Cyanotype

The Creative Image–Cell Phone Photographs and Cyanotype Prints

By Joyce Wilson©

Fall is in the air, and the crazy, hectic summer is behind us.  For the past five years, I’ve had the pleasure of mentoring teenagers in an alternative photography program hosted by the Santa Barbara non-profit The Arts Fund .  These budding artists are so enthusiastic about photography, ready to explore and learn.  This summer, I showed them how to use some creative iPhone apps and we added cyanotypes to the program.

The cyanotype process was hands down the favorite. We all watched the magic happen as the prints developed and I loved their joy at experiencing this for the first time.

Cyanotype History

During the 1840’s, many photographic printing processes were developed.  The Cyanotype process, invented by Sir John Herschel, proved to be of rare value.  Anna Atkins used the Cyanotype process in 1843 for botanical studies.  She produced the first part of what eventually became the three-volume (very) limited edition of Photography of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.

Vintage Anna Adkins Cyanotypes

Vintage Anna Adkins Cyanotypes

The Cyanotype process was not used often.  However, in the 1850’s, Henri Le Secq did do some experimenting and published some new formulas.  In the 1860’s the Parisian firm Marion & Cie. made a Cyanotype paper for blue printing, engineers and draftsmen.  This paper was used as a method of copying drawings and specifications.

From Keepers of Light by William Crawford

Old & New – Let’s Explore

With digital technology now the norm, there is renewed interest among artists and young photographers in vintage techniques, and many of these early processes are showing up in exhibitions and websites as photographers seek for new and exciting ways to express themselves.

The old is new—and it’s back!

There is no denying new technology. Just as we got comfortable with digital cameras and Photoshop, the genius geeks gave us cell phone cameras. iPhoneography is incredible and we now have a tiny computer capable of magic right inside our cell phone.   Ronna Schary, in Los Angeles, introduced me to the cell phone camera 10 years ago. It’s great to be able to capture the decisive moment when I don’t have my “real” camera with me.   Ronna is a wizard with iPhoneographs—check out her Instagram posts at https://www.instagram.com/ronnaschary/.

So grab your camera and your iPhone and get excited about new adventures, experimenting and learning interesting techniques to make photography fun.

Gateway_Clock1

Images taken with my Apple iPhone 5 –not a fancy new one—but how cool! I used the Tintype app (an add-on of Hipstamatic.)  They really look like old tintypes, and color and sharpness can be adjusted.  Download and experiment. You’ll get hooked

Tree_Web1

How’s this for an abstract and altering reality? I used the Insta Booth app. The left image was then altered again using the Tintype app.  My friend, Carol Andrews in Houston, hooked me on this one.

 

Cyanotype

This old world process is having a wonderful resurgence in popularity.  Blue, gray, black and white are the current trends of color for décor and fashion, so hop on this bandwagon while it’s hot.

Celine1

The image in the middle is a portrait I took of Celine, one of my teen students.  Al Davalle, from the Chicago area, arrived in Santa Barbara the last day of the teen mentorship, saw the Cyanotypes and had to play.  The image on the left is Al’s wonderful abstract of a stairwell.  The image on right I took with the Insta Booth app, and created a Cyanotype.  I’ve had a wonderful summer, teaching and exploring old/new techniques, and excited to be an instructor for the Brooks Photo Workshops, working with other Brooks instructors to keep the Brooks’ legacy alive and continuing to inspire and energize photography lovers.

If you’re ready for an exciting hands-on session, come join me on November 2, 2019 for The Creative Image – Cell Phone Photographs and Cyanotype Prints.  Here’s the link for registration.   https://www.ernestbrooksfoundation.org/workshops.html

 

Till next time, remember, “Old is New and Blue is In”.

Joyce Wilson      jw@joycewilson.com    www.joycewilson.com


Carvings on Mayan Pyramid in Mexico

Travel Photography with Chuck Place

Travel Photography is much more than shooting snapshots of your vacation. Images created during your travels should transport you back to the magic you felt as sunset light washes over an ancient Mayan pyramid or recall the drama of colorful powwow dancers as a late afternoon storm builds behind them in the distant mountains of New Mexico.

