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In praise of the subtle landscape

In the world of HDR and the over-saturation of not just images themselves, but of pictures in general, it can be hard to appreciate the subtle landscape.

With this set I also want to talk about taking advantage of the moment and how very small things can make a big difference. For me it means slowing down and photographing conditions immediately – don’t wait! The very thing that draws you to a scene, makes it interesting and compelling may disappear at any moment! Catch it while you can.

This first scene is one that captures my attention every time I pass by. It is a small marsh made by industrious beavers and though I’m not sure any still live in it, there are ducks, herons and other wildlife that take advantage. The dam, though breached, is still in place and is pretty tall so I got on top of it for this shot, but I almost didn’t. I had another goal in mind for the day and thought that I’d snag this shot on the way back to the car. Then it occurred to me that the snow wouldn’t last and it’s the snow that makes this picture work. It gives it depth, texture and much-needed contrast. Otherwise it’s pretty blah.

I would not sign my heart away

Same with my favorite aspen grove. When I came back through there was nothing but mud and that wouldn’t have worked in color (what little there was) never mind black and white. One thing I think you really need in a mono image is pure black and pure white, not just gray.

A stranger returns

As I said at the beginning, I had a specific goal in mind for the day and sometimes I get rather fixated on that to the point that I can’t see much else. That goal was this brook in winter and you know how I love a good brook in winter. But alas, it isn’t as easy to work with or as photogenic as Ripley Creek and I ended up with one image that I thought was decent enough to process. So in hindsight, those first two shots, the marsh and the aspen grove,  ended up being the most successful landscapes of the day.

Lens cap eating brook

Oh and check out the name of that shot there. Here’s a tip – don’t put your lens cap in the same pocket with other gear you need. I ended up tangling my lens cap in my remote shutter cord and plop! Into the water it went. And because it’s so darn tannic, I lost sight of it almost immediately. I dashed downstream a bit, hoping I was on solid ground and not just ice, knelt and leaned over the water hoping for another glimpse of it. No dice. I looked and looked then decided that I should go to a spot where it was really shallow. As luck would have it, I found it hung up on a rock just breaking the surface. Snag! Oh sure, it’s just a cheap item, but damn I hate losing stuff on account of my own carelessness. Back into a pocket by itself. Lesson learned.

Ok, more subtle landscapes!

When it snowed in early April I got my butt in gear and got out into the woods because it was incredibly beautiful and because I was feeling a bit of photographer’s guilt for having ignored this beauty earlier in the season. It was time to just be outside and appreciate the scenery for all its subtle beauty. The snow on the limbs, the scrim of it on the ground and the contrast with the tree trunks and the vernal pools – there had to be some good pictures in there somewhere!

Winter’s ghost

Using trees for anchors, I walked around and around looking at different compositions. When the sun broke through, it provided just that little bit of light that pulls your eye into an image if it also has balance and a pathway for your eyes. The scene below I’ve shot before in similar conditions, but it’s so inviting that I had to do it again. The break in the trees at the back of the image is easily arrived at by those trees keeping you in frame and the rock that catches your attention.

The sun comes down

As I walked into the scene I wanted to use that rock again, but this time as an anchor. With landscapes like this, I think you have to pay particular attention to composition and framing. Color and bold forms can sometimes be overwhelming in a picture that otherwise might not have strong compositional elements. Our brains light up so much for loud colors and bright light that it can make a weak image strong. Not so with the subtle landscape and I find working with them makes me more methodical and less overwhelmed. I make better decisions and come up with better images for having taken my time and used my head.

That doesn’t end when I get them into Lightroom. Showing restraint with the sliders keeps the image from being too intense, too different from what I experienced. Especially when the light is so delicate. Be cautious and adopt Coco Chanel’s fashion advice, but with your processing. She said that before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory. I keep this in mind and just when I think the image is done, I take a look at before and after to make sure I haven’t taken things too far. If I have, I remove one thing.

No need for disquiet

Compare these shots with this one taken with my phone while out skiing –

It’s obvious why I stopped and took it. That sky, those trees, the perfection of the day – they all worked on me to amp up my joy of being outdoors. But technically the photo is pretty lousy. If not for the sky, would you have looked? Would you have stopped?

Black River Scenic Byway

The Upper Peninsula. The U.P. for short. It’s attached to Wisconsin, but it’s part of Michigan. That’s ok. Who could Wisconsans make fun of if not for Yoopers? Lol.

