About Me

My photo
Spofford, New Hampshire, United States
Jeff Newcomer has 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 weekly blog about photography in New England.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Naming Stuff

Beaver Pond, Madame Sherri Forest

What's in a Name

One of the advantages of being a member of a conservation commission is the opportunity to name stuff.   For years,  I have been lucky to be a part of an active conservation commission in my home town of Chesterfield New Hampshire.  We have worked hard to protect of our public lands and in the construction and maintenance of an extensive system of trails. We have built and maintained over twenty-five miles of trails.  It has always been our feeling that by improving the accessibility of our beautiful natural lands, we could better impress our neighbors with the importance of their carefully preservation.  I especially love blazing new trails to seldom explored portions of our lands.  The fact that generations to come will enjoy the peace and beauty of these forest paths gives me the sense of contributing to a priceless legacy.

A side benefit of this work is that we get to name stuff!  New trails, scenic vistas and even the occasional swampy bog all require names and, although our approach to this task is usually logical, it can sometimes be a bit random. 

Ice Storm on East Hill

It is surprising that there has been so little debate over our naming process.  Often the titles seem obvious, based on the topography.  The hill to the east of Indian Pond in the
Ancient Oak Trail
Madame Sherri Town Forest has expansive views to the east and west from a couple of nice outlooks.  We cut the trail to include these views and when it  came to naming the hill on the map, East Hill seemed the obvious choice.  Other trails are named for obvious defining features, such as the Ancient Oak and Cemetery Trails in the Friedsam Town Forest.  The story behind "Moon Ledge" overlook on Daniel's Mountain is more complex and mysterious and must remain so. 

Moon Ledge Gathering - Don't Ask
Honoring Heroes
Our greatest honor comes when we can name things after people who have contributed to the special quality of life in our little rural community. It is a tangible link to our important past and a reminder that although much has been done to protect our special corner of New England, there is always more work ahead.

The Friedsam Town Forest

Friedsam's Giant Red Oak
The 220 acre Friedsam Town Forest is a precious conservation resource easily
accessible in the heart of Chesterfield and was a generous gift from the Friedsam family. The forest is typical new growth from old farm and pasture with old stone walls, streams, several old growth trees and interesting rock formations.  Originally the forest had just one, marginally maintained, trail, but with the dedicated work of the Conservation Commission, it now offers four different trails and three parking areas. The forest is popular year round, but is especially busy this time of year, since it is posted against hunting.  Reassuring for families, but we still recommend wearing orange.

Sargent Trail

Work Around the Ravine Bridge
on the Sargent Trail
The Sargent Trail was the  original path passing through Friedsam Town Forest and was named to remember Doug Sargent.  Doug was a promising young Chesterfield resident who died tragically in a car accident shortly after graduating from University of New Hampshire.  The Trail is a 45 minute walk through varied terrain between the Upper and Lower Lots on the Twin Brook Road. The trail crosses over the Ravine Bridge, passes by a natural pothole, and two giant trees; an ash and black cherry.

Audrey's Meander and Bench
Audrey Ericson was a much admired elementary School teacher in Chesterfield.  She loved to take her students on hikes in Friedsam

Audrey and Her Bench
Town Forest and promoted the building of a trail along a lovely stretch of Twin Brook in the Forest. Audrey retired in 1994 and it seemed highly appropriate to name her favorite trail  "Audrey's Meander". This year we had new signs made for the trail and Trail Steward Ray Dunn built a wonderful bench overlooking the brook. Recently, we surprised Audrey for the dedication of "Audrey's Bench". She was thrilled that the bench will be a place of beauty and contemplation for generations to come and she looks pretty good on it as well.

