Watch the Birdie

My main project this Spring seemed to be photographing birds. Generally I went out early morning, before the light got too harsh, and spent a pleasant hour or two photographing whatever I could find.

I think my favourite photo during this time was one where I caught a Red-winged Blackbird singing and you could “see” its breath. It wasn’t particularly chilly that morning so I assume there must have been a little bit of mist rising off the water, or perhaps just enough of a cold-air pocket that the exhaled air from the bird was visible.

“I can see my breath!”

Perhaps my second favourite was of a female Red-winged Blackbird that seemed to be singing into a microphone.

“The Singer”

The gallery below is a compilation of other favourite images from the past couple of months. Click on any image to enlarge it.

To view more of my photography, please visit neilmillerphotography.com – or just click on the “Photo Gallery” tab above. While there, please sign up for my quarterly newsletter to get informed of any updates I make.

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Still Life

Still life images are not something I do a lot of. So over the winter I endeavored to learn a bit more about some techniques for photographing such scenes.

The first few images I created were photographed in my tabletop light box against a black background and using a single light from the side. The result was some classic-looking images.

Teddy Bear
Old Violin

The technique I used in the images below was to photograph the subject against a neutral gray background. In the image below, I show how I photographed this scene against the gray background. In addition, I focus stacked the image. As I’ve explained in previous posts, I shoot a series of images moving the focal point of each image successively through scene. The resulting images are stacked together with the sharpest bits of each image being combined into a final photo that is tack sharp throughout.

The reason for shooting the scene against a gray background is that it makes it very easy to replace the background in Photoshop with anything I choose. In this particular case, to create the background, I started with 3 photos of various textures which I blended together in Photoshop. The result was the image below.

Tulip Saw Boot

Over several days, I photographed flowers and tools in my workshop. After creating a series of images, I combined some of them into triptychs and grids.

Floral Triptych
Flowers and Tools Triptych
Tools

All-in-all it was fun and perhaps something I will do a little more of in the future.

To view more of my photography, please visit neilmillerphotography.com – or just click on the “Photo Gallery” tab above. While there, please sign up for my quarterly newsletter to get informed of any updates I make.

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Out and About – in Black and White

A few weeks ago I went for a drive in the countryside with two thoughts in mind. One was to look for wildlife, in particular, to see if any of the sloughs or ponds had melted enough to start attracting waterfowl. No luck on this front – everything was still frozen over. The other thought was that I might come across some interesting old buildings to photograph. I had a little more luck on this front.

I love the site of old, abandoned houses and barns. I often wonder, who lived there? How long ago? What was their story? What was their life like?

I also like processing these old buildings in black and white as I think it simplifies the image and allows you to concentrate on the shape and textures of the subject. By removing color, surrounding objects often become less of a distraction.

This old house has resisted, to some extent, the ravages of time. That passage of time is illustrated by the weathered exterior along with the trees growing out of the window, doorway and roof. The snow is devoid of tracks other than what looks like rabbit tracks leading towards the house.

Similarly, old barns look great in black and white.

Common on the prairies is the sight of a church seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

The above church is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church St. John. A short distance further down the road (about a couple hundred meters) is the Ukrainian Catholic Church of the Ascension, pictured below.

And, of course, every good farming community needs their community hall. Oh the weddings, dances, dinners, and parties that must have taken place here.

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Revisiting Elk Island NP

In late February, I paid a visit to Elk Island National Park. It had been a while since I had been to the park, and even longer since visiting the park in winter.

For those not familiar with this National Park, it is located about a half hour’s drive east of Edmonton. It is the only entirely fenced-in National Park in Canada. As the name might suggest, it was originally established, in 1906, to protect one of Canada’s few remaining herds of elk. According to the park’s website, “more than 42 species of mammals, 250 species of birds, five species of amphibians, one reptile species and two species of fish live in Elk Island National Park’s diverse landscape of forests, lakes, wetlands and grasslands.”

The park has, perhaps, become best known for it’s herds of bison. By the early 1900, North America’s largest land mammal, once roaming the plains in the millions, had been hunted nearly to extinction. Between 1907 and 1912, 700 bison were shipped by train to Elk Island National Park. For over a century, bison have been protected and flourished in the safe sanctuary provided by this National Park.