The Black River Scenic Byway starts about 2 hours north of where I live and is an easy drive. Even if you’re coming from further away it’s worth the trip. You can see about 1/2 dozen falls in just a few miles of road and with very little hiking. Be prepared for a lot of stairs though! Boy were my calves sore after all that up and down. It was worth the pain and I only ended up bailing on one set of falls – Rainbow at the end. There’s just no good way to shoot them from the platform. Shame because they are impressive as hell. Maybe there’s a way to get to the other side. I see from the map that there is a road on the other side of the river, but I’m not sure there’s a trail system. I will have to investigate for another trip.

They plunged from sight

Although it was a perfect day for this kind of photography (overcast, bright, not too windy) I had a couple of things go wrong on me. First was my tripod – it has a removable center column which I put back on and realized the gasket on the inside of the tripod that keeps the column tight was incorrectly placed. This made the post itself too loose to be stable and sometimes it would sink a little under the weight of the camera (as little as that is). Ugh. Be sure you check your gear at home and know how it is supposed to operate and how to fix it if it isn’t working right. After I got home I tackled the problem and solved it. It didn’t take long, just needed a bit of concentration on the task.

And of course the height of the railings around viewing platforms was just at the height of the camera on the tripod without the center column. Precisely why I wanted to use the dumb thing to begin with. So I couldn’t use it much on the platforms and ended up hand-holding more than I usually do with this kind of thing. I did manage to use the same railings to brace myself so I had some leeway in exposure settings.

Gorge falls

Another thing against me was the limited view of the falls for many of them on this river. It’s part of the Ottawa National Forest and so has sturdy, wooden viewing areas, walkways and stairs that let you see the falls at least, but make it difficult to be creative with photography. You can basically take one view of each. But hey, at least we get to see them. Without the platforms it would be impossible or just too dangerous because the banks are so steep.

Black River Gorge

Funny though. I think forcing me to handhold a lot of shots made me appreciate the change in how the images came out. Too many times I think we get stuck in photographic ruts. As I mentioned in my previous post about Ripley Creek, the soft, silky water thing can get overplayed. Water presents so many looks and moods that we shouldn’t forget that the camera can capture those just as well. I also love the contrast between the tannic water and the snow.

Potawatomi Falls

In addition to making sure my tripod is in working order, I learned another lesson on this trip. Don’t buy crappy gear. If you need a piece of kit, buy the best you can afford. It’s better than having to buy it twice even if you have to go without while you save up. Also, don’t do what I did and think that your photography isn’t worth the best gear. I don’t mean to say that you should buy whatever you want even if you can’t afford it, but money aside, don’t discount your work so easily. I ran my work down over different items, saying to myself that I wasn’t a professional or making money with my photographs so why did I need something so grand. I ended up having to buy things over again which was more a waste than if I’d just bought the good stuff I longed for to begin with. Plus I’d have had a better time with my photography instead of being frustrated and ruining shots.

This time I’m talking about my neutral density filter. It was too bright to do long exposures without it and unfortunately instead of buying a good set, I bought a variable type. This works by sandwiching two pieces of glass together and rotating them to block the light coming into the camera. Sounds good, but damn it can really screw with the shot as illustrated by these two images –

Example 1

A little twist and look at the corners now.

Example 2

I noticed it in the field and had to settle for shorter shutter speeds than I wanted because of it. After this frustrating experience, I broke down and got myself a good one. You’d think I’d have learned my lesson with the polarizer after finally ditching the cheap one for something better. Both of mine are the same lovely German brand and I wish I’d not wasted money on cheaper ones.

Sandstone Falls

Yes, I did manage to fix the problems in Lightroom, but I’d rather have avoided them altogether. It might be a cliche, but you get what you pay for is true. I should write a post about my mistakes with this and photography. It would be long.

Emotional sabbat

As I mentioned above, I found a bit of freedom by coming off the tripod and playing with compositions and shutter speed. Lucky it was bright enough to handhold a lot of shots without resorting to high ISO settings and I had some fun on the frozen rocks below the falls. Also good that I remembered to bring my boot spikes because without them it would have been too slippery and dangerous to get out into the river where I have the most fun. I just love a raging river, don’t you?

