… the rain has gone” Last summer (2018) we had a long hot dry three months. The impact was felt all over the crop growing area of the N E of Scotland, where a great deal of the local barley crop was stunted and shrivelled. Personally it was our garden we struggled to save, taking every drop of usable water out to help the plants survive. In the cool of the evening we could be found with hosepipe watering cans … and of course with cameras too! My favourite for catching the water droplets on the plants was an old Russian Helios 44-2 lens that I found in the back of a cupboard. The lens is frozen at F2.8 but it is such a delight! Serendipity, on Flickr tells more of that story. So here is the original shot I took of the late light catching the leaves on a miniature acer
The slanting light, the water droplets on the leaves, and the light yellow of the entire bush – they are all there. But how will it change if I take away the colour, and transform it into B+W?
I did crop the right side of the image, which brings the leaves and the water droplets closer. But the overall effect of the change, for me, is to draw the eye more immediately to the sun falling on those leaves in the foreground, and to emphasise the cast shadow in the bottom right corner. There is more light and shadow, and more sense of the sun touching the leaves in the foreground. I feel that both versions are equally strong, and complement each other very well.
There’s nothing quite as beautiful as the tiny delicate flowers of the Japanese plum tree in March and April. The wind may be cruel and cold, but the fragile blossoms cling to the swaying branches with such determination. Even overnight frost cannot defeat them. Spring will endure! I shot this with my favourite lens. It is an old Russian Helios 44-2 lens, from way back in the 1960s. It creates the most wonderful gentle colours, and a stunningly beautiful bokeh too. There is an album of photographs taken with this lens here on Flickr. The close-ups are with this exact lens; the longer shots with a second LOMO Helios lens (yes – I eventually got two!)
Early in 2018 we were just emerging from from a long and extremely harsh winter when I made my first visit of the the year to Fyvie Castle and loch. It’s my favourite local haunt, for walking, sitting and relaxing, and of course photography. So I took a camera or two, just to familiarise myself with the ‘outdoor’ lenses. Most of the winter I shoot indoors, which means macro, close-up or medium lens still-life. So I needed to flex the muscles and re-learn or remember the individual personalities of the lenses I use for landscape and outdoor shooting.
My newest outdoor lens is the Meyer-Optik Orestor 135mm f/2.8 (1966) which arrived just before the winter closed in. So I’d not had much chance to get to know the lens and what it can offer. I’ve collected a few ‘vintage’ lenses from Eastern Europe, and been impressed with the quality of shots modern digital cameras can produce using them. The rich and vibrant range of colour values is striking – and this particular lens is nicknamed “the bokeh monster”, which strikes an appreciative chord with me too! [More about it here, and a further link to the album of shots I’ve taken using it are on my Flickr site.]
So I set out with low expectations, both for the beauty of the location at the end of winter, and for my technical expertise. We had some sunshine, which is so essential, as we strolled along the sunny banks beside the loch. Being a lens from way before the digital age, it needs to be used in full Manual mode, which means setting White Balance, ISO, Shutter speed and Aperture (F stop) on the fly. I want full control over the focus too, as often my interest is not on the closest subject (which is what auto-focus selects). Also there is no IS (image stabilising) so a tripod may come in handy too. I knew from my first experiments last autumn, that F4 or even F2.8 would give me the best bokeh chances. So finding a focal point close by was what I had in mind.
So – on to the actual shot I’m discussing here. A small frond of leaves lit by the sun caught my eye. Beautiful, simple, and great for a bokeh effect. But closer inspection on the computer screen showed just how much damage the winter freeze had done to the leaves.
The composition is there, the light streaming in from the top right is lovely, and the bokeh is great – not distracting, but giving a texture to the background. But the damage is so evident – it distracts the viewer! So, if I was to make anything of the photo, I needed a lot of patient work in Photoshop with the Clone Stamp tool. I identified at least 17 places that needed attention.
I set to work. The clone stamp tool is a miracle-worker. Used carefully it can transform an image. Here I needed to work with a brush size of between 20-100 pixels. I took the sample from as close to the damaged leaf area as I could, and used a strength of between 40% and 60% most of the time. With a soft brush that leaves little visible trace of the pixel overwriting. I didn’t want to remove all traces of damage, just most of them!