Elk Island is home to two sub-species of bison: Wood Bison and Plains Bison. Wood Bison are adapted to northern climates and once roamed across Alaska, Northwest Territories, and Northern BC and Alberta. At Elk Island NP they are found exclusively south of Highway 16, which bisects the park. Plains Bison were once found across the Great Plains of North America in herds of 10, 000 to 100,000 or more. In this National Park they are found north of Highway 16. It is this latter part of the park that I visited on this trip.

While I usually find bison when I visit the park, it’s not guaranteed. Sometimes they have roamed to more inaccessible parts of the park. On this morning I was lucky, finding quite a few where I could get close enough to get some good shots with a telephoto lens. These are wild animals so I always treat them with respect, both for their safety and mine.

All of the bison shown below are Plains Bison.

At one point I came across a small pack of coyotes attempting to harass the bison. While they were aware of the coyotes, the bison didn’t appear to be paying much mind to them. After a bit of time the coyotes dispersed, with one running fairly closely past me.

It was fun to visit the park again to see the bison. They definitely are majestic beasts! I’m sure I will get back to the park again over the summer.

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Bubbles

In my last post I talked about bubbles caught in a frozen lake (click HERE to go to that post). In this episode I will talk about a different type of frozen bubbles – ones you can create in your backyard! But you will now have to wait until next winter to try it.

A couple of years ago I read an article by a friend, Mark Hughes, on how to photograph frozen bubbles. As I was spending winters in California, I found it interesting but not something that I thought I would have a chance to try out. Here is a link to Mark’s article How to Photograph Frozen Bubbles in the Cold.

As an aside, Mark has recently started up a YouTube channel. His recent post on filters will be of interest to photographers contemplating the purchase of various filters for their camera. Check it out HERE, and while you are there, why not subscribe to his channel!

But I digress. The current pandemic forced us to spend our winter this year in Alberta, which gave me a chance to try out some different “winter” photography. One project I thought I would try is photographing freezing bubbles.

Mark’s article very clearly outlines the process involved so I won’t go into great amount of detail. The most basic “ingredient” you need is cold weather: essentially temperatures that are -20 C or colder (-4 F). I have read accounts by others who have had variable success at temperatures in the -10 to -20 C (+14 to -4 F) range but suffice to say, the colder the better.

A second, equally important requirement is that it should be as windless as possible. Even the slightest of breezes blows the bubbles around, causing them to burst almost as fast as you blow them.

Back in February, we had a period where temperatures during the day were around -20 or colder, so it seemed like an ideal time for my project.

My shooting location was the snow-covered table on our deck. Armed with my soap solution of water, dish detergent and glycerin, created using Mark’s formula, I ventured out one cold morning.

I made two discoveries that first morning. First of all, blowing bubbles and getting them to land where you want them is not that easy. Secondly, when they did land on the table and I was able to get a shot or two, I found that the flat table had too much snow showing behind the bubble, with the result that it was very hard to differentiate the bubble from the snow. But, and it’s an important but, I did witness the phenomenon of bubbles freezing.

An early attempt

Not to be deterred, I tried again the next day. To solve the “flat table” problem, I built up a ridge on one side of the table by piling up a few pieces of wood then covering them with snow. This provided much better results. However, I wasn’t all that enamored with the background, and there really wasn’t anything that would provide a better background in my backyard merely by changing my viewing angle. As I could only last outside, given the temperature, for about 20 or 30 minutes, I decided that seeking a solution to the background issue could wait until another day.

Better result but not happy with background

A few days later, ideal conditions again presented themselves. I decided that if I didn’t like the background, then I should create my own. I hung a reflector behind my shooting area and found that this worked quite well. I tried different reflectors and found that the gold and silver ones didn’t work that well while the white and black reflectors worked the best.

My setup. Note the raised mound at the front of the table and the gold-colored reflector behind the table. My soap solution is in the cup on the table.

Here are a couple of examples with the black background.

At best, once you have successfully blown a bubble and got it to land near the ideal location, you have about 20 to 30 seconds to get to the camera and fire off a series of shots, before the bubble bursts. Often, they burst before I could get to the camera.

