Seeing the trees for the forest

By Mark

We still have a few topics left undone from our Great Smoky adventure.  When you normally think of landscape photography, you immediately think of sweeping vistas and scenic views.  I believe that the details can evoke as much imagery of the area as can the broader picture.  Your macro lens can capture the little objects in the woods that often get overlooked, but which build up for those grander images.  I only shot a small percentage-about 4 percent, of the images on the trip with the 105, but had they made up 8 percent of my final picks versus all the other lenses. 

Throughout the forest floor there is a continuous battle raging as the new trees and plants struggle to catch the sunshine coming through the big trees.  In small pockets, often where old trees have fallen and died, you will discover the first signs of new growth.  Delicate flowers and ferns.  As with most macro work, it really helps to have your tripod with you.  The ability to establish a solid baseline, especially when you are shooting with an extremely shallow depth of field, makes a significant difference.  Even the slight breeze made it challenging to get the flowers to stand steady.  Often you can use your body as a shield, but that morning, the light and the wind were coming from the same direction and I really didn’t want my shadow to interfere.  Patience and the luxury of shooting a digital camera, helped me get a picture I liked.

One of the hardest things to photograph well, at least for me, is the carpet of bright green moss, which covers large parts of the semi-rainforest sections of the park.  It is challenging to find something distinctive to serve as the subject and focus point for a photo.  Here a fallen leaf, provides both scale and a centering point.

I’ve always been fascinated by the details on the trees themselves.  Both pine trees and birch trees produce interesting textures.  You need to be careful though as some people find that the sap can sting. Yes, their bark is much worse than their bite.  Sorry about that.  Anyway, since the emphasis is usually on the texture, bark photos often lend themselves to Black and White conversion.  In this case, I used Nik Color Effects detail extractor first, then Silver Effects for the final processing.  

In keeping with that whole “circle of life” thing, take notice of the artifacts of death and decay as well.  The fallen trees, and their regeneration provides nutrients for the next generations. Fall leaves especially provide rich color and interesting textures. As everyone knows I am really a fun guy, so I like spotting the various mushrooms all over the trees.  These simple organisms have lots of detail that are really brought out by close up pictures. 

Hope everyone is getting out and shooting away their winter blues.  

The Flying Circus

By Mark

Photographing airplanes from the ground is very hard.  Usually they are too small in the frame to get much detail and if they are against the sky, it is tough to have any sense of scale. 

Luckily, old style flying shows still exist and we are fortunate to have one nearby.  We went out an overcast but still very hot morning to see the show.

Camera EXIF data

Camera EXIF data

Because of the relatively slow speed of the aircraft, I knew I wanted to shoot in Shutter Priority mode and set my speed at 1/800th of a second.  Additionally, I changed my metering mode to spot as I really wanted the camera to focus on the airplane.   Even with that, the relative smallness of the plane versus the much brighter sky, meant that the images were going to be too dark.  I cranked in +1 EV of exposure compensation to start, but wound up having to take it to 1 2/3 EV more than the camera thought necessary.   I had my 70-200mm f2.8 on (my favorite lens), but knew that was not going to be enough.  As you look at the EXIF data, you will see that my focal length wound up being 340mm.  I used my 1.7 “doubler” which magnifies your image at the cost of 1 or 2 stops of light.   In post processing I really cropped the images significantly, removing more than 50 per cent of the image so that you could actually see what was going on.

 Created after World War 1, as the United States sold off many of the planes they had built, flying circuses and barnstormers crisscrossed the nation, giving most people their first sight of an airplane and for many, their first ride.  As the competition between shows grew more intense, the length they would go to for stunts also grew. Wing walking, if you haven’t seen it, requires a person to climb out of their cockpit and climb out onto the wing.  Since most of these aircraft were biplanes, they did have plenty of struts and wires to hang on to.

One of my wife’s fellow teacher’s boyfriend happens to be not only one of the pilots, but also is the wing walker. 

Bealeton Flying Circus Pt 2-201.jpg

Joe is a very brave young man. In real life he runs his own cattle ranch.    His first trick, once he is on the lower wing is go hang upside down, from the wing, only holding on with his feet.  

Next he climbs on top of the airplane’s top wing.  This whole process is done without any kind of parachute and often times without any tether.  At least there is a post and some foot straps because, the pilot then starts doing aerobatics.  Here is Joe going all the way around a loop.  At one point is twice as heavy as on the ground, and then he is weightless.

To cap off their show they unfurl a lovely American flag and buzz the crowd at pretty low levels.

A successful landing is one you can walk away from is an old pilot’s adage.  Here they come back to earth.   

