Black & White Flower Silhouettes

Macro flower photography is one of my favorite disciplines to practice during the winter; cold temperatures, dreary weather, and naked trees make the landscapes less palatable for my normal ventures. With macro photography, I can often work indoors and with bright and vibrant flowers that make the frigid days feel a little brighter.

Longwood Gardens is one of the best places on the East Coast for enjoying flowers and plants, and their annual orchid festival is probably my favorite event of the year. It has been several years since I spent a day focused solely on macro flower photography, so I was excited to spend some time there recently.

Using my Nikon D850, a 200mm macro lens, external flash and diffuser, I created the following images. I purposefully used the flash to remove the background because I knew the final image would be printed in black and white. I wanted the prints to be borderline harsh, with strong contrast; I thought there would be some romance to having delicate and soft flowers reproduced with such strong effect.

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A Sea of Contrast

California's legendary coastline offers no shortage of incredible seascape vistas to photograph. While I normally would look for colorful scenes, my time along the coast was plagued by bad weather and heavy rains. To carry that drama into the artwork, I used high contrast black and white adjustments, along with a strong vignette and bold blacks to create images that capture the emotions of that gloomy day.

Photographed with the Leica SL and Leica 24-90mm lens.

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Finding Local Inspiration: Fall on a Farm

Fall has officially started on the east coast of the United States! Temperatures have finally mellowed, pumpkin spiced everything is available for sale, and the trees are starting to show their fall colors. So last weekend I headed out into rural Virginia to get a few images in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

One thing I often hear from new photographers is that they don't have anything to photograph, and they can only travel once or twice a year. That sentiment represents a lack of creativity! There are photographs to be found everywhere you look. So today I'm sharing over a dozen images that were all taken within a 300 foot radius of a farm house in rural Virginia - all made on the same day (although taken at different times to reflect changing sun conditions).

You don't need need to travel to exotic locations to make some photographs, and I challenge you to find some local inspiration in your back yard!

A white picket fence surrounding the property lines. 

A white picket fence surrounding the property lines. 

Playing with reflections and silhouettes in the window. That's actually my mom sitting at the kitchen table.

Playing with reflections and silhouettes in the window. That's actually my mom sitting at the kitchen table.

A shed sitting along the edge of the property.

A shed sitting along the edge of the property.

A pile of fresh leaves on the lawn

A pile of fresh leaves on the lawn

Two ladders leaning up on the side of the workshop

Two ladders leaning up on the side of the workshop

Peeling paint on the side of the shed

Peeling paint on the side of the shed

Playing with the high contrast late afternoon shadows on the leaves

Playing with the high contrast late afternoon shadows on the leaves

The view from the back of the property

The view from the back of the property

Looking over the fence toward the neighbor's farm

Looking over the fence toward the neighbor's farm

The tree in the front yard

The tree in the front yard

A workshop with an old horse-drawn carriage in the back

A workshop with an old horse-drawn carriage in the back

A pile of leaves on a table in the yard

A pile of leaves on a table in the yard

Five Thoughts: A Day with the Leica Monochrom

I remember when I was first researching Leica's camera and lens lineup - well before I even considered purchasing my first Leica. As a self-admitted gear-obsessed woman, I researched the cameras and lens based on price alone. And how can you avoid it? You see cameras and lenses that cost around $10,000 USD and you can't help but be intrigued by their offerings.

Two of the many Leica products I drooled over in that initial research stuck out in my memory. They were the Leica Noctilux f/0.95 lens and the Leica Monochrom. At that point the Monochrom was built off the M9 platform as the new M246 Monochrom was not yet announced.

These two products stuck out for several reasons beyond their pricing..... most significantly it was their uniqueness. A f/0.95 lens was (and still is) unlike anything else on the market, and the incredible bokeh and low-light it offered was remarkable. And the Monochrom - a camera that could only take black and white photographs! 

I have since secretly lusted for both. Earlier this year I had a chance to snag a Noctilux for a killer deal by monitoring the currency fluctuations (see my earlier post about the purchase of the Noctilux). And while the Monochrom still lived in my fantasies, it would take another killer deal before I could consider purchasing.

Low and behold, another killer deal came along.... this time a combination of the Leica rebate + trade in promotion + a weak British Pound / US Dollar exchange rate. Leica introduced a program where I could trade in another camera (I chose my lovely M7) and get a part exchange, plus $750 rebate. Alone this is a good deal, but the real killer is the exchange rate. After the June 23rd vote by the UK to exit from the European Union, the British Pound crashed to a 30 year low. I waited until the Pound traded at $1.29 on the dollar and jumped..... I purchased my Monochrom at Red Dot Camera in London.

