Squares and Rectangles

06.16.10 | Permalink | 3 Comments

What’s the best shape for a photograph: a square or a rectangle? How do you see the world: in squares or rectangles?

I’ve always photographed with cameras that produce rectangles. 35mm film has an aspect ratio of 2:3 (i.e., two units in one direction and 3 units in the other direction), as do many digital cameras. My Pentax 645 is a little more towards square, with an aspect ratio of 3:4, and my former Mamiya 7II and Pentax 67 were closer still with an aspect ratio of 6:7. The large format camera that I once used was also close to a square, with a 4:5 aspect ratio.

Some digital cameras have aspect ratios that can be changed, so they may be 2:3, 4:5, or even square (1:1).

Panorama cameras will have one length that is significantly longer than the other, with common aspect ratios of 1:2, 1:3, or something even more extreme.

Because I’ve always seen the world in rectangles, and because nearly every camera I’ve ever used has produced rectangular images, I think it’s time to shake up my world view and look at the world in squares. To do that, I’ve purchased what may be the world’s most famous “square” camera: a Hasselblad. I want to challenge myself when I view a landscape by looking at it more closely and from a different perspective. I think this will help me appreciate landscapes even more.

That said, I don’t think any one aspect ratio is perfect or even preferred for all types of landscape compositions. Depending on the elements, one aspect ratio might express the essence of a place in an aesthetically pleasing manner better than a different aspect ratio. In the past, the 2:3 aspect ratio has worked best for me. In fact, I tended to dislike 4:5 and 6:7 because they were too square, and my eyes just didn’t naturally view the world like this. So what better way to shake myself than to go to a full 1:1 square!

As I look a photos taken by other photographers and posted on forums like photo.net and fredmiranda.com, I think most have chosen the best aspect ratio (and this is aided by the use of zoom lens that can more easily find the best composition while looking through the viewfinder). However, I’ve been having fun thinking about other possible aspect ratios of some of these photos. Some rectangular photos I’ve viewed could, in my opinion, be better shown as squares, and some square photos I think would look better if cropped to a rectangle. Of course, this is what many photographers do when they work on an image by cropping to what seems to be the best aspect ratio for a given image.

It’s a bit different, though, when looking through a viewfinder that is square when nearly every experience in 45 years of picture taking (except for a very brief stint with a Rolleiflex) has seen nothing but rectangles. I want to find images that are initially best represented by squares, rather than producing a square image after the fact by cropping a rectangle.

In addition, I think it will be fun to use a camera system that has a very long history and has been used by some of the world’s best photographers (not that I have any illusions of becoming part of that group!). It’s also the camera that “went to the moon.” Finally, the model I’ve chosen (501cm) is strictly mechanical; there’s not a battery to be found anywhere. The lenses I’ll be using include a 50mm wide, 80mm normal, and 180mm moderate telephoto.

The mechanics of this camera are remarkable. This is the first time in many years that I’ve had to read the manual carefully just to manage the basic operations of taking a single photograph.

It’s a very different approach to photography, one that I think is entirely appropriate as I “celebrate” my 62nd birthday (and the start of social security!). What a great time and way to learn something new and to challenge my artistic vision.

Photography locations - Washington

Photography in the Palouse

05.17.10 | Permalink | 2 Comments
Palouse Region, as seen from Steptoe Butte

The Palouse area of eastern Washington is a photographer’s mecca, especially in the spring.  Miles of gently rolling hills, multicolored fields, and scattered farmhouses are the main attractions.

Traditionally, the Palouse region was defined as the fertile hills and prairies north of the Snake River which separated it from Walla Walla Country, extending north along the Washington and Idaho border to just south of Spokane, and centered on the Palouse River in Washington.  Sometimes the Palouse is defined more broadly and refers to the entire wheat-growing region, including the Walla Walla Country, the Camas Prairie of Idaho, the Big Bend region of the central Columbia River Plateau and other smaller agricultural areas in Asotin County.

The picturesque rolling hills that characterize the Palouse Prairie were formed during the ice ages.  Silt, sand, and clay were blown in from glacial outwash plains to the west and south to form the Palouse.  It’s this rich soil that makes the area so productive for agriculture.  This productivity was discovered during the 1880s, and by 1890 nearly all of the Palouse had been converted from short, perennial grasslands to wheat farming.  The native prairie is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the U.S.; only about 1% of the original prairie still exists.

