From the Archives: The Complexity of Simplicity

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Story & photo by F. M. Kearney

I’m often amazed at just how much subconscious thought and planning goes into the creation of a “simple” photograph.

A couple of years ago I was in the Thain Family Forest of the New York Botanical Garden. Located in the center of the 250-acre garden, this forest is the last remaining tract of original forest that once covered most of New York City.

I was initially attracted to a rustic log fence at the entrance to one of the forest trails. Seeing it as the perfect foreground element to lead a viewer’s eye into the photo, I positioned my tripod in the center of the trail and leveled it to the height of the fence. This was the best perspective to show the lines converging as they disappeared around the bend in the distance.

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Giving Forethought to Foregrounds: Using Foregrounds to Add Visual Interest

Traditional use of foregrounds
Traditional use of foregrounds

Story & photos by F. M. Kearney

The subject matter is intriguing. The light is just right. Everything looks perfect. You’re all set to take the shot, but something seems missing when you look through the viewfinder. It’s the foreground. If the foreground lacks interest, or worse, is non-existent, it can really diminish the aesthetics of a scene. It’s not that the scene is ruined, it’s just significantly less interesting. I’ve foregone photographing many otherwise perfect scenes simply because I could not find an engaging foreground element.

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Last Light: Taking Advantage of the Last Vestiges of Daylight

Venice Beach at twilight (1-minute exposure).
Venice Beach at twilight (1-minute exposure).

Story & photos by F. M. Kearney

She snapped a photo of him each time he jumped in the air over an incoming wave.

A family the size of a small wedding party took turns photographing each other along the numerous rocks lining the shoreline.

He spent a lot of time capturing his better half in the evening light as she posed on a sand dune.

A day at the beach can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Photography has always been a popular pastime – especially toward the end of the day. If the beach is westward-facing, the sunsets are often truly amazing. This is usually the time when everyone’s attention turns to the sun (instead of each other) as it begins its descent below the horizon. The problem is that most people will pack up and leave immediately after it sets. It’s sort of like leaving the theater before the final credits finish rolling. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve hung around after the movie, only to be treated to some of the funniest outtakes and/or entire scenes that would have otherwise gone completely unseen had I left with the masses.

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Off-Peak Performance: Dealing With Pre- and Post-Peak Fall Foliage Periods

Pre-peak colors in the White Mountains National Forest (5-image HDR compilation).
Pre-peak colors in the White Mountains National Forest (5-image HDR compilation).

Story & photos by F. M. Kearney

A few years ago, I went to the White Mountains National Forest in New Hampshire to capture the fall colors. I booked the trip weeks in advance, scheduled for mid-September – figuring that should be around the peak period in that part of the country. It was my first time visiting the New England area, so I was really anxious to witness and photograph its legendary color display. As fate would have it, I arrived about a week too soon. The photo above, shot along the Saco River in Bartlett, NH, was representative of the amount of color (or lack thereof) I was greeted with. Although the scenery was quite beautiful, the colors were nowhere near as vivid as what I was expecting.

When I got back home, I turned to Photoshop to see how I might improve my images. In the past, I had gotten terrific results using a special blur filter, called the Gaussian Blur. This filter adds a beautiful glow to your image, while also increasing its color saturation. It can be applied locally to selected areas, or globally – affecting the entire image. For my purposes, I chose the latter. Below is the opening photo with the Gaussian Blur technique applied.

Pre-peak colors enhanced with the Gaussian Blur technique.
Pre-peak colors enhanced with the Gaussian Blur technique.

Unfortunately, this filter alone will not produce the effect you see here. In fact, simply applying it to your image will only result in a blurry image. It’s definitely not a one-click solution to a perfect photo. Hence, the reason why I use the word “technique” instead of “filter.” To achieve optimum results, a considerable amount of prep is necessary, but the end results are well worth the effort.

To start off, I create a “high-key” image in the Camera Raw software. I lighten the exposure, highlights and whites; while reducing the contrast, shadows and blacks. Once I bring it into Photoshop, I copy the image by duplicating the layer. I then open a Levels Adjustment Layer and lighten the image even more. (I’ll explain the reason for all of this lightening in a second.) Next, I click on the background copy and apply the filter: Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur. Duplicating the layers is what prevents you from ending up with a blurry image. The blur is only applied to the background copy, while the original background remains sharp – creating an overall, soft glow. The amount of radius (blur) to apply is subjective, but I find that a single-digit setting for small files and a 20+ setting for larger files generally works well. My files are over 200mb, so I usually choose a setting between 34 and 36. I then make sure that the Opacity, located with the Layers panel, is set to 100% and select “Multiply” as the blending mode. This is why I lighten the image so much. The Multiple mode drastically increases the contrast and saturation. When I first started using the Gaussian Blur, I would only apply it to images taken on cloudy days. The high-contrast levels I got with this blending mode were consistently blocking up my shadow details. I could have chosen other modes, but they didn’t produce quite the same type of effect. The excessive over-lightening solved that problem. However, if you don’t experience these issues, you can probably skip the lightening step in Camera Raw. Finally, I return to the Levels layer and adjust the exposure to my liking. In most cases, the image will still need a bit of fine-tuning. After some selective burning and dodging and a desaturation of some of the more overly vivid colors, the image is finally complete. If you absolutely hate doing a lot of digital editing, a much easier workaround would be to simply increase the color saturation globally, or of specific colors. However, the overall tone won’t be as rich, and of course, you won’t get that nice, soft glow.

