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Category Archives: Blue Hour
Winter In New England
It’s been an interesting winter here in New England thus far. We’ve certainly seen an extreme range of temperatures, not to mention some “wicked” ice storms and a recent Nor’easter blizzard.
During this time of year, many of my fellow photographer friends love to grab their camera equipment and venture out to face the elements head on. I wish I could say that I was one of those adventurous photographers, but alas my thin blood and extremely low tolerance to the cold has me instead living vicariously through them.
While I’ve added many new “To Buy” items to my “Winter Photography Clothing Gear List,” in reality I spend most cold winter days indoors staying warm and exploring my creative side through a variety of post-production filters and techniques. I will touch on a few of my favorite post-production filters here today.
I Know I’m Not Alone…
I suspect I’m not the only photographer who tends to avoid the possibility of frozen fingers — and exposing my equipment to ice, snow, and sub-zero temps. So for those of you with simpatico minds — and I know there are more than just a few of us — this article might give you a few new ideas on how to reinvent an existing image, or perhaps take your post-production process in a new direction altogether.
So let’s get to some of those favorite post-production filters of mine…
Photoshop comes equipped with several built-in filters. Poster Edges is one of them. You can easily access it from the Filter pull-down menu at the top of your screen. (Filter > Artistic > Poster Edges). The filter’s image adjustment sliders then let you alter such things as Edge Thickness, Edge Intensity, and Posterization to your preference for that image.
For this image, I took a macro shot of a coneflower. I then added a texture layer for a fine art effect. For a final step, I applied the Poster Edges filter to give the image a contemporary look.
Oil Paint Filter
Another favorite Photoshop filter of mine is the Oil Paint Filter. This filter comes packaged with Photoshop CS6 and Photoshop CC. The Oil Paint effect also shipped as a free Pixel Bender Gallery plugin for Photoshop CS5.
Note: Variations of an oil paint effect are also available as third-party PS plugins from software makers such as Topaz Labs.
“Less Is More”
To what degree one applies the Oil Paint Filter to an image very much depends on personal taste. I’m a big proponent of “less is more” when it comes to using this filter. Being conservative with the adjustment sliders gives the image a far more realistic oil painting look in my opinion. However, there are no “rules” to creativity. Surrealism certainly has its place, so by all means feel free to experiment and turn reality into something as abstract as your imagination envisions.
Flaming Pear Flood Filter
I love the Flood Filter by Flaming Pear. You can use it to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary, or to give added dimension to a visual story.
In this shot, I used it to add a dramatic — and somewhat surreal — effect to one of my HDR Battleship Cove images taken in Fall River, Massachusetts. The adjustment sliders for this filter give you great latitude for “flood placement” and water detail manipulation.
Topaz Star Effects
Who doesn’t like adding a little pizzazz to images that already feature an illuminated light? I certainly thought this sunrise shot of Maine’s Portland Head Light deserved such a treatment — and Topaz Star Effects made it possible. Again, I believe in the “less is more” approach. The “blue hour” of morning was beautiful in and of itself. Adding a subtle star effect to the beacon seemed like a nature fit to accentuate the beauty of the moment.
So there you have it. Several examples of the different type of post-production filters you can play with on a cold winter’s day.
As you know, it’s only mid January. We still have a couple of months of this New England winter to go. Since we can’t change it, I say let’s embrace the opportunities it offers.
For some that means bundling up and dazzling the rest of us with spectacular winter images. For the rest of us, it means having fun — and staying warm — at our computers while we enjoy some post-production experimentation.
However you choose to survive this winter’s cold weather, enjoy!
~ Liz Mackney
The south coast of Massachusetts is rich with history and scenery, and it has some amazing coastline. In fact, only two communities in the south coast do not have coastal access. The area known as the south coast includes the communities of Acushnet, Dartmouth, Fairhaven, Fall River, Marion, Mattapoisett, New Bedford, Rochester, Wareham and Westport. There is plenty to see and photograph in these communities; I only wish I had more time to do so. In this article, I will share some of the locations that I have photographed or visited in the south coast. Please note that while I am not providing a map of these locations, they are all very easy to find using Google Maps or Bing Maps and by following my descriptions.
Sadly, for most of us, much of the coastline is private property and not accessible to the general public. There are some fantastic areas along the south coast that are accessible to everyone and I will share some of my favorite locations with you.