Travel Photography Class with Chuck Place

Join professional travel photographer Chuck Place in a new 6-week course in the Brooks at UCSB Program, learning to capture the magic of new places, people, events and flavors. Each 6-hour class will include a 2-3 hour location shoot here in Santa Barbara and then classroom lectures and assignment critiques covering such travel subjects as architecture, landscapes, people, activities and food.

Learn to capture memories and create images with impact. Join Chuck Place this fall and immerse yourself in Travel Photography.


Photography Backlighting

3 Photographic Techniques For Creating Beautiful Direct Sunlight Portraits

Text and Photos by Chuck Place

One of the most challenging lighting environments a photographer will face is creating portraits in direct sunlight. This light source has a strong specular quality that produces harsh shadows and strong highlights. The contrast range is often greater than your camera can capture and the portrait is anything but flattering. There are, however, several techniques that allow you to modify the sun’s light to create beautiful portraits with softly diffused, directional light.

Don’t settle for bad lighting—modify it.

The most commonly used, and easiest solution, is to shoot your portrait early or late in the day. Sunlight is softer at those times with a rich, warm color temperature and a definite direction—perfect for portraits. Early and late sunlight creates drama in a portrait that adds an extra layer of emotion to any image.

Sidelight with photographic reflector

Late in the day sidelight with a warm photographic reflector

For many years National Geographic Magazine has used this technique to set their photography apart from other publications.

Direct afternoon sunlight with a small photographic diffuser panel

Direct afternoon sunlight with a small photographic diffuser panel

The second technique is used while side lighting your subject during the day, but modifying the light with a diffusion panel. Diffusion panels come in a wide range of sizes, from big “silks” large enough to light a car to small, folding models that can be carried in a camera bag all the time. I myself carry a diffusion panel and a reflector on my camera bag, each of which is 8 inches across when folded and opens to 23 inches wide.  They essentially weigh nothing.

Diffusion panels are placed between the sun and your model and the larger the panel, the softer the light.

I have also found that the closer to the subject I place the diffuser, the softer the light becomes. Diffused light tends to fill in shadows and wrap around a subject, creating smoother looking skin. A bonus in portraiture!

Afternoon backlighting with a large photographic reflector

Afternoon backlighting with a large photographic reflector

A reflector or flash fill can also be used to control the contrast of direct sunlight, but I personally prefer the look created by a large reflector. By moving the reflector, I can easily shape the light on my subject and create a strong three-dimensional feel in the image.

Heavy backlight with a reflector

Heavy backlight with a photographic reflector to help fill in the shadows

The final technique is one of my favorites—back lighting. Often when I photograph portraits in bright sunlight, I position my subject so that the sun is behind them and I expose for the shadow side of their face.

Heavily backlit subjects are exposed for the shadow side of their faces

Heavily backlit subjects are exposed for the shadow side of their faces

This approach has several advantages when shooting in direct sunlight.

Backlit subject with a photographic reflector

Backlit subject with a photographic reflector

The first is contrast control. The shadow side of your model, as well as everything else in your image, is the same exposure. Backlighting also produces a bit of a bright halo around your subject, helping to separate them from the background. Your subject can also keep their eyes wide open. There is no squinting when your model has their back to the sun. Lastly, as you adjust your exposure for the model’s shaded side, the background becomes brighter relative to the subject. This gives your image a bit of a high key feel, especially with a shallow depth of field.

Admittedly, avoiding lens flare and dialing in the proper exposure is a little trickier than front lighting. You can find an earlier post on that subject at

With just these 3 techniques, you can create beautiful, striking portraits out in direct sunlight. Mastering some simple equipment and positioning your model properly can lead to startling results. Control the light and then connect with your model. A portrait is, after all, a partnership between you and your subject. Have fun. That will always show in the final portrait.


Un-cropped winter mountain range

Fill The Frame For Greater Visual Impact

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

Famous war photographer Robert Capa once said, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” I came across that quote early in my career and soon realized the truth of that statement.

