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.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Hand-Held Focus Stacking

Snow Peak, Mount Monadnock, Marlborough, NH
Using Auto-Focus Points to Hold the Frame

This week I wanted to share a simple technique to obtain multiple (or at least two) images for focus stacking while hand-holding the camera.

Focus Stacking
I have previously discuss in considerable detail the technique of focus stacking to achieve deep depth of field.  This approach

requires multiple images focused at different planes of the scene which are then combined in post processing to achieve sharpness throughout.  A key requirement of the technique is that the images all be framed to match when aligned in the computer.  With sophisticated software, such as Photoshop, the match does not have to be perfect, but typically this is best achieved with the camera locked down on a tripod.  It can be quite challenging to manually vary focus while trying to hand-hold the framing perfectly constant.  This is where my camera's auto focus points can come to the rescue.

I have never been a big fan of auto-focus for my landscape
Hibernation, Pomfret, Vt.  Two focus planes.
photography.  Even as the technology has improved, I tend to prefer to assure sharpness by manually focusing, often on a tripod and, in poor light frequently, using the Live View Screen.  But when I am faced with a scene which contains a discrete foreground and distant background,  I can often get good results with a two image stack, one focused on the foreground detail and the other on the background.  This is the situation where auto-focus can save me the chore of getting out my tripod, if I have it on hand.

Mount Monadnock
Most photographers are familiar with the technique of holding the shutter down half-way to lock focus on a part of the scene and then
recomposing for the final shot.  This is most frequently used when focusing a subject that is off center, but the same technique can be used to grab a couple of images for a simple focus stack.  In the example of Mount Monadnock shot from Marlborough, New Hampshire, I locked focus on the detail of the fence and then re framed to include the distant mountain.  The first image caught the fence in clear focus and then without moving the camera I locked focus on mighty Monadnock and shot again.  As I shot the first image I carefully noted the position of the central focus point square to assist in close alignment of the second image.  In more complicated situations, fully sharp focus stacking can require more than two images, but in bright light, when I can stop down, two are often enough to get good results, especially when there are just two discrete planes of interest. 

Canon 5D Mark II Focus points

Mill Ice, Harrisville, New Hampshire
My Canon 5D Mark II has 9 focus points displayed on the screen, but only the central square is a cross sensor, vertical and horizontal, and therefore the most accurate.  When possible I try to use the central point for focus stacking but there are many times when the central point aligns with neither the foreground or background in my desired composition.  Faced with this situation I can usually find one of the other focus points that will provide the coverage I need.  In my image of the frozen mill pond in Harrisville, New Hampshire, I angled the camera down to using the top focus point to lock in the sharpness of the foreground ice and then recomposed.  In my second image, the focus point was in perfect position to catch the iconic Harrisville Public Library. 

Mill Freeze

Using one of the 8 peripheral focus points can reduce the reliability of the auto-focus, especially in dim light or low contrast. To help, I have switched my focus lock from the shutter to a button on the back of the camera that doesn't require continuous pressure to maintain the focus.  In the mill pond image, I could lock the foreground focus with the central point and then switch to the upper point ready for when I refocused on the background.  Not all cameras can switch the focus button. The directions for mine were buried in an obscure corner of my manual, but, with practice, the ability to lock focus without having to hold the shutter down, works well for me in most situations.

Focus Button on Back of the Camera

Ashuelot River, Keene, NH,
Multiple Focus Planes

The trick with this technique is to hold the camera steady as you re-press the shutter and to learn how to move the focus point around the screen.  I have gotten good enough that I will occasionally try to move the focus point within the screen to catch more than just two images for stacking.  The more manipulations I try, the harder it is to maintain the frame, but Photoshop can do some amazing things with auto-alignment.  Still it is about at this time that I grab for the tripod.

The speed and accuracy of auto-focus in modern cameras is amazing and improving all the time.  I still like to use manual focus in many landscape situation but it is important to understand your camera's focusing capabilities and to use them when the time is right.

Jeffrey Newcomer

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Photographing a Winter Sunset

Chasing the Last Cold Light
As we in New England have been struggling through this year’s bone chilling winter, it is nice to recognize the first tentative promise of the coming spring, the days are getting longer.  In the depths of winter, I typically go to work and return home in the dark.  Even with the sparkling crisp winter days and the warm glow of our wood stove at night,  it is hard to escape at least a touch of Seasonal Affective Disorder depression.  But then, usually sometime in February, it suddenly hits me.  I’m heading home and there is still light in the sky.  It may be 10 below, but that sudden revelation fills me with an invigorating sense of hope.

Spring is Coming

Steeple Light, Westmoreland, NH
It was earlier this week that the revelation struck.  I was heading
from Keene, New Hampshire to my home in Spofford and I suddenly became aware of the beautiful evening light playing against the snow.  Actual warm sunlight!  I called Susan to warn that I might be a little late for supper, and then the only question was where should I go to chase the light.  I decided to head north.

I headed north from Westmoreland to Walpole New Hampshire generally along Route 63.  The images here where all (except one) captured as
Westmoreland to Walpole
the sun dropped below the horizon, over a period of about forty minutes, covering just eight miles, last Tuesday evening. Winter sunsets have a different quality than those during the warmer months.  Perhaps it has something to do with the clearer air or ice crystals diffusing the light as then float weightless in the sky.  I suspect that the glow from the snow cover affects the drama above, but the winter white certainly helps to strengthen the appearance of the foreground as it reflects the colors from above.

On this evening my first question was whether to find a dramatic spot and sit still as the light changed or to keep moving looking for various locations that might work with the evolving glow.  I decided to hit the road.  It is amazing how quickly the mood changes as the sun dips toward and then below the horizon.  Moment to moment the light provided different opportunities and challenges.  It helped that I knew this route extremely well and could anticipate how the illumination would compliment the lovely rural countryside.

 Gizmo's World

My first stop was at a favorite farm in Westmoreland on the Old Westmoreland Road just outside of Spofford.  Of course, if you
Gizmo's World
were going from Westmoreland to Spofford, you would call it the “Old Spofford Road”.  The sun was still above the horizon casting a warm glow on the snow in the pasture.  Gizmo, the farm’s prize bull, was warming himself in the evening light.  Yes the bull’s name is Gizmo, and I’m sure he finds that name endlessly annoying.  Regardless, he is a powerfully proud animal who seemed quite content to pose for the shivering photographer.

Park Hill Light

Park Hill Meeting House, Not at Sunset
My next goal was to reach Westmoreland’s Park Hill before the warm light faded from the buildings.  Park Hill is a lovely collection of classic houses arranged around one of the most beautiful white churches in New England.  It is just west of Westmoreland’s main village, but it is really a place unto itself.  The church, which stands on a small hill above village, has been the subject of many of my photographs, but on this evening the direct sunlight was fading fast and was best seen complimenting the red bricks of a house at the edge of the green.  The glow quickly slipped away, but while it lasted it seemed warm enough to cut with a knife.  And then it was gone, but I kept moving to enjoy the afterglow of the developing “Blue Hour”.

The Blue Hour
 The Blue Hour is the 45 - 60 minutes after sunset when the sky retains a cool blue tone before all descends to black.  I found a spot
on a hill that allowed me to contrast the deep blue with the sunset reds and gold reflected off the clouds on the horizon. I especially liked the detail of the farm house and the tangle of tree branches that dominated shadowy foreground.  Just a few minutes later, and from the same location, the sunset glow could only be seen in the reflections off the windows across the cow pasture.

Orchard's Last Light

In order to get one last shot at the fleeing light, I went to the hilltop
Alyson's Orchard, Walpole, NH
of Alyson's Orchard in Walpole.  From this high vantage point, there was just enough light in the sky to illuminate the ranks of apple trees.  It was interesting to see how the chaotically pruned branches contrasted with the careful linear order of the orchard rows.  The hill was lovely, clear and cold, but the light was nearly gone and I was ready for the warmth of our wood stove heated kitchen.  Of course I was also excited to see what magic I had captured on my innocent appearing CF card.


People often say that photography is about the light, almost as if "the light" was one thing.  Of course, we all know that light is always changing and that is what makes photography so endlessly fascinating.  The surprising variety of colors and moods in the sky over the short duration of a winter sunset is a magnificent example of this restless of quality of light and it is a privilege to be able catch even a small taste of that wonder.  And yes, I have seen the light, and can assure that spring IS coming.

Jeffrey Newcomer

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Galapagos Islands a Photographic Journey, Part 2

Like No Place on Earth

It is now about four years ago that Susan and I went on a dream trip, 600 mile off the coast of Ecuador,  to the magical Galapagos Islands.  It was our most unique journey and I'm not sure why it has taken me so long to finish posting about the experience.  Back last spring, I posted about the first part of the trip, and I' am only now getting back to complete the story.  I'm giving a talk next week about the Galapagos to a women's group in Keene and that finally gave me the excuse to finish part 2.


In December of 2010 we joined a photography cruise among the Galapagos Archipelago aboard the National Geographic ship the Endeavour.  This trip focused on photography with the timing and pace of our explorations arranged to meet the needs of serious photography.  The Galapagos is a paradise for wildlife and nature photographers and in this discussion of the second half of our trip I will focus on the images.  Check out my first post for more information about the trip and the Galapagos Islands.  I will only repeat my admonition from last time.  If you have a chance to go to the Galapagos, don't think, just go!

Isabela and Fernandina Islands
Cave Along the Punta Vincente Roca
On the morning of our fourth day we had traveled around the north end of Isabela, the largest island of the Galapagos Archipelago and in the process  crossed the equator twice.  In the morning we boarded Zodiacs to explore the rugged lava cliffs of Punta Vincente Roca.  The western islands are
Galapagos Peguin
younger with more active vulcanism resulting in a terrain that is dominated by barren lava flows, but, because of cool, nutrient rich, up-flowing currents, the shore was teaming with wildlife. The show included Sea Lions, Marine Iguanas, Sea Turtles, and the Galapagos Penguins.  Later we snorkeled among the amazing variety of ocean fauna.  I had a
Cormorant "Wings"
chance to tail a giant Sea Turtle and watch schools of fish reacting to the presence of Black Tipped Sharks.  In the afternoon, we explored Punta Espinosa on Fernandina Island. The ropy lava flows provided perfect cover for the carpets of Marine Iguana, and we got a close look at the comic appearing Flightless Cormorants.  These birds improved their swimming capabilities by evolving away from winged flight.  Their useless stubby wings look ridiculous, but, since the birds have no predators that might require an airborne escape, wings no longer provided a survival advantage .

 Wing Drying

Santa Cruz (Day 5)
Puerto Ayora Fish Market with Friends
Although the Galapagos Islands are 97.5% uninhibited park land there are a few small settlements. Puerto Ayora is a town of 15,000 people on Santa Cruz Island.  It is the home of the Charles Darwin Research Station which works to understand and protect the unique qualities of
Baby Tortoise Learning a Lesson
at the Darwin Station
the Archipelago.  The station is noted for its  Giant Tortoise breeding program and, until recently, the presence of "Lonesome George".  George was the last surviving member of the subspecies of Pinta Island Tortoises.  Sadly years of attempts to crossbreed George with willing mates failed and he died, without progeny, on June 24th 2012.   He was over 100 years old.
Lonesome George, Rest in Peace

After a touch of civilization in Puerto Ayora, we traveled into the damp and surprisingly verdant highlands of Santa Cruz and had the opportunity to mingle with migrating Tortoises.  These magnificent ancient beasts travel at a glacial pace across the fields and seemed little concerned with our approach as long as we matched their slogging pace.  We discovered that the migrating Tortoises are all male.  The females  are smart enough to let the males do all the work.
 A Quick Video of Slow Tortoises

Cerrro Dragon and Sombrero Chino (Day 6)

Cerro Dragon is know for its restored population of Land Iguanas.
Land Iguana
 The color of these animals has evolved to match the arid brown soil of their surroundings.  They provide a  stark contrast with the black Marine Iguanas that bask on the lava flows by the sea.  Cerro Dragon means "Dragon Hill" and refers to a beautiful peak which dominates the island.  I was lucky to catch a Gray Pelican lounging in front of the hill during our sunrise visit to the beach.

Dragon Hill and Grey Pelican

The afternoon included more snorkling and a lovely sunset across the aptly named Sombrero Chino, or "Chinese Hat".

Sunset Over Chinese Hat

Bartolome & Santiago (Day 7)
From Bartolome Peak

 In the early morning of our last full day of the cruise, we climbed the 359 foot peak on little Bartolome Island.  To avoid erosion the trail has a wooden walkway with 372 steps.  The climb was challenging, but the view was well worth the effort.  We were treated to a stark volcanic panorama across the moon-like landscape of the eastern shore of Santiago.  Later we had time to leisurely explore two beaches populated by frolicking Sea Lions, Sally Lightfoot Crabs, Sea Turtles and flocks of Frigates and other sea birds.  
Sally Lightfoot Crab

Lava Heron
Our last hike of the cruise was along the shore of Puerto Egas on the western side of Santiago.  The point overlooks Buccaneer Cove, which was once a favorite anchorage for pirates.  The hike was notable for the wide variety of sea and coastal birds wandering the shore.  These
Yellow Warbler
included Yellow Warblers, Lava Herons and American Oystercatchers.  The Sea Lions appeared to be enjoying the warm early evening light, basking on the Lava rocks and gazing at the
American Oystercatcher
surf as the swells crashed against the shore. It was a lovely evening and a fitting conclusion to an amazing trip.  We all were reluctant to board the Zodiacs for the ride back to Endeavor.

The next morning we were back in Baltra.  After the flight to Guayaquil Susan and I flew to Ecuador's mountain capital of Quito to spend a couple of days with friends who live in the city.  We then spent a few days birding at Maquipucuna in the Andean cloud forest.  It was a fascinating experience, but that will be another story, or blog.

 Our Galapagos trip was truly a once in a lifetime experience. Lindblad and National Geographic did a wonderful job designing a cruise with the serious photographer in mind.  And the food was great.  We will be doing another Lindblad photography cruise to Alaska this summer and I expect a fantastic experience, but it seems unlikely to match our cruise among the totally unique Galapagos Islands.

I can only repeat, if you get a chance to go to the Galapagos, Don't Think, Just GO!

Surf on James Bay

For more images of the Galapagos :

Jeffrey Newcomer

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Foot Photography


 Getting to Know Your Camera

This week I want to make one basic point about getting familiar with the capabilities of your camera.  Simply stated, get comfortable in your chair and shoot your feet.

That New Camera Smell

So you have just liberate your new camera from the box.  Before the Styrofoam has settled to the floor, you are struggling with finding the memory card slot and how to attach the damn strap.  You throw the manual to one side with a promise to scan it later and then you are off on your first bumbling shoot.  Given the complexity of even the simplest of today's high tech digital cameras, it can take hours of study to figure out all the capabilities and features.   Of course we experienced photographers don't need "no stinking manual" to tell us what to do.  We would rather enjoy the adventure of trying to figure out on our own how to set A, T, M, and P modes, how to control where the camera is focusing and what Exposure Bracketing actually does.  There is much more to learn, but don't worry, give it a few years and you will figure it out.  Of course in a few years you will be ready for a new camera and the process, or rather the non process, will start all over again.  In the meantime there is always "P" mode.  The camera companies will try to tell you that "P" stands for "Program", but we all know that it means Pathetic. 


Of course, I know that you aren't one of THOSE people.  You will insist that, before the memory card gets close the that shiny new treasure, you settle into a chair and read the manual cover to cover. Great photographers know everything about their cameras at an almost instinctual level.  They can change settings without even looking at the dials and they can navigate complex menus without have to search for the correct option. I'm not there yet, but I'm working at it.  It takes study and practice, but how do you start?


The process of learning a camera's functions has never been easier.  With those big LCD screens the results of anything we try is instantly available, but the time to experiment should not be when you are trying to capture that once in a lifetime shot.  


Foot Photography
Ok, start by putting a fully charged battery in your new camera and a memory card in the slot, if you can find it.  Grab a cup of coffee, not wine, and settle into a comfortable chair.  Open your manual and start shooting your feet.  

It doesn't matter if your feet aren't especially photogenic.  The idea is to work your way through the manual, experimenting with all the
major settings.  In less than an hour you should know how to use auto-focus to select what you want to keep in precise focus, and how to lock the focus while reframing.  You can experiment with the effect of shooting in aperture and shutter preferred modes and how depth of field can be controlled with adjustments in aperture.  You will want to try varying the exposure using adjustments in aperture and shutter and also discover how to adjust the ISO setting.  You can try shooting with longer exposures to discover how slow you can go before you may need a tripod to control camera shake.  And, if you have it,  be sure to find the anti-shake switch.  Of course your ability to hold steady may be affected by that coffee you've been drinking. 

You can shoot more than feet.

At this point, if you have resisted the urge to run outside to photograph a tree, you can explore more technical adjustments, such as various modes of focusing to capture action, and the use of exposure bracketing for HDR photography.  It is especially important to become comfortable with the use of flash and if your flash is built into the camera, be sure to learn how to turn the damn thing off.

As usual, I am belaboring a very simple point.  Take the time to learn your camera and practice until it becomes second nature.  This technique is not restricted to new equipment.  I am still learning new things about my camera.  And of course your can choose other exciting subjects beyond your feet.  Lamps, computer screens or your compliant dog all work as well.  You will be glad that you invested the effort the next time you try to quickly adjust your camera to catch that majestic bird flying by.