Fleeting recollection

Because I’d driven a longish way to visit this area, I made the most of my time and explored side trails whenever possible. One led me upriver from Sandstone Falls, the only falls I could get to in an intimate way on this trip. I just LOVE exploring rivers. Both on land and in the kayak. The lure of what’s around the next bend is what does it. The changing landscape, the possibility of something new and astonishing. It’s wonderful and boy, did I get an eyeful of that on the Black River. There are lots of stairs here for a reason – the banks are steep. Check this out –

Loud and frenetic

Wow is that ever cool. Look at the log in the lower left – it shows the angle of the bank. Wicked steep. And the trail just here is about a foot wide. I just love nature in all its power and glory. A little further up are some rapids at a sharp bend. Not exactly photogenic on this trip because I couldn’t get down onto some rocks that would make a great vantage point, but that can be for my next trip.

 

Rural Decay

Living in central Wisconsin means there is a lot of space and farms, but because of the way farming has been destroyed for individuals and families, there are a lot of abandoned farms and homesteads. It’s sad, but they make for some excellent photos.

Many photographers automatically go for a black and white image and I do, too, but sometimes it does’t fit the mood. Some of that comes from the light and weather conditions when I go out. As many other subjects, overcast or cloudy skies work pretty well and I often head out when it’s like this. I find the flat light lets my photos show the structure and surroundings of a ruined building a bit stronger than direct light. When I want to emphasize those two things I’ll often choose monochrome to help. The shot below is a good example. A one-story cabin with the roof caved in, but with still discernible windows and doors – black and white lets a viewer focus on those and not the riot of saplings that have taken over what must have been the yard.

All left behind

Not all days are overcast though and when it’s bright and sunny out we have a bit more texture to show and also the contrast between the mood in the scene and the past lives that must have once centered on the abandoned house. It almost makes it cheery to look at until you realize that possibly someone’s hopes and dreams have died hard. This next cabin’s missing doors is a focal point and there is enough color to showcase it. Also the colors are so complementary that it makes for a really harmonious image. Overexposing a stop keeps the snow white, too, and so even though I experimented with black and white I decided color was the way to go.

Time matters

To trespass or not to trespass?

I’m always tempted, but most of the time I don’t approach or enter any of the abandoned buildings I find. Mostly out of craven fear – I don’t want to get caught. Also out of respect. If there is a sign saying keep out (like the one at the end of my driveway) I take it seriously. Not only are there the property owner’s wishes to be respected, but there’s liability, too. I can imagine how damaged and dangerous these places are and I have no wish to wreck myself or cause the owner to have a big bill because of my stupidity.

It is tempting though and I will get closer when it makes sense. In the case of this barn, if it had been in the company of a ruined house and outbuildings, I’d have gone closer. But it was the only thing like this on an otherwise totally normal, and inhabited farm. Poo.

Lost the love

Because there are so many abandoned homes up this way I sometimes pass them all the time without taking any pictures. With this next one I’ve been promising myself that I would stop when the light was right. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I just felt a little silly stopping right on the side of a road I travel once or twice a week. But then one day I was coming home with the whole rig in the car and the afternoon light was pretty perfect.

Last regrets

In terms of processing, I did tweak these a bit more than I normally do so I could set the right mood. I wanted something a touch brooding…mostly because of that awesomely scary tree. The clouds helped, but they weren’t quite dark enough so I brushed them a little in Lightroom to bring up the drama. I also tweaked the magenta slider down a bit toward green, keeping it even between the two shots which are different views of the same farm. To me it’s important to keep the processing the same with a series of images that you want to present together. Lightroom has some shortcuts that are handy for this, too, like letting you apply the exact same set of adjustments from one image to another. Just finish up or click on a previously processed image in the develop module, click directly to another image and then hit the Previous button in the lower left. It will apply the changes you made to the first image to the second one. From there you can keep it or do more to it, even undo something like a crop that doesn’t work. It makes things really easy to keep the same look and feel with multiple images.

Two steps from the end

Then there’s luck. I went back to photograph this barn on an overcast day. Even when I got there and climbed the snowbank the light was pretty flat. Then for a brief few moments the sun broke through the clouds a little bit. Just enough to bring up some texture and shadows. It was all I could do to keep from jumping up and down.

Searching in your own time

A persistent abstraction

Sometimes when the mood strikes me and the brook is cooperative, I’ll spend some time shooting water over rocks and the patterns it makes. Ice is a bonus.

