Stop and Look Up: A Winter Daydream

The dream of winter can, at least for a moment, take you to another place, away from the worries of the world. Maybe, it's a journey to an enchanted kingdom or a fairy tale of old oak matriarchs, who, throughout the night, donned the falling snow, so that in the glow of the morning sun they would, for at least a time, be restored to their golden youth, transformed into young and shining maidens of lace. Spears Woods in Willow Springs, Illinois. Forest Preserve District of Cook County

The dream of winter can, at least for a moment, take you to another place, away from the worries of the world. Maybe, it’s a journey to an enchanted kingdom or a fairy tale of old oak matriarchs, who, throughout the night, donned the falling snow, so that in the glow of the morning sun they would, for at least a time, be restored to their golden youth, transformed into young and shining maidens of lace.
Spears Woods in Willow Springs, Illinois

Stop and Look Up

Sun and snow on the trail, slip-sliding with ease,

Stop and look up, see the lace in the trees.

Take your mind off the cold, as your fingers they freeze,

Stop and look up, see the lace in the trees.

Forget your life problems, in all scales and degrees,

Stop and look up, see the lace in the trees.

An enchanted new realm, where you have the keys:

Just stop and look up, see the lace in the trees.

But, in this fragile world, the sun is the master,

too much love from the star turns white lace to wet plaster.

As I travelled the realm, of white chambers and walls,

came the cracking and crumbling of great sculptures and halls.

Falling white all around me, as the sun loved the lace,

I crashed back to earth, a cold slap to my face.

In clearing my eyes of the snow that had plopped,

Life was now looking up, now that, finally, I stopped.

Posted in Chicago Nature, Cook County Nature, Illinois Nature Photography, Nature, Nature Photography, Poetry | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Searching for Spring (and Skunk Cabbage)

Skunk cabbage can generate its own heat, allowing this curling spathe of skunk cabbage to melt the surrounding snow and break through to the surface. Location: Black Partridge Woods, Lemont, Illinois in the Cook County Forest Preserve District.

Skunk cabbage can generate its own heat, allowing this curling spathe of skunk cabbage to melt the surrounding snow and break through to the surface.
Location: Black Partridge Woods / Lemont, Illinois

Today, March 10, 2013, spring officially began in the Chicago area.

For me, the beginning of spring does not arrive in a fanfare of color. Rather, it begins subtly, when sometime in March, speckled maroon and yellow spathes of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) quietly emerge from beneath a layer of snow or a cloak of brown decaying leaves.

Skunk cabbage enjoys a rare property, shared by only a few of Earth’s plants: It is able to generate its own heat in a process known as thermogenesis. Skunk cabbage can create as much as 27 to 63°F of heat above air temperature, enabling it to melt through late winter ice and snow, and may also serve to attract pollinators to its curious yellow flower head, known as a spadix.

The maroon spathe of skunk cabbage blends with leaf litter on the woodland floor, making it difficult to find when it first emerges. However, the plant becomes more conspicuous as is grows larger and produces its unique yellow flowerhead known as a spadix. Location: Black Partridge Woods / Lemont, IL in the Cook County Forest Preserve District.

The maroon spathe of skunk cabbage blends with leaf litter on the woodland floor, making it difficult to find when it first emerges. However, the plant becomes more conspicuous as is grows larger and produces its unusual yellow flower head, known as a spadix.
Location: Black Partridge Woods / Lemont, IL

SEARCHING FOR SPRING

Winter is waning,

I’ve made it to March.

With eyes to the ground, I search for Spring.

Temperatures rise,

and snow slowly melts,

With eyes to the ground, I search for Spring.

Are you under the white,

in a warmth all your own?

With eyes to the ground, I search for Spring.

Are you hiding in leaves,

or still waiting to rise?

With eyes to the ground, I search for Spring.

Leafing through litter

on the brown woodland floor,

With eyes to the ground, I search for Spring.

