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How I Got the Shot: Split Leaf Maples over the Saranac River

Photograph by Mark Bowie

Title: Split Leaf Maples over the Saranac River, Franklin County

Exposure Data: 1/200 second, f/2.8, ISO 400
Nikon D7000, Nikkor 80-200mm lens set at 110mm

I find autumn to be one of the most challenging times to photograph the Adirondacks. With such spectacular foliage surrounding us, anyone can point their camera in nearly any direction and take a pretty picture. But my goal is to produce imagery beyond the ordinary, one that reflects the essence of autumn in this unique place.  That desire has led me to look deeper, in surprising conditions, and has rewarded me with uncommon beauty.

One evening I was leading a photography workshop along the Saranac River, north of the village of Saranac Lake. Crossing a bridge, we found split leaf maples overhanging the water. The sun had already set and twilight cast its glow on the forest. With the maples in shade, even short exposures rendered their colors rich and intense. I positioned them against darker, less busy areas of background bushes, knowing that a bright background would be distracting. For this image, I also selected a large aperture—f2/8—for shallow depth of field, effectively blurring the background and allowing the maples to stand out. I boosted the ISO from my camera’s native 100 to 400 in order to shoot at 1/200 second, which froze the motion of any leaves blowing in the slight breeze. The overall effect was magical—glowing autumn leaves backlit by twilight. Yet I felt my sharply focused exposures didn’t effectively communicate the serene feel of the scene. So, I brought the image into Photoshop, duplicated it on a separate layer, then applied a Gaussian Blur filter to that layer. I changed the opacity between the two layers—the sharp underlying original and the blurred upper copy—until I achieved the result seen here. The sharp leaves have a blurred aura about them, which is how the scene felt to me. Incidentally, instead of applying a Gaussian Blur in Photoshop, I could have shot a double exposure in-camera for a similar result.  Most Nikon digital SLRs, and some of the newest high-end Canon models, allow multiple exposures in-camera. Shoot one sharply focused at a small aperture—f/16 or f/22—and the other with the focus blurred at a large aperture, say f/2.8 or f/4. This works best with a telephoto lens, which makes blurring focus easier. The amount of blurring needed varies by the subject matter and lens, so experiment to see what looks best. When either technique is done well, what would have been a straight documentary image can be elevated to an emotional dreamscape.

Mark Bowie recently released his second e-book on night photography, AFTER MIDNIGHT, which supplements his first comprehensive guide, The Light of Midnight: Photographing the Landscape at Night. They are available as digital downloads from his website, www.markbowie.com. He and and fellow Adirondack Photography Institute staff photographer Joe LeFevre will lead the Waterfalls and Wine Country photo workshop, October 17-20 in Ithaca, NY.  For information, see www.adkpi.org.

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