Banner Photographs

People often asked about the photographs in my old website banner logo. As far as any significance goes, the only criteria was that I needed a both a horizontal and vertical image that were colorful and contrasting. As it turned out, both of the chosen images have a story that goes beyond mere utility.

Sunstar over New River

The vertical picture depicts a sunstar over the New River in West Virginia. It represents two of my approaches to photography. First is the idea that I will not allow mere inconvenience, nor a little fright, to prevent me from getting the shot. I made this image on a busy weekday morning from the middle of the I-64 bridge, east of Beckley. If you’ve driven across this bridge, you know it is long and high above the water. It also doesn’t have a lot of room between the lanes and the railing. I’d just about rather find myself between a mother bear and her cubs than to walk out on a bridge like this and take pictures. With every truck that passed (and there were many!) I could feel the bridge bouncing up and down. In fact, there was so much traffic that using a tripod was out of the question because of the constant shaking. So I handheld the shot, using my body to absorb the vibrations. Truth be told, I was so uneasy being out there that I was happy only to take a few handheld grab shots and get my butt back to the truck.

The second concept is keeping particular techniques permanently etched in my mind so that whenever the conditions present themselves to use the technique, I’m ready to go. For this shot, the technique is sunstars. Anytime the sun is shining in a clear blue sky, I’m on the lookout for good compositions to shoot sunstars. The technique is very simple. Simply point your camera at the sun and shoot with a small aperture, say f/16 or f/22. The diaphragm blades in the lens will automatically create the star effect. While the basic technique is simple, there are some things to keep in mind. First, remember that you’re looking at the bright sun through a camera lens, which is really not a good thing to do. NEVER look directly at the sun through the lens; look off to the side to compose. I like to hold the depth-of-field preview button down while composing because it drastically lessens the sun’s brightness. And regardless of whether you are shooting from an interstate bridge, it’s a good idea to handhold the shot. You don’t want the camera sitting a tripod where you might be tempted to look through it more than necessary. Also, because the sun is moving across the sky, you’ll find that you have to constantly reposition the tripod. Since you’re shooting in bright light conditions, the shutter speed is usually high enough to allow for sharp handheld exposures.

Sunstar and icicles in Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina.

Exposure is pretty simple with sunstars. You want the exposure to be a little under to cause the sun to stand out and it looks better to have some of the other elements in silhouette. Most cameras do a pretty good job with this on the automatic setting. The camera sees that bright sun and tries to compensate by underexposing, which is what you want. But I never let my cameras think for me. I always check the histogram to make sure I have it right. A good histogram for a shot like this will show clipping in both highlights and shadows. Remember, it is impossible to have any detail in the brightest part of the sun, and there is no problem with clipping some of the shadows in the silhouetted portion.

Another issue to keep in mind is the time of day and weather conditions. The best sunstars are shot in the morning and evening when the sun is low enough in the sky to allow good compositions with other elements in the scene. At midday, you have to shoot sunstars looking straight up, which limits the compositions. Air quality also plays a big role. Ideally, you want the clearest air possible, but in today’s world that is a rarity. Flare can be a big problem, whether the air is clear or not. I haven’t quite figured out yet just what conditions lead to the most flare, but I do know that crystal clear days give me the best shots. One major contributor to flare is the use of zoom lenses. Zooms have a lot more glass elements in them than do fixed lenses. Light bouncing off that glass contributes heavily to flare. I shoot with zooms almost exclusively and have learned to watch the composition carefully. Changing the position of the sun ever so slightly can make a huge difference in the amount of flare. Any filters will act just like another glass element, contributing to the flare. So don’t use them. Finally, you’ll want to use wideangle lenses, both for compositional purposes and because looking at the sun through a telephoto lens is a big no no.

Early morning on a longleaf pine savanna at Green Swamp Preserve

Whenever the sun shines in a blue sky, I’m always on the lookout for sunstars. But I’m not always looking to show the sun in the open sky. An effective compositional approach is to use an object to block out a portion of the sun. In addition to creating an aesthetic composition, the object acts in the same manner as the aperture blades to create a sunstar effect, possibly allowing you to shoot with a wider aperture. An especially favorite subject for this is icicles. I’m always on the lookout for any icicles that I can get behind and shoot toward the sun.

Earlt morning on a pine savanna at Green Swamp Nature Preserve

I shot the horizontal banner image in the The Nature Conservancy’s Green Swamp Nature Preserve. The preserve protects perhaps the finest remaining example of a longleaf pine savanna. The open wiregrass savanna with sporadic longleaf pines creates wonderful photographic opportunties. My favorite time to photograph there is early on a clear morning when there is a lot of dew on the wiregrass. When the sun comes up the light glistens off every dewdrop.

When I shot the banner image many years, I fell in love with pine savannas, both from a photographic and naturalistic standpoint. I have returned many times to Green Swamp, and each time I find something new and exciting. I’ve also shot the early morning light at this particular location many times. Every morning is different, but they are all magical.

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