Most people know Westport for Horseneck Beach, a very popular beach in the summer. For photographers, Horseneck itself is not so photogenic. It’s the locations adjacent to it that are. For sunrises and especially sunsets, you cannot find a better spot in Westport than Gooseberry Island. I “discovered” this place for photography in 2010 and have shot here dozens upon dozens of times. My preference is to photograph sunsets in the winter closer to low tide. Sunrises are equally as beautiful, and the island has very dark skies suitable for photographing the Milky Way. The island is connected to the mainland via a gated causeway, and in the summer the gate is closed promptly at sunset. The gate is also closed during inclement weather. The safest bet, regardless of the time of year, is to park just outside the gate and walk in to avoid getting your car locked on the island.
On the other side of the Westport River is the Elephant Rocks area. This is a cold weather sunrise location. Technically, there is no parking at the end of Acoaxet Road where I usually park. In the winter before dawn, I have never had a problem parking there, but I apply my standard disclaimer that you should always obey the signage regarding parking. Walk the beach or Beach Road to the east until you reach the large rocks at the end known as The Knubble. Again, use caution on the rocks as they can be slippery.
Other spots in Westport worth mentioning are the marshes along Route 88 near Horseneck. These can be remarkable in the late afternoon or morning light. Also, photographing the harbor at Westport Point from the Route 88 bridge is great at sunset.
Down the road from Gooseberry is the Westport Town Beach and Allen’s Pond Wildlife Sanctuary. Technically in Dartmouth, the beach adjacent to Allen’s Pond is a particularly photogenic sunrise location from late October through late March. I usually will park in a small parking area right at the bend in the road and walk the beach in. There is a small lot for the wildlife sanctuary just past the bend that you could park in as well. Walk the beach for maybe a quarter mile until you reach a large rocky section. Use caution on some of the rocks as they are slippery when wet.
All of these locations are teeming with wildlife. Plovers, osprey, egrets, eagles, seals, deer, coyotes can all be seen in most of these locations.
Inland, Fairhaven has a large amount of farmland and wilderness. Coastal access is limited to residents or private property. The exception is West Island, where the West Island State Reservation and the West Island/Fairhaven Town Beach are located. This is another location that is best for sunrises, and I have not photographed here except during the winter. I simply park in the main beach lot and walk the beach to the north to a large rocky section. There is a lot to explore in Fairhaven that I haven’t gotten to yet.
There are also numerous man-made objects worth photographing along the south coast. Numerous lighthouse and small harbors dot the coast. Palmers Island Lighthouse, Ned’s Point, and Butler Flats all come to mind. In Fall River, easily accessible, the USS Massachusetts and the Braga Bridge, along with the cooling towers for the Brayton Point Power Plant all make great subjects at sunset or at night.
So there you have it, some of my favorite spots to photograph on the South Coast of Massachusetts. If you have any favorite spots in those communities, feel free to share them in the comments below or on our Facebook page.
~ Bryan Bzdula
‘Tis the Season
No matter whether you call them Christmas lights or holiday decorations, this is the time of year when bright multicolored bulbs soften the chill of our bitter winter cold. I have always disliked the tendency to over-do the decorations.
Inflatable Reindeer and a bedazzled Santa prancing across the lawn have never juiced my holiday spirit, but when tastefully applied lights can be a powerful reminder of the warmth of family and the traditions that make this season special.
Of course the lights are an invitation to capture the spirit in photography. Christmas lights photography is not difficult, but as is always true, a few simple rules can vastly improve your results. Also check out this week’s Getting it Right in the Digital Camera Blog for more images and the story of how I tried to hit the “sweet spot” in Keene’s Central Square.
Shoot the Blue Hour
Probably the most commonly stated rule of Christmas lights photography is to shoot in twilight. During the “blue hour” after sunset or before sunrise, the sky has a lovely cool color and the details in the foreground and under the lights are subtly visible. Once the last glow has faded, the lights seem to float in space with little suggestion of context.
In my example from my favorite location around Central Square in Keene, New Hampshire, the blue in the sky provides a contrast to the warmth of the lights on the Gazebo and church. This year, my problem with catching twilight on the square was that the lights on the classic church didn’t warm up until after the sky had descended close to complete blackness.
After a number of calls, I finally found the folks in charge of the church lighting and they agreed to turn the spots on two hours early. I was able to capture the scene at dusk of a snowy evening. Perfect! The church shining through the snow provided a much more balanced glow. I owe the city a print, but then again I have already donated my pictures for their website.
