Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Two experiments

with 49 comments

When I worked at the base of a cliff along the Capital of Texas Highway on June 27th, some of my pictures were experiments in abstraction. In the one above, I noticed that several cattail leaves (Typha domingensis) had dried out to the point that they turned white, and I played an in-focus leaf off against a few out-of-focus ones. A couple of hundred feet away I noticed that some leaflets on a flameleaf sumac tree (Rhus lanceolata) had turned prematurely red. Not only that, but the breeze was blowing the branches about, so I decided to go with the (air)flow and do some long exposures that would make the movement a key element. The picture below, taken at 1/6 of a second, flaunts its rich red; in contrast, the first photo is close to black and white.

© 2020 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

July 7, 2020 at 4:39 AM

49 Responses

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  1. I really like the second shot.

    Steve Gingold

    July 7, 2020 at 5:42 AM

    • I appreciate your validation. I ended up liking three of my flameleaf sumac experiments. In all three I cropped off parts of the image that weren’t interesting and that I felt distracted from the parts that were. In the picture I showed here, I debated whether to remove the little squiggle a bit below and to the left of the center; you can see that I ended up leaving it, as it was generated “naturally” by the movement.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 7, 2020 at 6:17 AM

  2. Both shots are brilliant, though my favorite is the second for the color. The technical background is most appreciated.


    July 7, 2020 at 6:17 AM

    • It’s hard to beat that rich red (which, along with yellow and orange in the fall, is why the tree is called flameleaf sumac). You’re welcome for the technical details.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 7, 2020 at 6:22 AM

  3. I would never have noticed the “squiggly” in the second image, had you not pointed that out. That red color is stunning! Do you have fun with experiments like this?


    July 7, 2020 at 6:30 AM

    • That little detail caused me a disproportionate amount of concern. It seems to have been traced by a tiny bright spot on the leaflet at it got blown around.

      Yes, I’ve increasingly enjoyed departing from “straight” photography and taking other approaches. You may have noticed how many abstractions of various sorts I’ve shown over the past few months, and today’s pictures are two more.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 7, 2020 at 6:52 AM

      • I’m glad you are enjoying changing gears a bit. Venturing out to challenge ourselves is always a good thing!


        July 7, 2020 at 7:18 AM

        • More than a bit, these days. After photography got invented in the mid-1800s, the art world generally looked down on it as providing a mere replica of whatever the subject was—as opposed to the creative representation a painter would provide. By the end of the 1800s, champions had already emerged of photography as an art in its own right. As someone who’s practiced that art for a long time now, I’m always looking for different things to do with it.

          Steve Schwartzman

          July 7, 2020 at 7:50 AM

  4. These two pictures are fine examples of abstract photography, Steve. For the long exposure of the second image, I wonder whether you used a tripod. The blur was created by the leaves swayed by the wind. And you did not want to ruin it by the movement of the camera.

    Peter Klopp

    July 7, 2020 at 7:35 AM

    • Actually, it’s been a long time since I’ve used a tripod. Because the second picture was about movement, even if hand-holding induced a little movement of its own, I don’t think that would have been a detraction. I’ve usually been pretty good in taking pictures without a tripod at speeds as slow as 1/15 or 1/10 of a second, aided by the image stabilization built into my lenses. Apart from that, there have also been times when I’ve purposely moved the camera when taking a picture at a slow shutter speed to see what interesting images might come of it. Some photographers refer to that as ICM, intentional camera movement. The movement can be side to side, or up and down, or round and round. The photographer can also move toward or away from the subject. With a zoom lens, I’ve sometimes zoomed in and out while the shutter remained open.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 7, 2020 at 8:22 AM

      • I also work without a tripod most of the time, Steve. I once read that some photographers move the camera in such a precise way that they hold a moving object in focus and have everything else completely blurred.

        Peter Klopp

        July 7, 2020 at 10:24 PM

  5. Very successful, I like the simple whitish cattails, and the dancing leaves.
    Do you know if it was drought, or damage, that caused the premature color change? It’s a nice, rich red in any case.

    Robert Parker

    July 7, 2020 at 7:51 AM

    • My guess about the white cattail leaves was old age, as everything eventually dies. I’m not saying drought in an earlier season couldn’t have been a contributing cause, but these plants were at the bottom of a cliff that almost always seeps water; enough, in fact, to usually maintain a rivulet at the base flowing parallel to the cliff. That was the case when I visited, and I had to be careful not to get my shoes wet while taking some of my pictures.

      In any case, as you said, I was taken with the rich red of the dancing sumac leaflets.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 7, 2020 at 8:31 AM

  6. I love the second one. It’s dreamy. I should play with ICM more, but usually only do it in a grove of trees.


    July 7, 2020 at 9:32 AM

  7. These are great, Steve! If you don’t watch it, you might become addicted to this experimentation and then I would be forced to enjoy even more.

