The time between seasons can be frustrating for the nature or outdoors photographer. Many complain of “stick season”, that time after the colorful foliage falls and before the snow flies. Mud season is similar in that nothing is leafed out or blooming yet, and the trails are running with water and slush. I still get the urge to be outside though and I always bring a camera. I almost typed the words “just in case” at the end of that sentence, but it isn’t true. There is always something beautiful if you take the time to look. Something that just isn’t there any other season. I try to enjoy my time outdoors no matter what.
For me the waiting earth has a humming vibrancy that can’t be seen just yet. You know there are frogs still dormant waiting to add their voices to the evening air. The bare branches of trees have tiny fists of leaf buds just waiting to break. Ducks and geese gather playfully before settling down to the serious business of raising chicks. The wind that touches your face no longer wants to freeze it off. The air smells different and the songbirds start tuning up each morning.
Because everything is new to me here in Wisconsin each outing is one of discovery. Also scouting to some degree. I’m still drawn to brooks and rivers, but finding a waterway that really lends itself to the type of photography I want to do has been tough. I keep looking though and the other day I went to check out the Plover River Scenic Natural Area. There was a specific part I wanted to see, one that recently got some snazzy wooden walkways, but I somehow missed it and ended up on another segment of the same trail. Ah well. At least I’ve narrowed it down.
Without the sheltering canopy, the forest light is a bit harsher than in summer, but it illuminates the green our eyes are so hungry for come March. This particular section of the Plover river trail is very wet and so the mosses practically glowed. Unfortunately I was lazy and while I brought my tripod, I left it in the car. Dumb. So many of these images could have been better. Still, I like what I saw, like this fallen giant and the little bit of snow on the shady side.
Ice formations can be a fun project once you start to look for them. I always do between the full-throttle seasons of summer and winter. Without snow, puddles and the edges of streams and rivers are great places to find these examples of nature’s abstract art. The air pockets, textures and objects trapped within are so different and changeable that you can make a lot of different images even on a short walk with enough water around.
Don’t forget your post processing options when it comes to abstracts. Even a sort of boring image can be improved if you play with the sliders a little. With this image of the bottom of the Plover River, I changed the white balance from how the camera shot it to a very cool setting. It brought out some odd colors that were there, but muted due to the white balance setting. It went from an image entirely in shades of brown and yellow to this –
Moving water is so unpredictable. There are similar images in my files to the one above, but they’re all too static – they don’t catch your attention. Like with capturing a water current, you sometimes have to find a composition you like and shoot a lot until you get just the right shape in the water. That convex water ripple turned into a sort of lens, enlarging the image of the rock beneath it so it looks like an alien eye staring at you. I loved it and knew I had to work the image until I had something more appealing. I worked the color sliders a little in addition to white balance and I think it’s interesting and odd.
Water can add texture, too, like this shot of the ice where my dock will be in summer. The wind was blowing pretty strong and kicked up the water’s surface (which is blue because of the reflection of the sky).
When I can tear my eyes from any water I find, I try to keep my eyes open. Because that usually means I’m looking down, this little arrangement appealed to me. The walkway, the shadows and my old boots.
Of course I don’t always keep my eyes so downcast. I do see the occasional landscape and do my best to find what appeals to me about it. With this one it’s the fresh, alive feeling that I get from the running water, the green of the moss and who doesn’t love a little rock hopping? Unlike a totally snowed under shot or one later in the season, that little scrim of snow adds depth and helps the green really stand out.
Another advantage to the season in between seasons is frost. This time of year brings temperatures warm enough to melt the snow and create the level of humidity needed to deck things out in gorgeous little crystals. Perfect for easing back into macro photography, something I don’t do much of in the winter months. It’s so easy to find these images, too, just head out on your lawn. It’s a nice little jolt of wonder at nature and creativity all in one go. And there’s more hot coffee just inside when you’re done.
Ah winter, with your muted color palette and your blanketing snow, you call to my inner minimalist in a way that the more riotous seasons don’t. Spring heavy with budbreak and flowers. Summer with its riot of wildlife. And fall with its panoply of colors. They don’t make it easy to strip a scene down to its essentials the way winter does. There’s too much competing for a photographer’s eye and, unless you work at it, arriving at a truly minimalist image is tough. Don’t lose hope though, you can start to develop an eye for minimalism during the season that helps you see it best; winter. And once you have some practice time it will be easier to spot these scenes during the more clamorous times of year.
For me, minimalism is about removing extraneous elements from the image. Textures, shapes, colors must all be simple and stark to some extent. Often it comes down to providing the viewer with just one element to focus on – a color or form or texture. A single element, or a very few of them in a conspicuous pattern. Simple backgrounds.