Traditionally Christmas lights are most naturally captured with color balance set to match the tungsten bulbs, although some lights are now LCDs and experimentation may be necessary. It is a matter of personal preference. Daylight settings exaggerate the warmth of the scenes, but shooting in the tungsten captures truer colors and also works to enhance the blue of the sky. Of course, if you are shooting in RAW, as you should, color balance can be easily adjusted in post regardless of the initial settings. I usually start with tungsten and adjust based on my initial results. The advantage of setting a fixed color setting, even in RAW, is that, since the color balance doesn’t change shot to shot, as it could with Auto White Balance (AWB), a single color adjustment can often work to adjust a batch of images.
Sometimes bouncing lights can form an interesting abstract image, but most often you will want to firmly steady your camera. Long exposures are usually necessary to capture enough light while keeping the ISO noise within manageable limits. A tripod is the best solution, but in a pinch you may find a tree, mailbox, car hood or friendly shoulder to provide the necessary stability. Last week, I was tripodless and used most of these solutions, including Susan’s head, while shooting the lights on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. Of course the tripod will do nothing to reduce the effect of windblown lights and branches. You can wait for a lull in the gale or boost the ISO to allow a shorter exposure. The same result can be obtained by opening up your aperture, but a wide aperture will limit the depth of field and also has another effect on the appearance of the lights that should be considered.
The Star Burst Effect
Reducing the aperture will increase your depth of field, but it will also affect the appearance of the bright pin points of light coming from the Christmas bulbs. Light passing through a small aperture is bent more strongly through the process of diffraction. Diffraction is the reason that images taken with small apertures are softer and it also causes a star burst pattern around any strong light source.
This effect is most commonly noticed in photographs taken directly into the sun, but also occurs when Christmas lights are captured through a small aperture. The individual lights take on a twinkling appearance that adds sparkle to the image. The number of rays is dependent on the number of leaves in the lens iris.
The effect becomes more prominent as the aperture is reduced and when shorter focal lengths are used. In the example here, the aperture was at f/18 and is noticeably more sparkly than the image captured at f/8.
Of course, with Christmas lights, we are working in the dark and small apertures may not always be possible, but, when practicable the star burst effect can add life to your images.
It seems silly to have to say this. But for those with automatic cameras that try to force flash on every dark situation, learn to turn the damn thing off! Rarely a touch of muted flash can help to add detail to a dark foreground, but as a general rule, if you can’t figure out how to turn off your flash, cover it with black tape.
The general rules of composition are no different for Christmas light photography and the creative breaking of the rules is just as powerful in creating interesting images.
The lights always need to be hanging on something and whether it is a tree, a house or your spouse the lighting scaffold is an important part of the composition.
Foreground elements can be used to complement or frame the lighting, enhancing the sense of place. Sometimes non-illuminated elements of the scene may be the major focus with the bulbs providing a soft background.
The lights may be seen in reflection off of a lakes, puddles or even a shiny car hood. The important thing is to construct a balanced image, not just take a snapshot of pretty lights.
For me, the Christmas light jackpot comes when I can catch the lights at twilight just after a snow storm. The trick is to catch the fresh snow while it is still clinging to the tree branches and other structures, the “Winter Wonderland” time. I try to get out as the storm is passing, when the snow is still closely illuminated by the lights, and before the heat of the bulbs has melted pockets around each light.
I rushed into Keene to capture this tree at about 11 pm, just about one hour after the snow had stopped. It was the prettiest Christmas tree I have seen in the Square. The only thing missing was the blue hour. The sweet time, when the snow is clinging to the branches and nestling the bulbs is short, but definitely worth the effort required to blast your way out of your driveway.
Too soon will the branches be bare and the roads streaked with grime. I hope these few suggestions will be of some help for your Christmas lights photography.
We may be getting a little late in the season, but the lights generally linger at least through New Year’s. Of course, it is important to remember that all the basic rules for cold weather photography still apply. So bundle up, keep an extra battery warm in your pocket, and have fun.
Check out my companion personal blog with more images and stories.
“The goal of creative photography goes beyond the mere production of images that are technically good or that adequately reflect the subject as seen; rather, the goal is to produce images that uniquely represent the photographer’s vision and possess meanings beyond the literal visual elements they portray.” ~ Guy Tal
Guy Tal is one of my favorite contemporary photographers, and favorite philosophers and thinkers. His prose often moves me as deeply as his photographs, while his photos are some of my all-time favorites. His words encourage me to make meaningful images, wherever I am.
