Welcome to the Rich Herrmann Photography blog, offering insights into techniques, experiences and stories related to the art of nature photography in Iowa and beyond!
First of all, I doubt that anyone can "enhance" the colors of nature, but what I meant by the title was how to enhance colors in your camera or with an editing program after the fact! Nature is perfect. No argument there. But you can get closer to sharing your vision of what your eye sees by using a couple of techniques.
The first is using a circular polarizing filter. These have been around for a long time, and do a great job of enriching colors, removing glare, and adding a bit of contrast to the whole scene. Polarizing filters work best when the sun is at roughly 45-90 degrees from your subject area. Typically, the outside of the filter can rotate 360 degrees so you can "dial in" the desired colors of sky, fields or water.
In this photo, I used a polarizing filter on a 70-200mm lens in late afternoon light. The sun was setting to my right which was perfect for the filter to do its job of transforming the colors, bringing out the vibrancy of the soy beans and sky.
The second technique I use to bring out nature's colors is to add contrast to a photo in Photoshop, Lightroom or any other editing tool. Many times our camera's sensors tend to "wash out" particular areas of the image, especially when the light is strong, so that an overall hazy glow seems to hide some of the colors of a scene.
Adding a little contrast darkens the overall image, thus bringing out colors a little more and defining the shapes and objects in your image. Adding contrast is probably the single most used technique I use consistently. Almost every image I've ever created improved a bit by adding a touch of contrast. Contrast is definitely something to think about when editing!
And of course, all this doesn't matter if you're not out there exploring!
Using flash outside doesn't normally come to mind since the majority of time there's plenty of light, but at times it helps fill in shadows and can add a touch of color to your foreground. This photo had a wide range of light (dynamic range) that needed something to bring out the foreground, so I used a touch of the camera's flash to highlight the corn bale and surrounding area.
If your subject is within 10 feet or so, and it could benefit from a little boost of light, use your camera's built-in flash to get that added effect. Normally, I'll set the flash to be roughly 1/3 of its power so it doesn't "look" like a flash was used, but you will want to experiment with that setting. The darker the shadows the more flash will benefit, however, there's a trade-off...using flash will look like you used flash by saturating the foreground with that artificial light...so use it sparingly. The trick is to use just enough to fill in shadows but not overwhelm the ambient light.
Professional portrait photographers have used flash for ages to fill in the jaw line, add extra sparkle to the eyes or highlight hair texture. In nature, flash has the same purpose and should be used whenever you feel extra light is needed. An alternative method for filling in shadows is to use a reflector, but that sometimes requires someone or something to hold it. Flash also works very well for macro (close-up) photos so get out there an experiment a little with your flash!
Now that the latest digital cameras (including phone cameras) have more resolution, clarity and detail than 35mm film, it's amazing that film is making somewhat of a comeback. Perhaps it's the nostalgia of days gone by using older cameras, or the surprise one experiences opening prints from film exposed two weeks ago. But I think film has a variability and artistic influence that digital photos can't reproduce...at least for now...that gives film its unique niche in the world of photography.
Having used film for many years, it was difficult to make the transition to digital, but once the workflow was mastered with digital, I found the ease of use, flexibility and sheer artistic options available using digital cameras totally worth the effort. However, why can't we use both? Recently a friend gave me his Nikon FM camera (manufactured in the late 70's and early 80's), and I was fascinated by using film again after a decade of using digital cameras. Could this be the artistic spark I needed to view the world in different ways?
After purchasing a roll of Kodak Ektar 100 film, I proceeded to take the journey to experiment with this "new" camera. With no auto focus and a limited range of exposure settings, it also felt very strange in the hands (no contours or rubber grips that I've taken for granted). But after some time, it was second nature to focus manually and let the camera do its thing. The sound of the shutter, the feel of the film winder, and the heft of the camera had a certain real-world feel that was pretty cool.
The photo below is one of my favorites from that first session because it has raw elements of nature built into the film...the lens flare, slightly tinged color spectrum, and over exposed sky/sun. But it also has a visual quality that can't be reproduced by a digital camera without some serious post-processing.
The work flow to create this is simple as long as you have a reliable film processor. I asked the local photo processing store to develop the negatives and scan them with a high-res scanner. They put all 36 exposures on a CD and included the negatives as one package. From there it was a simple matter of choosing the best photos to copy to the computer and process normally using a digital workflow. The one draw back to this method is that you can't change some of the basic characteristics of the photo before processing like you can with digital. What that means is that you must strive to get that "look" in the camera so little or no tweaking is required. That's the beauty of film - if you've captured a great photo in camera, it's going to look great in a digital format as well.
One piece of advice - once you copy the scanned .jpg photo file to your computer, make sure you save it as a .tif image so that you can later edit the photo without loosing any quality. Re-saving .jpg files repeatedly degrades the quality, so make a master .tif image first.