Finally up from the mud,

sprouts a burgundy curl.

With eyes to the ground, it is Spring I have found.

At Pilcher Park in Joliet, Illinois, the sun shines through the enormous fanning foliage of skunk cabbage, which if broken, will release a smell reminiscent of skunk.

At Pilcher Park in Joliet, Illinois, the sun shines through the enormous fanning foliage of skunk cabbage, which if broken, will release a smell reminiscent of skunk.

These tender leaves will develop into giants, like the full-grown plants pictured to the right. Location: Black Partridge Woods, Lemont, IL in the Cook County Forest Preserve District.

These tender leaves will develop into giants, like the full-grown plants pictured to the right.
Location: Black Partridge Woods / Lemont, IL
Forest Preserve District of Cook County

Posted in Biodiversity, Chicago Nature, Cook County Nature, Illinois Nature Photography, Macro Photography, Nature, Nature Photography, Poetry, Will County Nature | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Digital Landscape Photography: New Possibilities in Storytelling

Bluff Spring Fen-120821-0010-00-HDR-FINAL by Mike MacDonald, Copyright 2012, All Rights Reserved

This is the story of a savanna, its towering bur oaks and an August fog that envelops the distant fen. The wide tonal range of this scene was recorded by first digitally capturing a range of exposures, followed by the use of HDR software to combine all of them into one realistic image, emulating how humans experience the world.
Location: Bluff Spring Fen—Elgin, Illinois
Forest Preserve District of Cook County

Not until recently, did I begin to photograph the landscape with a digital camera, leaving behind the beauty of transparency film and the process of leaning over a light table, one eye to the loupe, to immerse myself in the colorful world living within.

During my film capture days, I developed a sense of what I could shoot and what I couldn’t, based on the lighting conditions. For instance, there are times when what you see is not even close to what you’ll get. So, it’s best to just walk on by and forget about it. The scene and the story pictured here is one of those moments that could not be accurately represented with film. Luckily, this image was captured digitally.

Though I’ve been shooting with a digital camera for several years, film remained my choice for landscape photography until June of 2012, when I made the full transition to digital capture.

Up until that point, I used a 12-megapixel Nikon D300 digital camera to photograph individual subject matter such as flowers, insects, people, etc., but for landscape photography, I relied on a Pentax 645NII camera loaded with Fuji Velvia medium format color transparency film.

I chose medium format film (2.7 times larger than 35mm film) because the innumerable elements that comprise a landscape are rendered so small that a large print is required to savor the details. That’s why my standard print size is 24×36″, though I’ve made prints as large as 43×56″. A high-resolution digital scan of medium format film delivers up to 105 megapixels of information, allowing for 24×36″ prints with little or no interpolation (inventing new pixels based on existing pixels).

But, transparency film can be hard to work with, especially when there’s a large amount of contrast between the brightest and darkest portions of a scene, a.k.a., a high dynamic range (HDR) scene. In cases where a fairly straight line divides the opposing areas, like a sunlit sky and the low lit land separated by the horizon, a split graduated filter (split grad) can be positioned over the lens to cut down the light from the sky.

A split grad is rectangular and resembles the top of a car’s windshield, gradually fading from, say, dark gray down to clear. With a little know-how and finesse, lining up the dark portion of the filter over the brighter sky and the clear portion over the dark land, the image will look very much like you experienced it. However, the HDR image, pictured here, would have been impossible to record on film. Because there’s no straight line dividing the areas of contrast, a split grad can’t be used.

More and more, I found myself needing to photograph high contrast situations like this, so in June, I stopped capturing images on film and began photographing the landscape digitally with the new Nikon D800E, a 36-megapixel 35mm DSLR. Remarkably, I rarely require a split grad filter with this camera.

(NOTE: “Digital capture” is not the same as “digital photography.” I’ve been a digital photographer for many years, even when I was exclusively shooting film. That’s because film is just a scan away from a digital image. After the film is converted into a digital file, the steps are the pretty much the same, just a little more challenging.)

