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You can’t go home again

When I lived in NH, I photographed old cemeteries lot. They’re some of my favorite places and you could hardly go a mile without passing one, complete with stone walls, some gorgeous gates and mausoleums. Alas, Wisconsin only became a state in 1848 and so consequently not many are old enough to have the same artistry, charm and character. What is a photographer to do?

Abandonment.

We have tons of it here, especially in the northern part of the state where barns, homes, cabins and other structures are just left to molder on their own. Jackpot. So I’ve decided to put together a series of what I hope will prove to be interesting photos and posts. Mostly it’s old houses and barns, but I did find an abandoned church not far from here as well, a welcome surprise.

At the mercy

Right now, with snow on the ground it’s a lot harder to get up close to these lonely buildings and in some cases it’s probably ill-advised. I’ve never been one of those photographers who ignores no trespassing signs or walks into rickety and possibly dangerous structures, but I will when it make sense.

 

Out of season

Also the nature of having to stay off property kind of limits my angles, perspectives, composition and framing so I will be experimenting with processing techniques to add some flair and distinction to what could become a pretty dull set of repetitive images.

Shame + a sin

Any interesting stuff that happened while shooting, I’ll also tell you about. Like with that sepia house up there, a nice fellow Subaru driver stopped to make sure that my hazard lights didn’t mean I was stuck or in trouble. When I told him what I was doing, he advised a monochrome approach and he was right.

Locations are going to be harder. Many towns up this way are unincorporated and it’s hard to tell where one begins and another ends. Boondocks, man, boondocks. I may have to confine things to roads and counties since those are easier to ID.

With no leaves on the trees, old buildings stand out more, but not always. They still hide. I passed this old log cabin a few times after the leaves fell without seeing it at all. Then the snow on the roof – a dead give away! I didn’t have gaiters on to go in and explore, but I definitely will when the snow melts. Now I know where it is, its summer camo won’t keep me away.

Passing by

 

Experiments in photographing moving water

On a recent outing on the Wisconsin river I experimented with shutter speeds. Often photographers automatically go for the long exposure when it comes to flowing water. Once you’ve mastered the technique, it’s a gimme and for the most part produces very striking effects.

But is it always the best or most appropriate? I suppose it depends on what you’re going for. Artistically it can be a great way to contrast motion and stillness and expose patterns that you can’t see the same way with the naked eye. I love it, but sometimes I want to convey the power, noise and sheer presence of a mighty flow. The smoothly swirling patterns, while lovely to look at just don’t showcase those qualities. So I tried my hand at much faster exposures and found those can also produce some striking photos.

Look at the difference in these two images. How does each one make you feel? What does each one tell you about what it was like to be there? What does each one hide from you about what it was like to be there?

 

These next shots are more traditional waterscapes and are from different positions on the same section of the river, but the emotions they convey are quite contrary.

The snow in that second image helps bolster the drama of a river in full roar that in the long-exposure image isn’t all that apparent (it had stopped snowing by then). But in terms of how each shot makes you feel, take a few minutes to absorb that. The first for me is a bit timeless and hasn’t much in the sense of power that the second does. Without looking at the EXIF data, there’s no way to tell how long it took the water to flow that much. Even if there was snow still flying, it would be blurred and difficult to see. It’s a more restful and possibly a more artistic presentation of the river and the second you could categorize as documentary in nature. It has an immediacy the first doesn’t have.

Depending on how much surface variation there is to a brook or river, I usually time my long exposures between 5 and 15 seconds. Sometimes I go longer, but not often. There is cool stuff below that range though and just leaving the shutter open a fraction of a second can produce some surprising results. Here’s an example of what I mean. This is a slice of the Wisconsin I liked the look of when I was out on some rocks in the midst of the roar. The water is tannic and so naturally the color of tea or root beer. It’s not polluted! Tons of fish, insects, reptiles, birds and mammals depend on this river and it’s hugely popular with two-legged fishermen as well.