Film has been around a long time, and with the new technologies of scanning and post-processing, the artistic nature of film can be used to create beautiful photos.
Time is the same for everyone, so how can you use time to your advantage when creating photographic art? The answer is to let the camera capture time in longer increments, so that a scene or situation plays out. Obviously you can't do this in all situations, but try using this technique for clouds, water, storms, moving grass or anything that tells a story over time.
One classic approach is to set your shutter to "bulb" and press the shutter when something is about to happen, then release it to capture the scene. This works great with fireworks, lightning, ocean surf or anything else that has movement with variable lighting. A good aperture to use is f/8, and make sure your auto focus is turned off.
In this photo, the cloud lightning was intensely beautiful, but it was difficult to gather all the light in a few seconds. I tried holding the shutter open when it was relatively quiet, then right after a batch of lightning struck, released the shutter. The last bit of lightning that moved through the clouds seemed to make a good impression on the camera's sensor, thus enabling it to be more pronounced.
Stretching time out to capture multiple events can have some great results. This photo had about a 48 second exposure time, so depending on your lighting situation, tons of things can elapse and be captured on your sensor. It's hard to believe that holding the shutter open for so long could yield good results, but it does! Make sure you set your ISO in the lower ranges (100-800) to keep sensor noise to a minimum. Most modern cameras do just fine at those ranges even if the exposure is for several minutes.
So many good things can be captured and shared using this time technique. But remember to use your tripod, since it's humanly impossible to hold your camera steady for more than a split second!
This has probably been said many times before, and in many cases it's true...change your perspective to capture a unique subject or lighting situation, and your photography will improve. We tend to look at everything from a standing or sitting position, which is perfect most of the time, but every once in a while changing your camera's perspective gives your photograph something different for the viewer and is so much more interesting.
These flowers were gently blowing in a soft spring breeze, and I wanted to capture the swaying motion without having too much distracting blur. The answer was to lower the camera to about 6 inches off the ground, point it up slightly, and time the shot so that part of the flower was in focus.
This technique requires much trial and error since you can't actually see what the camera is capturing, but it's fun to guess where the focus will be and click away!
When the light is right, this technique can be very effective and pleasing to the eye. But be prepared to have many captures that are throwaways, since it truly is a hit or miss scenario. The other advantage to this technique is that you can capture some amazing natural features that only small animals and bugs usually see! Try holding your camera at different levels next time to see what great results you can get.
Why are we drawn to reflections? Be they from water, windows, fast cars or the smooth texture of a well-polished table, reflections seem to validate our reality, but in a different way. They are upside down, sometimes distorted, but always there and always dependable. We expect to see a reflection in a mirror or a window, but do we think about it and reflect on it?
When we see a reflection, there's a subconscious acknowledgement that it exists...as you walk by a store window and see the movement of yourself, or when you pass through a shadow cast against a wall...you see a reflection, a shape, a movement. But do you really study it and "see" what it has to offer?
Obviously we cannot do that consistently since we have lives to lead and things to do. But as a photographer, I sometimes search for reflections just to study their patterns, colors, shapes and above all, their portrayal of reality, which can be quite fascinating. In the photo here, the reflection was very life-like and detailed, but had an other-worldly, strange quality to it that was vaguely familiar at the same time.
Reflections mirror our reality, but they also twist, turn and mock our world in unique ways. When the sun shines on a river or lake during the day it's almost impossible to look directly at the reflection, but wait until dawn or dusk, when they take on colors and shapes that transform the entire scene. I like to think of reflections as the ever-changing artistic aspect of nature that brings delightful variance and inspiration to us.
Water has got to be one of the most amazing reflective surfaces in the world, but what about smooth rocks, shells or the hundreds of man-made objects that reflect? Those are all worth exploring for sure.
One thing to remember about photographing reflections...pay attention to your focus area, and if there is movement (like the surface of water), be sure to increase your shutter speed a little unless you want some blur. Reflections are notoriously hard to capture in some instances, especially when the light is constantly changing. But that's what makes them such a wonderful part of the world!
Every once in while an innovation comes along that changes the way photos are captured or displayed. One such innovation is the Lensbaby product line of lenses. You've probably heard of them in ads or magazine reviews. The Lensbaby I received as a Christmas gift was entirely not what I expected! I knew the lens was bendable and flexible, but for some reason I thought this bending and twisting would stay put once you got the right focus.
That's not how this thing works! To capture an image with the Lensbaby 'Spark', one must twist and bend the lens with fingers of both hands while adjusting the shutter speed dial and tripping the shutter with a thumb! It's a crazy feeling, but one that's fun to master. Since there is no data flowing from the lens (no autofocus or exposure readings), the camera is on full manual, with a fixed f/5.6 aperture.
