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.  

What is the Best?

Every year I go through all of the images I shot and pick out the 10 I like best.  It is pretty easy to get down to twenty or so, just by selecting all of the images marked as picks and then weeding through those.   I pull out all of the ones of my family and then it gets tougher.  It is hard, because there is no “right” answer.  Our perceptions of any art, are personal and subjective.  Usually I ask my family to go through my top 25 and make their picks, but that is more to understand what appeals to them.  That might influence what and how I shoot next year, but rarely does it push me one way or another for what I include in my list. These three images wound up as my top 3 favorites for the year.

 Young Fiesta Dancer

Young Fiesta Dancer

 Sunset from Clingman's Dome

Sunset from Clingman's Dome

 Late Afternoon Last Rays of Light

Late Afternoon Last Rays of Light

When I have completed my listing, I then try something even harder.  In December, the Photoshop instructor and commercial photographer Jim DiVitale lost his battle with cancer.  He hosted one of my favorite Photoshop World Events, which had nothing to do with Photoshop.  It was a panel of some of the best photographers in the world, showing off their work.  As the host, he included a portfolio of his work as well and it took me a while to grow to appreciate the quality and artistry of his stuff, as he shot a lot of pure commercial, often product based work. That’s not what I shoot, so I tended to just kind of skim over his stuff.  One year, I really looked at his work and recognized how good it really was.  and  



At Photoshop World, they offer an opportunity to have one of the staff review your portfolio.   As it turned out, I drew Mr. DiVitale and it was a very interesting experience.  He took a look at my photos and said they were good work, but what story did they tell?   We talked for the 15 minutes allocated on how to really put together a portfolio, and how you always need to be asking this one simple question—“Is this photograph good enough to replace one in my portfolio?”  As a commercial guy and as an art director, he felt strongly that you need to show off only your best work, and that your portfolio, should have no more than 10 images.  So every year, you should be asking yourself that question and if the answer is no, none of the images I shot are better than what I have already done, then you need to be thinking “why not?”   If your work is not getting better, then what are you going to do about it?  

That question is what drives me to keep shooting.  Art is not a competition, unless it is against yourself.  Can you capture what your mind sees when you look through that viewfinder?  Are your pictures better than they were yesterday, last week, and last year?  

Welcome to 2017 from EFCubed

By Mark

Well, it is a whole new year and Roger and I plan on being a bit more reliable in our blog production this year.  Last year, was one of the busiest we have ever had at our “real” jobs.  That annoying requirement that enables us to pursue our photography.  At the start of the year, I lay out a whole list and schedule for the blog topics I want to try and cover.  Usually, I plan my shoots to support the topics I intend to write on.  I guess I will get to reuse a large part of last year’s list. 

For the first time in a decade, we made the decision to not attend Photoshop World last year, due to a lot of turmoil at Kelby which impacted people we knew and liked, but also because we wanted to force ourselves to actually go out and shoot.  Our trip to the Great Smoky Mountains was fantastic; as well as therapeutic for me, and photographically satisfying.  

Our timing was exceptionally fortunate, as even while we were there, we could tell the impact that the drought was having on the waterfalls we planned to shoot, and the colors of the fall foliage.  Last fall’s fires burned up a lot of the area we were shooting in.  In fact, the hotel directly across the little creek from where we stayed, suffered significant damage.  Roger, who is not a nature/landscape shooter, admitted he enjoyed it, way more than he expected. I went with some definite objectives for practicing long exposure images and shooting waterfalls.

Each day I learned a lot and think the shots got better, at least they seemed easier to get the results I was looking for. Plus, of course I got to see Roger fall in the river.  

One of the other factors which impacted my schedule this year was the summer project which gutted and redid our bathroom.  I took lots of photos to record the progress.  You tend to forget that the gradual daily progress eventually leads to huge changes.  

Taking the photos for ourselves, turned out to have an unexpected secondary benefit.  I gave copies of the photos to my builder and he was really thrilled.   He is an amazing craftsman, but used his iPhone to show off his work.  The pictures were fine, but didn’t really capture the details. As a result, we went to shoot one of his larger projects, a whole house remodel and I got to experiment with some architectural photography.  I found I really like the intersection with my macro work and capturing the larger vistas from landscapes.  We will probably do more during the coming year. 

I really expected my image totals to be down from previous years, but our family vacation to Disneyworld over the holidays brought my average up.

I used my phone’s camera some this year and got a few decent shots.  For me, it still doesn’t replace a DSLR, but in Disneyworld, with a million new friends on Xmas day, it was a lot easier to haul around.  I am still working to process those last thousand images. 

As with everything in photography, each picture is a chance to get better. Focusing on specific areas in your own shooting where you know you can get better, is one method of helping your growth as an artist.  As with any other endeavor, practice is important. I have already resolved to do more shooting in the local area, just to force myself to get behind the lens. I’ve picked out a topic I want to cover and will see how this personal project develops. Practice, both behind the camera and behind the monitors is critical, but we all just need to make the time.  

