Picture Ohio! – Icicles in Stebbins Gulch, Using an iPhone 6

Ice Photography Workshop Group, Stebbins Gulch, The Holden Arboretum
Ice Photography Workshop Group, Stebbins Gulch, The Holden Arboretum – iPhone 6 Photo

Each winter, if the weather cooperates, I lead a group of intrepid amateur photographers into the depths of Stebbins Gulch, a dramatic stream-eroded canyon that is one of the natural wonders of The Holden Arboretum in Lake and Geauga Counties in northeast Ohio. Our goal is to photograph the impressive icicles and frozen waterfalls that line the sandstone and shale cliffs of the Gulch during cold, snowy weather in midwinter. This year, on January 24, the conditions were perfect, with the temperature around 28 degrees and several inches of snow covering a layer of ice. Thirteen people joined me for the trip, plus Tony Barabani and Dick Kennelly, two experienced Holden volunteers who came along to help guide the group along the snow-covered half-mile trail through the woods to reach a point where we could descend into the bed of the Gulch. Thanks for your guidance and help, Tony and Dick!

Looking down into the Upper Section of Stebbins Gulch
Looking down into the Upper Section of Stebbins Gulch – iPhone 6 Photo

Most of the group were carrying dSLR cameras and some had tripods, which are useful not only to support the camera but also serve as a useful hiking “staff’ when negotiating the slippery terrain along the edge of the stream and cliffs in the Gulch. This year I decided to leave my Nikon dSLR cameras and lenses as well as my tripod in my vehicle, and took only my new iPhone 6 along on the trip.

Fallen Hemlock, Stebbins Gulch
Fallen Hemlock, Stebbins Gulch – iPhone 6 Photo

The new iPhone 6 has an 8-megapixel digital sensor, like its predecessor, the iPhone 5/5s, with a fixed lens that is roughly equivalent to a 28mm f2.2 wide-angle lens in 35mm terms. This makes the iPhone 6 an excellent choice for wide-angle landscape scenes like the fallen hemlock shown in the photograph above. Smartphone cameras possess great depth-of-field, and it’s easy to render everything in focus from infinity to just a few inches in front of the iPhone 6. To maximize depth-of-field, I focus the iPhone on a point roughly a third of the way into the scene, or about halfway along the fallen hemlock tree in the photo shown above.

Hemlock and icicles in Stebbins Gulch
Hemlock and Icicles in Stebbins Gulch – iPhone 6 Photo

The new iPhone 6 has built-in image stabilization, and the iPhone 6 Plus has a sophisticated optical stabilization system in addition, but it is important to hold the iPhone still when you are taking photographs. Spread your feet for extra stability, hold the iPhone with both hands, and by all means lean on a tree, rock, or other structure to further brace the iPhone.

Photographing the Icicles in Stebbins Gulch
Photographing Icicles in Stebbins Gulch – iPhone 6 Photo

In the photo above, the row of icicles creates a strong leading line that draws your eye into the image, and the photographer, with her bright pink jacket, adds a color accent to an otherwise largely monochromatic scene.

Icicles, Stebbins Gulch - iPhone 6 Photo
Icicles, Stebbins Gulch – iPhone 6 Photo

In addition to lower resolution, the very small digital sensor in the iPhone and other smartphones does not have the dynamic range of the larger sensors used in DX and FX digital SLR cameras, and in bright sunlight or very contrasty lighting highlight detail in white subjects will usually be clipped (i.e. lost) in the photograph. For this reason, I was glad that we had cloudy lighting in Stebbins Gulch, which lowered the contrast and allowed my iPhone 6 to capture all or most of the highlight details in the photographs that were taken.

Details of Icicles in Stebbins Gulch - iPhone 6 Photo
Details of Icicles in Stebbins Gulch – iPhone 6 Photo

In addition to wide-angle scenics, the iPhone 6 is also able to focus on subjects as close as 4 inches, making it an excellent camera for close-up photography. The only limitation is the extensive depth-of-field, which makes it very difficult to obtain a diffuse background when photographing a subject like a flower portrait with an iPhone.

Dick Kennelly Photographing in Stebbins Gulch - iPhone 6 Photo
Dick Kennelly Photographing in Stebbins Gulch – iPhone 6 Photo

I process my iPhone 6 photos using Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop CS6/CC on my office PC and calibrated 27-inch EIZO monitor, exactly the same way that I process digital photos taken with my Nikon D800/E and D7100 cameras. All of my digital photographs (currently about 30,000 images) are stored in a single Lightroom catalog, and I do 90% of my digital post-processing¬† using Lightroom’s Develop module tools. I use Photoshop when I need selections, masks, layers, transformations and other pixel-based tools that are not available in Lightroom. For example, in the photo above of Holden volunteer guide Dick Kennelly, I used the “content aware” option in Photoshop’s Spot Healing Brush to remove some branches that were intruding into the picture on the right-hand side. Lightroom also has a Spot Healing Brush, but it is much less sophisticated and far less precise than the same tool in Photoshop CS6/CC.

Icicle Abstract, Stebbins Gulch - iPhone 6 Photo
Icicle Abstract, Stebbins Gulch – iPhone 6 Photo

In addition to wide-angle scenics and close-ups, I enjoy creating more abstract images, like the icicles photo shown above. The diagonal line of the rock and the diagonal lines of the icicles add visual strength to this composition.

Treebeard the Ent, Stebbins Gulch - iPhone 6 Photo
Treebeard the Ent, Stebbins Gulch – iPhone 6 Photo

I’m a great fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic saga, The Lord of the Rings, and when I saw the fallen hemlock tree shown above I immediately thought of Treebeard the Ent, marching to Isengard to battle the forces of the wizard, Saruman.

I have no plans to give up my Nikon dSLR cameras and lenses, but it is a welcome change of pace to leave heavy camera bags and tripods in my 4Runner and challenge myself to take the best photographs I can using my iPhone 6. As you can see from the photographs I have included in this post, the camera in the iPhone 6 (and many other smartphones) is no slouch, but a precision instrument capable of producing high-resolution, professional quality photographs when used with care.

 

 

 

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