One Degree Of Separation – One Percent Better

Bull moose on early autumn tundra dripping water from antlers in velvet

Denali National Park, Alaska, bull moose on early autumn tundra dripping water from antlers in velvet

I’ll never forget listening to a lecture from the president of Tony Stone Worldwide in the early 1990’s saying that when a photo buyer has narrowed down their selection, the image that’s one percent better gets 100% of the sale. That has stuck with me for two decades now and has driven me to push myself to always make the best image I can. To do this, I’ve always prioritized creative technique. I’m less of a “rule” guy and more of a “technique” guy. We use technique to add visual impact and pizzazz to our images. Rules, such as the compositional rule of thirds, are important and have their place, which in my eyes is mainly to satisfy formatting needs for commercial use. Technique helps us attain impact and brings the image closer to the impact we saw in real life. Separation of your subject from the background is critical to a successful image.

Remember, life is in 3D and photography is in 2D. When we are photographing we see a 3-dimensional separation between our subject and the background. However, when we view the image on the screen, we lose that real life separation and instead we might see a bunch of chaotic and busy lines running together. There are several techniques to create separation of subjects and backgrounds creating depth in our images. This blog just addresses one technique of simply moving around and paying attention to intersecting lines until you get your image to where it needs to be.

In my workshops and private consults, I still see shooters focusing too much on exposure bracketing. I say forget exposure bracketing. Dial your exposure in and focus on other stuff like composition, point of view, different apertures, and even lens focal length if the situation allows. Doing these things will help you find a more impactful separation of subject from the background. Great separation leads to simplifying and simplifying strengthens the core message of the image and that’s what it’s all about.

This is where one of the powers of digital photography and its instant feedback are very helpful in determining when you got the shot. Here are a couple examples of how I used my LCD and bracketed my compositions to get the image to where it needed to be, creating a good separation of subject and background.

This was my first attempt shooting Jackson making this jump off Kachina Peak at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico. The ridge off his left shoulder is a long way away in 3D, but in the image his green pack blends into the patterns of trees and snow on the distant ridge yielding a murky separation of my main subject. Fortunately, I saw this in the LCD after evaluating the shot. I knew what I had to do to make it better.

The ski shots are from a routine stock shoot with hired talent doing a mix of stunts and ski lifestyle scenes. When I first saw this jump, knowing what my talent was capable of, we set up a shot. On the image from the first take, there is clearly a separation in real life between the skiers left side and the distant hillside. When I reviewed the image on location I saw that his orange jacket stands out and the separation is OK but I knew I could do better. I wanted him above all the terrain and have his orange jacket pitched against the high altitude Southwest blue sky. Usually, a lower point of view solves the separation problem, so I skied downhill and got closer and lower. It worked. I verified on the LCD that I got the shot and it was sharp so we could move on to other shots. Mission accomplished.

On my second attempt, I simply skied downhill a little and planted my butt on the snow. I knew I wanted Jackson and his colorful orange parka and green pack to clearly stand out against the blue sky. Fortunately, I got the shot on the next take, verifying sharpness and exposure on the LCD. Time to move on to other ideas. You never see everything you need to on location no matter how hard you try. In retrospect, I should have gone to the other side of the jump, got low and shot him into the backlight. It would have been a totally different image. I think I passed because that would have put the lift in the background – something I didn’t want.

This image of spring bloom and cholla cacti near Abiqui, New Mexico along the Rio Chama lacks a center of interest. Even though I could clearly see separation between the cacti and the background cliffs, the image comes back with a bunch of busy and confusing intersecting lines. Perpendicular lines, as seen in the upper right between the cacti and the distant hills, is visually distracting to me.

On the desert landscape images I was intrigued by the cholla cacti in spring. On the first shot, you can see there is no separation between the cholla and the background. I changed my point of view by getting down low and pitching the cholla against the sky, thus achieving more separation. Though it’s a stronger shot, I lost the background in the process. Toward sunset I tried again but this time, to get separation I chose a higher point of view but carefully searched for a cactus that I could completely, or near completely, surround by colorful lower weeds and still show a sense of place with the distant sandstone cliffs. Mission accomplished simply by taking the time to work the composition.

To create separation and emphasize the cholla I chose a lower point of view and moved around so the foreground cactus didn’t intersect with the other cacti in the right middle ground or blend in with similar tones and textures. In the process, I lost the background cliffs and a “sense of place” but the image is stronger and you still get the idea of a desert bloom across.

