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