Behind the Lens: Cattails and Cedar Boles

by Mark Bowie | Photography


Cattails & Cedar Boles

Exposure Data:
1.3 seconds, f/16, ISO 200
Nikon D300 camera, Nikkor 18-70mm lens set at 70mm (105mm equivalent).

As autumn descends on the North Country, the forests display an artist’s palette of colors, set amidst a variety of forms and textures. For unique and painterly images I like to use expressionistic techniques. They can impart subjects with more emotion than straight documentary images do. While scouting, I often look not only for contrasting colors, but contrasting textures. The earth tones of cattails and other shrubbery against the purple-blues of cedar boles in this swamp along Raquette Lake provided ideal raw materials. As the sky was overcast, I knew the cedars would reflect its cool tones and stand out against the fiery cattails.

I chose a camera position for good separation between the cedars. Note how the lone dominant cedar commands the front stage while more distant cedar limbs frame the other vegetation like a stage curtain. And the ground cover winds to the back. I selected a small aperture and low ISO to force a slow shutter speed, giving me plenty of time to move the camera while handholding it. During the 1.3-second exposure I pivoted it up and down, paralleling the dominant flow of the scene, and was able to retain lots of textural detail, which overlaps to great effect; the splaying cattails resemble flames licking up the trees. So, with this technique, you can use textures in the landscape to paint like a brush. The amount of detail is highly dependent on the shutter speed and the amount and rate of camera movement. Experiment a lot and review the LCD screen; you can always delete the duds. I find moving the camera along the subject’s long axis usually looks best.

When you hit upon a special image with this method, it can be thrilling, and re-affirm there’s beauty beyond what we perceive. Maybe the most encouraging aspect of expressionistic shooting is that we may use it to realize creative possibilities in other situations. The true beauty is in the discovery.

Mark Bowie is a frequent contributor to Adirondack Life magazine and a much sought-after public speaker, offering presentations for conferences, camera clubs and other groups. He is a staff instructor for the Adirondack Photography Institute. He will be leading or co-leading four photography workshops in the Adirondacks this fall, including the Weekend with Adirondack Life workshop September 21st-23rd. For information and to register, see API’s website: For more on Mark’s work visit

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