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.
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.
When I started to just look, I found plenty of worthies.
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 –
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 –
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.
And what fall outing would be complete without a canopy shot?!
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.
Oh how quickly did the fresh yellows and greens give way to golden tones. Not that I complained.
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.
Oh how I love my macro lens. Makes dealing with all the leaves in the yard kind of bearable. I used a tripod for all the shots. If you can remove the center post of your tripod, I recommend doing it if you like to get close to the ground. I don’t use my beanbag as much now I have a tripod that can go all the way down. I also played in the light, looking for very subtle backlighting.
Playing with shadows is a lot of fun, too. I had to work fast for this one, but in the end I beat the sun as it sunk behind my house. Sure, there was always tomorrow, but I kind of like working against a clock. Of sorts.
I couldn’t help turning a couple of the images upside down. Although the light and bokeh are striking, I think inverting the shot just makes it a bit more eye-catching. And we can’t do the same things all the time, now can we?
It’s been snowing a little bit here in Wisconsin and yesterday I went out into the yard to see what I could see, but when I got back to the computer I realized I hadn’t posted all of what I shot in the fall. Doh!
Some of the most beautiful (and easiest) images came from my own yard. I don’t always get myself out of bed in time for the sunrise, but sometimes I do when it’s putting on a show –
The water isn’t always glassy smooth, but it is more often when the sun is just over the horizon. The wind hasn’t yet had a chance to get going. For both shots I used the dock as a tripod platform which I can’t do at all when the water is really moving (it floats). So far the fog hasn’t been around too much, but I like it in the second shot – just barely there.
Sunsets are easier and even though we face east, the light is still gorgeous. I lucked out with these images big time. The sun just lit up the far trees which were in the height of their autumn glory, the water was perfectly still and the sky was just the most amazing October blue. I love my backyard!
Normally I don’t go for such symmetrical landscapes, but who could resist? I wonder if Billy’s house has ever been photographed so much!
Of course it isn’t just the beautiful view that rewards my photographic eye. It’s the small things and the serendipity of nature.
I did not put that leaf there, honest. We took the dock out of the water just after I shot this, so it was like a sweet goodbye from the season. But not for this blog, there will be more fall images to come. Some pretty traditional, but some surprising and not what you think of when you think of fall color!