The exposure range of this HDR scene even exceeds the capability of the very forgiving Nikon D800E. However, if the wind is calm, it’s possible to make two or more shots at different exposures and blend them into a single image using specialized HDR software like Photomatix. With film, it’s theoretically possible to make two exposures and merge them, but, in practice, scanning multiple images is time-consuming and the scans don’t align very well.

If you’ve seen HDR images, especially those of nature, many look unnatural, like half the people in Alabama. Some look weird because the lighting doesn’t match what humans are used to seeing. Others appear surreal or grainy or whatever. Anyone can use HDR software. Just drop in two or three image files at different exposures (usually separated by 2 stops) and it’ll spit out a picture. It’s a breeze, as long as you don’t care about reality. It’s more challenging if you want to make an image that closely approximates what you saw.

Now, how can blending two or more images create a photograph that’s more truthful than a single shot? It’s obvious. Any time you look at anything, your pupils change their size to adjust for the light. Therefore, you’re taking multiple exposures and blending them together, too, just like the HDR process. If done correctly, an HDR photograph should appear true to your experience.

Of course, I could have recorded this scene with a single shot, setting the camera to properly expose the blue sky and letting everything else turn into black silhouettes, but that wouldn’t have represented what I saw. That would be my only choice with film. However, with digital capture, it’s sometimes possible to have it all—at least when the wind is perfectly still. Luckily, it was. So, I took five exposures separated by 1 stop and merged them. Photomatix recommends three exposures in 2-stop increments, but that was before I read the instructions!

Digital landscape photography now allows me to more accurately tell my nature stories, in this case, the foggy prairie-fen habitat as viewed from under the dark canopy of the oak savanna. For years, I’ve been waiting to make this kind of image, one that conveys my experience, not a silhouette of it. And now I can. With a digital camera (and sometimes with the help of software), telling the story of the landscape is easier than ever.

Posted in Chicago Nature, Cook County Nature, Digital Photography, Film Photography, Illinois Nature Photography, Landscape Photography, Nature, Nature Photography, Photography Lessons | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Transcendental Light & The Art of Landscape Photography

In the art of landscape photography, light can have a transcendental effect. Here at Black Partridge Woods, woodland phlox spread in a serpentine wave across the bluff, as streaks of morning light dramatically and ethereally transform matter. ©2013 Mike MacDonald Photography, Inc.—ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Please contact Mike MacDonald for permission to use this or any image.

In the art of landscape photography, light can have a transcendental effect. Here at Black Partridge Woods, woodland phlox spread in a serpentine wave across the bluff, as streaks of morning light dramatically and ethereally transform matter.
Location: Black Partridge Woods, Lemont, Illinois
Forest Preserve District of Cook County

On this typical May morning, along a bluff at Black Partridge Woods, transcendental rays of new-day light fleck the verdant floor and streak across serpentine waves of woodland phlox, casting the divine onto this springtime panorama.

Thirty minutes earlier, though, only flat blue shade from the open sky illuminated the landscape. Editorially and visually, the composition would have told much the same story, but not a transcendent one.

Landscape photography of a woodland is straightforward when fully lit by a diffused sky. Ubiquitous, the even light plays no influential role and is, therefore, not part of the equation. Simply compose for the existing subject matter.

However, when rays of light enter the scene, they ethereally and dramatically influence all tangible elements. Suddenly, the landscape is recast into a complex story of highlights and shadows, and every physical subject takes a back seat to the light, which now fills the starring role. A symbiotic and orderly combination of light and subject matter is required to create the ideal photograph, seriously raising the level of difficulty.

Along with the light comes new challenges, like distracting hot spots or black featureless shadows that can divert the viewer’s attention away from the intended story. Therefore, to photograph amongst the trees, the sunlight must be soft and precisely directed. Soft sunlight can be seized by showing up during the first and last 30 minutes of the day. That’s easy enough. Directing the sun, however, is out of our hands.

