Thursday, January 26, 2012

Lone Tree

In going through my images recently for my end of the year look, I realized there are a lot of images on the same subject, the Lone Tree.  I continue to be drawn back to this tree which is in a open field in Fossil Creek Reservior Open Space near Fort Collins, Colorado.  Sometimes I say it has been photographed enough and i can't get any more from it.  But i still go back.

I heared an interesting story from Scott Kelby (Photofocus podcast #84) about going back to the same place over and over.  Scott was talking about a famous landscape photographer, Bill Fortney, and a comment he made when asked about his beautiful landscape photography that helped me feel better about going back to the lone tree again and again.
"Bill Fortney is showing off this slide show, he has the iconic imange of every place in America you ever want to shoot. He has the Grand Teton Shot. He has the most unbelievable shot of the antelope canyon slots. He's got the horseshoe, .... he's has Yellowstone. Whatever it is, whatever you can think of in the US from lighthouses to craggy coasts he has the ultimate shot from each one of them.

He was showing this slideshow and everyone is speechless. One guy raises his hand and asks "Mr Fortney, how did you get a shot like that of every iconic spot? How did you do it?"

Bill Fortney says, "I am going to tell you, you aren't going to be happy but i will tell you exactly what my secret is. To get the iconic shot of like Glacier National Park, you have to do what i do. i have been there 22 times.

And one of those mornings is just spectactular."

Well, I have gone to the Lone Tree a lot of times maybe not 22 but pretty close.  Over the past 3 years, I have gone there during different parts of the year and different parts of the day.   The first photo at the Lone Tree (See above) was during the beautiful sunrise season (Jan/Feb.  See Post Bronco Orange and Blue Sunrises). 

I then went back there in March to capture the Lone Tree with a full moon.

In the summer, I was driving by the Lone Tree just after a thunderstorm and got a nice result from that. 

After the first snow this fall in Colorado, there was a very thick foggy morning.  I went back to the Lone Tree to get a photo of the tree with snow on the leaves and the fog.  I was lucky to get a flock of birds dancing with the tree as well. 

It is worth going back to the same place over and over to get the good shot because conditions change every day.  I have been there to see this tree in many different days in many different conditions.  There are days (like the first sunrise photo) where I can show up, compose, focus and shoot beautiful photos.  Mother Nature has blessed me that day.
But I have also been there many times waiting for something to happen or waiting for some beautiful light that just doesn't show up.  Although I may try and shoot something, it usually does not make the cut.  The key is getting out of bed on days when you want to sleep in and on some days you will be blessed with beautiful sky, clouds in the right spot, a colorful sunrise, or some wildlife that lets you be part of their day. 
When I heard the story of Bill Fortney and his comment about being there for 22 days and one of those mornings was specatular, I thought of my Lone Tree.   I have four wonderful photos of the same subject over 3 years.  I will continue to visit the Lone Tree.  I am sure there will be other times Mother Nature will bless me with the perfect time to be there.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Spearfish Canyon - a South Dakota Gem

When you think of South Dakota, most people don’t think of beautiful mountain canyons.  Spearfish Canyon just outside of Spearfish, SD is a beautiful canyon to photograph.  It has impressive limestone cliffs colored with a pallet of brown, pink, red and gray rock.   At the end of September, you get the beautiful fall colors mixed in for a delightful affect.  You can get to the 20 mile long canyon via the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway (Highway 14A)

Roughlock Falls

The three big landscape photographic attractions for this visit were waterfalls.  Yes, there are waterfalls in South Dakota.  The first waterfall we visited during our photo weekend (Oct 15-18 2011) was Roughlock Falls.    There are a couple of spots overlooking the falls from the top and a walkway to get below the falls.  At Savoy, SD, there is a turnoff to a gravel road from the highway to get to the falls.

We arrived before sunrise (the falls face southeast) before the sun comes up over the canyon walls.  I used a polarizer filter to help slow down the shutter speed and to remove any reflection from the water (my shutter speeds were from 0.3 to 3.2 seconds). I wanted to capture the small white water in front and the Roughlock falls in the background.  Unfortunately, it was past the peak fall color season.  It would have been nice to get there at the end of September to capture that color and the falls together.   

I used two different lens at Roughlock Falls, the Canon EF16-35mm f/2.8L wide angle Lens angle and the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L Telephoto Zoom lens. 
Bridal Veil Falls

Another waterfall - Bridal Veil Falls, flows off the canyon walls between Savoy and Spearfish.  There is a pull off area on the west side of the highway which many visitors use to view the falls.  You can get a nice shot of the falls from the road with with some trees acting as a border to the falls but we climbed cross Spearfish creek to get closer to the waterfall. 