Original photo without Gaussian Blur technique.
Original photo without Gaussian Blur technique.
Gaussian Blur technique applied.
Gaussian Blur technique applied.

The Gaussian Blur technique doesn’t just come in handy during the off-peak periods. Last year, I photographed the fall colors at their peak in Wolfe’s Pond Park, in Staten Island, NY. The image above on the left is the finished, original photo. On the right, is the photo with the technique applied. Since the colors didn’t really need that much enhancing, I spent most of my time desaturating them afterwards. But the technique still produced a much richer-looking image overall.

While shooting in that same park, I came across a more wooded area where the colors were a bit past-peak. I could have used the Gaussian Blur technique here as well, but in this case, it wouldn’t have produced the effect I wanted. What initially attracted me to the scene was the abundance of tall trees receding into the background. Staten Island, the most rural of the five boroughs, is one of the few places within the confines of New York City where you can see scenes like this. I wanted to emphasize, not only the trees, but also the dwindling amount of foliage remaining. The photo below conveys what I saw, but not necessarily what I envisioned.

Past-peak conditions (original photo).
Past-peak conditions (original photo).

In order to emphasize the trees, I turned to another one of Photoshop’s blur filters, called the Motion Blur: Filter>Blur>Motion blur. Before applying it I, once again, duplicated the layer. The Motion Blur is defaulted to apply the blur at a 90-degree angle, which is exactly what I wanted for this image. If that doesn’t suit your needs, you can change the angle to whatever you want. I then selected the “Distance,” which determines the amount of blur. My image was now completely blurred with a vertical streak. This emphasized the trees, but did nothing for the foliage. But, because I duplicated the layer, I could now remove the effect from select portions of the image. I applied a layer mask to the background copy and selected the brush tool. With the foreground color set to black, I could now “paint” back in the foliage in selected locations. (If I go too far and remove too much blur, I can paint it back in by setting the foreground color to white.) All of this is completely customizable by adjusting the Opacity and Flow amounts. The photo below represents my vision of the scene.

Past-peak conditions with Motion Blur filter.
Past-peak conditions with Motion Blur filter.

Sometimes, you might be faced with a situation of great color in one area, but hardly any other significant color around it. You could, of course, just zoom in on it and call it a day. However, tight closeups can’t convey a “sense of place.” If the place is especially grand, you might want to show more of it than just a little snippet – which could have been shot anywhere. 

A patch of color along the Saco River in the White Mountains National Forest.
A patch of color along the Saco River in the White Mountains National Forest.

The image above is another scene from the White Mountains National Forest. Unlike the opening photo, a significant amount of color is localized right in the center of the frame. Rather than trying to enhance what little color there was surrounding it, I decided to go in a totally different direction.

Patch of color enhanced by a greyscale rendition.
Patch of color enhanced by a greyscale rendition.

Rendering everything else as a greyscale really made the color stand out – sort of like when a bride deliberately chooses the most hideous bridesmaids dresses in creation in order to make herself look better by comparison. But, unlike an insecure bride’s intentions, this method produces an almost fine-art version of the scene. It also gives the illusion that the entire area was awash with color. That can just be your little secret!

This effect is very easy to do. I just made a selection of the patch of color (including the reflection in the river) and inversed the selection. This selects everything but the color patch. I then converted the image to greyscale: Image>Adjustments>Black & White. Lastly, I inversed the selection again to reselect the patch, then slightly increased the overall color saturation. Also, when making a selection like this, when the intended effect will be drastic, it’s important to feather the selection with the Refine Edge tool. This will prevent a visible transition edge.

So, if you’re faced with less than stellar color this autumn… don’t despair. Using techniques like these just might produce images preferable to the standard fare.

F. M. Kearney began his photography career as a photojournalist for New York City newspapers. His focus soon shifted to capturing the beauty of the natural world. As an award-winning nature photographer, Kearney’s images have been widely published. A slight departure from photography, his recently published horror novel, “They Only Come Out at Night,” about supernatural happenings in the New York City subway (partially inspired by his travels as a photojournalist), is available on Amazon. To see more of Kearney’s work, visit http://www.starlitecollection.com.