Snowy mountain peak cropped tight with long lens.

Snowy mountain peak cropped tight with long lens.

Adapting that approach to my own work, I have found that to increase impact, crop tighter.

Original beach sunset before cropping.

Original beach sunset before cropping.

Sounds simple, right? But what about all that other stuff you want to keep in the frame? Do you really need all that? Does it make your message stronger? Sometimes less is actually more, as they say.

Cropped beach sunset for greater impact.

Cropped beach sunset for greater impact.

Often, I find my students loosely cropping an image. When asked why, I find they aren’t totally sure what constitutes the main subject. Another famous photo quote, this one by Ansel Adams, is “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”

Farmers Market vendor with lots of produce.

Farmers Market vendor with lots of produce.

The first step in creating any image is knowing what you want to say about a subject or location. Be clear in your own mind what is important and what is secondary. Then make it clear to your viewer by cropping out most of the secondary material.

Farmers Market vendor cropped tight in camera.

Farmers Market vendor cropped tight in camera.

Cropping tight and filling the frame increases the impact of your image and makes it easy for your audience to “read” your message about the location or subject.

Chinese tourist films Forbidden City in Beijing, China

Chinese tourist films Forbidden City in Beijing, China

Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes the environment around a subject is as important as the subject itself. I would hate to crop out the Forbidden City in the above image. But if you feel like some of your photographs seem a little flat or dull, try cropping tighter in post-production. Experiment with it and if you like the results, you will soon find yourself cropping tighter in-camera. That’s when you will realize that your work has taken another big step up in mastering the power of photography.


Alabama Hills at sunset

Mastering Lens Flare For Beautiful Images With Impact

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

Most photographers try to avoid flare. It occurs when a light source, like the sun, is positioned in front of your camera. If direct light from this source hits the front element of your lens, it bounces around inside the lens producing a hazy fog on the image and often large and small colored spots.

Camera lens flair

Camera lens flare pretty well ruins a sunset image.

This haze lowers the contrast and masks out detail. If the spots are present, they can make a real mess of your image. That’s all bad, right? Well, maybe.

I have come to realize that many aspects of photography that I thought of as mistakes are actually creative opportunities. Slow shutter speeds, soft focus, moving the camera during the exposure—they all have their uses, just like flare.

The late afternoon sun is patially obscured by fall aspen trees

The late afternoon sun is patially obscured by fall aspen trees to eliminate lens flare in a photograph.

Over the years I came to realize that I could control flare by placing the light source, usually the sun, half way behind an object. If I split the sun in half by placing a building, tree or sail in front of it, I created a dramatic star burst with very little flare. Easy!

The sun is partially hidden behind a sailboat spinnaker to create a star burst effect and eliminate lens flare in a photograph.

The sun is partially hidden behind a sailboat spinnaker to create a star burst effect and eliminate lens flare in a photograph.

It wasn’t until I started shooting with a drone that I was forced to truly embrace flare.

My DJI Phantom 4 Pro drone has a built-in camera with an effective focal length of 24mm. It’s a pretty good wide angle lens. There is no lens shade however. Flying with a lens shade would not only be exciting but downright suicidal. That lens shade would catch the air and introduce all kinds of problems flying. I love shooting backlit subjects, but with my drone, that always causes flare to some degree.

The sun is placed on the edge of the ruins of a Spanish Mission

The sun is placed on the edge of the ruins of a Spanish Mission to create a star burst effect and eliminate lens flare in a photograph.

I have learned to accept the flare in my drone images, even embrace it. I still hate the color dots and blotches and try to get rid of them in post production. The haze, on the other hand, can add a wonderful moody feel to an image.

sun is allowed to peak under a Farmers Market awning

The late afternoon sun is allowed to peak under a Farmers Market awning, creating a soft haze of light from lens flare .

Flare can add drama as the sun breaks through morning fog in a valley or define the warmth of late afternoon sunlight at a Farmers market. At times, flare even creates the effect of God rays streaming down over a beautiful mountain landscape scene, as in the Featured Image above.