I started out with just a bare lens, no filters, working mostly hand held with high shutter speeds. I had my tripod with me though so I did use it for these next shots –

1/500th second

It’s not bad. It has some appeal and visual interest. Could the water action be more interesting? Sure, but that’s really hard to predict and so you’d end up shooting bursts of images hoping for the best. If you’re looking for this stop-action, frozen quality, I’ve found that’s really the only way since the water’s shape is so random. First look for a dynamic part of the water and properly compose and frame. Using live view you can see if the results produce the visual attraction you want. If not, find another section of water and give it another go.

What appealed to me with this little slice was the rocks on the banks; the frame they provide. With the frozen water image, I just didn’t get the contrast I wanted. The rocks are cold, implacable and they seem like river could never affect them (though it does in the end; water always wins). The Wisconsin is active, alive, unpredictable and relentless. So I put a neutral density filter on and tried a long exposure –

5 seconds

OK, so we’re partly there. The rocks are steady as ever and boy do they look like they’d break your bones. All well and good, but look at the water.

Yeah, not too interesting. It’s just one big, featureless blur of a root beer float. To me it’s boring and lacks any sort of quality that would make you look twice at it. Lucky for me, I removed my neutral density filter and added a polarizer only. Using live view I found a shutter speed that would blur the water somewhat, but reveal the deep bronze color. Patterns emerged!

1/6 second

Now we’re talkin’!

The water still conveys force, power and speed, but now there’s something to snag the eye. By having some blurred action the contrast with the granite boulders is apparent, but it’s not so slow that the water loses all character. An in between shutter speed reveals the light and dark of the water as it moves and this gave me what I wanted when I was making this image.

So why did I use two different filters? Well, it was a bright, but overcast day and no matter how low I set my ISO the camera couldn’t get me a very long exposure. I also don’t like to crank the aperture all the way down on any of my lenses. Doing this almost always puts you out of the lens’s sweet spot (usually between f 4 and 11) and images can be comparatively soft. Using a ND filter will get you the longest exposures depending on how dark the filter is (and subsequently how much light it blocks; think of it as sunglasses for your camera). Using a polarizer is a step between a naked lens and a ND filter. My particular polarizer is a B&W and only reduces the exposure by 1 stop. Some will be darker so your results will vary, but for this particular day it worked perfect.

My take-away lesson from this experimentation is a better understanding of how shutter speed helps to create the mood for a moving water image. Whether I want something soft and peaceful, showing lines and highlights that can’t be seen with the naked eye, or something sharp and arresting, showing water frozen in action. But I can’t forget that the extremes don’t always serve my intentions; I need to be ready and flexible in my approach in order to produce the photo I want. Hopefully you get a chance to experiment, too. If you do, give me a shout and show me what you did!

 

So you got a wicked long lens

Here in northern Wisconsin we have a lot of wildlife. What is a non-wildlife photographer to do? Get a wicked long lens and give it a go.

Alas, it’s winter and it’s been pretty cold and so sitting around freezing my ass off waiting for a badger to happen by isn’t something I’m keen on. So what else can you do with a long lens? Play!

I bought this particular lens when it went on sale just before Christmas. In 2015 I watched a similar price drop, but didn’t buy. This time I decided to because well heck, there was a loon pretty much in front of my dock all summer! I got the Panasonic Lumix G Vario 100-300mm F/4.0-5.6 OIS –

It’s a bit of a monster and so I took it out with the battery grip on the GH3 and it worked beautifully. I’ve always found heavier or bulkier lenses balance better with a grip of some kind. Plus it makes the camera easier to hold onto with gloves.

Behind all you know

 

Wyndham’s Nightmare

 

Sowing discord

There are a lot of reviews out there of this lens and so I knew that it was a good performer for the money, but not a high-end lens. Of course, about a week after I bought it, Panasonic released a longer lens with better glass. It was more than triple the price though so I think I’m ok with this one considering that wildlife photography isn’t a big part of what I do. If it does, I’ll think about trading up.

Antithesis

Judging by my one time out with it, playing along the Wisconsin river, I’d agree with some reviews that this is a bright sun lens. I think in full or nearly full sun it will be a decent performer. I also think I need practice with it. I’ve never worked with a lens so long before (200-600mm in 35mm terms) and like any specialized lens there’s a knack to it. I think a tripod will help, too. I don’t mind practicing though. It’s fun.