We arrived at the Bridal Veil Falls at the end of the day’s light.  When you are up close to the waterfall, you need a wide angle lens (Canon EF16-35mm) to capture the entire falls (50 feet) in a single shot.  As before, I used my polarizer filter and tripod shooting 1-2 second shutter speeds.  To capture the entire falls, I found the best location was right in front of the falls standing in the run off.  I found I really liked the top section of the falls and used my Canon 70-200mm Telephoto Zoom lens to capture the top part of the Bridal Veil Falls.

Little Spearfish Falls

The last waterfall we visited, Little Spearfish Falls, was close to Roughlock Falls just off the highway.  It is a short walk from the highway to the falls and you will be surprised by how close the falls is to the highway.  The waterfall is about 80 feet and you can see the entire falls from the trail.

We arrived before the sunrise to be able to photograph the scene before the sun hit it.   I wanted to capture the waterfall with as many fall colors as possible and of course with the silky smooth water using a slow shutter speed and a polarizer filter. I minimized the sky in the photo since a slow shutter speed would blow out the sky.  The other challenge was the falls looks like it falls from the sky so the waterfall had to start near the top of the photo.   I also tried to show the water flowing from the falls along with the colorful grass on the water’s edge to provide some depth.

Little Spearfish Falls throws off a mist that could be felt all the way to the other side of Spearfish Creek.  Shortly after the sun came over the canyon wall, the interaction between the sun and the mist made for a most interesting effect.  (Remember to bring a cloth to clean off the lens).  My photo partner, Sean Key, captured a nice photo in that that light.
Also, we walked downstream for more photo opportunities and found a beautiful reflection in the creek of  the sunlight hitting the tops of the canyon walls.  We noticed a small rock in the creek where the water flowed around it which provided a nice subject.  I used a slow shutter speed to make the water silky smooth and the reflections of the colors turned out well

Spearfish Canyon had a lot of beauty to photograph.  Even though I live in Colorado, Spearfish Canyon is a top choice for me to shoot.

facebook:  Perry Ralph Photography
twitter:  @perryralph

Monday, January 17, 2011

Bronco Orange and Blue Sunrises

The best photos to shoot in the middle of December thru the middle of January are the stunning sunrises in Colorado.  I have not seen sunrises as colorful as they are here in Colorado during this time.  I sure there are some really good reasons for this and smarter people than me could provide the explanation.  All I know is that they provide great items to shoot during the cold winter months. 

The photo below was taken at the Cathy Fromme Prairie Natural Area in southwestern Fort Collins.   There a number of colors in the sunrise from oranges, purples, reds, and yellows reflecting off the clouds.   The formation of the clouds also helps create places for the eye to roam.  With the stunning colors in the sky and the clouds, the foreground I look for is basic and will be silhouetted.   In this case a cluster of trees in the area.
As mentioned in the blog 7 things to look for in a photograph, the colors of the sky reflecting off the clouds provide the "wow" factor.  The clouds painted with the Denver Bronco colors of orange and blue are on the opposite sides of the color wheel and provide the key subject of the photo.   I made sure the trees where in sharp focus using LiveView, zooming in and making minor focus adjustments.

There are a number of places to go in Northern Colorado to get a shot like this.  I have taken Lone Tree sunrise shots at the Fossil Creek Reservoir just east of Fort Collins and windmills in Larimer Country, Colorado just north of Wellington, Colorado.  There are also a lot of ponds and lakes in the area which can provide some reflections although many of them are frozen over.  I usually drive around the many county and dirt roads to find places which to shoot. 

As i mentioned, the color of the clouds is the key subject and I wanted to make sure that the colors are at the peak.  I try to get to a location 45 minutes before sunrise and take shots until after the sun comes up.  That way I make sure i get the best colors for the shot.  Needless to say, I always shoot the sunrise on my tripod.

The best way for me to pull out all the color of the sunrise is to make sure that I don't underexpose or overexpose the image.  I do have a habit of underexposing sunrise shots because they look better on the back of my camera.  Instead, I have learned to look at the histogram on the back of the camera to make sure it leans to the right of the histogram.  This way, I get the most information on the photo possible.  After returning home, during the post production of the photo, I reduce the exposure by 1/2 to 1 stop on my computer to darken the foreground and pull out all the colors in the photograph. 

