Get Fuzzy

(with apologies to Darby Conley)

“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”
    Ansel Adams

January snow cascades down out of a Ponderosa pine, Montana, U.S.

As January warms, snow cascades down out of the trees.

The winter of 2017-18 got off to a good start here in northwest Montana with a big storm on 1 November. Snow fell every day for a week, often accompanied by gale-force wind. Daytime temperatures hovered just below freezing, with the nights somewhat colder. We happened to be in Ohio that week. We drove to the airport in blizzard-like conditions, and when we returned a week later had to clear the snow to get the car out. We drove home from the airport in equally snowy weather. Arriving home we found about a foot (30 cm) of snow had fallen during the week. Lovely! The rest of the month remained dry, followed by a snowy December. Around Christmas we had three feet (1 m) of snow on the roof. Since then (it's late January as I write) it's been dry and relatively warm, with a few rainy days. This is a recipe for ugly; there's been lots of melting, the heavy snow in the trees (mostly Ponderosa pine around us) is gone, the roads are icy, and it's just... ugly. Looking out the window, there's nothing to inspire the photographer.

My last creative outing with the camera happened in Ohio's Cuyahoga Valley National Park during that November trip. The end of the year had been a busy time, with several client jobs coming in, but January has, as is often the case, been slow and, as mentioned, less than inspiring. Not getting out shooting lately has been making me a little crazy. Then I remembered an article I'd read in Outdoor Photographer magazine. I subscribed to the paper edition for many years, until retina-melting over-saturation took over the published photos and the magazine became little more than a constant contest. I've not seen the magazine in years, so I can't say if that's still true. But I'd cut out one of William Neill's On Landscape columns, titled “Impressions Tutorial”, from OP's August, 2009 issue. The column had languished in my Things to Think About Someday binder; I decided to give it a read and try some of the techniques described.

Neill describes the importance of composition, eliminating or avoiding distracting elements, avoiding areas of bright sky, simplification, etc. That is, most of the same elements that are important to “normal” (that is, non-blur) photographs. Neill also briefly discusses shutter speeds. I found most of his comments to match my own earlier experiences, which mostly involved zoom, or radial blurs.

Getting Radial

A zoom-blur of morning sunlight on autumn-colored summac, Montana, U.S.

A zoom-blur of morning sunlight on autumn-colored summac.

We had a long, lovely, colorful autumn in 2017. I took advantage of the color and the lovely morning light one finds in the fall, to experiment with zoom blurs. I'd never done this, making every attempt an experiment. After finding my subject and composition I tried zooming from short to long focal lengths, and from long to short. I wanted the subject to be at least minimally identifiable, and tried to accomplish that by starting the exposure and then delaying slightly before zooming. I have two zoom lenses, a 24-70 mm F/2.8, and a 100-400mm F/4.5-5.6, and I experimented with both, and learned that neither is better—as with any photo, the best lens (focal length range) depended on the subject and the desired framing.

I found zooming from long to short rarely resulted in a pleasing image. In fact, I don't think I've kept any of those so far. Shutter speeds have been in the two-to-four second range. I achieve those speeds by stopping down to F/11-to-F/14 and using a variable neutral-density filter to block as much light as needed. I've used a tripod for these pictures, but I nearly always use a tripod anyway.

It's fun to look for suitable subjects in appropriate light, and it's fun to set up and attempt these blurs. The results are sometimes surprising. At the top of this article is a tight crop of a radial blur of tall autumn grasses, dry and golden and still, back-lit by morning sun. Being a fairly chaotic subject, the final image is not as soft and painterly as blurs often are. This one looks as if it's being viewed through scratched glass.

Smooth Moves

Motion blurs are made by moving the camera during exposure. I suppose one could also change the lens focal length (zoom) while moving the camera. I've not tried this; it sounds like a recipe for making a mess, but perhaps with the right subject in the right conditions one could get an interesting result.

The set-up for my attempts at motion blurs has been similar to what I described above for radial blurs, with a significant exception: I've not used a tripod while making motion blurs. I tried that several times, extending my tripod's center column, opening the shutter, and then lowering the column during exposure. While this worked to a point, my tripod's center column is short, with a range of motion insufficient for the job. The photos simply looked blurred, like a poorly made hand-held photo.

A camera-motion blur of aspen trees in a snow storm, Montana, U.S.

A camera-motion blur of aspen trees in a snow storm.

I had in mind a subject with a strong vertical element, which turned out to be similar to the photo of alder trees in Neill's column. I decided to try the technique on a nearby stand of aspen trees. Coincidentally, a few weeks earlier my brother-in-law, Steve, had sent a motion-blur photo he'd made of a group of aspens. That picture is terrific, and provided a bit more inspiration. Like Neill's photo, Steve's is a green, summery scene, while mine would be wintery and more monochromatic. I hoped the snow would obscure some of the messy understory, the fallen branches and shrubby growth in and around the dense stand of trees. In summer this isn't attractive, but I expected the scene to be simplified by the deep snow. And deep it was, even in the roadway; as I approached the trees I encountered a couple who'd somehow got their Jeep Cherokee nose-first into the barrow pit alongside the road. This put the car 90° to the road, and as the ditch is quite deep, the rear wheels were in the air. We could do nothing without heavy machinery, and a tow truck had been called, so I continued around the bend to my destination. I parked (carefully!) at the road's edge, and then checked out the trees on both sides.

The day remained cloudy and fairly dark considering the mid-afternoon timing. To make up for that it had begun to snow, coming down slightly sideways in the light breeze.

The snow created the hoped-for simplification, and also helped make the scene more monochromatic, as expected. With the 15° (-9 C) air temperature, I kept my gloves on until I'd studied the area and found a couple of suitable compositions. Then, hand-holding the camera with the 24-70 set to a fairly wide focal length and a wide aperture (F/4.0), and the variable ND filter helping me get a long exposure, I set to work. I used the wide aperture because the the aspens are backed by a massive Ponderosa pine, which makes the center background quite dark. The wide aperture took the pine completely out of focus.

I moved from low-to-high, high-to-low, varied the shutter speed from a fraction of a second to several. I delayed the movement at the start and at the end of the exposure, and also started and ended exposures during movement. Covering all the bases, while freezing my fingers.

The best of the lot is shown here. The exposure is surprisingly short, about one second. I held the camera still very briefly at the start of the exposure to capture some detail in the bark, and then moved upward. A second isn't very long to do all of that, as evidenced by the number of shots I tossed later.

I also did some radial blurs. I didn't expect these to work well with the strong vertical elements of the scene, but they are keepers, better than I thought they'd be.

Post Processing and Printing

Neill's article discusses post processing, mainly about increasing contrast. In the case of my aspen photo, doing that made the scene appear harsh rather than painterly, and darkened the background pine tree such that it dominated the picture. In the end I did very little to the image except my usual “optimizing” for the print. Printing large is another point Neill makes, and he is so right! The print I made of the photo above isn't especially large: framed it's only 22 x 18 inches (56 x 46 cm), and because I used a mat I had on-hand this crops the height of the image a little more than I'd like. But the result is really nice, much more impressive than a small jpeg on a Web page.

This is fun stuff, and quite a departure from my usual style. It's yet another idea I'll keep stashed away, something to pull out and try when I encounter suitable subjects. While looking up Neill's article on the OP Web site I found another, more recent column by him on the same subject. The two included images are warm and lovely. I'm looking forward to doing more of these when summer and fall arrive, when I'll be able to work on things with more colorful backgrounds. That should bring another dimension to making a fuzzy image of a sharp concept.

January, 2018

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