The last week of May and the first two weeks of June are the best times to photograph the green hills.  I’ve been to the area during mid-May and had very good luck with the green and yellow of early growth.  Early morning and late afternoons are the best times as the low sun casts shadows of the rolling hills across the landscape.  In early July the hills will turn golden with ripening wheat.  The harvest starts in mid-August and continues into September.  Even the winter months can produce wonderful photographic opportunities, when snow, frost, and fog blanket the area.

Undulating furrows of early spring growth; taken 4/2 in Walla Walla County
Sunrise finds a light fog over the Palouse; taken 5/22 from Steptoe Butte

Besides the rolling hills, the many farms, old homesteads, grain elevators, and single trees or small clumps of trees amid open fields and hillsides provide great views for the camera.

Palouse Farmland; photo taken May 25
Lone tree in the Palouse; taken near sunset on May 9
After the Harvest; taken October 5 of the same area (note the single tree)
Tracks across a harvested hillside creates a semi-abstract pattern; taken 10/5

Long-time veterans have their favorite areas.  I simply get a Washington State Atlas & Gazetteer and follow the backroads.  This can lead to some wonderful discoveries.  Steptoe Butte State Park is the highest point in the area and offers a commanding view of the landscape; it’s locate NE of the town of Steptoe and SW of the town of Oaksdale.  If you want some guidance, some photographers offer workshops in the Palouse.  I can recommend Alan Caddey, who has been exploring the Palouse for many years and who is an outstanding photographer.

Palouse country, as seen from the backroads; taken 5/12

A strong note of caution about the roads:  The dirt roads of the Palouse often consist of clay, and they become completely impassable when it rains.  DO NOT attempt to drive on these roads when rain is threateneing, during a rainstorm, or just after a rainstorm; you will get stuck, even in a 4WD Hummer.  These same roads get dusty in the summer, and that can be a concern to digital shooters who like to change lenses frequently.

Tree and old barn, converted to B&W; taken 1/30 in Walla Walla County

There are motels in the towns of Moscow (Idaho), Pullman, and Colfax.  I like to travel in a camper on a pickup truck (very comfortable and very mobile).  The city of Colfax allows RVs to stay overnight in a city park on the north end of town.  It’s free of charge, and it’s something I greatly appreciate.  Kamiak Butte (which is either a county park or state park — I get conflicting information), located SE of the town of Palouse and directly north of Pullman, offers camping, but they close and lock the gate until 7:00 a.m., which greatly affects early morning exploration.  I wish more park managers were also photographers.  However, there are great views from Kamiak Butte, and it’s worth at least a night’s stay.

Frosted and foggy hills in the winter; taken 12/26 in Walla Walla County
More frosted and foggy hills; taken 12/26 in Walla Walla County

Photography locations - Washington

Kestner Creek Photography – Olympic National Forest

04.13.10 | Permalink | Comments Off on Kestner Creek Photography – Olympic National Forest

Kestner Creek is a wonderful, little-known area on the north side of Lake Quinault in the Quinault Rainforest that is great for photographing large, moss-draped maples and sword fern.  With over 12 feet of rain each year, it’s no wonder the area is so green.

While there are many photographic opportunities in this part of the Olympic Peninsula, Kestner Creek is special to me.  It’s easy to reach, the loop trail and great photographs start right at the parking area, and, most of all, the trees and vegetation are spectacular.

The nature trail loop begins at the parking area west of the ranger station.  After a short boardwalk, the trail enters the forest.  It soon divides, and either direction is fine.  This portion of the trail is the beginning of the most photogenic area.  Large, old maples draped with moss are all around.  In some areas, large expanses of sword fern form the understory.  I’ve contemplated taking an eight-foot stepladder just to get a better perspective of the carpet of ferns in some areas.