For more images of the dedication check out my Audrey's Bench Gallery

Anne Stokes Loop / Madame Sherri Forest

  The 488 acres of the Madame Sherri Forest was generously

Ann at the Dedication
donated for conservation to the Society for the Preservation of New Hampshire Forests by Anne Stokes. The Chesterfield Conservation Commission constructed a loop trail through the forest, covering nearly 2 miles and providing an interesting tour of both the Madame Sherri Forest and the James O'Neil Sr. Forest. Of course the trail was named the "Ann Stokes Loop Trail".  Formally dedicated October 17th, 1998, it has become one of the most popular trails exploring the natural beauty of Chesterfield. The loop includes a visit to Indian Pond as well as the excellent views of East Hill and covers widely varying terrain.

The Madame's "Castle" in the Woods

Madame Sherri Knew How to Strut

The forest is named for the eccentric Madame Antoinette Sherri. Madame Sherri, who had worked as a costume designer for the Zigfield Follies in the 1920s, had built her country "Castle" in the woods of Chesterfield. She became famous (or infamous) for the parties she threw for visitors from the city and was said to have driven about the town
Castle Remains
during the summer wearing a fur
coat and nothing else. Madame Sherri died in 1965 at the age of 84 but for many years prior the castle had fallen to neglect and vandalism. On October 18, 1962 it was destroyed by fire. The foundation, chimneys and a grand stone staircase from the once magnificent house can still be seen adjacent to the Madame Sherri Forest.  The Madame Sherri Forest is the jumping off point for the Ann Stokes Loop Trail and the Daniels Mountain Trail.

James O'Neil Forest

The James O'Neil, Sr. Forest is an 80-acre woodland on the Gulf

O'Neil Family at the Dedication
Road in Chesterfield, NH. This parcel
 is part of the Wantastiquet-Monadnock Greenway Project. The forest was named after James O'Neil, Sr.  The dedication ceremony, on November 5, 2005, was attended by his family and towns people. James O'Neil, Sr. was an outstanding citizen and statesman who raised his family in Chesterfield. His public service included town moderator, member of the Chesterfield Conservation Commission, chair of School Board, chair of State School Board and Speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives. He was active in the establishment of the Friedsam Town Forest and Pisgah State Park. Jim had a remarkably deep and resonant voice that always talked sense.  You always wanted him on your side in any debate. His lifelong dedication to the Town of Chesterfield will be remembered by future generations as they enjoy the beauty of the James O'Neil, Sr. Forest.

Naming Stuff is great fun and it is especially exciting when we can celebrate the contributions of just a few of the remarkable people who have made our little town such a special place.  So come and enjoy our wonderful and historic trails.  Or better yet join you own local conservation commission and start naming your own stuff!

For more information about our stuff, check out the Chesterfield Conservation Commission Website.

Jeffrey Newcomer

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Reclaiming the Sky

Boiling Sky, Langdon, New Hampshire
Finding the Hidden Detail 
Overcast skies have always been a challenge for photography and this is especially true in the Autumn, when the weather becomes more changeable. As I mentioned in last weeks blog article, the best approach flat dull skies has often been to crop them from the image, but with new powerful editing software it is possible to find interesting detail in those grey clouds without creating muddy foregrounds.   It is time to reclaim the sky.

Cheating with the Sky
For years it had been a habit of mine to collect images of nice skies.  Whether it was puffy white confections floating in a deep blue orb
Sky Archive
or the lovely colors of a golden sunset, I would always pause during my shoots to capture a few shots of the sky with as little ground as possible.  I would save these treasures in my "skies" folder to be pulled out whenever I had a picture with a lovely foreground but a flat washed out, overcast sky.  Back then, the selection tools in Photoshop were not as sophisticated as now, but I would still spend
Cheating on the Sky
time trying to seamlessly composite one of my skies to save my image.  The trick was to find a sky that seemed to match the scene's light direction and color, while muting the stark contrast between a bright sky and the softer foreground.  My results were decidedly mixed and, of course, bathed with artistic dishonesty. What can I say, I've always been willing to compromise my morals in the service of the image. The picture here represents the first time in years that I have blended a different sky into an image. The effect is purposely exaggerated, but I'm still glad that I don't have to do this anymore. 
Black Mountain, Dummerston, Vt