The Bronco blue and orange sunrise is a beautiful time to be out taking photos.  But make sure you are dressed for the cold weather.


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

7 Things to look for in a Photograph

As a student of photography, I try to learn as much as I can about it.   I subscribe to a number of podcasts on photography; i have a number of RSS feeds to multiple photography website; many of my iPhone apps are based on photography; and I look at as many photos as I can.  In a recent podcast from the folks at, I heard Jennifer Wu discuss the 7 things she looks for in a photograph during a portfolio review or when she is going through her photographs for the day.  I was inspired by the interview and thought I should write these down to remember.  I think I go through a similar process in my workflow. 
1) First impression.  The "wow" factor or a compelling photograph.  When i first go through my photographs,  I do a quick drive by to see if there are any photographs that catch my eye.  If so, I flag them in Lightroom ("P" key) to check out later.  if there is one that give the "wow" factor, i will give it 3-4 stars.  I will assume that my first impressions are different than others like Jennifer but we all have seen photographs that when you see it you know you like it.  After the first impressions, i do come back and check the photographs that have been flagged or starred for the other attributes. 
2) Light.  I have heard and read over and over that the light in a photograph can make or break it.  It can create the mood (i.e. soft light) or can set the focus of the subject.  I make sure the light isn't harsh creating difficult shadows.  I usually take photos during the magic hours to create a soft light.  I have had problems with underexposing images so i have to make sure the subject is well lit. 
3)  Depth of Field.  i have paid a lot more attention to DOF this year than in the past.  This provides the idea of a landscape in focus or in a portrait or close up of a flower the background is out of focus.   I want to make sure the primary subject is in focus and the rest of the photograph adds to subject and does not distract from the subject.  For landscapes, this means the there is lots of depth of field in the foreground and background.   For portraits or close up this is a shallow DOF where the subject is sharp and the background is blurry allowing the eye to remain on the subject (LIve View and hold the DOF button and a hyperfocal app )
4) Technique.  this to me is applying some of the basic photography methods:  not having the subject in dead center; using the rule of thirds; having sharp photo with no softness; composition of the photo is interesting;  no highlights blown out. 
5) Color.  Are the colors in the photograph compelling for the eye.  Other the past couple of years, i have learned that photos that have "complimentary" colors are the most interesting.   THose are colors that are the opposite end of the color wheel. For example,  red and green in the photos are nice.  Lately i have been taking a lot of Denver Bronco Orange and blue sunrises.  These are on the opposite sides of the color wheel and make for darn good images.
6) Distracting Elements.  Making sure there isn't anything in the photo that takes away from the main subject.  we have all had photos that are nice but the darn pole in the corner keeps drawing my eye to it.  We need to look for distracting element in the scene when we take the photo and in post production.   This also includes make sure the key elements are not cut off.   I find that a photo of a bird or animal that is cut off can be distracting as well (although it can make it compelling too).
7) Stand the test of time (This is my modification.  in the interview, Jennifer couldn't recall the 7th one and she mentioned the "overall feel of the image").  For me, if i can come back to the image after some period of time and still like it based on the characteristics mentioned before then it is a keeper.   There usually is one more test i like to make and this is getting input from the people i value (my wife is the head of the list).   Many times i will come back to look at them again the next day to make sure i still feel good about the ones selected. 
There you have the 7 things to look for in a photograph.  These are good for me to look at and make part of my workflow.   As i go through the work flow many photos will move from a 3-star photo to something less because of some of these characteristics but rarely does it move from a non-flagged photo to a star photo.  I will see if these characteristics change as I continue to grow as a photographer.


Saturday, October 30, 2010

My Photo Journey

I am a Wannabe.  I wannabe as good a photographer as the professionals.  This blog is to help me write down things i figure out in photographing scenes in Colorado.  I live in Colorado and there are a lot of things to photograph here.  So this is my attempt to share what, where, when, and at times how.  I put my favorite photos on my web site (

A little bit of background.  I live in Fort Collins, CO.  i started taking pictures in high school and actually had one of my photos on the front page of the local newspaper.  But life happened and i moved away from it for years.  I dabbled during this time but my photography didn't improve.  I wanted to get serious in 2005 when i decided i was going to take a picture every day for the entire year (POD).  (  Hopefully, you can notice an improvement over the past 5 years. 

My background suggests that to improve i should focus on doing a few things well.  I take a lot of photos in colorado and i have a lot to photograph in colorado.  We have beautiful landscapes, stunning wildflowers, and amazing wildlife here.  This is what i like to photograph and will be sharing here.