I haven't owned my Leica Monochrom long enough to do a proper review, so I'll share my initial five thoughts on the camera and follow-up with another review when appropriate.

Three Leg Thing - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

Pokemon Go - Leica MM with Leica 50mm Noctilux f/0.95

I: Oh Panchromatic....

Obviously you don't need to take many photographs to figure out that the Monochrom only captures black and white, or more technically correct, panchromatic images. In fact, if you take one photograph without figuring that out, you're either asleep, lost, or both.

Still, even though I knew I was going to get a greyscale product back from the Monochrom, there is an element of excitement and anticipation in downloading those first images into Lightroom. I was blown away by the tonal depth of the photographs..... millions of shades of grey never looked so good!

I would say it is different from film - at least from my preferred film, Ilford Delta 100. Scans of my film (which I self-develop in HC-110B) tend to be more contrasty and have bolder blacks and harsher whites. The Monochrom RAW files are more flat out-of-camera, but really sparkle with a few seconds of editing in Lightroom. The detail and resolution of the Monochrom files is also very impressive - I was able to get very heavy handed with some crops but maintain acceptable file resolution and detail.

Absorbed - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

Road Markings - Leica MM with Leica 50mm Noctilux f/0.95

Two Phones? - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

II: Neutral Density Filter Required, ASAP

I LOVE shooting with the Leica f/0.95 Noctilux on my Leica SL - it's become one of my favorite lenses for the truly unique look and feel that it gives each image. But mounted with a maximum shutter speed of 1/4000th and a base ISO of 320, I will need to invest in a neutral density filter for the Noctilux before I can really get the most out of the lens in daylight. I took a few shots in London later in the evening when it was darker, but look forward to having a chance to play in more diverse light with a filter. I wasted no time ordering a 3 stop ND filter made by B&W!

Interrogation - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

Walking - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

Selfie - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

III: My Friend, EVF

Going back to the Noctilux - the reason it is such a great lens on the SL is because of the electronic viewfinder. In fact, I really struggled to decide between the older Monochrom (based on the M9 body) and the new Monochrom Type 246, but ultimately decided that the ability to use an electronic viewfinder (EVF) was worth the extra cost. 

The electronic viewfinder on the Monochrom is a nice addition - it helps you 'see' in black and white if you are trying to learn to see the world without color, and the focus peaking is a must-have to improve your focusing hit-rate with the Noctilux. Of course there is no comparison between the Leica EVF-2 and the viewfinders on the Leica SL and Leica Q.... it lags and is much lower resolution, but if you can accept those things and just want a tool to help you ensure critical focus, then it's a great buy.

Taxi Driver - Leica MM with Leica 50mm Noctilux f/0.95

Self Portrait - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

Wine Tasting - Leica MM with Leica 50mm Noctilux f/0.95

IV: Underexpose

Several reviewers have discussed the importance of underexposing photographs to ensure no blown highlights as highlight detail cannot be recovered in the Monochrom files, but I had to play with it to really see it for myself. I took a variety of test shots against a bright window with a backlit subject to see how much I could "sneak out" of the highlights. Sure enough, blown highlights are really blown. (Sidenote: this is like a child being told something is hot, but not believing it until they touch it themselves and get burned. I had to try it to know!) 

In some cases, I actually like the blown highlight for the contrast it can apply to an image. I wouldn't do this all the time, certainly, but for a few of the images, I think the blown highlight helps draw the eye back to my subject.

I intentionally underexposed this photograph of my husband by several stops to see how much I could recover before I introduced noise...... see below. Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

The result. I would like to have pulled back a little more in the shirt, but noise started to be introduced at a level I was uncomfortable with. For me, this is as far as I'd push the image. All-in-all, a completely acceptable result! - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

V: See Differently

I convert 99% of my street photography, and probably 50% of my landscape photography to black and white, so the idea of pre-visualizing an image in black and white isn't new to me. However, there is still something to be said for knowing you can only capture an image in black and white vs capturing in color and knowing you have the option to convert. There were times in my walk through London that I saw some bright colors or shapes that made me reach for the camera, only to remember that the subject wouldn't translate into panchromatic. This isn't a bad thing..... I don't miss any of those 'missed' shots. Having a camera that only captures panchromatic images helps focus my attention. I studied the light and the way the light reflected off a subject. I experimented photographing shiny and reflective surfaces to see how those translated in the eyes of this sensor, and I found myself discovering contrast and intrigue in new scenes.