Kestner Creek Maples and Sword Fern

As the trail turns north, it passes a large wetland, and views from either end are great.  Maples lean out over the wetland, and the open area of the wetland allows for good shots of trees and ferns on the other side.  There are a few more photogenic views after the trail passes over a wooden bridge (which makes a worthwhile subject in its own right).  However, while the trail continues through the forest to the Kestner homestead, the best areas of trees have already been seen.  I would recommend concentrating on the area around the wetland and between the wetland and the trailhead.

Kestner Creek Wetland
Juvenile Barred Owl, Kestner Creek
Kestner Creek Bridge

A shorter route to the homestead (which I did not find too interesting for photos) begins at a second trailhead in the parking area on the north side of the ranger station.

The best time for photography at Kestner Creek is mid-May when the sword ferns are nearly completely uncurled and before the mosquitoes have made their summer appearance.  Mosquitoes will show up toward the end of May.  Autumn photography at Kestner Creek, despite the abundance of deciduous maples, is hit or miss because the amount of fall color is highly variable and dependent on summer moisture.  I’ve mostly missed.

I prefer to photograph forests when the sky is overcast, especially if the clouds are high and relatively thin.  It can also be good if there is a light rain, as long as you have means to keep your gear dry and lens free of water drops.  A polarizing filter makes a huge difference in the forest interior.  In my experience, photography in a relatively dense forest is more difficult when the sky is clear and sunlight is streaming through the trees.  At these times, the range of light is too great for film or sensors.  However, selective compositions or HDR techniques can overcome areas of high contrast, and great compositions can still be found.

On one trip I arrived at the parking area well before sunrise.  Elk frequent the meadow in front of the ranger station, which stands a couple hundred yards back from the main road.  I watched them from my vehicle, but it was too dark to try any photographs.  As it got lighter, the elk gradually drifted into the safety of the forest.  I began my walk on the trail, and it wasn’t long before the entire herd of about 30 elk ran across the trail about 40 feet in front of me, splashed through the shallow wetland, and then stopped and looked back at me from the other side as if to say, “Go ahead, we dare you to get your feet wet.”  This is an area where you want to have a telephoto lens if you like to photograph large wildlife; elk are fairly common, and the best time to see them is early morning.

Access to Kestner Creek starts at Highway 101 just north of the small community of Amanda Park (about 37 miles north of Hoquiam).  Turn onto the North Shore Road and travel about five miles to the Quinault Rain Forest Ranger Station on the left side of the road.

For comprehensive information about the Quinault Rainforest, click here.

Kestner Creek Maples


Landscape Photography: Have we become jaded?

04.12.10 | Permalink | 1 Comment

I’m struck by the extent to which beautiful landscape photographs are often “enhanced” with significant color saturation, placement of an out-of-place moon, or similar digital alteration. With respect to color, the attitude seems to be “if a little bit is good, then even more will be that much better.”

I tend to look for aesthetically pleasing compositions that capture an essence of the landscape I’m experiencing. That tends toward “classical” rather than “odd” or “unusual.” It’s my personal opinion that all of us take much for granted, that we often become bored or jaded with the usual (it’s everywhere, all the time!), and that many therefore often feel the need to go beyond the usual in order to photograph something interesting or meaningful. That’s not where I’m at. I thoroughly enjoy experiencing the “usual,” and I try to present it in a composition that captures the beauty of the usual. That’s also the basis for my lack of interest in extensive post-processing that creates scenes that my eyes did not and could not see (although some of my images, especially the long exposures, are exceptions to this statement). I appreciate the visions and skills of those who can create such scenes in a dramatic and mature way, but my own interest lies elsewhere. These different approaches to photography simply reflect, in my opinion, the diversity of our life experiences and personalities. However, I feel a degree of sadness for those who scoff at traditional landscape scenes, saying they’ve been done too often and are therefore boring photographic subjects. In my mind, the essence of living in the natural world, for the very short time that we have, is in these landscapes.

Photography locations - Montana

Photographing Spring Waterfowl Migration at Freezeout Lake, Montana

03.24.10 | Permalink | Comments Off on Photographing Spring Waterfowl Migration at Freezeout Lake, Montana

Bosque del Apache in New Mexico has a well-deserved reputation among photographers as a great place to photograph wintering waterfowl, cranes, and other wildlife.  Another spring hot spot that is much less known but well worth a visit is Freezeout Lake in north-central Montana.

