My 2015 Search for Spring (and Skunk Cabbage)

Skunk cabbage generates its own heat, melting the snow around it.

Photo A: Skunk cabbage generates its own heat in a process called thermogenesis allowing it to melt the snow around it. Here, at Pilcher Park Nature Center in Joliet, IL, skunk cabbage bursts though the ice in a frozen runoff.

Every March, I go to the woods in the hope that I will find evidence that spring has begun. For me, that’s when skunk cabbage emerges from the mud or, as is the case this year, through the snow.

Skunk cabbage has heat-generating properties, which allows it to melt the snow and ice around it.

Today, March 7, I visited Pilcher Park Nature Center in Joliet, Illinois. It took only a minute to hunt down a skunk cabbage and the signal that spring is here! See Photo A.

A visit to Black Partridge Woods in search of skunk cabbage, which signals the beginning of spring, resulted in an altogether different find that also signals that spring has arrived.

Photo B: When I visted Black Partridge Woods in search of a sign that spring had arrived, I didn’t find skunk cabbage. But I did find another sign that was just as convincing: a Rawlings baseball resting in the exact spot where skunk cabbage will soon populate. I haven”t stopped laughing about it since and I’m laughing right now.

Earlier this afternoon, I searched for spring at beautiful Black Partridge Woods in Lemont, Illinois. I headed straight for the muddy skunk cabbage habitat at the base of the bluffs. No sooner than I had reached the spot and looked into the water, there it was, a sign of spring that has had me laughing all day long: a Rawlings baseball. It rests in water where, in just a short time, will be filled with fanning skunk cabbage leaves (See Photo B).

Now celebrate! Spring is here, one way or another.


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Light in Landscape Photography: A Matter of Life & Depth

Good light can bring shape and depth to a photograph. In particular, low side-lighting or “glancing light” can be used to transform your landscape photographs and make them come to life.

In Photo A (below), the feathery June grass, yellow flowers of hoary puccoon, and other ground foliage are smothered in the open shade of nearby oak trees. And, though the composition helps to impart a feeling of depth, the picture doesn’t possess that “sparkle of life,” particularly in the lower part, where the subject matter is more discernible and, hence, where our eyes like to go.

PHOTO A: Here, diffused light is cast upon a foreground of June grass, flowers, and foliage, resulting in a flat image that no amount of additional compositional prowess can improve.[/

PHOTO A: Here, diffused light is cast upon a foreground of June grass, flowers, and foliage, resulting in a flat image that no amount of additional compositional prowess can improve.

Now, take a look at Photo B (below). It is essentially the same composition at Photo A, except for a foreground, which is under the magical influence of glancing light coming from the right.

PHOTO B: As you can see, light really matters. As the glancing light kisses the tops of the understory, it leaves exciting highlights mixed with soft shadows, resulting in an immersive image filled of shape and depth.[/

PHOTO B: As you can see, light really matters. As the glancing light kisses the tops of the understory, it leaves exciting highlights mixed with soft shadows, resulting in an immersive image filled of shape and depth.

Side-lighting is known for revealing details and form, but glancing light is special because it only occurs when the sun is no higher than thirty to forty-five minutes above the horizon, at time when the sun’s rays are golden warm and the shadows are soft and blue—a truly yummy combination.

In landscape photography, glancing light can impart sparkle, realism, and drama to a scene—a powerful influence that is truly a matter of life and depth.

To learn about the ideas expressed in this article, take my hands-on landscape photography workshop called Light & The Landscape. And, learn special techniques for composing your landscape photographs in Art of Landscape Photography. Both classes are held during the summer.

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Landscape Photography: Use Your Mind’s Eye

A photograph is a facsimile of reality and our experience. Sometimes it represents the moment quite accurately; at other times, quite poorly. Landscape photography can be more like the latter. This article is about how to photographically communicate the drama and the magic of the landscape, and the emotion that you feel.

You arrive in the morning at this rare oak savanna, prepared to photograph the hot white glow of June grass reflecting the new day sun.

Photo A is what you see as you look ahead into the distance.

A view into the distance of this black oak savanna, as streaks of morning light filter in to illuminate feathery plumes of June grass.

PHOTO A: A view into the distance of this black oak savanna, as streaks of morning light
filter in to illuminate feathery white plumes of June grass.

Glancing downward towards your feet (Photo B) reveals a larger, more intimate, world of radiating grasses and forbs.

PHOTO B: Now, glance down to see new details that connect you more closely with the individuals that make up the dramatic scene.

PHOTO B: Glancing down reveals new details that connect you more closely
with the individuals that make up the dramatic scene.

Compared to Photo A, the view of June grass in Photo B is significantly more immersive. Yet, viewed through the “optical eye” of the camera or the human, these plants still appear quite small, compared to the mental picture that we form in our “mind’s eye,” where grasses loom much larger and dramatic. Even small subjects that take up an insignificant portion of our optical field of view can be perceived as enormous by our mind’s eye.