The sun peaks over a mountain ridge at sunrise, backlighting the morning fog

The sun peaks over a mountain ridge at sunrise, backlighting the morning fog with little lens flare effect.

Shooting with the drone’s aperture wide open gives me rounded dots and blobs which I then circle with a soft-edged selection tool. I then color correct, de-saturate and lighten or darken the selection to match the background. Some shots are beyond help, of course, but many others correct easily. It just depends on the subject.

Now don’t get too carried away with this. Flare is like a rich dessert—a little is plenty. There are times, however, when a little extra drama or atmosphere can really improve an image. Try adding flare to some of your images and see if it works with your subjects. “Embrace The Flare” sounds a bit zen, but you may find it adds another layer of emotion to your photographs. Take control of flare and add another item to your photographic toolbox. You really can’t have too many tools. Right?


Sunsets are often underexposed when shooting in Aperture Priority exposure setting.

Aperture Priority–The Auto Exposure For Photographers

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

I almost always have my camera set to “Manual” exposure. I admit it. I’m a “Manual” snob. Taking full control of my camera’s shutter speed and aperture, or f-stop, gives me perfect exposures no matter the subject or the lighting.

Making the leap from “Program”, where the camera makes all the exposure decisions, to full “Manual”, where the photographer is in charge, is a big step however. Let’s face it, “M”, or “Manual”, can be rather intimidating.

Are all the auto-exposure settings a waste of time? No, of course not, but one is better than the others.

Back lighting for Aperture Priority exposure of sailboarding

Back lighting of sailboarder in Aperture Priority exposure can be tricky.

Let’s break down exposure. Assuming a proper exposure is the final result, shutter speed usually just needs to be fast enough to produce a sharp subject. Whether 1/500, 1/1000 or 1/2000—they all will look the same, assuming you aren’t photographing a hummingbird. Shutter speed is generally used to freeze motion—and give you a proper exposure, of course.

Set Aperture Priority exposure for great depth of field in landscapes

Set Aperture Priority exposure for great depth of field in landscapes

Aperture settings, or the f-stop, also control exposure, but determine depth of field in an image as well. Depth of field, or how much of the image in front of and behind the plane of focus is sharp, is one of the most powerful tools in photography. Changing from great depth of field to very shallow depth of field completely changes how a viewer “reads” your photograph. The storyline of an image changes dramatically with a change in depth of field.

Aperture Priority works well for dusk images

Aperture Priority works well for dusk images but a tripod may be necessary for the long exposures.

Aperture, or f-stop, is the exposure setting that a photographer must control absolutely!

Conveniently, there is an auto-exposure setting on most cameras that allows a photographer to set the proper depth of field while the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed for a correct exposure—“A” or “Aperture Priority”.

Photographing people often requires shallow depth of field to separate the subject from the background.

Photographing people often requires shallow depth of field to separate the subject from the background.

If you want to separate your subject from the background of an image, set your aperture, or f-stop, to a wide opening of f2.8 to f5.6 for a shallow depth of field. Conversely, if the background or environment is as important as the subject, pick an f-stop that creates greater depth of field, say f16 or f22. The photographer must make the decision on how much depth of field is appropriate, then the camera picks the shutter speed to create a proper exposure.

Aperture Priority for travel subjects

The Aperture Priority exposure setting is perfect for travel photography under changing light.

“Aperture Priority” is especially useful in situations where the lighting changes quickly, like sports, weddings, travel, concerts and street photography. It’s fast and eliminates half the work of “Manual” exposure.

Is it foolproof? Well, no.

Pick shallow depth of field for food shots using Aperture Priority exposure settings

Pick shallow depth of field for food shots using Aperture Priority exposure settings

Your camera may still underexpose sunsets like the one above, light-colored buildings and backlit subjects just like it did on “P”. Much of the time, however, the exposures will be great and each image will have the depth of field that you want, rather than what the camera “thinks” is correct.

Even in the tricky lighting environments listed above, the exposure will be close and can be corrected in post-production. Not that I advocate fixing everything in post—quite the opposite—but the “A” exposure setting makes setting exposure relatively fast and painless. Take control but make it easy. Shoot in Aperture Priority and relax!


