Category Archives: Blue Hour

Fall Foliage: Think Outside The Box

This time of year in New England is what most photographers live for. The trees in reds, yellows, oranges and combinations of the three combined with waterfalls, ponds, barns, churches and mountains. Classic New England imagery that turns northern New England into a seasonal mecca for leaf peepers. While these images are classic and iconic and I have many in my portfolio, in my opinion, they tend to become routine.

So how does one take something so monumentally iconic as New England fall foliage and put a new spin on it? It’s something I’ve been toying around with for a few seasons and I’ll gladly share some tips with you.


By far the easiest spin on foliage is the abstract. It can be as simple as using a long lens and zooming in tightly to a cluster of trees on a mountainside instead of going wide and capturing the whole scene. A classic fall abstract is to simply shoot the reflection of the foliage in moving water. It’s timeless, and when done right, can sell for a million bucks like the famous Peter Lik photo “One”. To get a true abstract, try using intentional camera movement. Focus on part of a tree, set your shutter speed slow enough that you can zoom in while the shutter is open. Try panning side to side or up and down while the shutter is open, or get really creative and twist the camera while exposing. It’s generally hit or miss, but when it’s a hit you can walk away with a really amazing and unique image. The following images are examples of some of these techniques.

2012-10-21-Hunts Mill - Gammino-175-13.jpg2011-10-11-White Mountains-054-179.jpg2011-10-11-White Mountains-054-185.jpg2011-10-11-White Mountains-054-221.jpg2011-11-06-Backyard Fall-062-47.jpg2013 White Mountains20131005-45.jpgTurner and Meadows20131022-37-Edit.jpg

Long Exposures

Try using a 9 or 10 stop ND filter, or stack a 2 and 3 stop ND to get a long exposure during daylight. This can have a really dramatic effect when combined with water and moving clouds. I have used both my 9 stop and two 3 stop filters in the late afternoon to get 90-second exposures of foliage reflecting into a pond with clouds that appear to be racing by.

2010-10-14 Turner Reservoir_0022.jpg2010-10-22 Turner Reservoir_0013.jpg

Seascape Foliage

There is foliage along the coast that turns color in the fall. Most people either forget that or are unaware. Beach roses in particular, turn very vibrant orange, red and yellow in autumn. The grasses and reeds that grow along salt water marshes also turn golden in the fall. These can be used to create some dramatically different fall foliage images.

Gooseberry Sunset20131110-Edit.jpg

Man Made

Many of the iconic fall images include something man made, like a barn or church. Step it up a notch and include city streets, or an old factory. An abandoned car in the woods would make an excellent subject when surrounded by bright fall foliage. Instead of focusing on the barn and silo, find the tractor or baler and compose it with the foliage.


Close Up and Depth of Field

You could use a macro lens or extension tubes and zoom in really close to backlit leaves. Or zoom in tight with a small aperture and shoot at the sun to get a star burst behind a leaf. Sometimes a little fill flash helps with this. You could use a wider angle lens but open up to as wide as you can and focus on some foreground leaves. This would leave (no pun intended) the background soft and out of focus. This would even work with an iconic shot of a white church blurred in the background. Another option I’ll add in here is a Lensbaby. If you have one, try it out on foliage landscapes. You might end up with something really amazing.

2008-10-26 Slater Park_0025.jpg2010-10-12 Meadows_0034_5_6_tonemapped.jpg2010-10-9 Meadows and Waterfire_0030.jpg2012-10-07-Hunts - Burrs-167-5.jpg

Fall Flowers

Instead of focusing on the trees, turn your camera to the variety of fall flowers and berries that appear in October. Put the trees in the background, and you can have some really great images.


Blue Hour and Night Images

Fall foliage looks its best in good light, but how about moon light? Get out to one of your favorite spots after the sun has gone down and take a few shots. This will look especially good if there is some moonlight. The blue hour, or twilight, also can also make some great images. Light painting would also yield a unique image, especially if you would like to include stars or the Milky Way in your image. Taking a foliage shot at night in an urban setting will let you get artificial light on the foliage and possibly turn the points of light into starbursts by using a small aperture. Shooting in low light conditions like these can be tricky to get proper exposure, so bracketing and combining your images in post may be a good solution. I have to admit that I haven’t personally tried shooting foliage at night yet, but I will have by the time this foliage season is over. I do have this example taken about 20 minutes after sunset as the blue hour was beginning.

2010-10-17 Luthers Pond_0008_09_10_11_12_tonemapped.jpg

In closing, this fall, don’t be afraid to think outside the box when it comes to your foliage images.

~ Bryan Bzdula



Fine Art America






20 Ocean Sunrise Shooting Tips

This gallery of photos were shot over a 2-hour stretch on August 15 beginning at 5:15 am and finishing around 7:30 am.

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Below are 20 quick sunrise ocean shooting tips. None is ground breaking, but they are a good summary of the common sense, and not so common sense, tips and hints I’ve gathered in my years shooting ocean seascapes.