Imagine. You’re hiking on a solo backpacking trip through Rocky Mountain National Park and, suddenly, you spot a cougar lurking amidst distant boulders upon the mountainside. It’s possible that you are being stalked and that it will kill you when you go to sleep in your tent. Far off, the predator appears as a tawny dot. Yet, burned into your brain, the mountain lion fills the frame. Your mental viewfinder contains no sign of the fragrant field of flowers that surround you or the deep blue sky and towering mountains, under which you are immersed, just the information contained within that tiny, dangerous dot.

A picture of “a dot in the distance” isn’t going to convey the urgency of the moment. But you can, if you emulate the image burned into your mind’s eye: a tightly-composed shot, using a long lens, of the lion with its piercing eyes. We perceive the world with both our optical eye and our mind’s eye. The optical eye scans for important data. Then, the mind’s eye produces an image comprised of a potent condensation of optical, sensory, and emotional data, undiluted by distractions. It is this tight, concentrated image created by our mind’s eye that we’d like to photographically imitate with our camera’s optical eye.

Combining Photo A and Photo B gives us Photo C, exactly what our optical eye sees from standing position.

PHOTO C: The oak savanna as viewed by the camera's optical eye.

PHOTO C: The black oak savanna as viewed from standing position
with the camera’s optical eye.

Yet, moving in close and low with the camera revealed what was in my mind’s eye (Photo D): a landscape photograph that represented my experience and a magic that still conjures the same emotion as when I was there.

PHOTO D: This photograph accurately reflected what I saw in my mind's eye. And each time I view it, it conjures the same emotion that I felt when I was there. All it took was a close and intimate perspective.[/

PHOTO D: This photograph accurately reflected what I saw in my mind’s eye. Each time I view it, the image conjures up the same emotion that I felt when I was there. All it took was a close and intimate perspective.

What we see with our own two eyes is full of trivia and distractions. No matter what kind of photography you do, trust your mind’s eye and emulate that image to convey the drama, the magic, and the emotion.

Learn about these techniques and more by taking my landscape photography workshops called Light & The Landscape and Art of Landscape Photography, which are held every summer.

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Landscape Photography: Sometimes It Just Takes Two

Landscape photography may seem tough when there's a wide range of light, and a lot of photographers turn to HDR software. But, in most cases, HDR doesn't work for landscape photography because of artifacts caused by the wind. Here, this springtime image of a Will County woodland would not have been possible without merging two consecutive shots taken at different exposures: one for the land and the other for the sky. But, HDR was not required.

PHOTO A: This springtime image of a Will County woodland would not have been possible without merging two consecutive shots taken at different exposures: one for the land and the other for the sky. But, I didn’t use HDR. As with most landscape shots that feature plants, wind is an HDR killer, resulting in artifacts that are impossible to fix.
(See picture below for how HDR performed with this shot.)

Landscape photography sometimes requires two shots to capture the drama of a single scene.

Here in the woodlands of Will County, this afternoon landscape of bluebells along the stream would have been impossible to convey with just one photograph.

Those who are familiar with HDR (High Dynamic Range) will take several shots, separated by one stop (maybe two), then blend them using their favorite HDR software.

Photomatix is the most popular product, but it’s very hard to achieve a realistic look without a lot of time and experimenting with the various sliders. Instead, I’ve moved to Photoshop’s HDR Pro and their 32-bit workflow, which allows for two powerful passes of Adobe Camera Raw. Because Photoshop is a photography program, it defaults to producing a realistic look, plus I’m already familiar with the intuitive functions and sliders of ACR. Still, even the best software cannot account for motion—those small positional shifts that happen between shots as subjects blow in the wind. But, do not fear. There’s a much easier approach that gives near perfect results!

This is a crop of the previous photograph resulting from merging two shots with Photoshop HDR Pro. Movement in the wind-blown trees cause artifacts are impossible to fix. Therefore, HDR isn't the best approach for landscape photography.

PHOTO B: I attempted to use Photoshop HDR Pro to merge just two exposures of Photo A, but movement in the wind-blown trees caused artifacts all over the sky. I originally tried it with five exposures, which, as you can imagine, also turned out badly. Unless the air is perfectly still, multiple images of a landscape that contains plant life is almost impossible to align with HDR software.

Most landscape photographs only require two pictures: one exposed for the dark land and a second exposed for the bright sky. Simply open up those two those images in Photoshop (or Photoshop Elements), drag one picture onto the other, then blend the layers using selections and masks. There are no alignment issues with this method and no need for HDR software.