Things have changed in the last few years.  Today, It is a struggle to even find my Sky Folder.  The sky hasn't changed, and my moral compass hasn't shifted.  The difference has to do with the improvement in image depth and quality and the remarkable advances in editing software.   I can now bring out the the detail and drama that I saw in those dark and brooding skies
Winter Clouds Over Mt. Monadnock, Marlborough, NH

Shooting in the RAW
The first key to salvaging flat skies is a properly exposed RAW image.  It seems strange now that there was a time when I actually struggled over the question of whether I should switch my shooting from jpg to RAW.  The enhanced image depth from an 8 bit jpg to a 14 bit RAW file means that I can work with 16,000 tonal gradations as opposed to just 256.  That difference is especially powerful at the upper end of the brightness spectrum where the increased depth allows wonderful detail to be drawn out, even from apparently featureless skies.  This was never possible with jpg files.  (see my article about exposing to the right).  Proper exposure is still important. It is critical to avoid over-exposure which can result in blown out the highlights.  Here again the histogram is invaluable.  A properly exposed RAW file is the essential prerequisite, providing the information necessary for the next step to a reclaim the sky and that  next step comes in the software.

Software Highlight Control
There have been substantial improvements in highlight management in recent versions of photo editing software.  Here I will be speaking of Photoshop and Lightroom (LR), but there may be similar tools in other programs.  Essentially what the software does is to expand the tonal range in the highlights of the sky to provide more contrast without unnaturally darkening the rest of the image.  Again, it is important to start with the increased tonal range found in the RAW file.   There are a number of tools that can be used to reach this goal.

Since its introduction in Photoshop CS, one of my favorite tools in Photoshop has been the Shadow/Highlight adjuster (S/H).  This is found in the adjustment section of the Image pull-down menu..  The tool almost magically allows individual adjustment of both the highlights and shadows in an image. For this discussion, I will be focusing on the highlights where the S/H tool draws out the contrast and detail in the skies.  The Tonal Depth slider controls
Shadow / Highlight Adjustment
the range of the effect restricting it to the desired areas of brightness.  Shadow/Highlight is often one of my first steps in managing highlights, but it must be used carefully.  Overuse can lead to unnatural appearing skies and the presence of bright halos around areas of high contrast. The halos can be controlled by adjusting the radius slider.   Even with the increased tonal depth of RAW images, attempting to draw out too much contrast can lead to the appearance of posturization, with sharp steps between tones.  The goal should be to adjust the sky to reveal the detail seen on site.  I must point out that the S/H tool is too complex to be available on an adjustment layer and has to be applied to the actual image.   To protect the background image I always work with S/H on a copy of the image layer.  Alternatively, the  S/H adjustments can be applied to a Smart Object Layer, allowing continuous adjustment as the editing process proceeds.  The S/H tool is remarkably powerful but in recently I save these adjustments for later in my editing work-flow and do much of my "sky work" in the RAW of Lightroom.

Lightroom and Camera Raw
Newer versions of Lightroom and Photoshop’s Camera Raw have added greater flexibility in dealing with lost details in the highlights and have eliminated or reduced my need to use S/H later in my workflow.  Recently I have shifted much of my RAW editing from Camera Raw to Lightroom 5.  I find the work flow to be much
Flat Raw Image / Good Histogram
easier and more intuitive, but newer versions of Camera RAW have similar capabilities. In my photograph of fall color across a field in Langdon, New Hampshire, the original RAW image appears flat with washed out colors and the sky has none of the color  and contrast that I remembered from the scene.  This is typical for unedited RAW images, but, as can be seen in Lightroom 5, the histogram reveals good tonal range.  The highlights are shifted to the right but are not blown out.  The picture does not look great, but I know that my vision is hidden within the pixels, straining to be released.