Photo Capture–Only Half The Battle

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

Today’s photography software is amazing, especially post-production software like Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom. Capturing an image is now only the first step in producing a finished photograph. How an image is processed can either emphasize what was obvious in the original capture or change it completely.

Standard processing of the original RAW file

Standard processing of the original RAW file

Ironically, we have traveled a long way to end up with a process similar to long-established black & white darkroom printing techniques. Change the contrast and exposure—no problem. Dodge and burn selective areas of an image—done and done. Now we have even greater control and we can manipulate color at both the global and localized level as well. All this processing power can be daunting and I have found that if I can pre-visualize the final image during capture, post-production goes quite smoothly.

That’s right, I shoot specifically for post-production.

Processing RAW file for an edgy look with Lightroom settings visible

Processing RAW file for an edgy look with Lightroom settings visible

The image above illustrates this process. This fitness studio caters to a certain age range of clients and the windows look out on a parking lot. The model was lit with a large softbox but I allowed the view out the window to over expose. The soft light was flattering to my subject and the blown out windows produced a high key feel to the setting while hiding all the cars.

Using my standard Develop settings in Lightroom, Clarity at 25 and Vibrance at 35, the image turned out as my client and I expected. Wanting to give my client some choices, I also processed this image with an edgier look, setting Clarity to 100 and Vibrance to -55. This look appeals to a younger audience. See the screen shot above.

Processing for normal black & white using Lightroom b&W preset

Processing for normal black & white using Lightroom b&W preset

We could have gone with a basic black & white look as well, or even a high key black & white treatment. Lightroom has a set of black & white presets and you can then alter those settings as your vision dictates.

Processing a high-key black & white image using a Lightroom preset as a starting point

Processing a high-key black & white image using a Lightroom preset as a starting point

One of the brilliant aspects of Lightroom is that it is a non-destructive software. For each unique version you create from a single image, Lightroom merely creates a low-res preview file. The original is never altered. Only when you export a file is a whole new derivative file created. Every version of your original image is saved as a text file that records the processing steps, saving tons of disk space. Brilliant!

How do you learn to pre-visualize a certain look that you create in post-production? Well, you have to play with images in Lightroom. Have fun trying out different slider combinations. Find a look that speaks to you and works well with the subjects you like to photograph.

I even have different Lightroom settings depending on whether the original RAW file comes from my Canon cameras or my DJI drone.

Remember, if you haven’t begun to master post-production, you are only working with half the available photography tools out there. If you want to get a better feel for what is possible using Lightroom, look into my Santa Barbara City College Non-Credit Class “Digital Cameras Digital Photos” or Bruce Burkhardt’s SBCC Non-Credit Class “Adobe Lightroom Essentials”. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.


Sanctity Encaustic wax on a photographic print

Get Creative With Alternative Photographic Processes

Text and Photography by Joyce Wilson,

I read something rather strange recently, and I could certainly relate.  It has been discovered that time actually moves faster the older we get. I’m considered an elder so I can testify to this as a reality.  I promised to write an article every other month for this blog post. My last post was December 2018 and I’m shocked that it is now May, 2019.  Time flies when you’re having fun and I’m always having fun, photographing, making art, sharing life with loved ones and sharing my LOVE of photography and art with eager students.

Cascade Black & white image painted with tinted wax.

Cascade Begin with black and white image and paint with beeswax to achieve the color image. Each image becomes one of a kind and unique.

I still embrace the straight photographic image, but I’m always looking for a way to go beyond the ordinary and create personal work with the mark of an artist.

Modern technology blended with the techniques passed down through centuries gives us a powerful tool for experimentation and creating art, and one such tool is encaustic wax.

Enkaustikos – The word means “to burn in’.  Three thousand years ago, a few enterprising Greek shipbuilders discovered a new use for the beeswax they used to caulk hulls.  By adding pigments for color and resin for hardness, they created a painting medium with an unmatched depth and luminosity.  Before long, encaustic art could be found everywhere, from painted ships to depictions of everyday life on urns.