Digitally captured photographs can provide a truer experience than film, but it takes more work. Just be smart about it. It’s all about choosing the best methods and tools. And it all begins with taking the picture. Plan your shot by evaluating the light and determining if you need one shot or two. Carefully take your shot(s) and check the histogram. That’s it.

Now you can enjoy yourself knowing that you won’t have a lot of work or disappointment later on. After all, landscape photography should be fun.

So, get out into the great outdoors and shoot those landscapes. And remember, two shots are probably all you’re ever going to need to communicate nature’s majesty.

Learn more from Creative Eye Workshops.

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The Digital Darkroom: Image Capture is Only the Beginning

The much more truthful final image of storm clouds brewing over Kickapoo Prairie, after opening up the shadows using Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop CS6.

The much more truthful final photograph of storm clouds brewing over Kickapoo Prairie, after using Adobe Camera Raw & Photoshop CS6 to restore shadows, colors, and depth to the originally captured image.
See the originally captured image below.

Like it or not, capturing the image with your camera is only the beginning. Digital darkroom work is needed to best convey the truth of your experience.

That’s because, straight out of your camera, digital images are inherently flat, lacking the sparkle of life and the fidelity of the experience. If you recorded the image correctly with your camera, it only takes a couple of minutes to restore the life and the truth using image editing software like Photoshop or Photoshop Elements. And, when you do, your pictures will look so much better, that you’ll never show an uncorrected photo ever again.

If you think that the pure image, captured by film or by sensor is the truth, let’s be real. It’s just not fair to expect your camera to communicate, in just one shot and two dimensions, your rich 3-dimensional human experience. There are many reasons for this.

For one, your brain records many frames, acting more like a video camera than a still camera. Furthermore, your eyes constantly auto-focus and adjust for the light, combining multiply corrected “frames” into a single memory. Perceptually speaking, whenever you put your attention on a subject, you completely ignore the foreground and the background. A picture, however, brings fore and aft into the same plane of focus. For all these reasons, and more, simple to advanced digital darkroom tools and techniques are required to more accurately reflect your reality.

Kickapoo Prairie, as originally and unrealistically captured using a Nikon D800E camera in an effort to gather as much information as I could by exposing for the bright sun and sky.

This is an image Kickapoo Prairie, as it was originally and unrealistically captured using a Nikon D800E camera, in an effort to record as much information as possible by exposing for the bright sun and sky. This photo illustrates a more extreme example, but every single picture that comes out of your camera will benefit from some digital editing.

Digital editing techniques, such as controlling local and overall contrast, are very easy to do. Bringing out the color is also important, but care should be taken not to embellish the truth or to enter the realm of “Photoshopping.” People who say that Photoshop makes photographs untruthful have it backwards. If you’re not using Photoshop, your pictures are less truthful than they could be. Simply using Photoshop does not mean that you’re “Photoshopping.”

Removing a distracting bright spot in the background of, say, a portrait of a little girl is also a simple editing task and perfectly legitimate, too, since nobody on the scene looking at the girl’s face ever noticed that the background existed. Of course, the photographer should have caught it, which is why the best photographers get it right in the field. But, this is the real world and it’s impossible to be perfect. Just remember, if you capture the best image possible, you’ll not only end up with a superior picture, you’ll save yourself a lot of work trying to fix it on your computer later on.

The photographs shown here illustrate a more extreme example, where the final photo little resembles the captured image. But, every image, bar none, will benefit from the use of digital darkroom techniques, though it may not seem apparent at first glance.

The above photograph of Kickapoo Prairie in Riverdale, Illinois was made during the late afternoon, as storm clouds brewed and winds blew at 25 mph. If it weren’t for the wind, I may have been able to make two exposures and combine them into one well-exposed image (using layers in Photoshop), one exposure that perfectly exposes the land and another that perfectly exposes the sky. But, because the wind was jostling the subject matter, two exposures would never align, making the task impossible. Therefore, only one image was possible, and I chose the one that exposed for the sun and the sky because that would have produced the fastest shutter speed. Granted, the land appears extremely dark in the capture, but the important thing was that the motion was stopped and all of the details were recorded (as I could see in the histogram). Digitally captured with the high dynamic range of the Nikon D800E, I was able to gather all of the necessary visual information into a single shot, then use Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop CS6 to open up the shadows, resurrect the color, and restore the third dimension and the feeling of depth.

While the prairie danced and the sun peaked in and out from behind the clouds, I was shooting as fast as the wind. With the camera secured on the tripod and the picture carefully composed, the light was changing too fast for me to check each image to see if I was getting what I wanted. I just kept shooting. Everything was a blur. Only later, after I loaded the images on the computer and reviewed them, did I realize that I this was probably my best picture of the summer.

Start out with a good, clean, image capture, one that exhibits excellent technique and composition, and one that gathers all of the information. If you do, completing the job in the digital darkroom will be much easier and, if done properly, will result in a final photo that conveys a look and feel that very closely resembles the original moment.