The Develop Module
In Lightroom's Develop Module, I slightly increased the exposure and then reduced the Highlights and Whites sliders to reveal the sky detail.  The Shadow and Blacks sliders controled the exposure and contrast in the shadow areas.  My basic approach is to use the
Lightroom 5 Development
Whites and Shadows sliders to make the major changes.  I then increase the Highlights slider to add contrast and avoid muddiness in the sky.   In the same way,  I decrease the Blacks slider to  provide contrast and definition to the shadows.  The result  should be softer contrast in the mid tones while preserving the "Pop" in the highlights and shadows.  These alterations could be done with careful manipulation of levels and curves in Photoshop, but they are easier and more naturally controlled in LR or Camera Raw.  And all changes are reversible and nondestructive. 

After my tonal adjustments I continue to work through the Develop Module.  I have come to like the workflow suggested by the stack of tools in this module.  I adjust vibrance and clarity.  I make some preliminary tweaks to sharpness and noise, although my final sharpening is always reserved for the end of my editing, when I have the image at its desired size.  The automatic Lens and Chromatic Aberration controls generally work well, but I always zoom in to the edges to to make any necessary custom adjustments. 
Photoshop Tweaking

Shadow/Highlight Adjustment
By the time I move my images over to Photoshop, the skies are generally looking pretty good.  I may still use the S/H tool but the
Selective Curve Adjustment in SKy
adjustments can be fairly subtle and much less likely to add artifacts and halos.   In this image I took the further step of isolating the sky in a carefully drawn selection and then added further contrast with a curves layer.  The end result was purposely over done for illustration, but the advantage of the selection is that I was able to invert it to apply a separate curve adjustment to the foreground.  Normally I would mute the effects shown here but in every step the strength of the manipulations are strictly a matter of taste.
That's it.   The result is a image that shows the brilliant fall color against the dramatic boiling sky that was visible on that cool autumn morning.   It only remains to add a couple of caveats.  

First I apologize for rushing through descriptions of editing that would require books to fully describe.  My purpose is only to illustrate what is possible in our amazing digital world.  Full understanding and control of these tools is really an exciting, life-time journey.   For those who don't have access to programs such as Lightroom and Photoshop, I can only say that amazing capabilities are within the range of most budgets.  Lightroom 5 is available for only $149 - save your pennies.
Steel Sky, Chesterfield, NH

Some will say that the same results could be obtained with a multi-image HDR.  Certainly true, but for me the adjustment of the single image is easier to control, more natural, and less subject to artifacts and noise.  

As always it is a matter of taste, but regardless of your approach, get out there and reclaim the sky!

Jeffrey Newcomer

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Autumn Revisited

The Color is Gone, But not Forgotten
Mine Ledge, Hinsdale, NH

Hemlock Gateway, Colors at Home

There are still patches of brown foliage on the oaks and the persistent yellow of the beach groves, but my New England autumn is winding down to the last gasps.  As always, I'm exhausted and ready for long quiet hours with a cup of coffee at my desk working through the hundreds of late September and October images.  I say it every year, but it is worth repeating, thank god for the dull colors of November!

Otter Brook, Roxbury, NH
As I work my way through the autumn splendor, this seems like a good time to review the season and share some of this year's
bounty.   I'll let Jeff Foliage provide the final official verdict, but overall I think it was a good fall, not the best for weather or color but probably a bit better than average. The color seemed to come early, but I suspect this is a general manifestation of the warming climate.  We had one major wind and rain storm in early October which striped some of the brightest color.  The weather was often overcast, but that is not a tragedy for the capture of the rich colors of the season and the rain managed to keep the streams flowing.  As always, the season was expanded by small patches of early color in the damp areas and by the surprising color in the occasional late bloomers.  

Vermont's Route 100
Top of the Valley, Hnacock Vt
Most years I try to get a head start on the color by heading north.  This year I traveled up Route 100 along the central spine of Vermont.  My eventual goal was the dramatic Moss Glen Falls in Granville, Vermont.  The falls were great especially during the brief periods when the bright sun slipped behind the clouds.  There
Moss Glen Swirl, Granville, Vt
quite a crowd at this road-side attraction, but I was still able to catch some nice fresh angles on this old favorite.  The trip was about 100 miles each way and it gave me the opportunity to judge the progress of the fall change and get an early sense of the quality of the color.  On that day, in late September, the foliage seemed to blossom around the Killington area.

Autumn Boil, Chester, VT

Camden Harbor Sunrise
A Maine Coast Escape
Just as the colors were building at home Susan and I headed over to the Camden area to spend a few days on the Maine Coast. It was a lovely escape.  The colors were a bit early along the shore, but I did get some nice shots of the morning light on Camden and Lincolnville Harbors and a lovely sunset at the always dramatic Marshal Point Light.  I was nervous about missing some of the best color at home, but it was while we were away that the intense wind and rain storm hit the Monadnock region.  

Marshall Point Light, Port Clyde, Maine

Hancock, NH
The damage was not as bad as I had feared but the storm did seem to accelerate the season.  Of course through all of this I spent every available moment looking for color throughout the region.  I roamed the back roads of both the Monadnock Region and southern Vermont, simultaneously scanning for grand landscapes and intimate color details.  It was enough to make me dizzy, but there was always the feeling that any time spent away would mean risking the one spectacular image of the year.  I was convinced that the best weather was confined to the days that I was stuck in the office.  In other words, I was fully captured by Autumn Fever. 


Follow the Color
As usual, this year I tried to extend the season by following the
Pumpkin Festival Race, Keene, NH
color from north to south.   It started with a drive up Route 100 to Moss Glenn Falls, and our sea coast interlude.  In the middle of the season, I explored more locally including lovely farm land in Chesterfield, Walpole, Hancock and southeastern Vermont.  We had great weather for the Keene Pumpkin Festival and when I wasn’t lighting candles I got nice light both early in the morning and at night in the midst of the celebration of Keene’s new World Record for lit Pumpkins (30,581).  As the colors began to fade locally I went south to shoot at Doane’s Falls in Royalston Massachusetts.
Doanes Falls, Royalston, Ma.

Embrace the Clouds
Field of Asters, Walpole, NH
Limit the Sky
Throughout the season we had a mix of sunny and overcast / misty weather.  In general, I prefer the softer light which allows the
autumn colors to shine through the glare.  The keys to shooting in overcast conditions are to concentrate on more intimate colorful scenes rather than grand hillside panoramas, and to limit or eliminate the dull gray skis.  Problems with flat uninteresting skies have been improved with the capability of powerful editing software, such as Photoshop and Lightroom 5 to salvage detail in the
Color and Sky, Walpole, NH
Embrace the Sky
highlights.  Although zooming in on the color is still a good solution, I find recently that I have been including more brooding gray skies in my images. A polarizing filter is a must on bright days, but it can also add depth to the color when the light is diffused.  The effect is often subtle but noticeable especially if the leaves are damp and reflective.  The combination of soft light and a polarizer is also the best combination for capturing lacy waterfalls against the autumn glow.

Tame the Brilliance
Hunts Pond, Hancock, NH
We had a few classic brilliantly sunny days this year.  These are the days that most often come to mind when we think of the “glorious colors” of fall, but they do offer special challenges for photography.  The high contrast and reflections tend to mute the colors, but here again a polarizing filter can make a
Reflected Sunset, Chesterfield, NH
significant difference.  Sunny days are best for broader autumn landscapes, but on these days I most often think about looking into the sun.  The trans-illuminating light works to ignite the foliage.  The effect is especially striking when the electric yellows and reds are contrasted against a deep blue sky. Of course we need sunlight to capture beautiful sunrises and sunsets, but the the most dramatic results come from a mixture of light and clouds. The warm light of the golden hours can only be fully appreciated by capturing what it illuminates, and, when there are no clouds, 
we often need to step back and celebrate the glow on the foreground elements.

Trans-illumination, College Bridge, Henniker, NH
Well I have to get back to work.  I love settling back and scanning my images from the season.  Each time I find new perspectives and I can't wait to discover the beauty which is held within those little piles of pixels.  Stay tuned.

Bald Mountain, Camden Maine

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A Photo for the Evolving Commons


It is exciting that Keene State College's  Eight Biennial Symposium, "Finding Your Place in the Evolving Commons" is coming into reality this week.  I was honored to be asked to use my photographs and design to help in promoting the symposium and providing a visual metaphor for the theme.

Every other year the College dedicates itself to studying an individual topic of broad interest and importance to both the  campus and the community.  In past years symposiums have dealt
Keene's Commons
with such topics as sustainability, social justice and ecology as well as the impact of globalization.  This year the focus is on the broad concept of the "Evolving Commons",  exploring the many ways that society understands and manages the resources that we share to make civilization work.  In New England, we understand  the idea of a Commons as a physical space held by the entire community for the common good,  but today we must acknowledge that the commons is no longer limited to a small community, but is often national or global.  Also, it is not restricted to a physical space.  The commons may even be just a set of beliefs that provide a safe place to discuss and dispute the meaning of  our world.   Increasingly that debate is occurring in the virtual commons of our digital universe.

Whew!  I have been hanging out with academics for too long. They
Keene State College Gateway
are as proficient as photographers at flowery obfuscation.   It should be sufficient to say that the symposium is organized around over 40 speakers, panels and presentations with subjects broadly ranging from, Environmental Justice, to a workshop on Ethiopian Music.  The program is packed with an amazing range of topics and prestigious presenters.  It runs from this Sunday, November 3rd through Friday, November 8th.  Most of the events are free and open to the public.  For a full listing check out the Symposium Program.

My involvement in the Symposium began last spring  with an
Marlborough Town Library
email  from Kim Schmidl-Gagne, a member of the College Symposium Steering Committee.   The committee was interested in  using some of my photographs to help in the promotion of the project.  What followed was an education about how things get done in academia.  At our first meeting, rather than merely showing my images, I presented a proposal for the
Chesterfield Town Hall
Symposium poster based on a winter image of the Central Square Commons in Keene.  I felt that the tracks in the snow drew the eye to the central subject.  I composed the image to provide open space for the text and applied a touch of tone-mapping to add a bit of pop. We agreed on four additional images which were emblematic of different interpretations of "The Commons", including the college gateway, the Marlborough Town Library, the Keene Pumpkin Festival and the Chesterfield Town Hall.

The committee loved the poster, but Keene State is a college and in
Final Poster by Committee
academia nothing is ever that easy.  My work had to be approved by ranks of other officials.  The Graphic Design Department had to be sure that I was using an approved font and color scheme and I could only apply one of the standard logos.  Happily the wonderful people in the Symposium Committee shepherded me through the maze.  In the end my work came out largely intact and can be seen on the posters throughout the community, on promotional mailings, and even on bookmarks.  The committee has been generous with providing credit on all of the materials and arranged a show of my work during Tuesday and Wednesday of the symposium.  Oh, and I also got paid.  Come by the Atrium Conference Room on the first floor of the Student Center on November 5th or 6th.

Even Bookmarks

This was truly a special opportunity.  It is almost always the case that when I submit my photographs for publication in print or on the web, I must surrender how my work will be presented into the hands of  a designer I will never meet.  I appreciate that on this occasion Keene State College trusted me with the opportunity to follow my images and vision to completion.

I hope that you will come by for some of the presentations.  I expect that by the end I will be able to write a much more succinct and understandable description of the true meaning of "the Evolving Commons".