Removing Unwanted Subjects from Your Photo

By Roger (18 December 2016)

Sometimes you find things in your photo that you really wish weren't there. Ideally, you should have adjusted your camera to a position where the unwanted objects (or people) weren't there in the first place, but you can't always meet this ideal. Then, there are times you can't avoid the obstructions – like people around an attraction. Here are some post-processing ways to deal with them, from easy to a little more complicated.

Use cropping as the quickest way to get rid of something extraneous along the edges. This jockey is carrying her tack as she's walking back to the jockey room, after a pretty muddy run. Her trainer is walking into the frame. Cropping is the best solution here. I wanted her to fill the frame more, anyway, so I cropped in. Easy. Whenever you can get away with just a simple crop to remove the distraction, take the option.

 A simple crop can solve some problems

A simple crop can solve some problems

When cropping won't remove an object, your next step is cloning in Photoshop or some other pixel bender. There is a clone/heal tool inside the Lightroom Develop module, but it doesn't work as well as Photoshop on the more detailed changes. Use the Lightroom tool for something small, like a blurred bird in the sky of your seascape or spots from dirt on your lens or sensor.

This steam locomotive came into the Manassas train station, back in June. I love the way the smoke and steam blend into the cloudy sky. The power lines and signs, on the left of the photo bothered me, but there was no place I could move to remove them from the scene and cropping would wasn't an option. The clone tool allows me to get in close to the trees to remove the power lines and blend the signs into the trees near the tracks.

 Cloning is the best technique here

Cloning is the best technique here

There is an in-camera solution that works in certain conditions. If you use long exposures, and people are moving through the scene, they will blur enough to disappear (or nearly disappear). The longer the exposure, the better this technique works. Of course, you'll need a tripod for this work.

I tried this technique, in Montreal, in my cathedral photo. You can still see some blurred people in these two photos, highlighted in the red polygons. The short answer on these photos is my shutter speed wasn't slow enough or those wouldn't be there.

 I put red boxes around the still visible blurred people

I put red boxes around the still visible blurred people

I used an even longer exposure on my third attempt. It was almost blur free. The first time you try this, you should take several exposures – trying to see these small blurs on your camera's LCD can be difficult. I also try to let a little time lapse between exposures, to let the objects move to another part of the frame. I fixed the perspective errors and did some minor cleanup and got one of my favorite photos of 2016.

montreal cathedral RD46366

If you still have some motion showing in each of your photo, you can open your photos (I had four total) as layers in Photoshop. Eventhough your camera was on a tripod, remember to align your layers (Edit>Auto-Align Layers). You can start on the top most layer and mask any blurs. Add a mask to each additional layer, until you've covered all indications of movement.

When you have a very busy scene, there is another post-processing technique to try. You can create multiple photos while objects move throughout and create a stack of images. I used this technique to make a photo of the Oliver cabin, at Cades Cove, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. John and Lucretia Oliver built their home by 1820 and some of their descendants lived there until the 1930s. I wanted to make a photo of their cabin with no tourists visible.

Since I was there in mid-morning, there was too much light for a really long exposure. Yes, I could have used the neutral density filter that Mark discussed two blogs ago, but I decided to try stacking, instead.

Once again your tripod is the best method here to keep your multiple photos aligned. I took 10 photos of the cabin as people moved around the cabin, spacing the intervals to ensure the people were in different positions around the cabin in each photo. Here are three of the shots.


When I got home, I opened the 10 photos in their own layers in a single Photoshop document. Again, align all layers, just to be sure. With all the layers selected, create a smart object. (Layer>Smart Objects>Convert to Smart Object). This may take a few seconds to complete. Now just choose the mean between the images. (Layer>Smart Objects>Stack Mode>Mean)

If you've chosen your photos correctly, all the people disappear, like the photo below.

 Cleared of people

Cleared of people

I also tried this along the road in the Smokies. I wanted to see how hard it would be to use this technique, without a tripod. The road had an seemingly endless stream of traffic. I made more than 30 photos, trying to be very careful with my framing. We were at this location for more than 15 minutes, taking many photos to make sure I could make this work.

But, just before we left, the traffic cleared, and all of that care was rendered unnecessary because I got a clear photo, without the effort. It goes to show you that sometimes the technique you should use is patience. That can be one of the most difficult methods for some of us.

Other than showing the technique, I'm not sure why you'd want a photo like this one.....  ;-)

road RD43896

Unless you have adopted the ethics of a photo-journalist, there really is no reason to have any unwanted objects in your photographs. There are many variations and combinations on these methods to remove distractions. The more complicated methods take a little practice, but that's no different from any other techniques. Give these a try to improve your photographs. Have fun with it.