Snow Geese heading from their wintering grounds in the southern states use Freezeout Lake as a rest stop on the journey to their breeding grounds in the Arctic.  Several hundred thousand snow geese and around 10,000 tundra swans (as well a pintails, mallards, goldeneyes, other waterfowl, raptors, and many passerines – more than 200 species total) can be found here, with peak numbers occurring at the end of March,

I drove to Freezeout on March 17, 2010, thinking that the mild winter and early spring would have the birds arriving earlier than usual.  I was so wrong.  The lakes/ponds that constitute Freezeout Lake Management Area (managed by Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks) were still mostly frozen, and the birds numbered “only a few thousand.”

“Camping” in Freezeout Lake area

There are a series of roads and “human rest stops” throughout the interior of the management area.  I chose to camp at the westernmost site, furthest from the highway and the main access road. Most of the roads are graveled and passable during wet weather.  However, a secondary access road (not marked on the highway) is composed of ungraveled clay and is not passable in even the slightest rain.  Heed the warning signs!

A few years ago I ignored the signs during a light rain, and I ended up stuck on this backroad.  It was well below freezing at night, so I just figured I would wait for the road to freeze before making my way to safety.  At 2:00 a.m. I poked my head out of my camper and saw a weather front coming in from the north.  I didn’t know if it was a warm or cold front, but the worst possible scenario, in my mind, was increasing temperatures and more rain – I could be out there for days.  I decided to give it my best shot.  Several thrill-seekers in 4WD vehicles had passed by me during the day, creating rough ruts in the road.  I hit these ruts, and for about 300 yards my wheels were spinning faster than the truck was moving, the truck bounced crazily (if I got thrown out of the ruts, I would certainly end up in one of the water-filled ditches on either side of the road), and I had a death-grip on the steering wheel.  I can’t describe the relief I felt when I crossed over the cattle guard and hit gravel.  Never, never mess with clay roads (known locally as gumbo).

Camping at Freezeout Lake during the peak of the migration is an experience that absolutely must not be missed.  At night I was the only person for miles, and in the darkness the constant calling of thousands of snow geese (depending on the campsite, they may be close or distant) along with the yelping wails of coyotes calling back and forth had a primeval feeling to it, far removed from the sounds of civilization that we experience most of our days.

Silver Streak

The photos that most of us want occur near sunrise during “take-off” when the geese head out to the surrounding fields to eat.  The constant calling of the birds suddenly increases in volume and intensity (saying “get your cameras ready”), and in a few seconds the birds ascend and begin to fill the sky.  Depending on the distance to the flocks, cloud conditions, and the flock’s position relative to the rising sun, photos can vary from huge masses of birds, detailed photos of individuals or small groups, to distant silhouettes.  During the day, birds will come and go, and this is the best time to try your bird-in-flight photography skills.

Morning Flyout
“V” Formation of Snow Geese
Up Closer
Gulls in Flight (yes, I need to work on my BIF skills)

Because of the distance, I used my 500mm f/4 lens most of the time.  During the day, especially if the sky is clear, a 400mm f/5.6 or 300mm f/4 (in the Canon family) may be most useful.  Lens choice will be based on distance and the composition that one desires.

Hunting is allowed at Freezeout, and as a result the waterfowl tends to be more skittish than in areas where hunting is prohibited and visited only by birdwatchers.  This makes longer lenses more useful.

Birds are certainly not the only photographic subject at Freezeout Lake.  The “Big Sky Country” is famous for sunsets, and the cloud patterns and rural landscape are a great combination.

Sunset at Freezeout Lake
Ephemeral Purple Majesty
Three Evening Clouds, my favorite photo of the trip

Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area is located in north central Montana 40 miles west of Great Falls along US Highway 89 between Fairfield and Choteau. There are turnouts and parking areas to area from US Highway 89 and from Frontage road from Fairfield year-round.  Interior roads are open to vehicles from March 15 to the beginning of waterfowl hunting season in the fall.  Dike-system roads are closed to vehicles, but they are great for hiking to get closer to the birds.

Generally the peak of the migration (according to refuge managers) is March 28.  Call 406-467-2646 for an automated waterfowl update.  For more web-based information, go here or here.

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