Get Connected to the Underworld: Discover the Beauty of the Underside of Flowers

Rear of floribunda roses shot from below.
Rear of floribunda roses shot from below.

Story and photos by F. M. Kearney

Flowers are definitely one of the most popular subjects in nature photography. They’ve been photographed with limited depths of field to convey a soft, romantic look. They’ve been photographed with large depths of field to show the abundance of a large group. Sometimes, the sun is included for a more dynamic shot. A vast array of special effects have been employed to produce some truly stunning imagery. Indeed, flowers have been photographed in every conceivable way imaginable. However, the one way in which I hardly ever see is from the rear. I did a Google search of “Creative Flower Photography,” and out of the 100 or so results, only 2 or 3 photos featured the backside. That’s a shame because so many great opportunities are going unrealized.

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Subtle, But Significant: A Polarizer Filter Isn’t Just For Sunny, Blue-Sky Days

Cumulus clouds over Dickenson Bay St. John's, Antigua West Indies.

Cumulus clouds over Dickenson Bay, St. John’s, Antigua, West Indies.

Story & photos by F. M. Kearney

I’m a late-comer. I didn’t make the switch to digital until 2014. As a film shooter, I relied heavily on filters. Everything from warming to ND grads to a vast array of special effect filters were permanent residents in my camera bag. Nowadays, digital imaging can replicate many of those filter effects – often much easier and with far more control. But, as good as digital technology is, it still can’t duplicate the effects of a polarizer filter. The photo above is a classic beach scene where a polarizer works most of its magic. By filtering out the glare and atmospheric haze, the true color of the sky comes forth revealing puffy, white cumulus clouds as far as the eye can see.

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On Bended Stems: Explore the Beauty of Post-Peak Tulips

Lily-flowered tulips beginning to “show their age”

Lily-flowered tulips beginning to “show their age”

Story & photos by F. M. Kearney

Timing is everything. As nature photographers, we’re constantly trying to schedule our shoots during times when our subjects will be seen at their best. For landscapes, this is generally during the “Magic Hours” of the day – the hour just before sunrise or after sunset. Flowers can benefit from the warm light at this time of day as well, but more important than that is catching them at the peak period in their blooming cycle. It’s an absolute obsession for some photographers. A field of tulips in pristine condition is truly breathtaking. The photo below is one such example.

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Season of the Cherry Blossoms: Creative Ways to Photograph One of the Crown Jewels of Spring

 

Cherry Esplanade, "Kwanzan" Prunus Serrulata, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Brooklyn, NY

Cherry Esplanade, “Kwanzan” Prunus Serrulata, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Brooklyn, NY

Story & photos by F. M. Kearney

To celebrate the nations’ growing friendship, Japan gifted the United States with a little over 3,000 cherry blossom trees in 1912. Considered the national flower of Japan, these trees were planted in New York City and Washington, DC. Since then, thousands of other trees have been planted in several other cities – delighting millions of admirers in annual Cherry Blossom Festivals across the country.

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Sinking to Their Level: Shoot Spring Flowers From a Different Perspective

Looking up through a tulip bed. New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY. (Digitized from film.)

Looking up through a tulip bed. New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY.
(Digitized from film.)

Story & photos by F. M. Kearney

If you’ve had your gear packed away since the final vestiges of colorful foliage faded from the landscape last fall, now is the time to dust off the cobwebs. Spring is finally here – bringing an abundance of subject matter. Fresh flowers are popping up everywhere and demanding attention. But, you don’t want to fall into a habit of taking the same types of pictures year after year. A change in perspective is a good way to view an old subject in a new light.

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The Pathway to Leading Lines: Compositional Techniques to Improve Your Photography

Autumn Trail Creates a Path Into the Forest. (HDR Compilation of 5 images.)

Autumn Trail Creates a Path Into the Forest. (HDR Compilation of 5 images.)

Story & photos by F. M. Kearney

Many methods can be employed in the quest to make photographs more engaging, or to draw more attention to the subjects within. One of the most common techniques is the use of leading lines. In the photo above, I used the lines of the log fence to draw the viewer deeper into this autumn scene in The New York Botanical Garden. It makes you feel as though you’re actually walking along the trail and heading deeper into the woods. However, technically, these aren’t really “leading lines.” They form what is more accurately referred to as a “path.” Often used interchangeably, the distinction between leading lines and paths is quite small. Generally, leading lines are like roadmaps that literally lead your eye to a specific point of interest, whereas, paths usually take you to a faraway vanishing point.

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