Moorgate Station - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

Examine - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

Shoryu Ramen (the best!) - Leica MM with Leica 50mm Noctilux f/0.95

There's a certain amount of learning required for any new camera, and the Monochrom and I are still in the flirting phase; still figuring out what the other likes while avoiding touchy dinner table conversations like religion and politics. We'll get there soon, but for now I need to continue to learn how the Monochrom responds to the world around it. I am incredibly excited by this camera - it begs to be picked up and to go shooting, so I'm sure it won't take long before Donald Trump's hair is broached at dinner......

Quick Shot: Alone

It was a long hike to get this photo.....well, it was a long hike where I got this photo! After several miles of uphill through a swampy and overgrown mountainside in Wales, I began descending a steep rock face. Looking up along the cliff during my descent, I found this lone tree perched on the cliff. A lone tree would have been photographic, but the bizarre crooked shape of this tree really made the shot!

Photographed with the Leica SL and Leica f/0.95 Noctilux lens. 

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Quick Shot: Rain Storm

Bad weather makes for great photographs, which is contradictory to what most people think. I get a lot of comments from folks on the street who see me with a camera and remark "what a great day for photography" when the sun is shining and not a cloud in the sky. The problem is, nice weather is boring. There isn't drama and contrast to it.  

On the other hand, crap weather is great for photographs, even if it's not great for standing around in. For this particular shot, I had some of both. The sky was sunny and nearly cloud-free over my right shoulder, but to my left was a pop up rain storm and heavy clouds. The contrast was remarkable, and made for some great lighting and drama to photograph. 

I emphasized the dramatic clouds  and contrast of the rain over everything else.... I cropped to 16x9 to give a dramatic air to the whole photograph and converted it to black and white using Nik Silver Efex. Photographed on the coast of Wales with the Leica SL and Leica 24-90mm lens. 

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Quick Shot: Random Nature

I love some of the randomness that nature can offer us as photographers..... that's why I am always ready with my camera on, settings set, and lens cap off ready to strike at an opportunity when it's presented.

I went to the Hunstanton Cliffs and was walking in the sea surf and saw the late afternoon sun casting interesting light on the ripples in the sand and standing pools of water. The result was an interesting set of textures and designs. I knew the scene would translate into an interesting black and white photograph, and took this image with my Leica SL.

Quick Shot: Two Eyes

The London Eye is quickly becoming a popular site for tourists who wish to have a tremendous view of the London skyline. The ferris wheel has little glass bubbles that rotate with the wheel over the span of 30 minutes. To get this double exposure showing an eye within an eye, I centered the wheel in the center of my focus screen, then took a few steps back and shot again. This image was created on my Hasselblad 503CX using Ilford Delta film.

Quick Shot: Trees

Nothing too fancy, just a beautiful image of some pine trees lined up along the beach on Llanddwyn Island in Wales. I really liked the fence in the foreground and the fact that you could see parts of the beach through the trees. I actually took a few images with my digital Leica and my film camera before I settled on this being my favorite.

This is a film photograph taken with a Hasselblad 503CX on Ilford Delta 100 Pro film.

Winter Inspiration: Tulip Collage

In a blast of unwelcome suddenness, it got very cold in England. While I will still go out and take many photos in the winter, the dreary and grey days can sometimes be tough on creative expression. No worries, this is the best season to work on some indoor studio work!

This photograph was one of many large format film images I took this weekend in my home 'studio.' I put quotes around the word studio because I used the furthest thing from a formal studio to get this image. I really like the resulting photograph and hope that seeing how I did this will inspire your own creative outlet and expression this winter.

Before I get into the how of the photograph, lets look at the finished image (negative was scanned on an Epson V700 scanner)...

There is one thing that really makes this image unique and different. Study it closely and see if you can figure it out. 

Need a hint? Look at the lighting.

That's it! Most people would light this subject from the top - meaning they would light the top of the flowers rather than the stems. Instead, I have the light coming from the bottom, so the stems and base of the flower have all the texture and detail.

Now how'd I do this? First step, I bought some tulips. They are a great flower for photographers because they are relatively inexpensive. I paid $7 for 20 at a market in Cambridge. 