I continued my search, as the light improved toward sunset, bracketing my compositions until I came away with something I was happy with. This time I chose to separate my cholla by completely surrounding it with the sea of lower weeds and still showcased the sandstone cliffs that add to the sense of place I really wanted.

Next time you are chimping don’t just pay attention to “blinkies”. Look critically at your composition and design and whether you’ve achieved clear separation of your subject from a complementary background.

WEATHER, LIGHT and PHOTOGRAPHY Series: Photographing Fog

Intro:  Outdoor photographers all know that weather determines the quality, quantity, color, feel and mood of light, and light is the language of our art and craft.  Former weather forecaster Michael DeYoung shares his knowledge on weather, atmospheric phenomena and their effects on light and photography.

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Dissipating fog over Alaganik Slough on the Copper River Delta near Cordova, Alaska. Fair weather altocumulus clouds above the Chugach Mountains.

Photographing Fog.  Don’t get bummed out if you wake up to dense fog with cold flat light.  If no precipitation is falling chances are that magic light and golden photo ops are close by.  The keywords with fog are:  live on the edge and get high.  (Hopefully, this last phrase will make sense after reading this blog.)  There are two parts to this blog.  The first is the long-winded Geek Speak on fog.  The second part is tips and advice for photographing fog.

Swans in fog, Anchorage, Alaska

Trumpeter swans on Six-Mile Lake with morning radiation fog, Anchorage, Alaska

Meteorological Geek Speak on Fog.   Fog is a ground based cloud and along with its sister cloud, stratus, which is off the ground but very low, is ALWAYS trapped below a temperature inversion.   Fog can and does form during and after widespread precipitation events with precipitation falling from thicker clouds above such as nimbostratus.  But many times fog forms as a very shallow layer under clear skies.  It is under these conditions that fog can create great light and photo ops.  Fog and stratus not associated with precipitation are stable atmosphere clouds that form under high pressure.  Pacific high pressure during winter is the main culprit for fog in western North America.  Sometimes fog can be really thick vertically especially when there is an “upslope” wind flow into a mountain range.  In fact when fog/stratus reaches about 2000 feet in depth it produces drizzle, freezing drizzle or snow grains.

stratus clouds and clearing storm, Trail Lakes, Alaska

Stratus clouds cling to the shores of Upper Trail Lakes on the Kenai Peninsula. These clouds were the result of widespread and prolonged rain. Image made in a clearing storm scenario.

There are 3 types of fog: radiation, advection and ice fog.  Radiation fog is the most common type and occurs everywhere even in deserts.   Radiation fog forms when the sky is mostly clear but a shallow layer of air at the surface is very moist.  Cooling at night brings the air to close to saturation (close to the dewpoint temperature) and traps the shallow moisture under a temperature inversion.  A very light wind  (2-5mph) at or just above the surface mixes it up and presto, fog forms.  Let’s say it rained all day, the ground is soaked, and skies clear toward sunset with very light winds.  This is a good prescription for morning radiation fog.  In winter, radiation fog gets trapped in many western valleys for weeks.

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View of Salmon River and Sawtooth Mountains near Stanley, Idaho. Stratus clouds frame sunlit peaks

Our coastal friends often get advection fog.  This is when fog over the water is drawn inland.  When you breathe on a cold window and it “fogs” up you are essentially creating advection fog.  This same mechanism happens on a large scale, when moist, relatively warm ocean air moves over a colder landmass. In the Cook Inlet region of Alaska, low tides exposes massive amounts of super cooled moisture in mudflats which is the principle cause of winter fog in Anchorage.  On the North Slope, open leads of ocean water called polynyas are the source of dense fog and even precipitation.

During summer air simply flowing from warmer water to colder waters can cause advection fog and this is a common occurrence off the west and northern coasts.   Mountainous coastal areas are subject to a double whammy of advection and radiation fogs that are often enhanced by orographic lift, where low level winds flow into higher terrain where air is forced to rise and condense.

When fog forms in winter at well below freezing temperatures it is referred to as freezing fog.  This is a natural phenomenon and is often mistaken for ice fog.  Water droplets can be “super-cooled” meaning they are liquid but below 32 degrees.  When moisture in the fog/stratus contacts very cold surfaces (roads, trees, anything) it will cause icing.  This causes the beautiful white cloaked forests after a fog event.