The cool thing about this lens is the way it distorts everything except the sweet spot of the area being focused on. It's hard to explain how this works, but not only does the lens move in and out, it also moves in a circular motion. This gives you an unlimited amount of options for focusing on a particular subject.
In this photo, I was on a bridge overlooking Clear Creek near Sutliff, Iowa, and placed the camera on the guard rail for stability. I worked the Lensbaby up and down, in and out and twisted and contorted it many different ways before taking this photo. It seems that the more light there is, the easier it is to see what you're focusing on, and the better your photos will turn out. Since it's a fixed aperture lens, adjusting ISO or shutter speed are the options for getting the right exposure.
More practice is needed with this for landscape and nature photography, but I think the results can be unusual and entertaining. Lensbaby has filled a niche for the specialized lenses that give the photographer an artistic option to explore. At $80 for this lens, it's a great low risk investment that you may really enjoy! More information can be found at Lensbaby.com
Winter in Iowa is similar to other Midwest states in that there is always a wide range of weather...from rain and sleet, to full blown blizzards...to a light dusting of snow or an occasional ice storm. What I really like about winter is the diversity of light. Recently, during blizzard conditions in Eastern Iowa, I ventured out to Ennis nature preserve west of Mount Vernon, IA to explore the area and record what was happening that day.
The thing that struck me the most was the overcast, yet subtle brightness of the sky, since so much snow was falling, but there was also moisture and fog in the mix, so everything had a certain glow to it. As I walked through the forest near the Cedar River admiring snow patterns stuck on the north side of trees, I noticed this tree that seemed to stand out from all the rest. It's bark was richly colorful compared to the stark white surrounding it.
The light was such that pulling out the details was a little difficult, but after several shots using bracketed exposure settings, I think it's true colors were captured. This isn't one of those "wow" photos that jumps off the screen, but rather it's a subtle reminder of how beautiful nature can be in even the most subdued light.
Light is everything to a photographer, and even the slightest changes can bring fantastic opportunities for capturing Iowa's landscape. The fun is to be out in it and enjoy every drop of light that comes your way!
A good photograph should convey a story, provoke an emotion or interact with the viewer in some way. In this photo, I tried to bring out the interactive nature of people by tapping into our inherent nature to count and organize things. The photo was captured on an overcast afternoon as my son and I were searching for classic barns in the area. When the photo was processed later that evening, my mind naturally wondered how many bales were in the photo, so after counting them at least three times and getting three different results, I decided to give it a title that would potentially invite others to do the same.
From the comments received on this photo after posting to several different outlets, it was evident that others wanted to count the bales, but nobody seemed to have the same answer! Some said 58, or 59, while others said 60 or more. The fun thing about this was it invites the viewer to explore and ponder the results.
Is there a "right" answer? Probably not, since there are one or two objects on the horizon that may or may not be bales, so it could throw off your count...but the point is that interacting with a photo is good for the photographer and viewer, and being creative with any method that promotes that is the way to go!
When doing macro or close-up work, there's a focus technique that can bring some excellent results. I call it "deep focus", and it can be a fun way of exploring your subject. Start by finding an interesting plant, bush, pond or anything that has some depth, or that contains various patterns within it. There are plants and weeds out there that have intricate layers of stems, leaves, flowers and parts that form some pretty complex structures. You'll need a camera that can be switched to manual focus and a tripod for best results.
Set your camera and lens to manual focus, and really concentrate on the first layer of focus closest to you. As you explore this first layer, look for patterns, colors or small details that bring out something unique or different. Sometimes you'll find this layer is good enough and can reveal a wonderful photo. If not, look deeper...focus deeper...onto the next layer by slightly adjusting the focus of the lens to the next layer of the subject.
At this point you are now looking through the subject to the very bottom to find its hidden shapes, patterns and secrets. Keep focusing from top to bottom to find something that strikes you as unique, beautiful, interesting or strange. Some plants are nothing like their tops when you focus half way down a stem. As the photos below illustrate, the first photo was the top layer, and below it, about half way down the plant, revealed a wonderful star-like structure that just wasn't visible from above. Both photos were captured within a few minutes of each other of the same plant (Goats Beard plant on Casper Mountain, WY).
Same plant deeply focused...
What's fascinating about this technique, is that no matter how well you think you know a subject, deeply focusing within and through a subject can be very revealing and interesting. Our eyes tend to capture all detail very quickly in the 3D world, thus we see the detail further down the subject, but it's not selective, so it tends to blend into the surroundings and we don't always "see" the smaller details.
Deep focus also applies to landscapes and medium distance shots, although they may not be as dramatic as the close-ups of plants or smaller subjects. It's always a fascinating journey to explore nature, and this is one way of discovering your own world to share with others!