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!

Night Photography

Northern Lights of NorwayNorthern Lights of NorwayOut of the four nights I was in Norway, only one evening had northern lights (mid October). Chasing after these amazing lights is half the fun...and they are very elusive! Lofoten Islands. Personally I think night photography is the most difficult to master (and by no means have I mastered anything about it!).  But here's a few tricks to help get your long exposure shots to a higher standard.

Aperture - To obtain a sharp photo, a smaller aperture is required (which is a larger number on your camera - F/8 is a smaller aperture than F/5.6).  However, during night photography this is problematic.  The smaller the aperture, the less light your lens allows into the sensor, thus a higher ISO (sensitivity to light on the sensor) is required.  So a setting of ISO 1600 might be enough to have an F/8 aperture for 4 seconds, but if it's dark, moving the aperture to a larger setting, like F/5.6 or F/3.2 would be beneficial.  I’ve found it helpful if some natural ambient light remains to fill in colors and details.  Aperture is probably the least important setting for night landscapes, but if set improperly, can affect all the other settings!

Shutter Speed - One requirement for night photography is a tripod since the shutter is open for longer periods.  The rule of thumb for sharp photos is the shutter speed must be greater than your lens focal length.  For example, if you have a 50mm lens, your shutter speed should be at least 1/50th of a second.  I usually double that amount since faster shutter speeds almost always give you better photos.  Of course having a tripod will greatly increase your chances of capturing a very sharp photo, and is required for all night photography.

Back to shutter speed…if your camera is set on aperture priority, the shutter speed doesn’t matter…the camera will choose it.  But in night photography, YOU want to control the amount of time your sensor absorbs light for the proper exposure, and it’s necessary to govern how much light reaches your sensor by using shutter speed as the variable.  To begin, set your camera on shutter priority for 5 or 10 seconds, ISO 1600 and the camera will choose the aperture.  If the scene has some amount of ambient light, these settings might be enough to bring out good details and color despite the darkness.  Change your shutter speed accordingly depending on how under or over exposed the photo is.

ISO - This is a tricky setting since each camera has its own limits on how high you can set this.  In general, the higher the ISO setting, the more sensitive the sensor is, however, the tradeoff is that “noise” is introduced as a by-product (dots, discoloration, grain, etc).  Full frame sensors have the least noise in low light situations even with higher ISO settings.  For example, using ISO 3200 on a full frame camera, noise will be slightly visible, but on a crop sensor camera (the most common for lower-range cameras), that same setting would create quite a bit of grain/noise.  For those of you who really want a clean look regardless of what kind of camera you have, try purchasing some noise reduction software to use in post-processing (I use Imagenomic as a plug-in to Photoshop).  It’s amazing what a difference noise reduction software can make.

Tying it all together - In the above photo, it was a dark night except for the Northern Lights, so a higher ISO was required to keep a 15-20 second range for shutter speed (ideally this would be in the 5-10 second range).  Remember, every second of time could introduce noise, movement or glare that gives your photo a subpar look.  The key is to give your sensor enough light to capture what you are seeing, but no more than necessary.  The photo was properly exposed at 20 seconds, F/3.2 at ISO 1000. 

Night photography can be extremely rewarding since it opens up many avenues for your creativity!

Landscape Exposure

Black Beaches of VikBlack Beaches of VikNear Vikings in southern Iceland there are black beaches and wonderful rock formations to spark your imagination. Landscapes can be difficult to photograph due to the wide range of light and contrast typical in nature.  I usually expose for the brightest portion of a scene, and lighten the super dark areas in post-processing.  However, depending on what you want the viewer to focus on, it could be the other way around!  

In the photo above, on the southern coast of Iceland, the sun was setting which gave off a little spark of light in the otherwise dreary environment.  I exposed for the brighter area from the sun shining on the sand and was lucky the clouds and water were exposed pretty well.  I tried other exposure settings, but when exposing for the dark sand, the sky and clouds were too bright, loosing all the ambiance of this scene.  

There's definitely is a trick to finding the right exposure for any given situation.  Some photographers use spot exposure to really capture the essence of one specific area of the scene.  I choose to use a blend or matrix setting so that the area focused on has the most exposure weight, but the rest of the scene is also considered. This usually gives the entire scene a chance to be exposed properly without much post-processing.