A bubble bursting

Something I found fascinating was the process as the bubbles froze. Initially a few frozen patches appear and start to float around the surface of the bubble. As more patches form the movement stops. The patches continue to increase in number and size until they pretty much cover the entire surface of the bubble. If the bubble has survived this long, it generally pops soon after the entire surface has frozen.

By using my own solid color backgrounds, I found it was quite easy to change the background to something else in post-processing. Here are some examples. In the final example, I also created a “stained glass” appearance to the frozen patches.

Have you tried photographing freezing bubbles? If so, I would love to hear of your experiences in the comment section below.

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Day Trippin’

Over the course of the winter, I made a couple of long day trips, leaving early in the morning and returning late in the day.

In January, my travels took me to Abraham Lake in central Alberta. Stretching 33 km along the David Thompson Highway in Clearwater County, the lake is actually a reservoir formed by the Big Horn Dam on the North Saskatchewan River. In the winter it is a well known destination to view ice bubbles. The bubbles are formed by methane gas, escaping from trees and vegetation that were covered when the area originally flooded with the construction of the dam. The bubbles get trapped in the ice as the lake freezes in early winter. Frequent strong winds keep the lake relatively clear of snow and make the bubbles visible for most of the winter.

I left home in the wee hours of the morning, hoping to get a decent sunrise shot at the lake. Unfortunately, the morning was heavily overcast with the tops of the mountains somewhat obscured by cloud. Still, I did manage to get a few decent photos, so the day was certainly not lost.

My second “big” day trip was to Jasper National Park in February. It turned out to be a beautiful, sunny winter’s day. I stopped along the highway to take an early morning shot of the mountains. Then it was off to various locations within the Park, including Pyramid Lake, Athabasca River, Medicine Lake and along the Maligne River. Late in the day, as I left the Park, I again stopped along the highway to shoot the mountains in the late-afternoon light.

As these trips show, particularly my day at Abraham Lake, you can never guarantee in advance what conditions you will have on any particular day. What you can do, though, is make the best of the conditions that present themselves.

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Early Winter 2020

With November came the first snowfalls, of any amount, to Northern Alberta. There is something magical about taking photos right after a fresh snowfall. Here’s a selection of some that I took in November and December.

And speaking of magical, what could be more so than a great Christmas Lights display. Every year the Provincial Legislature grounds become adorned with Christmas lights and decorations. Here’s one of the shots I took this year.

Christmas tree with Alberta Legislature dome in background
Christmas at the Legislature

I’ll finish off this post, the last for 2020, with a shot of the Edmonton skyline.

Edmonton skyline
Moon Over Downtown

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Fall 2020

2020 will be a memorable year in so many respects: not all of it in a good way. But this Fall did offer some nice opportunities to get out to do some photography. For various reasons I didn’t venture out as often as I might have liked, but still, I did manage to capture some images that I liked.

One of the classic signs of Fall is the sight of Canada Geese flying south (oh how we wished we were joining them this year!). Click on any of the images in this post to open a larger version.

Canada Geese

On one of my trips to Lois Hole Provincial Park I captured this image showing off some Fall colors.

Fall Pathways

This year I have not spent a lot of time photographing wildlife. However, on one of my few excursions, I did capture a Pileated Woodpecker. I have seen these in the woods around St. Albert a number of times over the years but have never managed to photograph one, so this was a treat.

Pileated Woodpecker

Fall is the time for harvesting our gardens. As a celebration of the harvest I captured this image of a tomato ripening on the vine in our garden.

Ripening Tomato

Throughout the Fall, I made several trips into Edmonton to photograph the downtown skyline as well as the Walterdale Bridge.

In the following image, the old Rossdale Power Plant framed by one of the supports for the Walterdale Bridge. The power plant was the only electricity generating plant in Edmonton until 1970 and at the time generated a quarter of the power in Alberta. It was closed in 2008.

Rossdale Power Plant

The Walterdale Bridge opened to traffic in September 2017. It replace an old steel bridge. When construction was announced, many Edmontonians felt that the old bridge should be kept for it’s historic value, perhaps converted to a walkway with shops. Others felt strongly that it should be demolished once the new bridge opened. Fortunately better judgement prevailed. While its hard to argue its historic value, the old bridge would have been a terrible eyesore next to what is truly a beautiful bridge.

