Friday, November 19, 2010

The Story Behind the Photographs - Hyde's Mill

Not another Hyde's Mill photo! That place is way over photographed.

Those are two things that I hear quite often. I'll admit, this place if photographed a lot, but it is these types of comments to photographs of the mill that drive me to return to this location over and over again. Not because I want to add to the deluge of Hyde's Mill photos out there, but because I want to create an image that really stands out from the crowd.

Hyde's Mill is located in a very small town in Iowa County Wisconsin, and is a staple in many local photographer portfolios. The mill and the stone damn that diverted the water flow to drive the water wheel were build in 1850, and are a classic reminder of the days gone bye.

One of the big challenges when it comes to creating a unique photograph of this location is the limited access. Almost all of the photos I have seen of this location are taken from one or two spots. The road, or the grassy area in front of the damn. The land around the mill, and the mill itself is privately owned (and for sale) so you are pretty much limited to these two shooting locations. So how do you make something unique with what seems like very few options?

The way I answer this question is to try something new, experiment and see what works and what doesn't. Add an interesting foreground element.

Isolate a smaller section of the scene.

Visit at a different time of day, or night.

Visit in a different season. Winter with fresh snow on the ground is my favorite time to photograph this location.

This is a location where you really do have to work the scene. If you open your mind, the options become limitless. You are still limited to a few locations to shoot from, but what you choose to photograph from those locations is up to you. Change things up a little bit and you can come home with a new photo from an old location.

When you have finished photographing the mill, don't forget to look around you. Right behind the mill is an old blacksmith shop. The access to the blacksmith shop is even more limited than the mill, so get creative.

Right in front of the area where you park is a display of some of the old grinding stones from the mill. They make a very compelling subject as well.

When you have exhausted your opportunities at Hyde's Mill, drive to the end of the road. Hyde's Chapel is another great subject to photograph that is all but forgotten by photographers. Most of them head to the mill, then return the same way them came and never even see the chapel.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Warm Autumn

With temps in the high 70's and 80's it sure hasn't felt like Autumn this past week. That hasn't stopped the leaves from turning colors and littering the ground though.

I spent a lot of time exploring some of my favorite places looking for fall photo opportunities this past week. One of those places is a little state natural area outside of Baraboo called Pewit's Nest. I was there on Monday for a while, and again on Thursday morning for 4 hours. Pewit's Nest is a beautiful area and when you visit during the week, you will most likely have the place to yourself. The weekends get quite a bit busier as can be expected.

After leaving Pewit's Nest I decided to go to Mirror Lake State Park. I had only been there once before to do some hiking with some friends. That trip was not all that much fun do to the mosquitoes, but this trip proved to be much better. This time I took my kayak and explored the lake instead of the trails. There were mallards all along the shore on the end of the lake where the beach is. The combination of the evergreens mixed with the changing leaves of the hardwood trees along the narrow sandstone bluffs made for a very pretty paddle.

My next stop after leaving Mirror Lake was Devil's Lake State Park. I wasn't sure what I wanted to explore at Devil's Lake so I drove though the park to see what I could see. I drove down a dead end gravel road on the edge of the park that I had never been on before. The light was still a bit harsh for photography but I love autumn scenes of colorful trees that overhang a deserted road.

As the shadows started to get longer, I knew it was time to get out of the truck and do some exploring on foot. I headed up the west bluff trail in search or a great vantage point to photograph the colors on the east bluff. I wasn't disappointed.

I was also keeping an eye out for the more subtle signs of fall.

After hiking back down from the west bluff I noticed some people enjoying the unseasonably warm weather out on the lake.

As the evening went on, I watched the shadows creep up the face of the east bluff as the sun slowly sank below the horizon to the west. With the last warm rays of light highlighting the rock outcroppings on the east bluff, it was time to head for home, after a couple more photos of course.

Monday, July 12, 2010

500mm @ 1/20 sec

If you've been into photography for a while, you have probably heard the rule of thumb in regards to the minimum shutter speed you should use when hand holding your camera in order to eliminate camera shake and to get a sharp photo. If not, the rule is pretty simple. To figure out the minimum shutter speed you should use simply put 1 over your focal length. For example, if you are using a 50mm lens you would put 1 over 50 or 1/50 sec. to determine your shutter speed. If you're shooting at 100mm you should use at least 1/100 sec. to help eliminate camera shake. This is pretty simple math, but don't forget that you also need to factor in the crop factor if you are shooting with a DSLR with a smaller than full frame sensor.

