Monochromatic photography in tropical nature: some problems and some tips to overcome them

Last time I was in Brazil, it was the summer in the southern hemisphere, and the rainy season in Rio de Janeiro. It rained almost every day, sometimes the entire day, but some days the weather cleared for a few hours. Going on long, epic hikes high on the mountains looking for open clearances on massive rocks, as I had done previously, was out of the question (click here for my previous posts about photographing in the Atlantic Forest domain).

Problems, and their solutions

Photographing landscapes in the tropics can be specially challenging, particularly when the intention is to generate monochromatic images: first, haze is prevalent, which means that contrast is often low; second, there are few open spaces and lots of vegetation occluding the views, coupled with little order in a chaotic landscape; third, the soft, wet, muddy, vine- and litter-covered soil makes it difficult to use a tripod for stabilization.

Walking up and down the neighborhood of the family house in Petrópolis, between rainstorms, I encountered considerable fog and haze, low contrast, a soft, muddy soil, and lots of secondary growth (vines, branches, tall grasses) along trails and roads, which occluded the few potential compositions.

I was determined to come back home with at least a few images, and after a several attempts fighting nature and the circumstances, I decided to accept the reality of having to photograph with a high ISO to be able to relinquish the tripod, and to embrace framing in my compositions.

Example

I took the FEATURED PHOTOGRAPH on a rainy, hazy day with a 105 mm lens at f/7.1, shutter 1/250 s and ISO 650, handheld. The long focal length helped to get closer to the tree (which is across the valley) and to eliminate some of the clutter represented by the foreground vegetation

(When holding a long lens, do not forget to set the shutter speed at least two times higher than the focal length of the lens. For example, if you are at 100 mm, the shutter needs to be at least 1/200s. Personally, I don’t count on the lens’ image stabilization, but do have it on.)

In post-processing, I darkened the surrounding vegetation of the FEATURED PHOTOGRAPH to strengthen the frame of the main subject. The branch on top serves as a line leading the viewers’ eye all the way to the tree. Both the foreground vegetation and the branch are out of focus. This is fine by me, because the main subject (the tree) is in sharp focus and I don’t think that it’s necessary to see detail in the foreground in this case. Keep in mind, however, that others might disagree. 

For the same of comparison, I add below a similar photo, taken on another day when it was raining, with the foreground vegetation in focus. I accomplished that by using photo stacking. I think that the detail in the foreground is distracting and takes away some of the mystery of the version I used as the lead photograph.

In order to give my image a vintage look, I added a warming photo filter and some grain in Photoshop. After fiddling with the crop ratio, I have concluded that 1:1 looks best.

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Published by Alessandra Chaves

Photographer with a preference for nature photography in black and white and other abstractions.

10 thoughts on “Monochromatic photography in tropical nature: some problems and some tips to overcome them

  1. The faintly pink cast registered with me right away. I’m of mixed mind about the foreground vegetation. I understand why you feel a sharp foreground might distract from your central subject. On the other hand, in the top version of the photograph, the branch reaching in at the upper left is so prominent that its being out of focus doesn’t sit well with me.

    I’m assuming you avoid higher ISOs because of the increased noise they create. Programs like Topaz Photo AI have gotten pretty good at noise reduction and also at sharpening soft parts of an image that result from camera movement and a not-quite-focused lens.

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    1. Yes, taste comes into it and photographers are more likely to frown upon this kind of composition than the public is. I use Topaz to deal with noise issues but often I am dissatisfied with the looks of noisy landscape when i try to fix it.

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  2. I remember you mentioning setting the shutter speed twice the focal length in the past. I noted it at the time, and then promptly forgot it. The next time I’m out, I’ll do a little experimentation with that. I’ve noticed with my 70-300mm lens that there are times when my photos seem ‘fuzzy’ if I’ve used a high ISO. Now, I think that’s the ‘noise’ that photographers speak of. Since I don’t have the skills to use some of the specialized programs, I need to either learn how to do that, or be more attentive to my settings.

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    1. Shutter speed is very important with long lenses. The longer the lens the faster the shutter speed needs to be, even above twice the number at 200mm or more. Of course that pushes the camera into higher ISO when there isn’t plenty of light. One other way to decrease noise is to have good exposure, because any exposure compensation you need to make to increase detail in the shadows will reveal more noise. When photographing wildlife, I often overexpose by +0.3 of a stop.

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  3. While I get that the ground was soft and the tripod would likely sink in I still don’t get why you could not use it with a cable release so it wouldn’t move once the shutter is released. Once it settled into the muck it should be steady for the few parts of a second needed.

    I like this image. All the layers are put together well and I prefer the first take. I don’t mind the softer foreground as to my eye the midground tree line is the main point of interest similar to a closeup where we select one flower in a group and focus on that and let the rest go soft.

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    1. Thanks for your honest input. Well, it’s not just mud. It’s the vines and litter that make it very hard for the tripod to “settle”. Then you walk away and the frame shifts because it’s still “settling”. It’s hard to explain it, but after so many attempts at using the tripod, I have pretty much given it up. Of course whenever I find a wide rock or a more firm soil, I use it.

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