My first go-to is always the small scene and so let’s look at that first. The season’s first snowfall made these flowers in my yard really stand out. The trick was to find a group that was isolated. Once I located some, I needed to use a lens long enough to carve out small scenes without trampling them. Remember to get the focal plane (film or your sensor) lined up with as much of your subject as you can. Because macro or telephoto lenses have narrow depths of field you can accidentally have parts of your subject out of focus which may not provide the strongest image.
Snow makes it easy to notice tiny things. It automatically creates a uniform backdrop. And it’s easy to clean up any tiny bits of debris that might otherwise distract from your main subject. Spot and blemish removal tools are quick and easy enhancements to a minimalist image.
Sometimes a streak or pop of color will be enough to create something eye-catching, but making an image even stronger takes some processing. I love this shot of some rock cap fern curled in the cold, but as I shot it the line was straight up and down and was boring; too static. A bit of cropping and rotation in Lightroom and I got a more interesting visual just by tilting things so that the fern forms a diagonal.
Never underestimate the power of a good diagonal!
As you look through the images here, you’ll also notice I follow the rule of thirds with most, if not all, of them. When you’ve isolated your subject so severely it’s doubly important to create a harmonious and balanced scene. The rule of thirds is an easy way to make sure your shot is as pleasing to the eye as possible and one you probably already use every time head out. If you can’t quite get the shot in camera, use a wider, more inclusive angle of view so you can crop the image with the rule of thirds in mind. Using your software’s cropping guide may also be helpful when you do this.
Stepping back a bit, but still armed with my medium telephoto lens, I start to see larger scenes that still remain simple, stark and dramatic. Shadows can help a lot with this and once you start noticing them, more and more will pop out at you. Don’t get lazy though, move those feet to find the best angles that eliminate everything but your subject.
Can you sense a theme here?
Going farther back, and using a wider angle requires an even more discerning eye. The lone tree to the right is the obvious draw, but to make the image even more dramatic, I adjusted the blue channel after converting to black and white. By sliding luminance and saturation to their lowest values, it rendered the sky nearly as featureless as the snow. It reinforces the bold quality of the trees and makes them pop.
So that’s a quick look at how winter can help you hone your eye for the minimalist photograph and so to recap –
- Choose a medium telephoto to isolate your subject
- Align your subject with your focal plane
- Clean up snow debris in post processing
- Focus on color for instant drama
- Use strong lines, like diagonals, to keep things from being too boring
- The rule of thirds is your friend
- Look for repeating patterns (shadows are great for this)
Oh if walls could talk.
So many questions go through my head when I photograph abandoned houses. Who first built them? Who lived in them? What did they do? Were they happy? Sad? Was there drama? Why did they walk away? Was there a tragedy?
I’ve always had an idea in the back of my mind to collaborate with a writer who could work with my photos and create a context for them. A story. Sure I can imagine, but I’m no storyteller. Just look at this next one. I found it on a main road in one of the segments of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. It’s a single story cabin with chinked-log construction. I can’t tell if it was ever wired for electricity. The ladder knocked me out and I so wanted to trespass, but I didn’t. Did a trapper live here? A logger? A recluse? A mad bomber? Even today this is a pretty remote location despite the two lane road going right by it.
Not everything might be actually abandoned, like this next little cabin. I think it’s something used seasonally, maybe just for hunting. When I found it it was snowbound and pretty lonely looking. It reminds me of a tiny maple-sugar house with that little bit there on the roof. I love the flag in the window (which still has glass in it like the others you can see).
This next one made me turn around, go back and put on my gaiters so I could wade through the snow. The critter tracks are a bonus. I love the holes in the sagging roof; something difficult to show without snow. Again, I wondered if this was a primary residence or just a hunting cabin or something. Like another cabin that I’ll feature in a post all its own, this little shack wasn’t face on to the main road, but turned sideways as if offering the cold shoulder to the world.
I think this last one might have been a carriage house or garage. At first I thought school or meeting house, but those doors would be really strange for either of those and given that the doors don’t seem to slide open large enough for vehicles, I don’t know what it is/was. It’s all alone on the corner of two back roads and is sheltered by this L-shaped line of pine trees. The old roof and the new roof are a bit of a conundrum. Did someone start to restore it? Do they use it in good weather? It was all snowed in so it’s obviously not in use during the winter. I love the symmetry of it.
I will be posting a few more pieces with abandoned places and things, but spring fever has caught me. I’m a bit weary of the monochrome world out there and I’m dying for some greenery. It won’t happen for weeks though and so I will try to get out and enjoy the season as it is. Stay tuned for longer post about one particular little lost cabin. This time I went inside!