That's all fine and good, but what happens when conditions don't allow you to use that fast of a shutter speed and you don't have an image stabilized lens or camera? There is a trick you can use to help improve your chances of getting a sharp image at slow shutter speeds. The trick is pretty simple and can work wonders. The first thing you need to do is to set your cameras motor drive to the fastest frame rate that it has. The faster the better for this technique to work. Then once you get your subject in focus, press and hold down the shutter button and take a series of 3-5 consecutive exposures before releasing the shutter button. As you press the button down, you are adding more movement to the camera, and as you release the button you are doing the same. By pressing the button, and holding it down, you are still taking photos but you are not moving your finger so you're not adding more camera shake. Chances are that one of the images in the middle of the series is going to be much sharper than the first and last images.

For the last couple of months I have been photographing wildlife from my kayak. A kayak on the water, although pretty stable as far as a boat goes, is not very stable as far as a shooting platform goes. I find that a tripod in the boat is too much of a hassle, but a monopod works great. My old Sigma 170-500mm is my main wildlife lens but it has some limitations. The major one is that it is too soft for my tastes when shooting wide open. I have to shoot this lens stopped down to f/9 in order to get sharp images which in low light, gives me painfully slow shutter speeds, even when I boost the ISO to 800. Also note that this lens does not optically stabilized. Using the burst mode and a monopod has allowed me to get acceptably sharp photos at long focal lengths and relatively slow shutter speeds.

Here are a few examples of what I'm talking about. In the series of frog images, all were shot at 500mm with a shutter speed of 1/60 sec. Keep in mind that the rule of thumb mentioned above means that I should have a shutter speed of at least 1/800 sec in order to help reduce the effects of camera shake. (This is because of the 1.6x crop factor of my camera body. 500mm x 1.6 = 800) That's almost 4 stops slower than the rule of thumb! By shooting a series using the motor drive, you can see how much sharper the middle image is than the first and last images. (You may have to click on the images to see them larger to really notice the difference.)

Here is another example from this weekend. This young bald eagle was perched in complete shade giving me a shutter speed of 1/20 sec! That's over 5 stops slower than the rule of thumb! These images were shot at 500mm and cropped to show about 50% of the actual frame.

Here is my final version of the 2nd image after applying a little sharpening.

So when you're out in the field and you are stuck photographing as a slow shutter speed and you don't have a tripod, remember to try using your cameras motor drive to improve your chances of getting a sharp photo.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Photographing Lightning

With Spring slowing rolling in and pushing Old Man Winter back to his hideout for a few months, there are a lot of changes coming our way. One of the events I look forward to each spring and summer are thunderstorms. I love a good storm! A good storm will bring with it a great light show in the sky. Watching the dark night light up around me as the lightning flashes is always impressive. I love lightning, and I have tried to photograph it a few times in the past, but never with the results I wanted. I knew how to photograph lighting but I was never able to put everything I knew into practice. In my previous attempts, there was always one element missing. It was usually my timing that was off. Not my timing tripping the shutter, but my timing getting into position before the rains came. When I finally got to a good location, it was raining so hard that I didn't want to get out of the truck, let alone take my expensive camera gear out in the rain.

On a warm, Sunday, August evening I was sitting at home watching TV with my wife. We were watching a show on the Discovery Channel about lighting. It was getting late and I was about to go to bed since I had to work the next day. As I was sitting there thinking about going to bed, I noticed some flashes of light outside. Watching a show on lighting during a lightning storm, coincidence? I already had my shoes off and I began to debate my options. Go to bed, or load up my gear and try to photograph the lighting storm that was going on outside? I decided bed could wait, the storm looked too good to pass up.

So I did what every sane person does in a lightning storm. I drove to the top of a hill and set up my metal tripod on the edge of town and watched the lighting stretch across the night sky. I'm sure it sounds like a cliche, but this turned out to be the 'perfect storm' for photographing lightning.

The night was calm with almost no wind, the storm was off in the distance and there wasn't any rain. The conditions couldn't have been better for photographing the lightning. I had plenty of time to set up my gear, and experiment with different apertures and shutter speeds to get the exposure I wanted. It also allowed me to try different focal lengths to get the composition I wanted.

Through my experiments, I determined that a 5 second exposure at f/5.0 and a focal length of 12mm gave me the type of image I was after. Once that was determined, I set up my camera with those settings and programmed my remote control shutter release to take a series of 5 second exposures one right after the next. Then I sat in the truck and watched the show.

I ended up taking close to 400 photos of the sky that evening. Of course most of those frames didn't have any lighting in them, but several of them did. In the end, the hardest part of photographing this storm was packing up my gear and heading home for the night. If I didn't have to work the next day, I would have stayed longer.

Here is a gallery of more images from that night.