    Michael Scandling

    July 7, 2020 at 10:30 AM

  8. Oooh, it’s hard for me to decide which photo I like more: I love the simplicity of the first; its soft, muted color paired with the rigidity of the subject. Then in the second, well, I pretty much love anything red. In that one, there’s so much movement and the squiggle adds a little something, too.

    Great shots, both and great that you posted them together.


    July 7, 2020 at 11:04 AM

    • I realized that I’d experimented with abstraction in two quite different ways on that outing, so I decided to show the two contrasting results together. As you say, the first plays up simplicity, while the second goes gung-ho red. Thanks for letting me know you like the squiggle.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 7, 2020 at 1:11 PM

  9. Beautiful, both of them. Ah, the breeze! 😉

    marina kanavaki

    July 7, 2020 at 11:24 AM

  10. You have provided the red-on-green proof of the advisability of going with the (air)flow.


    July 7, 2020 at 7:01 PM

  11. Very nice, Steve. Love the movement in the sumac.

    Eliza Waters

    July 7, 2020 at 7:33 PM

  12. OK, here I go. I really like the abstract textures and forms in the first one, but I think I’d like it a lot more if the main in-focus element weren’t positioned centrally in the image–but then again, I don’t know what you had to work with on either side of it. The second one I find much more immediately attractive (very much so), and I see another face in the lighter leaf in the left quadrant, looking upward and to the left. Beautiful shot!


    July 8, 2020 at 2:21 AM

    • I just looked back at pictures I took of the dry cattail leaves. In almost all of the frames the main leaf (the one closer and therefore in focus) is centered. I don’t know if I could have found a way to show it off center, given the configuration of the other leaves. I see I did two pictures of a cattail leaf that was by itself. In one picture I centered the leaf right down the middle; in the other I turned the camera so the leaf went diagonally across the frame.

      As for the second image, I’ll grant you the color and movement make the picture a much more immediate eye-grabber. I certainly see the face you described; now the question is whether I’d seen it before you pointed it out, and I just don’t remember.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 8, 2020 at 8:11 AM

      • I’ve heard it said that memory is the second thing to go. I can’t seem to remember what the first thing was.


        July 11, 2020 at 4:40 PM

        • And speaking of numbers, I do remember a quip by Benjamin Franklin: Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.

          Steve Schwartzman

          July 11, 2020 at 5:37 PM

  13. For different reasons, both of these photos evoke autumn: a pleasant relief, however imaginary, from the heat that’s bearing down on us. The silvery sheen of the leaves is especially nice. If you hadn’t identified them as leaves, I would have assumed they were stalks.

    The sumac’s color is luscious, and your notes about how you achieved the look are interesting, but I had to force myself to look at the photo long enough to find the squiggle and the face. There’s something about photos showing significant movement that can make me vertiginous: not all evoke the feeling, but some do. Now that I think about it, the fact that this one really makes me queasy is a great testament to how well you created a sense of movement!


    July 9, 2020 at 7:09 AM

    • As we know so well, the sumacs are famous for turning warm colors in the fall. I’ve noticed that it’s not unusual for an occasional small branch of a sumac to have its leaves turn red much earlier in the year, presumably because some damage occurred to the limb. The red is often just as good then as later, only on a much smaller scale. That’s what I took advantage of here, adding movement into the bargain since the breeze was already making still images harder.

      I wonder why you who are so given to imagining things in photographs had trouble seeing the face. I guess vertigo doesn’t promote pareidolia, or even the ferreting out of a squiggle. Sorry to have made you queasy.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 9, 2020 at 8:01 AM

      • No apologies necessary. What’s interesting is that my reaction to blurred photos is relatively new. I’ve never been one to get seasick, or react with dizziness to heights; I’ve always climbed around boats without a thought. Recently, though, I find myself occasionally pausing when I’m walking something like very narrow finger piers. I’ve read that balance changes with age, and it may be that’s the link between a finger pier and my reaction to the photo. Of course, it’s far too soon for me to be experiencing any age-related changes (she says with a grin).


        July 9, 2020 at 8:27 AM

        • You who are good at imagining can use that talent to keep imagining yourself in the land of eternal youth and health. Let’s hope it works.

          Steve Schwartzman

          July 9, 2020 at 8:37 AM

  14. Great! I’m just happy to see the experimentation. Sometimes the best thing to do on a breezy day is to go for camera movement or slow down the shutter (or both!). 🙂


    July 12, 2020 at 4:05 PM

    • And that’s what I did in the second instance, to good effect. You never know with experiments, but that’s the point. Some you win (and keep), others you lose (and delete).

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 12, 2020 at 8:50 PM

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