In Focus — a bimonthly newsletter

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.

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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.

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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

Studio Open House September 12

Turner Photographics studio exterior

Turner Photographics studio exterior

We’re finished with construction (except for painting some of the trim and doing the landscaping) and our beautiful new studio at 4682 Wynn Road is open for business. We’re throwing a party on Friday afternoon, September 12 from 4-7 pm to show it off and welcome you to our new space. Continue reading

Plant of the Month: Spiny Wood Fern

Wood Fern w/ Vinca minor

Wood Fern with Vinca minor in a garden near Bellingham

Spiny wood fern (Dryopteris expansa), is one of our woodland plants that has continued to look good through the dry days of August while some of the other perennials have gone into summer dormancy or looked tired and droopy. We have quite a lot of wood fern growing in our woods, almost always on decaying conifer logs or stumps.

This deciduous fern is easy to recognize, although with just a quick glance you could confuse it with lady fern or male fern. Spiny wood fern has fronds that are broader at the base than at the tip, with a triangular shape that tapers to a point. It gets the spiny part of its name from the chaffy brown scales along the lower part of the leaf stems. Continue reading

Digital Photo Tip: Improvised Rain Cover

Garden chairs on awet flagstone patio

Garden chairs on a wet flagstone patio, Pittsburgh, PA.

Last month when I was on a bus tour of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania gardens with the Garden Writers Association I got caught out without my usual rain cover for my camera. We only had 20-30 minutes in each tour garden and I certainly wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to photograph lush and beautiful gardens just because it was raining and I didn’t have proper protection for my camera. I really like the look of a garden in the rain. Continue reading

Loads of Lectures

Vine Maples above Willows, autumn

Vine Maples above Willows, autumn

You’ll have many opportunities to hear me talk and see great images of trees and shrubs this fall. I’ll be presenting two different programs for native plant groups: 50 Trees and Shrubs for Northwest Gardens and In Praise of Woody Diversity. Both are drawn from the new Trees and Shrubs of the Pacific Northwest. I’m also presenting a new garden photography program, Photography in the Garden Through the Seasons. Continue reading