Available Darkness Photography

Japanese MapleI was down in Eugene, Oregon last week to speak on garden photography to the Willamette Valley Hardy Plant Group, a nice gathering of passionate gardeners. About 60 folks came out for the program and many let me know they got some inspiration from it.

Since I’d driven over 350 miles to get there I arranged to spend a couple of days photographing gardens in the area. My host, Pam Perryman, arranged for me to visit Roger Gossler and Gossler Farms Nursery outside Springfield. I called Marietta and Ernie O’Byrne of Northwest Garden Nursery and made a return visit to their spectacular garden. My garden writer friend Mary-Kate Mackey has been inviting me to stay at her home in the woods for years and I finally made it. She also introduced me to some of her garden friends so I ended up photographing nine gardens in all.

One of those gardens belonged to the Robertsons, who live not too far from the University of Oregon in a modest-sized older home on a quiet street. As we drove up late in the afternoon a brilliant red Japanese Maple immediately grabbed my attention. That’s it at the top of the post, providing a strong focal point near the entrance to the home.

You wouldn’t know it from the photo, but the light was rapidly fading under a typical November northwest sky: dull gray. So what’s the trick to get good color under these conditions? Custom white balance and long exposures. I recently purchased an X-Rite Color Checker Passport and have been using it regularly whenever the light changes. Just hold it in front of the lens so the white card mostly fills the frame, make an exposure, tell the camera to use it as the white balance reference, then set white balance to “custom.” It took about the same time to write the sentence describing the procedure as to actually do it.

The exposure for the maple was 1 second at f/8, ISO 400. Fortunately there was no wind.

Red chairs on deck behind homeThe back of the Robertson’s home has a friendly deck with four brilliant red chairs. Even thought it was quickly getting dark I just had to photograph them while Mary-Kate talked with her friends inside the adjacent dining room. Now my exposure was 2.5 seconds at f/8, still ISO 400. This perfectly balanced the interior light with the dwindling sky light.

I made several additional exposures, including horizontal variations. There was also a great gate at the back of the property that just called out to me so I had to shoot that, too.

I went back around front and noticed a bench in the shrub garden facing the house. I figure if there’s a bench there must be a nice view, so I walked over and sat down. So the horizontal photo is the view from sitting on the bench. Sometimes its nice to sit down on the job. Now I’m down to 4 seconds at f/8. It should go without saying that my camera was on my sturdy tripod and I used a remote release to trigger the shutter.

Japanese Maple and other shrubs in front of home

Bergenia with fallen leavesAs I was ready to put my camera back in my pack I looked down and saw this foliage dusted with fallen maple leaves and decided I just had to shoot one more. This one is shot almost straight down, 24mm lens at f/11 for 25 seconds. The bit of yellow is coming from the sodium vapor streetlights that are starting to add a little light to the dusk.

Most photographers give up and go home when the light gets low, but I find that I like the quality of the very soft near-darkness. It’s certainly easier to work with now that I use a digital camera because there’s no reciprocity law failure like there was with slide film. I’ve just switched to a Canon 5d Mark II body, in part because it has lower noise at higher ISO settings than my 1Ds II. I’m really liking my new tool and have exposed more than 3000 frames with it and haven’t even paid the VISA bill yet.

The video gives a taste of all nine of the Eugene gardens I photographed on November 10-12. Enjoy!

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