The image was now usable – and what I wanted to do was to enhance the image without destroying what was already there. I thought I could enhance the bokeh, and add some more colour interest to the background. My choice for this was a great favourite of mine – Mix Pix Box – There is a wonderful collection “Light Bokeh Overlays” that would be perfect for the shot.
I used this overlay TWICE in different ways. The first layer I applied using the Screen option at 60%. The second time I chose Soft Light setting at 83%. The first offered most light, the second offered most colour. Combined they worked well. I used a Quick Mask on both to bring the leaves forward by gently removing some of the overlay.
And the final result
The ‘bones’ of a good shot were there in the original. But it took some post processing work to let them shine through!
When I was writing this I thought of it as “Chasing the late light at F2.8” or “3 cameras and 1 flower”. But both of these titles were a bit unwieldy as URLs, so I simplified it. But there are three lenses in this playful tale, and all are indeed set at F2.8. So, to begin…
The way my house is laid out, the front gets the sunlight in the morning, often until the early afternoon. A big south-facing bay window makes it the best place to shoot. Then it gets tricky … by late afternoon the sun has moved round to the side of the house; then there is a small window of time, and a small physical side window where I can sometimes catch the light. There are trees in the way – so, especially if it’s windy, there is a constant flickering of light and shadow. Then the sun moves round to the back of the house, and sometimes there is the late light shining through a willow hedge right into the kitchen and onto a dark blue Formica top of the breakfast bar. This the story of chasing the late afternoon light with a lovely salmon pink gladiolus stem, trying to get some photos using just the natural light! And as two of the cameras were already set on F2.8 I shot the third on F2.8 too. Note: I always shoot on full Manual, especially indoors – I’m so used to it I never even think about it. And the White Balance remained constant on ‘cloudy’ or ‘daylight’ on all 3 cameras for this shoot.
The cameras to hand were:
1) Lensbaby Composer Pro with 50mm double glass optic with a +4 macro filter (essentially a fixed focal length)
2) A NEX-6 with my favourite Helios Russian lens (frozen at F2.8 so it is a fixed focus)
3) The Sony A77ii with the tele-macro 100mm lens (a heavy combination, but so versatile in the results it can achieve)
I moved a small round wooden table beside the side window with the swaying trees casting strong light then deep shadow. I laid the gladiolus on the wood and waited to catch the sunshine. The tele-macro allowed me to zoom out and take in both the flowers lying on the table.
I could catch the sunlight and strong shadow it cast; the graceful curved shape of the stem; and a sense of the wooden surface, with a slight reflection too. And using F2.8 meant that the background was nice and dark due to the shallow DoF.
Next I took the Helios lens. It makes a lovely and soft image, but F2.8 is the only option – which gives me a closer composition but with no flexibility to move in closer, or further away.
The light is softer, and there is a background bokeh and definite reflections on the table.
So – could the Lensbaby offer me anything different at F2.8 (the aperture ring was in place from a previous shoot)
The light was much harder to control, and focusing took more time as the tree branches gave a strobe effect the table! But I did manage to get the Lensbaby swirl of bokeh around the petals, and the internal glow! Here I used a high shutter speed. I try to keep the ISO as low as possible – I find that my Sony cameras are best with low ISO, and get noticeable ‘noise’ at higher settings.
By now the sun was moving round the house and lower in the sky .. so to complete the process I waited until I could catch the light as it fell across the breakfast bar. I went back to the big tele-macro lens, as it can get closer in to catch the water droplets better than the the other two.
Against the dark surface, and with light slanting through the open door I took the final shots. This time the white of the freezer in the background stopped me achieving a matt black background. But there are nice reflections on the work surface, and it looks like liquid – a lens effect I hadn’t expected. And I can get in closer with the tele-macro than I could with either of the other two lenses.
A little out of season with Shakespeare, as it is only March! But the rough winds are shaking the delicate first flowers on our Japanese plum tree!
One of the early signs of Spring here in northern Scotland is the plum blossom. It comes out before the leaves, so the tiny flowers make the branches look pink. Here a gale was blowing, and I used a Sony NEX-6 with my old Russian Helios 44-2 lens. It’s frozen at F2.8, but it takes lovely shots with a special bokeh. On Flickr you can find my Album of Helios 44-2 photos