Behind the Image

Behind the Image: Sun, Oak, and Marsh

This photograph was not an accident. I did not coincidentally happen upon this beautiful oak just as the sun was about to set on the horizon. Happy accidents are very rare in photography. This image was the result of planning, scouting, and timing. I’m afraid that most people have this idea that photographers walk about aimlessly with their expensive gear and picture opportunities just jump out at them. Then the camera does all the work, right? Nice gear equals nice pics? Not at all. I can’t stress that point enough.

I was recovering from my recent surgery down on the North/South Carolina border near the coast over the holidays and getting very tired of sitting around. I had my camera gear in my backpack and decided to take a drive early one morning and arrived just before sunrise at Sunset Beach, North Carolina. It was surprisingly chilly weather for the low country, but it was great to be out doing my thing again (see images from this outing in the previous post). After my time on the beach, I drove over the border to Vereen Gardens in Little River, South Carolina.

I’d been there before and remembered all the old oaks that hang over the marsh. I remembered the moss swaying from the branches. It seemed like it would be a great area for landscape photographs. Unfortunately, I’d spent so much time on the beach, the sun was too high for the image I imagined. I wanted the trees to be backlit and the moss to have nice rim lighting. I decided to watch the weather forecasts and return one evening when the sun would set behind this particularly interesting tree.

An old oak by the intracoastal marsh, near Little River, South Carolina. (18mm, f16, 1/40 sec, ISO 100, tripod)

An old oak by the intracoastal marsh, near Little River, South Carolina. (18mm, f16, 1/40 sec, ISO 100, tripod)

On a clear evening I drove back over to Vereen Gardens with a particular shot in mind. I walked the wooded trails through the marshes to the old oak that I found most interesting. I knew exactly where the sun would rest briefly on the horizon before slipping behind it. There would be only a couple minutes to compose the shot. In order to get a perfect “sun star” I had to wait until the sun was just touching the horizon, then I had to compose the frame (with my tripod in several inches of black mud) so that the light poked through the branches in an aesthetically pleasing spot. I used a narrow aperture of f16 to help give the rays of sunlight more definition. Despite the high contrast in this scene (the extreme brightness and extremely dark shadows), I ended up not having to use exposure bracketing. I bracketed several exposures anyway, but the dead-centre exposure was balanced enough that there was plenty of dynamic range to pull out detail in the highlights and shadows. The sun dipped behind the tree-line, signalling my time was up. I was pleased with the results when I was able to look at the image on my big screen back in Edmonton.

This image, for me, captures the feel of an evening on the Carolina coast. Warm light, Spanish moss, salty marshes, and huge live oaks are characteristic of the region. I am happy I was able to make an image that seems wild and untouched in an area so densely developed and over-overpopulated. It’s the natural South in a single frame.

“I think a photograph, of whatever it might be – a landscape, a person – requires personal involvement. That means knowing your subject, not just snapping away at what’s in front of you.” - Frans Lanting

Behind the Image: Autumn on Grandfather Mountain

Autumn on Grandfather Mountain,
Blue Ridge Mountains, NC

As we near the first official days of the fall season, it seems that winter may have come early here in Alberta. It’s already below freezing and snowing out! In the spirit of Autumn, I thought I’d share an experience from 2 years ago in the Blue Ridge Mountains…

Autumn is a fleeting time of year. One day the humid forest is thick and green, and seemingly the next day, it is chilly and blanketed in vibrant shades of red, yellow, and orange. This "peak" in color usually comes in mid-October and lasts only a day or two before the leaves turn brown or are blown off the trees by heavy winds, leaving a forest of grey skeletons. Those winds, along with a sharp drop in temperatures, signal the coming of winter. Autumn triggers a hurried response from wildlife and humans alike to prepare for the long cold months ahead.

I was buried in images from my October 2016 trip to Iceland when I realized I only had a couple days left to photograph the fall colors in the Blue Ridge. I decided to take a break and drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway and hike up the steep and craggy trail at Rough Ridge just before sunset. I knew it would be crowded with visitors even though it was a random weekday evening. I envisioned an image of the golden light of sunset blanketing the lower mountains below Rough Ridge to the east, but every possibly decent spot to set up had several selfie-taking tourists already hunkered down for what was clearly going to be an amazing sunset. I suppressed my irritation. I have no more right to be there than them, and who could blame anyone for wanting to see this spectacular Fall foliage at sunset?