In the open prairie, sunbeams travel predictably and virtually unobstructed, and I easily “chase the light.” I scan the scene for a sunlit area, head directly to that spot, check for a suitable composition, and, if I find one, set up and shoot without surprises. However, in the woodland, trees divvy up the morning sun, making the position and shape of the dappled light impossible to predict. Obstructing the sunlight, they hurl their shadows in a slow, constant advance—a forest of sundials. Each flower is given its moment in the spotlight, only to fall back into the shadows. Timing and location are critical when photographing the woodland landscape.

Chasing the light, like I do in the prairie, may sound like a logical plan, but the sundials don’t wait while I take the necessary time to analyze the scene or to arrange the composition. That’s why, when time and space converge to create the perfect moment, it’s usually too late to do anything about it. Then, with the possibility of tomorrow, I glance down at my watch and vow to return to the same spot, thirty minutes earlier, hoping for a rerun of light, weather, and sky.

Chasing the light under the canopy can be a frustrating, unproductive scramble. So now, I employ a more relaxed strategy, one that separates the variables of space and time. Before daybreak, I scout the location for a scene that holds potential, then I stake it out and wait for the perfect moment. With the equipment in position and the composition virtually solved, if that moment comes, it’s likely I’ll get the picture. This approach is less frenzied, requiring only patience and an avid awareness of the creeping light, as it constantly conjures new compositions. Granted, it’s a crapshoot, but these are the images that ascend to a higher level of art and make it all worthwhile.

I tell my students, time after time, that one great picture is better than a hard drive full of good ones. Less is more. Much more. To stand out in the field of photography, stand out in the field at 4:45 in the morning. There are no shortcuts. Whenever I complain, my lovely wife exclaims in a delightful refrain, “Suck it up, Mike!” And, I do.

To learn about landscape photography and how to harness the transcendental light, consider my illuminating photography workshops entitled “Light and The Landscape” and “Art of Landscape Photography.” And, to find out more about all of my photography classes and learning adventures, please visit Creative Eye Workshops.

Posted in Chicago Nature, Cook County Nature, Illinois Nature Photography, Landscape Photography, Nature, Nature Photography, Photography Lessons | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

On the Coldest Days, Winter Plays

Only a few fissures remain on the ice-smothered Sawmill Creek. ©2013 Mike MacDonald Photography, Inc.—ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Please Contact Mike MacDonald for permission to use this or any image.

Only a few fissures remain on the ice-smothered Sawmill Creek.
Location: Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve, Darien, Illinois
Forest Preserve District of DuPage County

Here is clear evidence of raccoons slipping on the ice and breaking through the surface. ©2013 Mike MacDonald Photography, Inc.—ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Please Contact Mike MacDonald for permission to use this or any image.

Here is clear evidence of raccoons slipping on the ice and breaking through the surface.

During the extreme temperatures, a thick labyrinth of

During the extreme temperatures, a thick labyrinth of “white frost” grew up from the frozen surface of Sawmill Creek.
Location: Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve, Darien, Illinois
Forest Preserve District of DuPage County

There were some very cold days last week and most people stayed inside, but I know better. Because, it is on the coldest days when winter plays and her plans change to mischief and whimsy.

After years of winter photography, I still never know what surprises winter will conjure. And this is why I am always excited to explore the natural world on the most frigid mornings.

It was 1°F on this particular morning at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in DuPage County. Sawmill Creek still had fissures that had not frozen over. Some were due to raccoons and coyotes that broke through the ice as they slipped and skidded atop the stream. Many accidentally took dips while out for a drink, cracking through the fragile glass ledge that comprises the booby-trapped perimeter of every crevasse. Even the foot of a thirsty feather-light robin punctured the surface during a short jaunt. How do I know all of this? A dusting of snow masked the frozen thoroughfare and where the animals tread, white was swept away, leaving behind black captions of the exposed ice.