Frozen birch trees at sunset

Birch trees cloaked in rime ice and snow glow light pink near sunset, Anchorage, Alaska

True ice fog is a purely man made phenomena.  It forms in arctic air at -22F or colder.  Air at those temperatures can hold almost no moisture, so very little can saturate an airmass.  In winter in interior valleys of mainland Alaska and northern Canada, under extreme inversions, ice fog forms in villages and settlements.  The minute amount of moisture that comes from exhaust from internal combustion engines and building furnaces is enough to create fog at extreme temperatures, say like -40 and colder.  Ice fog is often less than 100 vertically where you can see stars above but can restrict horizontal visibility to almost zero!

 

Tips and Advice for Photographing Fog.   No need to get bummed out if you wake up to a thick fog and cold flat light.  You now know that chances are you can get high or to the edge where the light can be magical.  Or it can change right were you are.  Fog usually dissipates from the edges inward so start your photos near the edge if possible.  Fog often lifts into stratus and the tops can become a ragged edge.   The edges of the sun or moon are sharp and clearly discernible when seen through fog/stratus.   If the sun/moon edges are diffused or hidden, then that indicates there are higher clouds above the fog/stratus layer.  Any yes, there are times when none of this works and the whole day is shroud in thick cold fog.  Being on the edge or top of fog with the sun above means the brightest fog possible and this is where the light is absolutely lovely.  Like snow, fog is bright, relative to terrestrial subjects even if it looks grey to the eye.  This means it can fool meters into rendering underexposure.  I mainly meter manually but if you prefer aperture priority go with about +2/3 exposure comp.  Fog both diffuses and scatters light making a beautiful wrapping soft light on close-up subjects.  I rarely use a filter or strobe in the fog.  The exception would be if I’m above it and shooting backlit, I might use a grad ND (neutral density).

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Portrait of skiers on Taos Ski Valley chairlift. Image made near the top of a fog bank.

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Michael DeYoung photographing skiers on Chair 4 at Taos Ski Valley. As we ascended above the fog into the sun, lighting became much harsher and unflattering than the shot in the fog below.

Here’s what I like to go after in fog.

Forest:  No better time for inside the forest photography than during a fog.  It helps exaggerate distances between near and far with close up subjects sharp and distant subjects fading into the mist.  The best scenario is when the sun shines through trees with lingering fog creating magical shafts of light in an alluvial fan pattern-pure magic.  Anyone who has been to the coastal redwood forests, or seen images from there, can attest to this.

Sun rays and fog, Kodiak Island

The last of marine fog scatters the morning sun through a Sitka spruce tree on Kodiak Island, Alaska

Moose in foggy forest, Alaska

Young moose in birch forest on a foggy autumn morning, Anchorage, Alaska

Anything macro:  great saturated colors and even tones and contrast.

Portraits:  No better natural beauty light than a bright fog and it can produce a better bokeh effect than any lens.

Teen skiers portrait, Taos

Teen girls portrait in the fog at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico

Landscapes with fog in the foreground:  This is when you are in the clear with a fog bank or stratus clouds all around you in the distance:  I love fog banks where mountain tops or tree tops rise above.  I think this effect makes mountains look taller.  Better yet if you can shoot it in backlight.  There have been several times when a fog bank has hidden buildings and power lines creating unique opportunities.   Fog also can create a horizonless landscape which is pretty ethereal.

Fog bank, Portage Valley, Alaska

Turnagain Arm near Portage Valley in spring with fog bank, Alaska

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Radiational fog obscures the Salmon River and the town of Stanley below sunlit peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho

Being above it all:  My very favorite place to be is at the edge of the fog assuming it is sunny above.  Obviously you have to live in an area that has some vertical relief if you want to get above it. One of my favorite images took place while hiking above the fog.  Near the end of an 8-day Kongakut River trip in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Lauri and I hiked above fog advancing south off the Arctic Coastal Plain.  We spent midnight at the edge of the foothills of the North Slope of the Brooks Range watching fog dance in and out of ridges and valleys as the warm midnight sun never set.

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Hiker standing above Arctic Ocean fog above Kongakut River near Caribou Pass, Arctic National Wildlife Reguge, Alaska. Image about 1am showing the midnight sun

Most often for efficiency, I drive above it. On occasion, a ski resort chair lift has carried me above the fog.  I really love low angle sun skimming across tops of fog.  Shooting mountains with fog in valleys below can hide otherwise distracting elements and creates a heightened sense of well, height.  Being at or above the fog’s edge at sunrise or sunset – well it doesn’t get much better.

morning-fog-stanley-idaho

Radiational fog and stratus in early morning in the Upper Salmon River valley near Stanley, Idaho.