Landscape photography is an art, and there are tons of techniques to use.  The number one thing you should do is learn your camera settings and experiment!  You'd be surprised how different a photo can look if you under or over expose certain areas of a scene.  It can totally change the mood and colors.  Good luck with your photography and keep trying new things!




BrickishBrickishThis is one photo believe it or not! One version was turned into black and white, then rotated 180. Painted through to the darker original photo to give it some depth and that M.C. Escher feel.

I'm always experimenting with photography.  It's probably because there are so many creative people doing amazing things out there, it just kind of seeps into your being to be inquisitive and playful.  This photo (yes it's just one photo in two different perspectives and a little Photoshop magic) was created after spending some time wandering around the beautiful campus of Cornell College in Mount Vernon, IA.  Textures, angles, shadows and colors all float around the buildings, and depending on the light, the campus can transform into some amazing scenes.

So for this abstract, I captured the corner of a building with all the wonderful brick, making sure to keep a small aperture so the brick was in focus all the way to the top.  Once it was being processed at home, the whole MC Escher vibe jumped out and struck a chord.  The original photo was looking up at the corner of a tall building.  That photo was then converted to black and white and rotated 180 degrees so the angles of the lines and brick were running in different directions.  Now there were two photos of the same scene.  I then loaded them both up in Photoshop and "painted" through the black and white layer into the brick layer to bring out the contrasting lines and color.

The rich colors seem to give it depth and perspective, while the black and white keeps everything bleak and harsh.  So if you have a couple of photos you really like, or even one that can be rotated, try painting through one or the other to see if you can get a unique look.  Of course, having the right software is imperative, and that's why early on I invested in a copy of Photoshop.  If you're serious about creating art, it's highly recommended!

Let me know what you think...would be interested in your thoughts on this one!


Multiple Exposures and Nature

triple exposure photo captured in the forestTriple Exposure I v2

There are multiple ways of capturing nature with all its beauty.  One method is multiple exposures.  If your camera allows it, taking two or more shots and having the camera "blend" them automatically can really add some creative perspective to your photography.

In this photo, I was careful to plan out the scene so that it wasn't just a random sampling of the forest.  First, I pointed the camera straight up into the trees on a sunny autumn day.  The plan was to capture some of the blue sky with touches of high canopy leaves.  The second shot was of a small tree with beautiful golden leaves that caught my eye for its clarity and leaf shape, and the third was of the forest floor, which was much darker but had great texture.

The order in which you take multiple exposures can be important, even though the camera will do its best to blend them all the same (with the same opacity).  If you want the overall scene to have a shape or dimension, start with a dark background or object that is easily recognized.  Rock formations, fence lines or other strong shapes work well for this.  Next, think about what you want in the center of your frame.  Focus on that and even think about getting a close up of some kind.  This will add detail and interest to your photo.  Next you could concentrate on texture, such as leaves, water, grass or another richly textured area.

Another method to using multiple exposures is to change your horizontal or vertical positioning of the camera.  If you take three exposures, with the first being in a vertical orientation, the remaining two horizontal shots will be "formed" or fitted into the vertical shot.  If your first shot is horizontal, the remaining photos will also be fit into this format.  This can be useful if you have contrasting shapes or angles that you want to blend, and you can always rotate the photo to give the effect you wanted.

When the camera blends these photos together, you'll be surprised at the amazing transformations that just took place.  Truly a technical marvel modern cameras are!  Make sure you read your manual so you can easily change back and forth while out shooting.  Have fun and get that creative mojo out there using these techniques!

Capturing Motion in Nature

Waves of SoyWaves of SoyWind blown soy beans on a hot August day south of Lisbon, IA.

Who needs the ocean when you can watch soy bean fields swaying in the wind on a hot August day?  That was my first impression as I drove by field after field of soy beans and corn being tossed around by the wind.  But how to capture such beauty on a bright sunny day?

Luckily I had brought along a tripod, otherwise the techniques explained below would not work.  When it comes to motion, sometimes it can be captured successfully by using implied movement...branches, leaves, grass or flowers "bending" in the wind...or rain drops "streaking" across the frame at a steep angle.  Within the context of the scene, motion is implied and understood even with a faster shutter speed.

But I wanted to capture the actual movement of the soy beans as they flowed and swirled from the wind, and to do that required a slow shutter speed.  So I set my camera on the tripod and composed the scene...roughly one third sky, two thirds beans...making sure there was some anchor point in the background that would not be moving (the trees).  