Autumn colors on Grandfather Mountain from Rough Ridge Trail, Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina. (Nikon D600, Nikkor 18-35G Lens, Gitzo Tripod, Circular Polarizer, 3-stop ND filter) © Jon Reaves Photography

Autumn colors on Grandfather Mountain from Rough Ridge Trail, Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina. (Nikon D600, Nikkor 18-35G Lens, Gitzo Tripod, Circular Polarizer, 3-stop ND filter) © Jon Reaves Photography

I abandoned my original plan and set up on the only rocky outcrop that was vacant. It pointed toward the eastern face of Grandfather Mountain- opposite of where I had planned to point my camera. The sun was about to set behind the mountain. I set up, composed, and waited for a few minutes for the sunset colors to intensify. It was a tricky scene to meter; high contrast scenes always are. I used a polarizer to help intensify the colors and darken the sky a bit and used the lightest edge of my graduated neutral density filter to balance out the sky with the dark mountain.

I usually shoot with my white balance set to "daylight", but chose to shoot this scene in "cloudy" to further intensify the warm colors in both the sky and forest (though, because I shoot in RAW format this is easily changeable in post). I bracketed several exposures to make sure my histogram was balanced and I hadn't plunged the shadows and blown the highlights. A tripod was completely necessary for stability. This shot required a narrow aperture for increased depth of field, a low ISO for decreased noise, and so a long shutter speed was the result. No hand-holding this shot! I used the camera's two-second timer to reduce the likelihood of blur. Only a slight levels and contrast adjustment was required in post to bring this image back to life the way I remembered it.

I'm glad I took that evening off and hiked up Rough Ridge for this shot during peak Autumn color. Only a few days later, the trees on Grandfather Mountain became brown and nearly bare. Soon after, the landscape was virtually colorless for 6 months until spring.

“I stand for what I stand on.” - Edward Abbey

Behind the Image: Hungarian Parliament at Night


I don't remember how many trips my wife, Alison, and I made to the famous Fisherman's Bastion. It was a long walk from Pest across the Chain Bridge and up winding streets. The temperature was around 90 degrees each day. Living in Canada, I'm not accustomed to that type of heat and humidity anymore (thank goodness our apartment had AC). I was determined to get a particular shot. I had photographed the Hungarian Parliament several times from several different locations over the course of the week, but I had been unable to capture the Parliament from Fisherman's Bastion in an effective way.

On the final evening of our trip I was determined to get something good out of the Fisherman's Bastion experience. It's a popular spot for tourists- one of the major sights in Budapest. I wasn't that impressed. It looks like an awkward sandcastle. There's a architecturally underwhelming Marriott and Starbucks next to it. No matter what time of day we visited the area, morning or night, it was packed with tourists. Serious landscape photography was very difficult. If I return to Budapest, I'm going during a shoulder season for sure. 

a trick up my sleeve

The best thing about Fisherman's Bastion is the panoramic views of Pest, the Danube, and the Parliament building. I wanted a particular image. I wanted the columns and arched windows of Fisherman's Bastion in the foreground, framing the dramatic Parliament all lit up at twilight. In the early evening I set up my tripod and waited. I used a Nikon 24-120mm f4 VR lens. The Parliament is pretty far across the Danube from Fisherman's Bastion.  In order to fill the frame with the Hungarian Parliament (and make it look much closer and larger), I had to employ a simple trick that most photographers visiting Fisherman's Bastion don't use. Instead of using a wide angle and getting close to the columns like most do, I set up about 20-25 feet back and zoomed in with my lens. A wide-angle makes distant objects smaller and farther away, but a telephoto focal length compresses the elements within the frame. In this case, the Hungarian Parliament looks much closer to Fisherman's Bastion than it actually is. That's the only trick to this composition. There is no stacking. This is one frame. 

Hungarian Parliament at night from Fisherman's Bastion, Budapest, Hungary (Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-120 f4 VR, tripod, 120mm, f14, 3 sec, ISO 250).

Hungarian Parliament at night from Fisherman's Bastion, Budapest, Hungary (Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-120 f4 VR, tripod, 120mm, f14, 3 sec, ISO 250).

A little help

The big challenge wasn't getting the right composition, or even the light. Once the sun set and the city lights came on, all I had to do was click the shutter. Simple right? Wrong. There were dozens of selfie-hungry tourists blocking my shot. People were crowding the very window I was trying to shoot through. I waited for the crowd to open up, but it thickened. I realize that I have no more reason to be there than they do. It's an awesome view. I already knew getting the shot in the late evening would be a stretch (should have showed up at 4AM...shame on me). Nonetheless I was getting discouraged and was about to call it a day when a friendly face in a Red Socks hat popped up out of the crowd. 

"You guys American?" He said. Small talk ensued. His name is Cam Woodsum, a nomad travel-blogger. He'd been in Budapest for a few weeks. He said he had a score to settle between himself and Budapest and wanted to help me out. He asked if I'd like him to do some crowd control and clear the way long enough for me to take my shot. I thought he was at least half joking, so I said yes. With the help of Alison, Cam parted the sea of selfie-zombies just long enough for me to get my image. I'm very grateful to Cam for his help. This is easily my favorite shot from our Budapest experience. 