Learn more about my Photoshop Elements Essentials class, coming soon in January of 2014.

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Photo Tip: Shoot Many, Show Few

Great blue heron nesting behavior. Nature photography by Mike MacDonald.

The male great blue heron returns to the nest and kisses his mate.
Sometimes just one picture tells the whole story.

Photographs represent the real world and, as you know, it’s chaos out there. So, take lots of pictures and understand that it’s not just you screwing up your photos. It’s your kid closing her eyes, it’s that blue garbage can in the background, it’s the bird with the branch in front of it, there millions of things that can go wrong.

From all those pictures you took at the soccer game, on vacation, or while visiting the new baby, select just a handful of images to present. Remember this: “It’s not about you. It’s not about showing off. It’s all about your audience.” Trust me, I’ve been a professional comedian and public speaker for over 26 years.

Each picture should present a different perspective and move the story forward. No duplicates! If you’re a grandparent, realize that, aside from family, your new grandkid is just a boring little troll. So, don’t bore people with the same baby expression over and over again. Capture different interactions under different settings. Mix it up, but keep it tight. Approach it like you’re doing a short magazine article or photo essay on the topic. Unfortunately, most people show too many pictures, conjuring daydreams of Abu Ghraib from office mates and friends. Instead, make people’s eyes tear up by presenting them with three or four of your best baby photos.

In photography, less is always more. Keep things short and simple. Your presentations will be more powerful and your photography will be more fun and less grueling. Instead of having to digitally edit hundreds of pictures, you only may need to work on six. You can concentrate on having fun and being creative, knowing that you only need to nail a handful of shots to be successful.

Bottom line: Take a lot of pictures, pick a small percentage of them, and show people the great photographer you are!

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The Monsters in Our Midst

Along this tranquil autumn stream at Black Partridge Woods,monsters hide in plain sight. Copyright 2012 Mike MacDonald Photography, Inc.—All Rights Reserved. Please contact Mike MacDonald Photography for Legal Permission to use image or text.
Along this tranquil autumn stream, monsters lurk in plain sight.
Location: Black Partridge Woods, Lemont, Illinois
Forest Preserve District of Cook County

At Black Partridge Woods, invisible raindrops plummet from the gray onto a canopy of yellow sugar maples, dislodging turning leaves from their tentative grasps and sending them into a lighthearted aerial choreography destined for the moving stream, where the water ride begins. Here, leaves are taken on a winding, whirling adventure, following the will and whim of the fickle current, gliding with ease around branches and rocks, then twirling, as the tip of a lobe glances the side of a mossy stone. Sometimes they’re snagged by twigs, as if nabbed from the shore by the out-stretched arms of rescue workers. Many seem to come to rest with others of their kind, wedged against a rock in an angular heap like a jumbled pile of playing cards. And happily, a few flow over my boots and between my legs as I crouch in the middle of this rocky stream, where meditative music of the cascades flood the sweet autumn air. All is a dream. But, this being the season of Halloween, a nightmare lies in wait. A demon hides in plain sight.

“La, la-la, la-la!” we sing, as we frolic through a grove or a field of flowers, oblivious to the monsters that lurk: the alien plant species. No, they are not pursuing you. (Or are they?) I mean, heck, they’re just plants, what harm can they do, right? A lot, it turns out, as fatal as a murderous scene from a horror flick, except that the stranglehold takes place over years, decades. Ignored, incognito, and beautiful to the eye, the aliens creep. But, their beauty is only chlorophyll deep. Slowly, diabolically, they take control and annihilate our native species, severing the fragile filaments that make up the web of life. Sound bad? Well, that’s what will happen in this wonderful place, if we ignore the monsters in our midst.

After years of photographing local nature, I’m still not privy to every Franken-plant. Yet, I suspected something sinister, knowing that autumn gives warning by revealing a horror in hiding: European buckthorn, with foliage that remains green deep into the fall. Along the roads, neighborhoods, and natural areas, it stands apart from the golds, burgundies, and browns. Buckthorn seems to be everywhere, providing a sobering realization of how badly our preserves have been infested and the work that remains.

In the picture, the distant greenery is not buckthorn. I checked before I shot it. Afterwards, though, haunted by the green monsters of the fall, I got an eerie feeling. If change is the message of the season, then it’s possible that other aliens did not received the memo either. I called the steward of the site and my fears were confirmed. The shrub you see is that of another demon, as vicious as buckthorn, and one that, up until that point, was unknown to me, the alien Japanese honeysuckle.

So now I know and so do you, but beware. Complacency is the most dangerous monster of all.

Posted in Biodiversity, Chicago Nature, Cook County Nature, Ecological Restoration, Illinois Nature Photography, Nature | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment