About Me

My photo
Spofford, New Hampshire, United States
Jeff Newcomer had been a physician practicing in New Hampshire and Vermont for over 30 years. Over that time, as a member of the Conservation Commission in his home of Chesterfield New Hampshire, he has used his photography to promote the protection and appreciation of the town's wild lands. In recent years he has been transitioning his focus from medicine to photography, writing and teaching. Jeff enjoys photographing throughout New England, but has concentrated on the Monadnock Region and southern Vermont and has had a long term artistic relationship with Mount Monadnock. He is a featured artist in a number of local galleries and his work is often seen in regional print, web publications and in business installations throughout the country. For years Jeff has published a calendar celebrating the beauty of The New England country-side in all seasons. All of the proceeds from his New England Reflections Calendar have gone to support the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program at the Cheshire Medical Center. Jeff has a strong commitment to sharing his excitement about the special beauty of our region and publishes a blog about photography in New England.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Macro Leaf Photography for Late Autumn


Last week I discussed just a few of opportunities for photographing the dead and decaying leaves that are the

Oaken Flame
inevitable result of another brief but spectacular autumn. As part of that effort I reviewed years of late fall images. I found many, previously neglected pictures of leaves decorating fields, streams and stone walls, but, as I wadded through the foliage, I discovered that my favorites were intimate compositions of just a few leaves and close-up views of individuals. Leaves are remarkable natural sugar factories that somehow, in a brief season, are able to supply the energy to support and grow massive living things. Macro images can show the remarkably intricate detail of these structures. As the leaves decay the chlorophyll disappears revealing the delicate underlying matrix that supports the mysterious photosynthetic process.

What a great use for my new 100mm macro lens, but first I had

Simple Set-Up
to wander around the yard looking for likely subjects. I started very simply. First I needed something sturdy to hold the leaves in place, but many of my first images were captured with the leaves secured by a large paper clip to a rudely bent metal coat hanger. This worked reasonable well, but eventually I upgraded to a more substantial clamp which, by some miracle, fit perfectly into my old Manfroto tripod. Initially I planned to use a Speedlite to
Matrix Revealed
back illuminate the leaves, but I found that a Tensor light from my studio worked well. I would have loved to have been able to direct the light more precisely. Barn doors or a snoot would have been nice, but I found the the extraneous light mild, and easily managed in post. My background was easy to obtain, using a sheet of my black mat board. I may experiment with different backgrounds, but for now I love the black. My macro performed beautifully, with great edge to edge sharpness and clarity. The lens goes to 1:1, but I also experiment with extension tubes to increase the magnification. I 'm just beginning to get to know this equipment and this was a wonderful chance to play in a comparatively uncomplicated setting.

In the wind-free, controlled environment of my studio, I was able to maximize depth of field, stopping down to f 20 to f25. I tried to arrange the leaves as close as possible to the same plane. I tried gently pressing some of the leaves, but only the most supple withstood the process without crumbling. Still, I needed to use focus bracketing (or stacking) to get reasonable sharpness throughout most images. Photoshop's Auto-Merge function generally work well in this situation, requiring only spotty touch-ups. I have found that Auto-Merge works best when there is a continuous and uninterrupted range of depth, rather than when there are overlapping areas of widely different depth.

Electric Maple

Focus was extremely critical. Using Live View I was able to precisely walk the focus across the leaves to get a good range of focus images. Given the small aperture, I could depend on the final images to show much better DOF than was apparent on the Live View. I could have used the DOF preview, but the LCD was far too dark to be of much help.

Once merge to a single layer the images were easily finished in Photoshop. The sharp contrast between leaves and background
Christmas Cactus
made selecting and masking trivially easy. I first cloned out any major areas of flare and then adjusted the background to an even deep black tone. The back lighting brought out brilliantly electric tones in the foliage requiring little adjust in post. Often My only adjustment was to step back on the native saturation and apply a touch of sharpening.  The leaves were beautiful but I couldn't resist foraging around the house for other subjects.  Our Christmas Cactus has been exploding of late with luscious fountains of red. 

This was great fun. It was great to find a new source of photographic inspiration for this usually barren time of year.   I was only slowed by the fact that I had to use my last sheet of black mat board to finish some holiday prints for Pocket Full of Rye in Keene. My order is in and in the meantime, I'm still looking down for that perfect leaf. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Dead Leaf Photography

Frozen to the Ground

Brook-side Color

As I stare sadly out of my window at the stark grays and browns, I mourn the loss of our leaves, but are the leaves really gone? Happily they are gone from my yard, but as we await the winter snows, the leaves are still around and they can provide some interesting photographic opportunities. Our earth bound leaves are now undergoing their annual evolution from brilliant colors, through rusty browns to their inevitable decay, but before they are buried in white, take a look down.

Shortly following the drop, the leaves retain their color and can
Carpeted Wall
create entertaining patterns on the ground. Much of the same rules apply for leaves on the ground as for tree bound foliage. A polarizer is still a critical piece of equipment to cut reflection and saturate colors. The brilliant leaves can provide a much needed splash of color to various drab late autumn subjects, such as streams, stone walls and tree trucks. Broad views of the landscape carpeted  with color can work well,but more intimate compositions of just a few leaves can more effectivelyy celebrate the contrasting colors and intricate detail of these remarkably delicate but complex sugar factories. Naturally, these arrangements can be enhance by a little gentle manipulation, but the trick is to maintain a sense of natural randomness while improving on nature. Of course leaves, in great numbers, can be just plain fun, and provide one of the best opportunities for children, young and old, to frolic in the deliciously earthy piles.

Four year old Abigail on the left

As winter approaches the leaves continue their decent into the ground, but as they settle into pools of water or become frosted and frozen, they offer new photographic opportunities. The compositions become much more dependent on patterns and detail than on color. Before they become completely buried, the early snows often create a striking contrast with the fading reds and golds.


New England's late fall "stick season" is general fairly short and we are usually anxious to see it pass away, but the the season offers photographic opportunities that are available at no other time. Last week I discussed the unique attractions of autumn waterfalls and there is no other time of year when our scenes are carpeted with such riotous color. So get out there and start looking down. Just don't stumble into a tree!

Last Winter's First Flakes
Individual leaves are marvelously delicate and complex and their fascinating structure becomes especially prominent as they begin to decay and fade. I have been experimenting in the studio with macro photography of individual leaves. It has all been very rudimentary but I've found the results of trans-illumination to be striking. Next week I will discuss what I've learned and show you some of my early efforts. Now I have to get outside and look for some interesting specimens.

Electric Maple, Macro Photography

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Photographing the Magic of Velvet Water

Doanes Falls Royalston, Mass. 5 Seconds

 The leaves are gone and we are thoroughly trapped in the November Stick season. For New England photographers this
Senter Falls, Lyndeborough, NH, 1.3 Seconds
mostly means waiting anxiously for the first snows to to cover up and decorate the scars of another brilliant autumn. While we wait, the photographic opportunities can seem limited, but not totally absent. If you are fortunate to live near the coast, the recent late autumn storms, provided spectacular crashing waves. The fallen leaves and bare branches always produce some interesting patterns and whatever the subject, the late sunrises make catching the warm morning light much more civilized. Perhaps the best late autumn opportunities come from the falling water. Stick season can be a great time to capture waterfalls. Late autumn rains seem to bounce off the hardening earth directly into the streams and brooks, quickly engorging our waterfalls. Falls which are screened by summer foliage become more visible with the leaves on the ground and those colorful leaves often make a lovely border for the tumbling water. 

My wife Susan is not a waterfall fan. When I show her a picture of a spectacular cascade with the water rendered, by long exposure, to a fairyland of tumbling, velvety folds, her reaction is always, "Yup, another waterfall". I am not discourage, but the question is, how to capture the experience of such a relentlessly kinetic phenomena into a static image. Short exposures can freeze interesting patterns in the tumbling water, but I love the soft mysterious waves that are revealed with longer exposures.

Beaver Brook Falls, Colebrook, New Hampshire

So what are the essentials of capturing waterfall magic.

Being There

Arethusa Falls, 1/20 Second
As always the right weather is critical. Overcast or rainy weather is often best. Bright sunlight produces brilliant reflections and hot spots that can make exposure impossible without heavy application of HDR techniques. Soft diffuse light allows all of the detail in the rocks and water to shine through and lower illumination makes it much easier to use long exposures. In brilliant sunshine, even your smallest aperture and slowest ISO will not be enough to adequately slow the shutter speed. My bright sunlight image of Arethusa Falls in Livermore, New Hampshire required a polarizer and heavy application of my variable neutral density filter to soften the cascades.

Get Steady

It seems silly to have to say this, but waterfall photography requires a sturdy tripod. My only advice about tripods is spend the money to get a good one. If you buy a cheap tripod, you will be replacing it every few years and all you will ever have is a CHEAP tripod. An expensive tripod will be the only one you will ever need. It will save money in the long run and you will always have a GREAT tripod.


The essential photographic filter is the polarizer, and this is
Gleason Falls Bridge, Hillsborough, NH,  1 Second
especially true for waterfall photography. The polarizer performs the magic of blunting reflection on rocks and water allowing the native colors to shine through, but the maximum effect is not always the best. Some reflection may be helpful to add definition to the flowing water. Experimentation is the best way to find the right amount, but at times the optimal polarization for the rocks may be too much for the water. Here is we're the fun of stacked images and masking can come in, but, seriously, you can drive yourself crazy with this stuff. Most of the time a comfortable compromise is available. Finally the polarizer blocks one or two stops of light making it easier to capture the  long exposure required to "velvetize" (my word, feel free to steal it) the water.

"Proper" Shutter Speed

I have often struggled to find a simple rule governing the correct exposure for flowing water and it was a desire to resolve this issue
Forty Foot Falls, Surry, NH, 1.3 Seconds
that triggered the preparation for this article.  I tried to apply some scientific rigor to the problem. Last week I spent a couple of hours at one of my favorite local collection of falls and cascades, Forty Foot Falls, along Merriman Brook in Surry New Hampshire. These falls, include drops of varying heights and can be easily approached from different distances. I took multiple images from various locations with shutter speeds in increments from 1/30th  to 4 seconds. The weather was perfect, a dark overcast shortly following a significant rain storm. After careful analysis, the results of this non- randomized, single blinded study were conclusive and a failure.  

Garwin Falls, Wilton, NH, 1.3 Seconds
The best shutter for any waterfall is dependant on too many factors
to surrender to a simple formula.  The most important confounding factor, of course, is individual taste.  We all have our own preferences for the degree of "velvetization".  My overall goal for waterfalls is a shutter speed which is long enough to provide the velvety look without being so long as to render the water without any texture and interest.  On average I find this to range between 0.25 and 1 second, but the best result is dependent on a number of factors, including the speed of the water, the depth, interruptions to flow and the distance from the falls.


The Speed of the flow depends on the height and steepness of the
Chesterfield, NH,  0.6 Seconds is Too Slow
falls and the degree to which the water
falls unobstructed.  Faster flows are best captured with faster shutter speeds to preserve a sense of texture. 

Deep falls obscure the underlining rocks and depend on the water detail for visual interest making faster shutter speeds necessary. Here the water was fast and deep making 0.6 seconds too slow to record the water detail.

Obstructions such as rocks and ledges slow the flow, diverting and fanning the water into streams that can be captured at longer shutters before detail is lost. 

Forty Foot FallsTest
One of my series of images from a small segment of Forty Foot Falls illustrates a number of these factors.  On the left the water is falling in a smoother sheet.  It is all a matter of taste, but I find that above 0.4 seconds the water begins to loose detail and is less interesting, but the velvet appearance remains pleasing up to 4 seconds on the right where the water is obstructed and fanned by the visible underlying ledge.

Moss Glenn Falls 10 Seconds

All of these effects are blunted by greater distance from the subject.  My more distant image from Moss Glen Falls in Granville, Vermont
 was taken with full polarization and a 10 second exposure, but from this distant the interest came from the streaming and fanning of the water and was not weaken by the loss of surface texture.


Agonizing over all of these technical factors can be helpful, but they can also distract from the central fact, that waterfalls are actually pretty!  So, use them to get a rough feeling for the shutter and then judge your results by zooming into the LCD to make necessary adjustments.  When the LCD view is not enough, a little shutter bracketing can provide a little Velvet insurance in the digital darkroom.

Waterfalls remain one of my favorite natural subjects.  Following a few simple guideline can assure spectacular results.  With any luck, applying what I have learned, I may, someday, move Susan from "Yup, another waterfall" to her highest level of artistic enthusiasm, "Nice".

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Praise for the Under-Appreciated Beech

The Beech Take Command of Late Autumn, Chesterfield, New Hampshire
Persistence Counts

A few valiant Maples hang on
Ask most any fall foliage tourist and they will tell you that they have come to see
 the color, but in their minds eye they are seeing the Maples. Sure the early yellow
 of the birches and the later brown of the oaks can be lovely, but when it comes time to identify the iconic leaf of the season it is almost always the red and gold of our Maples. Who can argue, Maple trees in full display are spectacular, but they are also short lived and fragile. You have to be there at just the right time to catch the full show and the window of opportunity in any one place may last only a few days. As someone who is in it for the entire season, I would like to honor the tree which, although not the most spectacular, does more to extend the beauty of autumn in New England, the under-appreciated American Beech.

The Noble Beech

The American Beech is a native of the Eastern and Central United
Controversial Daniel Boone Carving.
I see 1776.
States extending from Florida to Nova Scotia. It is slow growing and can live for 300-500 years. The Beech is known for its smooth silvery bark which has for centuries provided a popular surface for name carvers seeking love or immortality. A Beech in Tennessee, dated at more than 500, years old, is thought by some historians
Beech Yellow and Brown
  to preserve a 1760 inscription by Daniel Boone. But this tree's value is much more than merely literary. Although Beech is difficult to split, its dense wood makes efficient burning fire wood. Beechnuts are an important source of food for many forest animals and it's trunk and branches provide homes for many creatures. Beyond all its other values, from a photographic perspective, the beech's greatest attribute is its persistence.

Hanging in There

Oak Leaves Hang on warmed by the Connecticut River
For me the American Beech is most notable for its ability to extend the foliage season. Its bright yellow leaves change late in the season and corageously cling to the branches well into the winter. 
Over time the leaves mature to a rich brown, but when the Maple leaves are largely on the ground, the Beech are just reaching their peak. There are other, late turning trees. Most notably, the Oaks are important contributors to late fall's evolution to earthy brown color, but they don't hang on like the Beech. 

Last weekend I was exploring the forest on the hills above Stonewall Farm and found myself surrounded by surprisingly brilliant yellow foliage, a few oak, but mostly the persistent Beech. It was an amazing display. I felt like I was transported back to peak foliage. In the winter, the Beech often provides a surprising splash of color decorating an otherwise black and white world.

Winter Color
Beech and Birch

So, as Autumn fades away, take a moment to honor the under-appreciated Beech. Without it, our fleeting New England Autumn would be just a little more fleeting and that is something we can do without.
As the winter progresses the Beech leave become thin and pale,
But STILL hang on!