Onto the 'studio' - in this case, my studio was actually an outdoor patio table that I setup in the sunlight coming through the big french doors in our house. The background is standard white tissue paper. I used my large format 4x5 film camera and set it up on a tall tripod. It was so tall I actually pulled out a step stool to be tall enough to get the focus correct. I metered for f/22 and selected an exposure of 15 seconds. At that length of time I don't mind being a little inaccurate, so I counted the exposure in my head.

The very unsophisticated setup I used to get this photograph. You can see the natural light coming from the door was all I needed with a long exposure.

Voila! 

Ran the negative through a standard development and scanned it here. 

I love shooting 4x5 for my 'studio' work because of the size of the negative. It's HUGE. Here - this is next to my iPhone 6 plus. Yeah, it's a big phone, but it's the negative that we're looking at here!

The large format negative vs the iPhone 6 plus

Hopefully that helps you find some inspiration to make some artwork this winter. You don't need to use a big film setup - you can use any camera - but don't let the lack of a professional studio stop your creative expression. The sun is a wonderful light!

Quick Shot: Butt Shot

Sometimes having a photograph where the face isn't front and center is a good thing..... and in this case, the butts are center stage. These two wildebeest were facing away, but I was patient with the camera and was ready to shoot once both turned to look at me. I love the look and feel of this image!

Quick Shot: The Perfect Laundry

I don't particularly enjoy doing laundry, but I love photographing the laundry of Europe. That may sound creepy and weird, and I'll totally embrace that - but I love the look of a clean line of laundry hanging outside in the wind. You could say I'm a connoisseur of laundry. I particularly love laundry hung across a street. I love laundry that contrasts with the side of the building. 

In Europe, where most people don't have a clothes dryer, it's easy to find lots of photo-friendly laundry. But to minimize my creeper stats, I try to only photograph the very best laundry. One of the best spots for laundry spotters is Venice, Italy, so I was questing for some fine laundry while there for several days.

On the third day of hunting laundry, I finally started to get some results. Granted, it had been raining the previous days, and I understand its not good to dry your laundry outside in those conditions. To get to the finest laundry, I have to exit the tourist areas and explore the parts of Venice where real people live. We embarked on a walk to the far side of Venice and I found lots of laundry, but none of it was perfect.

Then we turned down this street. As soon as I saw it, it was like I was a kid in the candy store. That is some FINE laundry! Part of the appeal came from the perfect size order of the laundry.... that takes some dedication! 

Shot with my Leica MP (Type 240) and a 75mm lens. With this shot, I can say I've finally found my perfect laundry!

Day 1: Tanzanian Coffee and Villages

Wow! Today was an incredible cultural experience and there is almost no way for me to do it justice via words, but I’ll try! Our day started with a pickup by our driver and guide, Max, who took us up to see a coffee plantation and tour some of the villages that dot theslopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. The drive up the mountain was incredibly bumpy and I was certainly appreciative of the 4x4 safari vehicle. We passed some very small villages of local Tanzanians in the middle of their daily business, including gentlemen carrying the head of a freshly killed cow, kids going to school, and women gathering grasses to feed their cows. 

At the top of the mountain we parked and started a walk to one of the local waterfalls. The hike took us passed even more huts and small family dwellings where we had a chance to really experience the life of a local. Words cannot begin to describe how different this was from everything I’m accustomed to seeing in the western world, which made it incredibly powerful. For instance, most of the houses had limited electricity and flushing toilets were regional and shared by multiple people outside the house. I saw one radio (that was probably from the 1970s) and no televisions. Access to the internet and cellular networks is extremely limited. Most of the women didn’t have shoes and it was obvious that much of the wardrobe originated as a donation from a western country. For instance, we saw t-shirts from a Halloween party in Chicago and a lacrosse high school team and I’m 100% certain they were charitable donations that eventually found their way across the oceans.

While the waterfall we saw was spectacular and very pretty, the cultural immersion was far more powerful to experience. We had fantastic guides who were happy to talk to us about their lives. Here’s a sample of “fun facts” we picked up during the day:

  • A family here can have upwards of 20 children, although most will have more like 7 kids. Men who have many cattle are allowed to marry multiple wives.
  • A well-to-do family here will make 2 million Tanzanian Shillings a year. That equates to about $1,000 USD. Many families here live on less than $1USD per day.
  • While schooling in Tanzania is free, parents need to pay for books and uniforms, which can cost $50/year per kid. The economics mean many kids won’t get an education; a family living on $1 a day can’t exactly afford the fringe costs of education.
  • A favorite drink is a beer made from dried millet and sweet banana. We got to taste some and while the beer wasn’t exactly my favorite, they had a banana wine that I found more appealing.
  • The coffee farms here are hardly what we’d call a farm in the United States; it was a cluster of a handful of bushes and coffee beans were sold to a larger coffee company that distributes it worldwide. For the family we saw, this season yielded approximately 150kg of coffee, which is their only source of income for the year.
  • Many families will keep their cattle inside their house and have the house serve as the cage. This is so they can collect the dung for fertilization.
  • In Moshi, women sell a variety of things from shoes to pants. To advertise their sales, they will carry one of the items on their head - so we saw some women carrying a single shoe on their head. Apparently size isn’t an issue here either, you buy shoes because you like them, not because they fit.
  • Election season is approaching in Tanzania and we passed a pickup truck blaring some music and slogans. We asked and apparently the truck was driving around to remind residents to register to vote.
  • Coffee is a big cash crop here, but corn provides the major food source for locals.

After the hike, we visited the coffee farm of one of the local residents. Farm is a very generous term because it is not the sort of farm we are accustomed to seeing in the west. The farm consisted of a dozen small bushes that they pick the coffee bean from. Once the beans are picked, they use a hand mill to remove the bean from the outer shell and then wash the beans. Any beans that float are bad and have been affected by one of the parasites, while sinking beans are good. After they soak for a few days, they are set out to dry. Finally, they are roasted over an open fire for 15 minutes and then crushed (by hand) into coffee grounds. Watching the process as they made us a cup of coffee gave me a new appreciation for this drink and you can’t help but think that instant coffee makes these people furious!

Having a day completely immersed in the lifestyle of the local villagers who live around Mt. Kilimanjaro was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had traveling. Even my travels through the Middle East have been relatively “normal,” but seeing people who may not live to be older than 50 and who live on so little was truly eye opening. I almost felt guilty using a camera that cost three times their annual income to photograph them! Yet despite their situation, they never sounded sorry for themselves. Seeing people who have such a different view of the world and their lives is an experience that will stay with me for an eternity. 

Unfortunately the wifi at our current hotel is very slow, so I can only share a fraction of the photos I took of the adventure, so I’m sharing these to wet the appetite and more will follow when internet improves.

The daughter of a coffee farmer sits on the mud step outside her hut

The daughter of a coffee farmer sits on the mud step outside her hut

A woman who is probably in her 50's was shucking corn shells by hand while her sons work the coffee farm

A woman who is probably in her 50's was shucking corn shells by hand while her sons work the coffee farm

Some village children sitting by the side of the road. They were very amused and curious to watch the white people since they see so few tourists.

Some village children sitting by the side of the road. They were very amused and curious to watch the white people since they see so few tourists.

A woman carrying a bunch of grasses over her head as she walks home to feed her cattle. Many cattle live in the huts with the family, so the food has to be brought to the cattle. 

A woman carrying a bunch of grasses over her head as she walks home to feed her cattle. Many cattle live in the huts with the family, so the food has to be brought to the cattle. 

Quick Shot: Train Lady

Over the weekend, I took the train down to London's King's Cross station (where the platform 9 3/4's is run by enterprising  Brits happy to make a buck on folks dying for a photo op). My last trip through London was to purchase the Leica M-P 240, so I hadn't become familiar enough with the camera to shoot at the speed and comfort I wanted. For this trip the goal was simple -  capture some interesting photographs of life in London.

This quick shot embodies the interesting photograph goal; I was sitting on the train as we rode home from a full day of walking and was enjoying being off my feet for the first time in hours. I stared out the window dazing off in reminiscence of the afternoon I'd spent in town. In the reflection of the window I could see the woman sitting two rows in front of me looking out the window, also deep in thought.  I debated what sort of adventures her day had included; she was dressed rather well and that only furthered my speculation. Did she see a play? Was she out on a date? Was she visiting a lover?

I decided to try and photograph the woman's reflection - the seats in front of me totally obscured any view of her, but her reflection with the context of the train chairs is what intrigued me. I rarely use a live view function on any camera, but this was the perfect occasion - I needed to line up the camera's angle relative to the sun and window to maximize the reflection without creating obstruction from the chairs. I selected an aperture with a narrow depth of field so that only her face would be in focus and took one shot. A quick black and white conversion in Nik Silver Effects and I had my train lady!

Comment and let me know what you think the "train lady" was doing in London.