I then asked the camera what it could do as far as a shutter speed.  Making sure the Mode was in Aperture Priority, I set the ISO to its lowest setting and cranked up the aperture to f/22, which resulted in a 1/3 of a second shutter speed, more than enough to capture movement.  By decreasing the sensitivity of the sensor (ISO) and using an extremely small aperture (letting less light in the lens), the camera chose a shutter speed to properly expose everything.

For post-processing, the contrast was bumped up and the sky darkened a bit in Photoshop, but otherwise didn't need to do anything else.  You can actually see the movement of the beans in the forefront and the swirly wind patterns on the right side.  

This was a fun experiment, and one that I hope you can try next time you want to portray movement in nature.



Artificial Light and Nature

Ominous SnowOminous SnowThe night before a snow storm on the campus of Cornell College in Mount Vernon, IA.

Ideally, natural light transforms your photo from a mundane snapshot into something spectacular.  However, when the light isn't quite right or doesn't exist for the shot you want, adding a little artificial light can make the difference.  In this photo, there was a beautiful white dusting of snow that had accumulated on the bushes and branches that I wanted to capture, but the light didn't highlight the whiteness.   It was dusk and a snow storm was approaching.  

I tried using the camera's built-in flash, but it blanketed the entire scene in a white-wash of brightness.  The only other available light source was the headlights of my car, which when pointed in the proper direction, illuminated the bottom portion of the scene, bringing out the purity of white that my eyes had noticed.

As you can imagine, using headlights as a lighting source was a little over-kill, and I had to use a graduated filter in post-processing (Adobe Camera Raw) to tone down the extreme white, but the end result was close to what I had envisioned for this shot.  The foreground gives a nice contrast to the darkness and lets the eye settle on something close and clear.  This was captured on the campus of Cornell College in Mount Vernon, IA.

Other artificial light sources to consider when you're outdoors are flashlights, laser pointers, anything with a headlight (even bikes) and diffused camera flashes (using your hand or other object to deflect the light).  When using that kind of light, you may also have to compensate the exposure to tone down the brightness, or do so in post-processing.  One good way to accomplish that in-camera is to set your camera on center-weighted exposure, making sure the brightest part of the photo is properly exposed.  For me, it's easier to lighten up a dark area than darkening a bright area.  Using artificial light when needed just might give you the creative shot you've been looking for!




Landscape Long Exposures

Camera sensors can usually capture rich saturated colors and fine detail if you give them a chance.  The issue is the amount of time the sensor has to record that information.  Long exposures can sometimes help you capture a moment that otherwise would be lost.  Here are some essential steps that help make this type of photography fun and satisfying:

Sturdy Tripod - there's nothing better than a sturdy tripod to mount your camera for any exposure longer than 1/60th of a second (some would argue 1/125 is the minimum shutter speed, but with vibration and movement reduction lenses, it becomes less of an issue).  I've tried holding the camera on a fence post or against a car door or tree, but inevitably, even the slightest movement will ruin your sharpness.  Best to get a decent tripod and let it do your work.

Low ISO Settings - most modern cameras handle this very well in that a high ISO setting on your camera (beyond 1600) doesn't reveal too much noise in the photo, but the lower the ISO the better for long exposures.  This is especially true for exposures longer than 30 seconds.  There is a balance that must be reached between ISO and exposure time.  In the photo below, an ISO setting of 100 was used for 30 seconds.  This really helped in the post processing as the noise clean-up was minimal.

Exposure Time - this is very difficult to estimate, and requires trial and error, but luckily there are some tools to help.  Many modern cameras have an exposure meter that will actually tell you if your photo will be under or over exposed based on your current settings.  Set your camera to shutter priority and dial in 5 or 10 seconds to begin with.  Take a look at the exposure meter in the viewfinder to see how far off you might be.  Review the photo and look at the histogram if you can, and adjust the shutter in 3-5 second increments.  The end result should be a photo that is still a little dark, but that's what you want, since over exposing will wipe out much of the color and detail you're striving for.

During post-processing, you may need to lighten the photo a bit or increase the exposure to make it brighter, but ultimately, the dark rich beauty of saturated colors from a long exposure will prevail once you get the hang of it.  

Dusk on Smyth RoadDusk on Smyth RoadThe stillness and soft glow of a summer sunset near Mount Vernon really rejuvinates your spirit.