  1. Pick Your Location ahead of time. You will be arriving in the dark. Especially on the potentially slippery and rocky New England coasts it is important to have a good idea where you will be shooting, and its geography, before you get there.
  2. Check the Weather! Then check it again just before bed. Nothing is a bigger bummer than driving 1.5 hours in the middle of the night only to find a totally bland sunrise . . . or torrential rain, or socked in with fog. Well, fog is fun ;->
  3. Even more important than weather is the Tide. Check local tide charts. I have places I shoot only at high tide. Or low tide. Or receding tides. All images in this post were shot over a 2.5 hour period beginning 2 hours after high tide. Even beginning 2 hours after high tide I was walking directly against the Ogunquit Rivermouth seawall at the beginning of the shoot. And 2.5 hours later was maybe 200 yards seaward. New England beaches have dramatic tides!
  4. Even more important than weather and tides in determining where I’ll shoot is the Swell. Check local boating and surf forecasts for current and upcoming swell information. More than almost anything, the size of swell determines where I will choose to shoot. Big swell = big fun!
  5. Pack the night before. I live 1.5 hours inland. If I shoot a coastal sunrise during most of the summer I am leaving home around 3:30am. Packing the night before is an absolute necessity for me to leave (nearly) on time.
  6. Coffee. Lots of it. Enough said.
  7. Arrive Early. Really Early! Really, really early. I try to arrive where I will shoot at least an hour before sunrise. More if I have any hike in to the location. Already, an hour before sunrise, unless cloud cover is extremely heavy, or there is a thick layer of fog, you will begin to get the early morning blues.
  8. Bring a flashlight or headlamp! If you don’t bring it, you will need it. My favorites these days are the tiny Petzl Tikkas. They are small enough that one lives in my bag at all times.
  9. Use a tripod! Always. Always. Okay, unless shooting pan blurs. But I use a tripod shooting pan blurs too.
  10. Use a shutter release cable or a self-timer. And mirror lockup or shoot using Live View. Don’t know what mirror lock up is? Here’s a little article:
  11. Bring multiple lenses! If you got ‘em, use ‘em. This morning I used a 14mm, a 17-40, a 70-200, and an 85 prime. By far the most used was my go-to 17-40. But all lenses got some good use.
  12. Filters! I love filters, and always have a few with me. A CPL is always mounted on my wide angle. At the break of dawn it is not very useful, but within an hour it is. I also travel with several solid and graduated NDs. For solid NDs I regularly use a 2-stop, a 4-stop, and a ten-stop depending on the effect I want to create – anything from slightly blurring moving water with the 2-stop to dramatically blurring moving water and clouds with a ten-stop.
  13.  Bring rain gear! Even on mornings with no predicted precipitation a short dawn downpour is not unusual. My camera bag has a ‘raincoat’ tucked in a bottom pocket, and I often carry a small umbrella out shooting.
  14. Experiment with shutter speeds. Find compositions that include moving water then experiment with different shutter speeds. A fast shutter speed will freeze moving water and dramatically highlight big splashing waves. A slow shutter speed will blur and soften moving water and clouds. Changes of even a quarter second can give radically different results.
  15. Look behind you! It is very easy to get sucked in to a sunrise and forget to look around. Look around. It is worth it.
  16. Stay longer than you would expect. If there are any clouds in the sky the drama of a good sunrise can go on for hours. On my last sunrise shoot I shot from 5:00am (with a 6:10 sunrise) until almost 8:00 am. Every 15 minutes had dramatically different and exciting light.
  17. Don’t be afraid to include people in your shots. As landscape shooters we most often try to exclude people from our photos. Fishermen and beachcombers can add interest to our images.
  18. As the sun gets higher in the sky look for reflections. I love shooting beaches with an outgoing tide around an hour after sunrise. Tidal pools light up with gorgeous reflections!
  19. Don’t forget the macro. I always forget the macro on beach shoots. And I’m always sorry. Intimate landscapes and rockscapes are some of my favorite images.
  20. Breakfast! A delicious breakfast after several hours shooting is superb! Especially if you can talk another dawn shooter into paying. Anybody want to go shoot?

I hope you find these tips helpful. Get out and shoot!

~ Scott Snyder



Filter Play For A Cold Winter’s Day

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…

Poster Edges

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.


Coneflower with texture layer and Poster Edges filter applied.

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.


My beloved Mia. Pixel Bender Oil Paint Filter applied.

“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.

Annisquam Lighthouse Oil Paint Filter

Annisquam Lighthouse with PS CC Oil Paint Filter applied.



Motif #1 with PS CC Oil Paint Filter applied.

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.


Battleship Cove Reflection with Flaming Pear Flood filter applied.

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.


Portland Head Lighthouse at sunrise with Topaz Star Effects applied.

Experimental Fun!

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.


Macro image of a sunflower transformed into a kaleidoscope. PS CS5 Pixel Bender Oil Paint filter then selectively applied to the background.

However you choose to survive this winter’s cold weather, enjoy!

~ Liz Mackney

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Photographing the South Coast of Massachusetts

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.

Gooseberry Island Westport

Blue hour colors from Gooseberry 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.

Elephant Rocks

Sunrise at low tide, Elephant Rocks, Westport, MA.

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.

Allen's Pond Dartmouth

Sunrise at Allen’s Pond Beach, Dartmouth, MA

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.

West Island Fairhaven

Sunrise from West Island, Fairhaven

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



Fine Art America



Christmas Lights Photography

House Lights, Swanzey, NH

House Lights, Swanzey, NH

‘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

Warmth in the Storm, Central Square, Keene, New Hampshire

Warmth in the Storm, Central Square, Keene, NH

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.

Color Balance

Christmas lights on Commonwealth Ave, Boston, Mass

Christmas lights on Commonwealth Ave, Boston, MA

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.

Steady Camera

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

Blue hour, Fresh snow and Star burst

Blue hour, Fresh snow and Star burst

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.

Small apertures add sparkle to Christmas lights

Small apertures add sparkle to Christmas lights

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.

Avoid Flash

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.

December Evening

December Evening

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.


Winter Wonderland

Lights on the square. the sweet spot of lights just as the storm passed. Central Square, Keene, New Hampshire

Lights on the square. the sweet spot of lights just as the storm passed. Central Square, Keene, New Hampshire

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.


Central Square Storm

Central Square Sweet Spot


 Jeffrey Newcomer