prominent and not lost in the chaos of the mountainside snow. With plenty of time to really explore the area, it was a luxury to get the composition just right. But it was also fortunate that several tree tops (5), both large and small, fell naturally where I would have wanted. Just another example of how nature grows and sculpts itself into beautiful shapes and forms.

A few minutes later, another photographer arrived and we talked while we shot and had a good time in the steady sunlight. I wasn’t comfortable staying there until after the sun went down and hiking in the dark, but may have had there been any clouds in the sky for sunset, and began to make my way back down to the car. By the time I reached it, it was dark, and I waited a while by the other photographer’s car in hopes of knowing he had gotten back safely. But, knowing he had done this before, I was confident he would and I headed for the nearest fast food burger place when hunger finally won out.

The Range from Cascade - Adirondacks, NY © jj raia

The Range from Cascade – Adirondacks, NY © jj raia

The following day, while driving near Lake Placid, I saw a car going in the opposite direction that was his car; there was no mistaking it since it had a plywood platform on a roof rack. I turned around and found it in a parking lot not far away, and caught up to him. We talked some again and agreed to meet in the evening at the same burger place after our day of photography. We ended up meeting there each night and once met up in the morning at Connery Pond for sunrise, all of which, made the second trip much more enjoyable than the first.

Years later, after switching over to digital, the photo from Cascade was transformed into a Black and White image. But it would take many attempts, over the course of several years, before it finally met the standards to be exhibited. It was this B+W photo that brought on a deep appreciation for those photographers who used the chemical, rather than the digital, darkroom. There were so many changes to light values made in the B+W version that I couldn’t imagine attempting it by dodging and burning the paper to get to where this photo was when it was completed. In those days, it was all done in hopes the calculations for the desired effect was correct, while digitally, what you see is what you get. Photographic progress!!


Clean vs. Chaos

Hack Window — New Hope Valley RR, NC © jj raia

Hack Window — New Hope Valley Railway, NC © jj raia

Not too long ago, to escape our “sheltering in place” from the virus, my son and I went on an afternoon search for photos in places where we would be away from other people. We went to the easiest place first, but found no inspiration down at Jordan Lake because of the overcast skies, so we went looking for an old, crumbling church we once visited further west near Pittsboro, but found it had disappeared completely. I suppose it either fell on its own or was persuaded by some machinery, and hauled away. We passed a spot where we photographed, what appeared to be an abandoned funeral home on our last visit there, but it too had been torn down and replaced with a very large new building. Things just weren’t working out for us. For our third try, we headed toward another place we hadn’t visited in a long while: The New Hope Valley Railway. Organized in 1963, the all volunteer group of rail enthusiasts provides train rides along 8-miles of track, using some refurbished passenger cars and locomotives. We wandered around the small rail yard and found a few older freight gondolas and a hack (caboose to the layman) that showed some age and rust. And they became our main subjects.

Rusted Gondola — New Hope Valley RR, NC © jj raia

Rusted Gondola — New Hope Valley Railway, NC © jj raia

Most of the time was spent trying to create something out of the rusted and faded sides of one particular rail car, but it proved difficult to have balance within the frame because of the ribs along its length. And there didn’t seem to be one particular element that would provide a focal point within the frame no matter how hard I looked. It just seemed each image I took was chaos, as in the image above, with the eye wandering around the frame like a lost dog searching for home.

Originally, the hack didn’t seem to have much to offer compared to the rusty sides of the gondola, but later on I wandered over to it, and the simplicity of the dark window (minus the glass), the stripes and patina on its side struck a chord. Although it was a bit difficult to balance in the frame, it might work if I could remove a large distraction. So, after taking the image “balanced” as though the distraction were gone, and with the magic of the clone tool in Photoshop, the blemish was removed, as well as another small area that needed some work, and the hopes of that balance were realized in the photo at the top. Because of the lay of the land and the height of the car sides, being closer and using a wider angle lens just wouldn’t work, especially since the camera would be pointed up and the window keystoned. So all the photos taken that afternoon utilized a long zoom to be able to narrow the angle of view from a distance, zeroing in on specific areas of the rail car, and keeping the ribs or window frame, parallel to the edges of the frame.

In a recent post, there was mention of moving a small boat within the frame for better balance, and I felt no moral lapse in doing so because the boat was there, just not in a preferred position, and being unable to move into a position to place it there. But the change here was more than that. It was the complete removal of a large distraction, and “repainted” with various elements from other parts of the hack, using differing amounts of opacity and flow of the clone tool. So the area of replacement was very similar in tone and texture to the other areas of the hack, yet none of the stripes were altered. Have I gone too far this time? beyond the limits of acceptability? Or am I creating what I wished was there by eliminating the distraction? A continuing quandary!!

Another point in the equation was maintaining the simplicity of the image. By removing the offending spot, it stuck to the theme of a clean graphic design of lines and shapes, with the added character of faded paint, as opposed to the chaos of the rusted image. Often times, it’s the simplistic view that wins out.

Throwback Thursday No. 18


Images from the Film Archives 2011

Spring Hillside — Smoky Mountain NP, TN  © jj raia

Spring Hillside — Smoky Mountain NP, TN © jj raia

After moving to North Carolina in 2010, one of the first nearby places I wanted to visit was Smoky Mountain National Park, so I made a short trip there in the spring of 2011. I went there looking for subjects similar to those that wound up in front of the lens of Eliot Porter that I’d seen in several of his books; those places where the forest exhibited a quiet elegance of color and texture. All of the previous photo trips had been in search of color during autumn, but I was curious to see what the hardwood forests of the Smokies would look like as the buds of spring began to appear.

I mentioned previously that knowing your local areas and conditions is important, and since I was new here, this trip turned out to be a bit of a disaster. I made the trip too early, grossly miscalculating when buds would appear, so the forest looked more like winter than spring. It wouldn’t be until 2013, after I switched to digital that I would really see what spring is like along the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Smokies. But it was a valuable trip in that I was able to get a feel for the light, and some of the places to revisit on any subsequent trip.

Driving to Clingman’s Dome early one morning, I arrived and encountered some fierce winds, bitterly cold temperatures, and a photographer’s nemesis: a bald sky. I also found that the light there might favor sunset rather than sunrise, and came away with some pretty lackluster photos. So I headed down on the Tennessee side with hands that hurt and a numb face, in hopes of finding warmer temperatures and less wind. As I wound down the mountain road, there was a mountainside that appeared surprisingly reddish in color, and quickly found a pull out to park that gave a completely unobstructed view  of it. I brought out the camera with the telephoto lens, and peering through the viewfinder, discovered that the reddish color was actually the buds of what I believed to be maples. I thought to search the hillside for some sort of pattern or design, but being in complete shade, everything appeared flat, though that did not bother me much, since I was looking for an abstract composition. Suddenly, the sun rose high enough to clear the mountain and spotlight one particular ridge on the opposite hillside that became the focal point of the image above. The sunlight made every branch and bud it touched come alive, projecting a warm, three dimensionality to the scene, while the areas remaining in shade retained the receding, somber blue tones.

I suppose, since that particular mountain face may get much more sunlight through the course of the day than most others, the transition into spring may have begun a bit earlier than the surrounding mountains; thus the earlier reddish color, and a lesson learned to consider for future trips. Of course it didn’t take more than a moment before the light began to spread across the scene, and was lucky to have had the camera already set up, because had I not, I would not have been able to do so in time, and lost the opportunity. As it turned out, this was the only decent shot from the entire trip, and simply because I just happened to be there to trip the shutter.