Adornment Wax painted over black & white print

Adornment Image above was heavily painted with wax and wax was dripped over the surface to create the layered appearance over face and throughout the figure.

A thousand years after the Greeks discovered it, painters in Egypt resurrected the medium, crafting exquisite portraits to decorate the mummies of their patrons. The modern resurgence of encaustic began in the 20thcentury.  Mexican muralist Diego Rivera began painting with the medium in the 1920’s and in the 1950’s artist Jasper Johns further popularized its use. In the 1990’s encaustic became a process for fine art photographers to set their work apart and it’s an exciting and fascinating medium.

There are two methods to work with wax and images on paper.

One method is to work directly on the paper without a support and apply the wax in thin coats.  The initial coat can be applied with the print placed on a hot griddle, and using a wide brush, apply the melted wax evenly across the print.  After this first coat has settled, wax with color pigment added can be brushed randomly for effect.

Phoenix Black & white print

Phoenix Black & white print

The other method is to glue the photograph to a birch board using Elmer’s glue or an archival book binding glue.  This method allows the hot wax to be poured over the image, or brushed on to build up a heavier layer with texture.  This is a simple explanation of a process that takes about 8-10 steps to complete.

The equipment involved is relatively inexpensive and there is no need for a photographic darkroom.

Phoenix Black & white print painted with pigmented encaustic wax

Phoenix Black & white print painted with pigmented encaustic wax

I had the pleasure of visiting MOMA in San Francisco in April and was blown away with the exhibition “German Art After 1960”.  I have been a long time fan of Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer.  Both artists use photography in various techniques combined with metal, oil paint, and collage.  The images were stunning, and a great topic for the next blog…Inspiration vs. Imitation.

In the meantime, keep that camera focused and if you are ready for new adventures, join me in an upcoming workshop, or sign up for one of the Ernie Brooks Foundation Workshops and keep taking the classes offered through Santa Barbara City College.

Contact:   Joyce Wilson – jw@joycewilson.com  805-682-2955  joycewilson.com

 

June 27, 28, 29, 30     Imagine…a workshop beyond the ordinary

July 27, 28, 29             Kozo Paper, Gold/Silver Leaf and Resin with Photographs

August 10                    EBF Workshop – Alternative Photography Techniques

August 24, 25              Encaustic Wax with Photographs

 

KNOWLEDGE IS POWER


Portrait of Hostess at a Winery Tasting Room

Directing Your Models–A Photographer’s Guide

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

On a recent Saturday, my workshop students and I spent the morning photographing produce, vendors and street musicians at the Santa Barbara Farmers Market. I had found a vendor with an interesting face, nice display and a farm banner that hid their truck. I asked if I could photograph him and he looked at me for a moment and then said “Since you asked, yes”.

Give your subject something to do with their hands.

Give your subject something to do with their hands.

He immediately squared his shoulders, dropped his hands to his sides and stared at the camera. Where I had started with an animated vendor, I now had a ridged statue. This happens more often than not when I ask to photograph someone and it’s my job to turn them back into a living, breathing, engaged individual.

When photographing people, there is a check list in my head that I usually follow.

First, is the subject in the best light for a portrait?

Although this changes depending on what I want to say about the person or their job, I usually want diffused, horizontal light. Maybe I need to move them to a better location within their environment. Maybe they need to be turned slightly or moved only a foot. Don’t be shy about asking. This helps establish your authority on the shoot and their trust in you will quickly grow, especially if you explain why they will look better in the new position.

Find the best light within your set for a portrait.

Find the best light within your set for a portrait.

Second, and equally important, do they have any mannerisms I can use?

Do they use their hands when they talk? Do they smile easily? Is there something unique in their mannerisms that I can incorporate into the image?

Watch for small mannerisms

Watch for small mannerisms that you can use during posing.

Third, give your subject something to do with their hands.

Give them something to hold, something to move, something to pour. Make sure it is something they would normally do so it feels familiar. Give a subject something to do with their hands and they will visibly relax in front of your camera. It’s an easy fix.