Late for the future

Sharpness depends on having excellent light and a steady grip. A couple of these shots were done with me braced against a tree, but even that isn’t a guarantee. I have a custom setting that is shutter-priority with the camera choosing the aperture and the ISO and that seems to work pretty well with this lens. Rule of thumb for handheld work is you want a shutter speed at least equivalent to the lens length in millimeters, but I try to double it or come close. So at 200mm you should have 1/200th of a second or faster. I also need to refine my technique to steady the camera; grip, breathing and stance are all part of it and funnily enough, the other kind of shooting is a help here. Hitting what you aim for with a pistol requires a lot of the same principles.

Divisive

Come spring I should be ready. I’ve got a beautiful little side channel up river from here that has a healthy water bird population (about 35 minutes paddling without sightseeing or chatting with neighbors). There’s also a big National Wildlife Refuge downstate that is important for migrating birds including the sandhill cranes and their great dances.  Oh and eagles, too. I just saw two of them from my windows today so hopefully I can sneak up on one or two of them. Oh yeah, good luck with that!

 

Dreaming with my eyes open

One of the biggest challenges for me with the move to northern Wisconsin is adjusting my expectations when it comes to photography. Yes, the terrain is similar to southern New Hampshire, but it’s different enough that I can’t expect to get the same kind of shots I got there. I can’t go into a day of photography with the same ideas and the same images in my head. A few times I’ve come away with nearly nothing since the trail didn’t go where I thought it would and therefore I didn’t get the shots I envisioned.

The potential for great images still exists though, I just needed to look elsewhere to find them. As with most photographers, fall is my favorite time of year. The color in Wisconsin is just as intense as in New England, but the peak seems to be an even shorter window of time. So it’s important to make the most of any day in the field. A few times I went out looking for foliage and riverscapes. I was foiled. Oh sure I found rivers and I found foliage, but I didn’t find them in the right light or the compositions I wanted. Maybe when I’ve spent more time here I’ll be able to go right to what I want and get it, but now I can’t.

So instead of fighting the light and trying to force the landscape to conform to what I’d set out to capture (largely, what I’d done in the past), I tried to see what was in front of me and make the most of it instead. That still included fall color, it just came from an unexpected place.

That’s an image almost straight out of the camera. It’s water. The Eau Claire river to be exact. The sun was bright and the sky almost totally clear. Not the best for landscape photography, but perfect for reflections. That’s where the color comes from; the trees on the opposite bank reflected in the surface of the river. There’s a little riffle slicing up the middle and the blue contrast is the sky’s reflection. Once I spotted these I couldn’t stop with them. This next one is shot from a footbridge that spans the same river.

I’m sure the people I met walking here wondered what the hell I could be taking a picture of with my lens pointed straight down at the water. I experimented with shutter speed and despite my love of the slow-water technique and the images you can get with it, I liked these faster shots better. Keeping shutter speeds high lets me handhold some shots which can be a bit freeing as well.

Some things to keep in mind if you try your hand at these. You’ll need to find water that creates a lot of visual interest. That includes reflections of course, but the white water and splashes need to be composed in exciting and dynamic ways. The blue and yellow shot above is with the camera at an extreme angle so that the white and the colors go in a diagonal instead of just straight across the frame. Also the photo itself needs to be balanced even if it is a simple abstract and not a landscape. Maybe even especially because the viewer might need a few seconds to figure out what she’s looking at. Don’t forget how the eye is captured in the first place (by bright whites and colors) so be sure to lead your viewer’s eye through the picture in a way that makes sense. Lines and proportion are very important; experiment and process with care. I find that with fast shutter shots cranking the clarity slider in Lightroom accentuates the arrested motion, while easing back on it works better for the slow shutter images.

Oh and I didn’t need to use a polarizer for the any of the shots; by leaving it off I maximized the reflections and my ability to hand-hold the camera (polarizers can reduce exposure by 1 to 3 stops depending on your brand of filter). For the slow images I used a variable neutral density filter which only reduces light and doesn’t have a polarizing effect, but is absolutely necessary to get long exposures during bright daylight.