As a lifelong wanderer and a landscape photographer, I love to travel. I dream of unscheduled days of hiking; time for slow, week-long drives up and down the coast, as well as the hardest to put together, weeks of totally open time with the resources and freedom to wander spontaneously wherever the spirit moves me.
Alas, this winter, travel is not to be. With a new baby and a 19-month old daughter at home, I am nesting and nestling with family. That said, I do get restless to get outside and to make some photos. Winter is my favorite season to play and to shoot. I am taking short, quick outings very close to home. I’m shooting on the way to my day job and on the way home. I’m shooting for 30 minutes at dusk, or an hour after all the children have gone to bed. Because I know the area I’m shooting intimately, I adjust where I shoot for the best conditions.
The farthest I have travelled for photography this year is 20 miles.
And I was out and back in less than 2 hours.
Tight shooting schedules have pushed me to make more intentional images. In the past I might have gone out for a half-day or day of shooting in the Whites or on the coast and come home with 500+ images. These days I am coming home with 10 or 20 tops.
And a funny thing is happening as I have less time to shoot. I am slowing down. I am spending more time looking before I shoot. I am spending time being still. I am considering and reconsidering compositions. I am reconnecting with the local landscapes, which is one of the things that drew me to photography in the first place. I am finding incredible beauty literally in my back yard.
Shooting close to home, often at places I have shot multiple times, pushes me to look beyond the obvious and to try to find something more intimate. I imagine being inspired by the spirit of a place. It may be a hokey idea, but it often feels true. All of the images in this blog post were shot less than 2 miles from home. The church and the doorway were shot on the way to and from work. The trees were shot at dusk one day and at midnight the other (after the entire family went to sleep).
It is good to be home.
The Science of Light
After the sun sets each evening, there is a fairly prolonged transition between day and night. It’s a phenomena that we experience each day, but have we ever stopped to ponder what’s behind the dusky blue hour?
The reason that the landscape doesn’t immediately go dark after sunset, and we instead experience degrees of twilight, is due to the properties of both the light and atmosphere itself, and is rooted in the same reason that the daytime sky is blue.
Light from the sun reaches the Earth as a full spectrum of electromagnetic waves. The waves all travel the same speed, but have extremely varied wavelengths, with waves of red light nearly twice long as blue light. The wavelengths of blue light are nearly the same size as many of the gas molecules in the atmosphere, and because of this comparable size, are prone to being scattered. This scattering, or bouncing around of blue light in the sky by the air itself is the reason why the daytime sky appears blue.
If you hold a prism up to the sun during the noontime hour, you will see that only a small amount of the blue light is actually scattered out by our relatively thin atmosphere. As the sun sets in the evening though, the amount of atmosphere that the sun’s light travels through is significantly increased by the angle of solar incidence, and more and more blue light is scattered out. This allows the reds and oranges, the longer wavelengths which are less likely to be scattered, to shine through dominantly, and give us the great colors at sunset.
Because very little orange or red light is scattered, as soon as the sun slips below the horizon the amount of red and orange light reaching the landscape drops to near zero. This doesn’t mean that the landscape is dark though, as all of the blue light bouncing around the atmosphere is still finding its way indirectly to you via the scattering. As the sun slips further below the horizon, and civil twilight blends to nautical twilight, the amount of scattered light decreases, and the intensity of the blue color increases.
Science Relates to Art
The dusky blue hour is a great time to open up the shutter and take pictures. Landscape features are still visible, but seemingly appear in monochrome blue. Contrasts are low. Artificial light, with its warm tones, provide a pleasing complimentary color in the developed landscape.
Some of my favorite shots have been taken during the blue hour. These shots are often moody, giving the viewer not only a sense of place but a true feeling of what it was like to truly experience the scene.
A misty lake, predawn, before color fills the sky, with silhouettes of trees on the opposite shoreline just becoming visible creates an image with much more depth than the same scene an hour or two later in the morning.
A winter landscape, a classic view of a familiar scene takes on new life when bathed in the blue light after sunset. Shots during the blue hour require long exposures, and movement is often seen in the clouds.
A holiday scene, with snow still falling taken before the fading light obscured the surrounding hillsides. The strongest contrasts were created between artificial and natural light.
These shots highlight the possibilities that taking photographs during the dusky blue hour can provide. For further reading about the blue hour, and some of the technical aspects of shooting during this time, I recommend clicking over to this excellent piece written by my colleague Mike Blanchette.