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Summer Wildflowers and Fog Over Santa Clara Valley

Posted by
Don Smith (California, United States) on 16 September 2009 in Landscape & Rural.


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This morning I received a newsletter from one of the true "greats," landscape photographer/printer, Chrales Cramer. I read with interest a story he had written for a friends blog regarding what we as photographers feel is our best work versus what others might think.

One of his contentions he made which I could relate to was that we will often times put more credence towards an image that was difficult to capture (i.e. having hiked 20 miles to find the image versus one shot 5 feet from our car). Cramer concluded that perhaps our best images are not what we as photographers think are the best; but rather, what elicits a strong emotional bond with our viewer, the one who is willing to part ways with their hard-earned money to own one of our prints.

Today's image is one of those which I personally like but am not so sure if others feel as strongly about it. And no, I did not have to hike 20 miles to capture it. I actually found this scene on one of my "get in the car and drive" mornings that I often like doing. I live in a rural setting in southern Santa Clara Valley (48 miles south of San Jose) and can be in the country literally within minutes.

On this particular summer morning, I left my house in the dark and drove up San Juan Canyon Road towards Fremont Peak State Park. I left with the usual summer fog hovering over me, but soon burst through the mist after climbing past 2,000 feet in elevation. What I didn't know was that the typical clear sky above the fog was now veiled with thin stratus clouds. My adrenaline began to pump as I envisioned the potential for a blazing sky above the cool fog - a scenario that usually equates to a interesting image. I had about 20 minutes before the sun would hit the horizon of the Diablo Mountains in the distance.

Personally, I love this feeling of playing "beat the clock." Perhaps it stems from my background as a sports photographer, but nonetheless, it forces me to concentrate and "find the picture." Obviously the first choice is perspective, both in terms of lens choice and my position to the scene. This sky and the sea of fog lying below me begged for a wide angle view, thus I attached my 16-35mmL lens and began moving around to find my frame. It wasn't hard to utilize the lines of the dirt roads (part of Hollister Hills motorcycle park) to help in drawing the eye through the mid-portion of the frame, but what I lacked was a strong foreground, without one I was afraid I wouldn't adequately portray the depth of the scene.

The sun was rapidly approaching and I was nearing frantic mode and literally running up the road in search of something (anything) to use as a foreground. Then it was as if Mother Nature smiled and said, "enough fool - here you go," and I was presented with this beautiful patch of summer wildflowers. There was no way to frame them from top to bottom as they were growing through a barren patch of dirt, so I cropped them about half way up. I used a very low perspective (camera about 16 inches off the ground) and took a meter reading at f/20 (I mistakenly thought I was at f/22) to hold depth-of-field. Remember this was still roughly 10 minutes prior to sunrise and at this small of f/stop, quite dark. My exposure called for 20 seconds at f/20 at ISO 400. I knocked this exposure down one stop (10 seconds at f/20) because I felt the flowers would look more natural and not dominate the scene at that exposure. Fortunately there was not a breath of wind present which eliminated any problems of shooting at this long of shutter speed.

The next step was to calculate the exposure on the ever-brightening sky. I simply pointed the camera at the sky, took a reading, and and saw it read 5 stops brighter. Fortunately I own the Singh-Ray 5-stop soft edge split neutral density filter (but could have bracketed exposures if I didn't). A couple of test frames to adjust the filter (I hand hold) and I captured my frame.

I hate apologizing for anything in my images, but these wildflowers are very sharp in the original capture. Aminus3's aggressive compression (and yes I do pay for the high quality) renders them somewhat soft (at least that is the only explanation I can offer). If any of you have a work-around on these detail-oriented images I'd love to hear from you. Jason, If you happen to be reading this, please let me know what I can do.

UPDATE - If you look at this image now, you will see the wildflowers appear sharp! Here was my problem and it may be affecting your images. I originally sized all my images at 800 pixels and turned-on Aminus3's auto border which causes the image to be down-sized a bit and causes a loss of sharpness. Thanks to Jason Kravitz checking into the problem, he had me re-size the image at 1200 pixel and it made a world of difference regardless if the auto-border was activated. If you still want to upload 800 pixel images, then I would suggest turning off the auto border.

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II 10 second F/20.0 ISO 400 26 mm

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