Then, near the end of my five-and-a-half hour exploration, winter presented me with a lighthearted surprise.

Swelling from a foundation of ice that was once a flowing Sawmill Creek, stretched a byzantine silver structure just a few inches high, a frazzled framework of fragile, film-like fragments, fused together, cold and clear, a chaotic crystal array conjured by winter in a whimsical interpretation of Tiffany.

First, I placed against my tongue, a single slice of the frigid glass, many times finer than a stick of gum. Melting slightly, it tasted as you’d expect, like an ice cube straight from the freezer. Then, breaking off a section of latticework, I placed it in my mouth.

As the splintered edges made contact with palette and tongue, they rapidly rounded in the sweltering heat. I closed my mouth and the delicate labyrinth crackled as the brittle maze collapsed into a flavorless liquid confection.

This white colony began as multitudes of microscopic crystal individuals, growing together. Home to countless citizens, each member is unique, differing in shape, stature, and orientation, but similarly transparent, tall, slender, and precariously fine.

Like a giant, I reached down with my gloved hand and collected a fraction of their magical world into my palm. With my eyes, I beheld the various inhabitants: taller, wider, and fully formed. I admired their diversity and the complex interrelationships that bind their community together.

As I gently closed my mitten, from within sprang their singing voices. Then, with a tip of my hand, they descended like snowfall onto the unwitting collective below, nearly endless in number. And in their joyful reuniting, new singing rang out in a miniature melody, like multitudes of molecular chimes rung by an orchestra of angels.

Posted in Chicago Nature, Digital Photography, DuPage County Nature, Illinois Nature Photography, Nature, Nature Photography, Photography Lessons | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

New Nature Photography Blog: A Celebration of Biodiversity & The Art of Nature Photography

The morning sun peaks above the horizon to illuminate a tremendous display of foxglove beardtongue at Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin, Illinois. ©2007 Mike MacDonald Photography—All Rights Reserved.

The morning sun peaks above the trees to illuminate a tremendous display of foxglove beardtongue(Penstemon digitalis) in this prairie and fen habitat.
Bluff Spring Fen / Elgin, Illinois / Forest Preserve District of Cook County

It’s a new day and a new year, and with them come a fresh new resource, a nature photography blog that speaks to the avid photographer and the lover of nature. I call it:
The Heart of Nature.

The purpose of this blog is to share my insights about photography and my explorations in the wilds of Chicago. It’s a celebration of biodiversity and the art of nature photography.

If you’re an enthusiast of photography or nature, you can subscribe to receive notifications about new posts. Just scroll up to the top of the page, type in your email address, and click the “Subscribe” button.

If you’re a student of mine through Creative Eye Workshops, the information here will supplement your learning and, maybe, some of those concepts from class will finally click.

For those who enjoy the outdoors or who want to gain a fonder appreciation of nature, here you’ll find essays about the many wonders found right in our own backyard, in the prairies, savannas, woodlands, wetlands, and forest preserves of the immediate Chicago area.

But, what will The Heart of Nature be? First, I will post a photograph, then write about it. But, what will I write? As of this moment, I foresee an extraordinary synthesis of creative lessons, imaginative writing, humor, even the occasional poem. Coming soon, you will find illuminating essays on the wonder of light and the possibilities of digital photography. You’ll be lured into a frightening world of monsters and aliens, one day, and on another, bamboozled, in a quirky essay about a beautiful bird and pumpkin pie. But, I will properly inaugurate this new artistic vision with a story from last week’s frigid adventures, as I photographed a frozen stream and discovered winter’s whimsy. It’s called “On the Coldest Days, Winter Plays.” I hope you enjoy it.

Posted in Biodiversity, Chicago Nature, Cook County Nature, Digital Photography, Ecological Restoration, Film Photography, Illinois Nature Photography, Landscape Photography, Macro Photography, Nature, Nature Photography, Photography Lessons, Wildlife Photography | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments