In Focus — a bimonthly newsletter

Plant of the Month: Hazelnuts

Sometimes a native species looks just like a non-native. One example, blooming now in the Pacific Northwest, is the hazelnut or filbert.

Beaked Hazelnut male catkins

Beaked Hazelnut male catkins with a tiny female flower at the upper right.

Corylus cornuta, beaked hazelnut, is our native species. On the west coast, it’s variety californica and in the rest of the continent you’ll find variety cornuta. It usually grows as a mid-sized multi-stemmed shrub but occasionally becomes a small tree.

Almost indistinguishable, Corylus avellana or European filbert, grows in the same habitats and except when it has nuts in late summer and early autumn you’ll be hard pressed to tell them apart. It’s grown commercially in Washington and Oregon for its very tasty nuts. In orchards this species is a medium-sized tree, but escaped to the wild it usually takes the same shrub form as our native hazelnut. There are also garden cultivars of Corylus avellana, particularly the very popular contorted filbet, var. contorta that’s been blooming for a while this winter. Continue reading

Digital Photo Tip: Clean Up the Frame

Little details matter when you want to set your pictures apart from the masses. You don’t want anything to intrude into the frame that shouldn’t be there. Your viewer’s attention should go to whatever it is you’re photographing, without distracting stuff getting in the way. I call it “cleaning up the frame.” Here are five ways to clean up your photos before you press the shutter button.

What’s that growing out of your head?

Model with 1959 Corvette

Note the pole coming from the model’s head in the photo on the left. Moving the camera to the right fixed the problem.

Watch for objects like telephone poles, trees, or lampshades growing out of people’s heads. It’s usually pretty easy to move over a little, or ask your subject to move, to fix the problem. I have a snapshot of myself and some climbing buddies commemorating our climb to the top of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming many years ago. I handed my camera to another climber and our party posed around the post marking the summit. I failed to realize that when I sat with my back to the post the spike came out of the top of my head. It would have been a better photo if we’d grouped ourselves with the post between two of us. Continue reading

Plant of the Month: Witchhazel

Chinese Witch Hazel blossoms

Chinese Witch Hazel blossoms

Feathery tendrils of gold envelop rich red-purple centers, brightening a corner of the garden on dreary winter days and sending a heady sweet aroma wafting across the lawn. That’s what witchhazels (Hamamelis) will do for you. They’re one of my favorite shrubs for year-around interest in the garden, but especially in February as they come into bloom.

Witchhazels (sometimes written as two words, witch hazel) are shrubs or small trees that will ultimately reach about 15 feet tall and wide. They grow best in slightly acid to neutral, well-drained but moist soil. Plant them in full sun for the best growth form, although they’ll accept partial shade. Like many other plants, the more shade the more straggly and leggy the growth. Continue reading

Digital Tip: Exposure Part III — Aperture

Aperture, the size of the hole letting light through your lens, is the third variable you control to get properly exposed photos. Last October I discussed ISO, the sensitivity of your camera’s digital sensor. In November I wrote about shutter speed and how your choice is a creative one as well as an exposure control.

Family Portrait

Haddock family portrait, photographed at f/8

Like shutter speed, the aperture you choose affects the “look” of your photo as well as the exposure so it’s both a creative and technical choice. The family portrait above was made at a middle aperture to balance depth of field and shutter speed with proper exposure.

You can think of the aperture as the size of the “light pipe” carrying photons through your lens. The larger the diameter of the pipe, the more photons go through, just as a 2” water pipe carries more than a ½” pipe. Continue reading

Plant of the Month: Mountain Hemlock

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Lichen-draped Mountain Hemlocks

Lichen-draped mountain hemlocks on Cougar Divide in the North Cascades.

I have a lot of respect for mountain hemlocks (Tsuga mertensiana).

They’re tough, living at high elevation in the mountains where they get hammered with wave after wave of winter storms. Young trees may get buried completely by snow, hidden for months by a deep white blanket. Old trees take on a grizzled appearance, encrusted by rime ice after nearly every storm.

Mountain hemlock in a snowstorm

Mountain hemlock in a snowstorm near the Mt. Baker Ski Area.

If you ski at any of Washington’s west-side ski areas you’ve seen mountain hemlocks, together with subalpine firs. You can easily recognize younger hemlocks by the characteristic nodding top, bent over whether under snow or not. Old trees may have their tops broken off. When you stop to catch your breath at the side of a ski run, look for the furrowed brown bark of the hemlock, in contrast to the smoother silvery bark of the firs. Upon even closer examination, notice that the hemlock needles are short, just a half-inch or so long, and arranged all around the twigs, with a somewhat ragged appearance. Continue reading

Digital Photo Tip: Exploring Pattern and Texture

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Ice pattern

A few days ago, during our recent cold snap, I stuck my Canon G12 compact camera in my pocket and headed out the door for a walk around our block. Where we live, that means walking at the side of the road for about a mile and a half. It was crisply cold and the late afternoon sun was low in the sky as I left the house.

I found several nice photo subjects along my route, but spent the most time lingering over a single frozen puddle, exploring the patterns and textures in the ice. It’s an intriguing and ephemeral subject, one temporarily frozen in time as well as temperature. I was reminded of the patterns in the sand from waves washing ashore, or the waves themselves when caught by an instantaneous exposure. There were figures, akin to the what you might see in the clouds while laying on your back on a warm summer day. And there was this luminous quality to the late afternoon light as it caught the ridges and textures in the ice. In short, I was entranced by this simple frozen tableau and lingered until the knees of my Carharts were soaking wet, my fingers frozen, and the sun had dipped too far below the horizon for a reasonable shutter speed. Continue reading

Plant of the Month: Scouler’s Willow

Scouler's Willows in fall color

Scouler’s Willows in fall color among Snowbrush

I spent a lot of time with our native willows while photographing for Trees & Shrubs of the Pacific Northwest, but never really thought about them as a spectacular part of our fall color palette. Maybe that’s because I was looking for them in flower and with fresh summer green leaves.

That changed when I drove across a Forest Service road on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest west of Lake Chelan, Washington last fall on the recommendation of a fellow nature photographer. Road 5090, the Shady Pass Road, connects Lake Chelan with the Entiat valley. It climbs to around 6,000 feet and we weren’t able to make it all the way across the pass because we ran into some early season snow compacted into ice on the road. Continue reading

Digital Tip: Exposure Part II — Shutter Speed

Children jumping

Children jumping, action frozen at 1/640 second

Last month I introduced the three things you can control on your camera that affect exposure: ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. I explained how changing the ISO setting changes the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor. If you missed it, or need a review, read about ISO here.

Shutter speed is this month’s topic. Choosing an appropriate shutter speed for your subject is a creative choice as well as being one of the variables that affect exposure. All cameras have a hole inside the lens that, when open, lets light hit the sensor (or film). The shutter controls how long the hole is open.

When the shutter is open for a very short time you are able to stop motion and freeze action. Conversely, a long exposure can blur a moving subject. If you’re hand-holding your camera you need to choose a shutter speed that is short enough to compensate for any movement of the camera in your hands. The longer the focal length of your lens the shorter the shutter speed needs to be to avoid camera shake.

Continue reading

Digital Tip: Exposure Part I – ISO

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When you go to the beach do you want a sunburn, a nice healthy tan, or a pale complexion? You’re in control by how much you expose your skin to the sun. If I spend too much time outside without my hat, my balding head gets burned. That’s analogous to an over-exposed photograph, although the results usually aren’t so painful.


Point Whitehorn Beach
Point Whitehorn beach, photographed on a sunny day at ISO 100.

This month and the next few I’m going to help you make sense of the three variables that interact to affect photographic exposure: the sensitivity of the digital sensor (or film), how long the light strikes the sensor, and how big is the hole the light passes through. We call those the ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. I’ll get to each of those and how they interact in this and the next few installments, along with exposure compensation.

You may wonder why this is important if you always use your camera in its fully automatic mode. In full auto, your camera is measuring the light and setting the ISO, shutter, and aperture to expose the subject correctly. Taking control yourself gives you creative options you don’t have in full auto mode.

Continue reading

Plant of the Month: Staghorn Sumac

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Staghorn Sumac above mixed perennial bed

Staghorn Sumac above mixed perennial bed in our garden on September 27

As I look out the window to our garden the staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) is beginning to turn brilliant orange, almost glowing in the soft morning light. Erect pyramidal clusters of fuzzy red seeds form soft spires against the foliage.

This large shrub is native to most of eastern North America east of the Mississippi River. It is widely planted, and thrives, in much of the rest of the continent. A mature sumac can reach 25 feet tall and equally broad. It’s often a multi-stemmed shrub, spreading by suckers arising from the roots. Staghorn sumac is often found in the wild on disturbed sites and woodland edges. Continue reading