This little vignette was the one I started on first – that chunk of ice split the water in such a great way, it’s the ice just below it on the rock that makes it stand out I think – and it’s a good thing I did because in a few minutes it was gone, leaving the rock bare. The afternoon light was gorgeous and fleeting, too, so I worked fast from the bank of the creek, breaking off dead branches that were in my way and holding live ones out of the way of the lens. That little scrim of direct sunlight just makes this shot for me. It’s my favorite of the series. I always feel lucky to be able to work with it even though it doesn’t last. Maybe that’s why.

I also like doing this because I have to work with what I get to a large degree. I can’t move everything or sometimes anything in the scene (like I can with microscapes or macro) and need to create compositions and arrangements within those constraints. This first scene for example, there is another big rock just up and to the left of this, but it was pretty distracting so I had to try to position myself so I could isolate this one formation. All before the ice melts! No pressure.

A Moment’s notice

This next boulder had a much bigger sheath of ice that reminds me of a monster, rising to the surface to scope its prey. Could be that I just watched Predator again though. I love imagining how the ice forms in that peculiar, rounded way, and that some of it so clear that you can see the moss and lichen underneath.

Wounded, old and treacherous

Both of these images are processed similarly; close to how they appear to the eye. In post I bumped the magenta tint a bit to bring up the blue and purple slightly, but preserving the brown color of the water which is very tannic.

Rather than just go with a straight up realism approach, these kinds of subjects let me play with mood and style. I’m not one to go very extreme with processing, but sometimes it helps bring out what I had in mind when I shot the picture. That is some whirling space object; like a galaxy or a gaseous planet, alone in the void.

Aquafugue

The shot above is done with the split toning feature in Lightroom, the one below with a preset (I think it was polar or cold tone) and a few tweaks by me.

Velvet green

Compare with this realistic version of the same ice formation –

At last, forever

And of course monochrome works really well for this.

Black satin dancer

So while I wait for the color and energy of spring, I will keep playing and finding beauty even in the stark Wisconsin winter.

A midwinter’s stream

Another subject I love in winter are brooks, streams and rivers. Or more properly for Wisconsin, a creek. Ripley Creek in particular. It’s a lovely, but overgrown waterway that feeds into the Wisconsin river just south of my house. The trailhead is 8 minutes away so it’s becoming a go-to spot in much the same way as Tucker and Purgatory brooks used to be for me in NH.

My usual approach to this kind of shot is to use a slow shutter speed and smooth the water, but this time I decided that the smooth element was already there – the snow – and so I left off the filter(s) and used a faster shutter speed. This gave me a rougher, more jagged texture in the water and that contrasts nicely with the snowy blanket on the shore.

They make you restless

 

The traces always show

The camera was on the tripod for both those shots, but sometimes I just couldn’t get it into the right position and I had to hand hold. Luckily I could brace myself pretty well and there was enough light that I didn’t have to go to a very high ISO.

I had to go for it though because of the shapes the ice forms behind the boulders. Isn’t it great? You can see that the water slows down behind the rocks and so that’s where the ice forms first. I was jammed into the branches of a hemlock sapling for this one, trying to back up enough to get the near ice formation and the right bank into the shot without getting the branches in the way. Not a bad effort and one of my favorites for the series.

Voices inside

Another big choice for winter water scenes is monochrome or color. Going black and white works especially well because there is true white and true black in just about every shot (even if you do have to tweak in post). It’s dramatic and shows off the textures and contours of the landscape, which you can see here supports a lot of plant growth and is sometimes steep and rocky. The color of the water though, is part of what fascinates me about doing stream work. The tannins.

Cool down

Just look at that richness down there. It is most definitely not pollution. Tannins are chemical substances that come from phenolic acids (also called tannic acid) that are produced by plants. These acids are found in all parts of plants including leaves, bark and stems. As water moves through the soil the acids leach out and collect in surface waterways. They bind with starches, minerals, cellulose and proteins and are NOT water soluble and don’t decompose easily. This means those molecules are carried along in water, staining it like tea (tannins are exactly what makes tea that color). So when I like the composition and the contrast, I keep my shots in color.

You can’t escape the hours

But when I want to focus attention on structure and line, I leach out those tannins.

The remove of time

This last one was a little challenging in terms of getting those big logs in the foreground. My tripod was on its tiptoes (should have had the center column with me, but I didn’t) and I was on a bridge (luckily a high one), but it was close.