Give your model something to hold.

Give your model something to hold. Be careful, of course, about what you give them.

Remember, photographing a model is a partnership between yourself and your subject. There has to be trust and respect and you only have 5 to 10 seconds to establish that trust. Show interest in the person and what they do. By showing interest in the individual, you encourage them to be themself, not just a photo target.

It sounds daunting, but each time you photograph a stranger, it becomes easier.

Some portraits are as much about the job they do as it is the individual.

Some portraits are as much about the job they do as it is the individual.

Get the technical stuff worked out before you approach your subject. Give your model a role to play. Become the director. Careful! You may start to enjoy this.

For more on photographing people, see our blog post  “The Shy Photographer’s Guide To Putting Subjects At Ease”


Wildflower bloom on Figueroa Mountain

Photographing The Beautiful Flower Show On Figueroa Mountain

Text and Photography by Chuck Place©

If you are a photographer, you can’t help but know that this has been a big year for wildflowers in SoCal. Superblooms like the California poppy explosion down near Lake Elsinore drew such big crowds that the nearest freeway exit had to be closed. Anza-Borrego Dessert State Park was also overrun with tourists.

California poppies and lupine paint a hillside orange and purple

California poppies and lupine paint a hillside orange and purple

We are fortunate to have our own flower bomb going off on nearby Figueroa Mountain—without the huge crowds.

As you climb up Figueroa Mountain Road, starting just across the highway from Los Olivos, whole hillsides in the distance appear orange and purple from blooming fields of California poppies and lupine. Hillsides are covered in soft green grasses and the oaks are just leafing out with pale green foliage.

Owl's Clover blossoms photographed at ground level

Owl’s Clover blossoms photographed at ground level

Nestled among the grasses are all kinds of exotic blossoms, from shooting stars and chocolate lilies to patches of owl’s clover. These are all “belly Flowers’, meaning you are going to have to lay on your belly to view or photograph them properly.

Bugs-eye-view photograph of poppies and lupine

Bugs-eye-view photograph of poppies and lupine

If you want a really intimate image of wildflowers, try a little trick I learned from one of my students.

Preset your camera exposure, set your wide angle lens to autofocus and place your camera on the ground beneath some flowers, shooting up toward the blue sky. Don’t try to look through the viewfinder. Just keep shooting as you move the camera around. It’s a lot of fun and I’m sure you will be pleasantly surprised by the unusual bugs-eye-view of your patch of flowers.

Using a camera to capture both the grandeur of these massive blooms and the intimate delicacy of each flower is a challenge, but it can be done using a simple tool—backlighting. Light passing through a translucent flower petal will always be more saturated than light reflecting off the same surface and has the added advantage of highlighting all the tiny hairs, pistils and stamens that make flowers such exotic creatures.

Goldfield blooms

Sometimes a little lens flair is useful in creating a sense of tangible sunlight

Although it is a simple technique, backlighting does have a couple tricky aspects. First, make sure to check your histogram for exposure. Many cameras tend to underexpose backlit situations. You are essentially exposing for the shadow side of your subject and if you are using manual exposure, overexpose by about 2/3 of a stop. Second, avoid flair by checking the front lens element to make sure no direct sunlight is hitting the glass. If necessary, use something to shade the lens, like the brim of a hat or a gray card. Flair tends to lower contrast and hide details and nobody wants a blob of off-colored light in the middle of their image. See our previous post “The 4 Advantages Of Photographic Backlighting” 

California poppy photographed from a low level

California poppy photographed from a low level

A few things to keep in mind when you go. Take water, snacks and warm clothes. Go with a full gas tank and drive slowly. Some of the roads up there can be challenging, as can some of our fellow drivers. If you are a photographer, try to take some kind of macro lens. Many of the most unique blossoms are hidden away in the grass and rocks and it will take some “belly time” to find them.

Wildflowers on the Mountain have a short season, so don’t take too long to get up there. It’s quite a show and you don’t want to miss it. After all, who knows when it will rain again?