Diverse Iowa Landscapes

Every state has diverse landscapes, but did you know that among Iowa's 99 counties you can find glacial kettles, long flowing rock formations called Palisades, and wind-blown hills made from loess (river silt)?  The cool thing about landscapes is what may appear to be a flat, boring pond in the middle of a bunch of growth, may actually turn out to have a unique history.

For example, one of my favorite places to roam around close to home is the Ciha Fen preserve south of Sutliff, Iowa.  This 80 acre preserve has what appears to be a pond, but upon closer inspection is really a Fen, or type of bog, that is very rare in Iowa.

Fens form when water and bubbles seep to the surface through buried sand and gravel left behind by glaciers. Natural landscapes formed over the eons bring a diverse look and feel to your photography if you allow light to be your guide in developing this beauty, and to accept the unique properties of the area regardless of how mundane it may look.  The photo below was taken at this wonderful preserve.

Darkness of AutumnDarkness of AutumnThere were still colors, but they were darker and more defined on this late November day south of Lisbon, IA.

There are times when light is dreary and flat, and those are especially difficult times to capture a great photo, but even then, look for the diverse patterns, shapes or unusual growth patterns surrounding you that may evoke a special glimpse into nature's amazing world.


Surreal Nature Shots

Tree AurasTree AurasHere's proof that trees have auras! Actually a little movement with a long shutter speed can create the illusion, but it's fun to believe they do. Camera movement is the best way to get that unusual shot you’ve been looking for.  There are times when either the light or subject you’re shooting needs a little something different, and for that I use movement to create a surreal landscape, potentially turning a mundane scene into an abstract of color and motion.

There are different techniques involved in this, but I’d like to introduce hand-held camera movement as one effective way to get that unique landscape shot.  In this image, I focused on the trees immediately in front of me, used a long shutter speed (greater than 1 second), a small aperture (f/8 or smaller) and a low ISO (200 or less).  The combination of a lower ISO and smaller aperture usually gives you a nice long shutter speed to work with, assuming you have your camera set on Aperture Priority.  If the shutter speed is still not long enough, consider using a filter or move to a location that has less light.

The trick to getting a good blend of movement yet keeping a fair amount of details depends on how much you move the camera while the shutter is open.  For example, if you move the camera the whole time the shutter is open, you'll most likely get a very blurry photo since light was streaming onto your sensor in a continuous fashion.

To keep some level of detail in the shot, move your camera for the first part of the shutter opening, but keep it as steady as possible for the last remaining time.  This will “burn in” some of the subject you have focused on, but will still render a good blend of movement.

The photo here was taken with the lens pointed skyward toward the sunset first, then brought down vertically quickly, and remained at rest for some portion of the shutter opening (maybe a half second), so that some detail of the trees was captured in the frame.

Camera movement doesn’t produce good results in all situations, but if you’re in the mood for an abstract nature shot, give it a try.  And remember, the more color and/or interesting shapes you're focused on the better!

Let Photos Simmer

After the HarvestAfter the HarvestCaptured on a November day west of Mount Vernon, IA.

There are times when a photograph just doesn't "speak" to me or seems to be missing an element of light, texture, color or composition.  Those photos are the ones to put away for another day.  I think what may happen is that my expectation of what the photograph should be doesn't match what it really is.  The memory of real life is too fresh and too influential.

Expectations tend to fade or change with time, so in those cases where a photo just didn't seem right for processing soon after it was captured, it's always a good idea to revisit it at later time.  Sometimes even just a few hours can make a difference, while other photos may need weeks or months to simmer.

This photo was processed almost a year after it was created.  Why?  At the time, I thought it didn't have the qualities of that magic light this particular afternoon displayed.  Or perhaps there was another photo that was "better" from the dozens created that afternoon.  Regardless, it was a pleasant surprise to look through this folder and find a gem.  

What caught my eye was the rich candy-colored sky and unusual cloud formation looming over the bales of corn stocks.  It brought back memories of that afternoon, and the photo seemed to beg for its proper place in the hierarchy of photos!  So after processing, (adding a little lightness to the ground and bumping up the contrast), the key elements of the photo seemed to be just as I had remembered.  Strange how that transpires.

Of course the great majority of time there are many more photos when viewed later are still not quite there...and most likely will never be...but it's worth simmering photos for a time just to see if your perspective has changed or your skills have improved on the processing side.  Perhaps you've acquired a new editing tool, or just have a different outlook on life, and finding that photo from a few months ago could reignite or spark your creativity again.

Here's to simmering photos my friends!


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Photography Rocks!