.   If you live close to Northern VA, you should definitely make this a weekend destination.   Hours and schedule are posted on their website:    You can also buy flights in their open cockpit aircraft.  It is a lot of fun and the balloon festival is coming up soon.  

More Fun with Falcons

By Mark



Over the Easter weekend we took a little vacation down to the Omni Homestead resort in Hot Springs VA.  We planned on staying a couple of nights and had so much fun we stayed an extra day.  One of the adventures they offered was the chance to go and play with their falcons.  We enjoyed it so much last summer in Ireland, that we wanted the opportunity again.   Thanks to American insurance laws it was a very different experience, but still quite thrilling.   In Ireland, we had a short lesson, and then got to take the birds flying through the woods.  Here, they require a preliminary training class first, and then you can take a second one and actually “fly” the birds yourself.   We certainly would have, but couldn’t fit it into our busy schedule of relaxing. Luckily we can go back and go on from there.  First, let me say that these aren’t actually falcons.  Falcons can be fairly ill-tempered and with the number of children these birds interact with, probably not a great idea.  These birds, just like in Ireland, are actually Harris hawks.  Our bird’s name was Remington.

Linda, the falconer was very proud of her birds and did a great job connecting with the fairly large group, including kids to the history and habits of the birds, hunting and the challenges of keeping them healthy. One of her best points was that these birds are not her friends; they just see her as the easiest path to reliably get food.  It was clear though that she respected them and knew what they were thinking before they did.  You can see they share common expressions and are sharply focused.  

You did get to sign waivers before you took the course.  One of the neatest parts of her demonstration was showing just how food focused and agile the hawks are.  She stood this couple together a few inches apart and held out the food down low. 

Remington had no problem, folding back her wings and making it through the gap.  At the end of the flying demo, she got a nice treat.

After she was pretty full, she went through the crowd allowing all the brave people to perch Remington on their hands.  Sarah is getting to be very comfortable. 

Just for perspective, here was the first really brave adventurer.

I gave Sarah my camera and she managed to get one in focus shot of me.   I like the fact that my nose is just slightly bigger than Remington’s—at least from this angle.   It is difficult to describe just how impressive these hunters are when seen up close.  They are still wild and very fierce and that is exactly how it should be.  

Sign In, Please

By Roger (2 November 2015)

When I'm traveling with my camera, I like to grab some photos of the more unique parts of wherever I am: street scenes; local events, like parades and festivals; tourist sites; and, of course, signs. Signs? Yes, signs.

I've been doing this for a long time. They have been used in my personal slideshows and, sometimes, for work, as the sign below. Most of these photos won't end up in your portfolio, but, hopefully, that isn't your prime motivation when you take the camera out to play. There are still many reasons to snap photos of signs.

Gone, but not forgotten

Since signs are everywhere, you won't have any problem finding them. You won't be able to miss them once you start paying attention. I rarely return from a photowalk without one. Make it one of your challenge photos.

While most people don't make slideshows as often as we used to – and millions of family members rejoice! – today's technology has made them much better to sit through. Lightroom can help you put together a nice slideshow, with transitions and accompanying music. You can also use a small sign photo, in a photobook, to give the reader the a location marker or name of a building of the photos they are viewing.

Virginia has many “Love” signs, from the old “Virginia is for Lovers” tourist campaign to draw tourists. They're all over the state. I've seen, at least, a dozen of them. I'm not sure how many they put out there, but three of them are within an hour of my house. They have all ended up in my camera.

The Luray, Va, sign is near a playground, so, obviously, it fits well with photos of the grandchildren standing on it. That reminds me, we'll need to go back there to update the photo with the two that weren't born when I took this photo.

The perfect sign for grandchildren

You can use a sign photo to remember facts about events or locations. As a history buff, I'm always interested in those historical markers along the road and have stopped at many. But when you don't have time to sit and ponder the world as it existed back then, take a quick snapshot. You can finish reading about the location in your office.

I don't want you to think I never put any thought into my sign photos. I'm always on the lookout for something more interesting than a simple snapshot. When the conditions are right, signs can be captivating subjects, especially advertising. They are usually colorful and designed to catch your eye. Throw in some reflections from a window and a freshly rained-on awning, and you get something nice.

Memphis, TN

How crazy can you get with this stuff? Well, Mark and I went to the neon sign graveyard while we in Las Vegas. They took our money and let us into an outside enclosure, with signs that had been discarded by the casinos. And we had to sign up for a designated time to get in because there were so many other crazy folks who wanted a chance to look around. Believe it or not, it was worth it. (You can see more of those photos here.)

So, give those signs some of your time the next time you're out there. Just the process of looking for the good ones will help you exercise your eyes and challenge you to make something of what you find. We can all use some of that to keep things fun.

Don't forget to move in close, sometimes