That doesn’t mean fast works everywhere. For example with this next little cascade I went slow. The reflections are still present, but the whole look is softer and less jangly.

Fun little story that goes along with these silky-water images. They were taken just below the main bridge over the Dells of the Eau Claire. Dells are just gorges, but the ones here in Wisconsin are limestone not granite and have a totally different character. Unfortunately the light was just too harsh to work with and I didn’t even try for shots of the dells themselves. Also, the bridge was under construction and there were fences, workers with equipment and a huge crane in the shot. Instead I hung out on a rock under a tree and shot the little cascade. While the camera was doing its thing I caught a glimpse of something brown and fuzzy swimming upstream. An otter maybe? Can’t be a beaver, the water’s not right for them. Too fast. A few minutes later and I saw it again, more clearly, swimming just upstream from the rocks, completely submerged and heading upstream fast. A mink. It was not too nervous, the park being very popular with humans, but by the time I changed lenses it had gone and I didn’t see it again. I’ll be better prepared next time.

Wordless Wednesday – 12/22/15

Sunrise over Hayes Marsh @ Bear Brook State Park. I love the mist that came and went while I shot.  It adds so much.

Figuring out Fall

Leaving the fabulous color of fall behind isn’t easy for any photographer. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I got a bit overwhelmed with the season this year because of my new location. I had ideas of what I wanted to shoot, but not enough familiarity to know where to get them. So just like when you go into a big book/hardware/music/video store without a list, you can be at a loss as to what you want/need because there’s so much choice. At first I was disappointed with my inability to see the images I wanted, but then I just let go of my preconceptions and began to see my surroundings without inherently approving or rejecting scenes.

Bucolism

When I started to just look, I found plenty of worthies.

With the lightest of hearts

That image above is one of my favorites and I have only one shot of it because when I was there I thought it didn’t work. When I saw it in Lightroom though, I knew I’d take a softening approach and move the clarity slider to the left. It was the light in the trees that drew me off trail and over a few berms that made for good tripod stands. After walking back and forth a bit, I found the stump and knew it would be my anchor. Why did I reject it in the field? I don’t remember, but I think I need to be less critical and take more chances. Like this one –

Keep on dreaming

Backlighting is so hard in the forest, but it’s just breathtaking so I had to try. I think the stump (another one!) and the trial help with leading you through the image, but a slice can work well too –

To bottle the light

This was a little fold in the landscape; tiny hills and valleys that had lush undergrowth. When I noticed the sunlight streaking through the trees, I had to try to shoot it. Mostly I exposed for the highlights, but with an image so contrasty it has to be dramatic and so I spent more time hunting around for a good arrangement of the trees. After some careful management in Lightroom, I think it works.

Light conditions can sometimes be less than ideal, but I don’t let it limit me. Even full sun can be and advantage when it comes to colors and especially reflections. It was a bit past peak when I shot this, but now I know the location, I can always head back earlier next year. And earlier/later in the day for some lovely sunrise or sunset shots. It won’t be long before I’m more comfortable in my surroundings and confident in what images I can produce. I will still try to see beyond my ideas though for new ones.

Harvest of souls

And what fall outing would be complete without a canopy shot?!

Beauty contest

I wish there was a bit more blue sky, but what can you do? Again, I exposed for the highlights and even though it was a bit windy, the shutter speeds stayed high enough to not be an issue. I really have to find a good way to do long exposure with foliage. Sometimes it just comes out too messy, but I have had some success in the past. Something to keep in my mind for next year.

Here’s another slice and one I kept returning to – the contrast between the first golden maple leaves and the remaining green ferns. It was a perfect year for it although it might happen every year in Wisconsin for all I know. I hope so.

The Gift

 

Esker du

Oh how quickly did the fresh yellows and greens give way to golden tones. Not that I complained.

Promises

So that’s the more traditional side of fall and how I experienced it for the first time in my new state. Along the way though I discovered a hidden side of autumn that I had a lot of fun trying to find and then trying to shoot. Next time.

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