NATURE’S VIEW – Embracing Out-of-focus Photography, Story and photographs by Jim Clark

I tend to get stuck in my ways for photographing landscapes: sharp and focused. But I’ve started experimenting with another technique that I refer to as ambient light painting.

Ambient light painting may not be what you think. It is not using artificial light sources at night to paint light on a tree, old barn or other subject. Instead, ambient light painting uses both natural light and slow camera movements to create abstract compositions. The results can be something resembling a Monet painting.

When I discovered how much my students embraced this technique, I decided to include it in my workshop resources to help them develop their own vision of nature. Turns out, ambient light painting is fun for them, and that fits right in with my goal to get folks to love nature through their photography.

Autumn Forest, Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, West Virginia. © Jim Clark

Autumn Forest, Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, West Virginia. © Jim Clark

While there is no right or wrong approach to this technique—after all, it’s out-of-focus photography—I have a few suggestions for getting started.

For those who abhor using a tripod, you are given a pass this time. You can handhold the camera to your heart’s content. The key is to have a slow shutter speed to help render the scene as an abstract.

I use my lowest native ISO, which for most cameras is either 100 or 200. My aperture setting is usually f/11 or f/16, and I use a polarizer to not only pop the colors but to help achieve a slower shutter.

Early autumn, Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve Virginia. © Jim Clark

Early autumn, Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve Virginia. © Jim Clark

 

While hand-holding my camera and using a zoom lens in the range of 24-70mm, I lock on a composition and use a shutter speed starting at ¼ second. Slowly, before pressing the shutter button, I move the camera up and down, stopping after the exposure has been completed. It’s that simple!

I prefer not to use a real slow shutter speed, because I don’t want the colors or shapes to blend or merge together. I want the trees to look like trees but with a slight abstract quality.

It takes some trial and error to achieve a look you like. For me the most important consideration is that, although the image is an abstract, the viewer knows it’s a forest or some other landscape.

I find vertical subjects like trees work great with ambient light painting; I look for separation between them. I also prefer overcast skies to have a consistent tonality to the composition. If my subject is in contrast to the prevailing tones in the composition—such as a single red maple tree surrounded by a sea of yellow or green tones—I feel that more visual interest is created. For windy days along a marsh or for early morning beach abstracts, I move the camera on a horizontal axis.

Before sunrise, Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland. © Jim Clark

Before sunrise, Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland. © Jim Clark

For post processing, I adjust levels, add some saturation, and use special-effects filters for fine-tuning tonal contrast in the highlights, shadows and midtones.

Give ambient light painting a try. The spirit of Mr. Claude Oscar Monet will be so proud of you.

A past NANPA President, Jim is a contributing editor for Outdoor Photographer and nature photography instructor for Chincoteague Bay Field Station, Wallops Island, Virginia. The author/photographer of six books, Jim is particularly proud of two children’s books he did with his son, Carson. Jim was also a major contributor to the book, Coal Country. Visit Jim’s website at www.jimclarkphoto.com, blog at www.jimclarkphoto.wordpress.com or visit him on Facebook.