To me, the photo below portrays strength and majesty.

Walterdale Bridge

This image of the bridge was taken just as the sky was ablaze with color from the rising sun. It shows off the grace and beauty of the bridge. The Rossdale Power Plant can be seen beyond the bridge.

Walterdale Bridge at Dawn

The black and white panoramic view of the bridge below was taken from the opposite side of the above image. It is actually a combination of 19 images. A series of images, each capturing only a piece of the bridge, were taken with the camera moving slightly to the right with each exposure. Then the camera was tilted up a bit and the process repeated. The result was two rows of images that were then “stitched” together using software to create what looks like a single photograph.

Walterdale Bridge Panorama

Fall colors in the Saskatchewan River Valley are in full display in this photo of some high rise apartment buildings to the east of the downtown area.

Fall Colors in Edmonton

Several mornings I made pre-dawn trips into Edmonton to photograph the downtown skyline. Following are three versions taken on different days. Let me know in the comments which one you like best.

Edmonton Skyline
Edmonton at Dawn
Edmonton Skyline – B&W

I will close off with a classic Fall scene. I loved how the clouds interacted with this round bale.

Round Bale

Winter has definitely arrived in Alberta. In my next post I will share some of the images I have been taking lately in the snow.

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Summer in the City

As I watch the first few flakes of snow accumulate on the ground, it is a good time to reflect on my summer’s photographic excursions. For the most part I continued my pattern from the Spring of staying close to home.

I made several visits to the St. Albert Botanical Park throughout the summer. Each visit yielded a change in scenery as different flowers came into bloom.

This image was created through a technique known as focus-stacking. In this case, 13 separate photos were taken, with the focus in each photo moving slightly further into the image. The 13 photos were then blended using software to select the sharpest parts of each image. The result is a flower that looks tack sharp all the way through.

This is another focus-stacked image of a lily.

Here’s another couple of images showing the beauty of lilies.

A foggy morning led to some beautiful shots at the Botanical Park.

One of my most popular photos over the summer was this one of a bee.

Over the course of the summer I checked out a couple of old buildings. On the northeast end of Edmonton is Horsehill Hall, an old community hall.

Just north of the downtown area of St. Albert is the Little White School. This two-room school house dates back to 1948 and is now a historic site.

West of Edmonton is the University of Alberta Botanical Garden, perhaps better known as the Devonian Gardens. It has been a number of years since I last visited so it was high time to check out the gardens again. They are beautiful, especially the Japanese Garden. I will definitely have to try to get back for a few more visits next summer.

As summer started to wane I made another trip to the St. Albert Botanical Park.

With the leaves starting to change colors with the approach of Fall, I made a return visit to River Lot 56 early one morning.

In my next post I will continue with some of the photos I took this Fall.

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Exploring Locally

With travel being somewhat restricted due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I have taken the opportunity to explore several local areas that offer somewhat different photographic experiences. With all of the areas being within a 10-minute drive it is easy to go out shooting for a couple of hours first thing in the morning and still have most of the day available when I get home.

St. Albert Botanic Park has a wide variety of trees and flowers in a somewhat formal setting. With the flowers in bloom constantly changing, is a great area to “play” with closeup and macro photography. With no entry fee and open from dawn to dusk, it is indeed a little gem in St. Albert.

Here is a selection of photos I have taken at the Botanic Park. Click on any photo in this post to enlarge.

River Lot 56 is a nature preserve on the edge of St. Albert. During the early days of settlement in the area, land was subdivided for farms in strips of land stretching back from the river, allowing each farmer access to the water source. River Lot 56 was one such farm which was transferred to the Province in 1965 to be preserved as a natural area. It offers a range of opportunities for close-up photography as well as landscapes. Every time I go there I see something different.

Lois Hole Provincial Park is largely a wetlands area which is a great place to photograph birds.

In addition to these outings, I also did a little close-up photography in my basement using a tabletop “studio”. In this controlled environment I could adjust my scene and lighting until I got the shot I wanted. The image below is actually made up of 34 separate photos, with the camera focus changing slightly with each photo to produce a final image that is sharp throughout the areas I want to be in focus. This technique is known as focus stacking.

I am sure that I will return to these three areas in and around St. Albert many times over the Summer and Fall.

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