Bickford Photography blog
Being a collection of musings on my photographic craft.
A light rain fell, and I wandered my backyard with a hotel shower cap over my camera (a perfect DSLR rain-jacket, but lift it off before shooting!). Spring gold had given way to summer green. Not terribly photogenic. However, the rhododendron was just beginning to blossom, and the light rain made for lovely droplets on the petals and stamens.
Being as close in as we are, depth of field is a major problem. I could get at most two stamens in focus at a time if I wanted the flower itself to be a blur of color. And of course that's exactly what I wanted. In my mind's eye, I saw the stamens rising out of a pink and orange fog. A very small aperture (say f/22) might have given me all of the stamens in focus, but then the blossom would have been in focus as well. Not what I had in mind. I wanted a focused foreground and a blur of a background.
So I used focus stacking. The final image as you see it here is composed of half a dozen shots, each taken with a different point of focus. The shots are then blended through the magic of Photoshop, which is able to select the in-focus portions of each shot and blend them into one image. Back in the day of film, I don't think this would have been possible, or if it was it would have been brutally difficult. But today's cameras are essentially computers attached to lenses. They open doors to focus stacking, exposure blending, color manipulation, cloning, and many other techniques that allow today's photographer to get closer and closer to that perfect image that lives only in the imagination.
Springtime! Visions of tulips and daffodils and trees golden in new leaves. Eventually, yes, or at least we hope so, but in New Hampshire spring often brings with it a few reminders of winter. On this day, new snow lay heavy on the heather blossoms.
These blossoms are tiny -- certainly no bigger than a small kernel of corn. How to keep everything in focus? The "depth of field" -- the front-to-back distance of what's in focus -- was miniscule. An image like this relies on those many beautiful little details. What to do?
The answer is to use a nifty trick called focus stacking. The brief explanation is this: You take several photographs, each with a different aspect of the subject in focus, then let specialized software combine all of the in-focus areas into a single image. As the photograph above shows, the process is pretty much seamless and creates a realistic and honest image.
But wait! The eye sees the whole scene in focus. Why doesn't the camera? The short answer is that the eye seems to keep all the parts in focus, but the reality is that it shifts here and there, adjusting focus as it goes, and so creates the illusion of focus everywhere. In a sense, that's what focus stacking does as well.
On the day in question, I waited for the snowy breezes to die down, then took six or eight images, each focused on a different part of the scene. Photoshop then created the magic by combining the in-focus portions of each. And as a result, you see what I saw -- a twig carrying tiny little pink blossoms under a load of icy snow. Only in New Hampshire!
A pond, a few rocks venturing out from the shoreline, and some wintry trees looking on. Fog, too, such that the far shore is no more than a whisper. But there's more to this image. What?
The photograph by itself was very good but not great, mostly dark grey on light grey. I felt there was more tale here than the photo by itself could tell. My initial efforts in Photoshop seemed promising, but never quite what I wanted or what I saw in my mind's eye. To me, this image should be the embodiment of a cold New England winter, all frosty and grey and lonely, with snow and fog rolling in. Depressing, some might say.
The solution I found was to layer on some texture. The textures I chose were like brush strokes in oil. Somehow, they worked magic on the image. The ice on the pond went from a featureless near-white to a rolling, sea-like light grey. The sky is similarly sea-like, but lighter. The far shore remains a whisper, wrapped in fog. On the near shore, icy trees lean in to observe.
So now you ask, is it any longer a photograph? Is it dishonest to layer on textures? Is the objective truth of the photo gone?
Let's take the last one first. A photograph is not objective truth. Colors shift, distances expand and contract, focus changes. I could give you two different photos of this pond, taken on the same day and from the same spot, and ask you, how far is it across the pond? Depending on my choice of lenses, your two answers might be very different. I have seen portraits of young people whose skin tones apparently border on purple. Or green. Or orange. So much for objective truth.
Is it a photograph? The answer is, I think it is, but to be honest, I don't care. Is toast still toast if I put butter on it, or must I now say "buttered toast"? Must I call my creation a "textured photograph"? If I used Photoshop to remove a branch from the scene, does the work become a "Photoshopped photograph"? We're getting into trouble here. Let's just call it a photograph.
Midsummer, 5:44 am. The sun was up, barely, but not yet reaching these falls. At that hour, the rocks were blue, the water a purplish-grey. I had gotten up early and hiked (well, walked) in to see what the early light would do for this waterfall. In my mind, I imagined a golden-pink sunrise shedding its light down into this little canyon and creating magic. Instead, it was as if the gods of light were holding a navy blue blanket over the scene.
What do you do with dark blue images? Delete them, process the heck out of them and turn them into something like daylight, or just forget about them. I just forgot about them. Until now. Revisiting the photos of this day in July, I wondered if the blue muddy images might become something more promising in black and white. Ah, the magic of black and white.
I made a copy of the image and started in. The quick way to create a black and white is to press one key. Presto! The color is gone and what remains is shades of grey. But the real route to black and white meanders down a long road filled with options. For example, there is a sliding control for exposure; it can lighten or darken the whole image depending on which way you slide it. I wanted lighter, so up it went. Another slider controls shadows (medium darks); up it went as well. Contrast, down a little. And so on through a couple dozen sliders, right down to the point where I could make the reds (what had been reds, now certain shades of grey) lighter or darker, the yellows lighter or darker, the blues lighter or darker. Lots of options means lots of control. And of course lots of time.
In the end, I arrived at this. It's a long way from the original image that came out of the camera, but in truth it's not all that far from what my eye saw that early morning. The light was low, the colors muted. Now the light has come up some and the colors are gone entirely, but the sense is similar. In the basin, little bits of foam race around, leaving white trails. Crossing their paths, the falls are mirrored in the basin.
I love the shattered rock wall with its cracks and diagonals. I love the way the stream sneaks around the top of the wall, then crashes down in a curtain of white water. I love the portion of the stream that takes the diagonal route along the wall. And I love the basin, on the one hand reflecting the main falls and on the other, making patterns with the bits of foam. The soft shimmer of the falling water contrasts beautifully with the hard-edged and fractured wall. Purgatory Falls is a spot I return to from time to time and never tire of shooting.
I was at a familiar waterfall on this day, and I promised myself that I would not stand in the same old places and I would not take new variations on the same old pictures. What to do? On this day, go up. I might have climbed the rock wall at the back of the falls, but no. That would've required skills and pitons, neither of which I had. Kids might scramble up it, but not I.
But just around the corner from the vertical wall was a merely steep climb. Not very high, but a little awkward with a camera and tripod. Still, up I went. This image gives a sense of the perspective. Looking down, the water was just deep enough, just shallow enough, to create the remarkable triangular rock forms you see here. Fascinating! I stayed up on my perch for probably an hour, exploring different angles and different shutter speeds. (This one is at 2 1/2 seconds, f/11, ISO 50. Polarized, but not fully; I wanted that grey-blue color of the water against the brown-gold rock. Processed in Lightroom, but not overly so. Probably could've used a little more, but I held back.)
Often, when I know a shoot has come up short, I get home and don't download the photos from the camera for days. I know if disappointment is in store. In this case, however, I was in a hurry to see what the camera had seen. And in this case, I was not let down. The new perspective, the shapes, the colors, everything worked as I had hoped. And all this goodness came about because I wanted a new angle on a familiar scene. There's no sense here of the familiar waterfall. In fact, there's no sense that there's a waterfall here at all. But no loss. The new perspective more than made up for skipping the old familiar.