Behind the Image: Mariaberget & Gamla stan, Stockholm

View of Mariaberget from Gamla stan in early morning light. (155mm, f8, 1/500 sec, ISO 400)

View of Mariaberget from Gamla stan in early morning light. (155mm, f8, 1/500 sec, ISO 400)

I must confess something: I could have made much better images of Stockholm. It's normal, as an artist, to be hard on yourself and even put down your own work. It's normal to doubt whether you'll be able to do justice to a scene or even express your vision for an image at all. It's normal, even for the pros, to get a few sucky photos. It's also easy to make excuses and say, "I tried and I'll do better next time." Next time may not come. Try now. Don't be lazy. Laziness was not exactly my reason for coming home from Sweden with quiet images. I had a stroke of rough luck when two foot conditions that I have flared up at once, beginning the day we arrived and ending the day we flew home. I hadn't had flare ups of either of these separate conditions in months. It was the pain with each step that made me lazy about photography in Sweden last June. In a very walkable city like Stockholm, it flat out sucks to have two bad feet when the pressure's on to make stunning images. I'm a lucky guy as far as health goes. I'm a lucky guy as far as everything goes, actually. I'll complain no more.

Behind the Image: Mariaberget, Gamla stan & Södermalm, Stockholm

Usually, I can bet on having lots of "keepers" and a few strong images that really stand out from each shoot. I've found that over the years I actually make fewer exposures and my ratio of "keepers" to "messups" is about nine to one. In Stockholm I shot hundreds of images each day. They're not bad images - just not my best work. I'd like to say that every time I travel I get better at representing the destination in a creative and dynamic way. Though my images of Stockholm are decent for the travel industry (I've sold several images from the trip including the one above), they do not represent me at my best. In my opinion, I came home with a lot of good, but not great, photographs of an amazing and vibrant city. Each time I browse the archive I think of what images I would retake or try to get if I could do it over. Maybe someday I will. I have many other places on my list, but Stockholm may require a second go to get it right.

My favorite area of Stockholm was Gamla stan (Old Town). No history buff can deny its charm. No tourist can leave Stockholm without wandering its narrow cobblestone streets. My wife and I rented an apartment in Södermalm, a more modern and trendy part of town, but made the trip up to Old Town three times. The first was a mess. We arrived at mid-day to swathes of tourists crammed into the tiny streets like herring in a can, all knocking elbows to get the same shot of Hell's Alley. I'd eventually get mine too. What caught my eye even more was the view of Söder MälarstrandMariaberget from Gamla stan. On the first day in Old Town the light was terrible for this particular scene and getting into the right position to frame it nicely while others grazed my arms and back was impossible. Sore feet added much to the difficulties. I had to have one foot on the narrow sidewalk and the other in the street to get the best composition. Passing cars provided a slightly dangerous obstacle. It became clear that we would need to try again later.

I would get this shot on the second trip over to Old Town. We were on the metro as soon as it started running and were on the quiet streets of Gamla stan almost before anyone else. It was perfect. We had the place to ourselves for about an hour before the crowds and commuters showed up. I used my D600 and my ol' trusty 70-300 VR (I have since replaced it with the 70-200 f2.8 VR II). With one achy and blistered foot on the sidewalk and the other achy and blistered foot in the street, I made this image. The long focal length of 155mm allowed the scene to be compressed and simplified. I couldn't be happier with the light that morning. It took several attempts to have the shot framed exactly the way I wanted, but eventually I got there. A tripod would have helped for sure.

I loved the architecture in Stockholm. There's something for everybody's taste, from modern minimalist, to baroque, to art decco, to Victorian. It is impossible to tell from this image, but Mariaberget (the cluster of buildings in the center) and rows of buildings along the side are actually in different parts of the city separated by the Riddarfjärden waterway. Mariaberget is across the water in Södermalm and the rows of older buildings on either side of the frame are in Gamla stan. Within this shot are actually two major parts of the city, separated by water.

Despite feeling that my shots from Stockholm are overall pretty "quiet", this one stands out a little for me. A couple do actually, but none really jump out at me and scream successful photography. My feet kept me from visiting a few parts of Sweden that I really wanted to go to and definitely limited my ability to "chase the light" so to speak. I could make excuses all day. I've received a lot of positive feedback from others on my Stockholm portfolio, but an artist can be his/her own harshest critic. That's a good thing I guess. 

"My life is shaped by the urgent need to wander and observe, and my camera is my passport."

- Steve McCurry