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.
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.
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.
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.
But when I want to focus attention on structure and line, I leach out those tannins.
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.
This winter I didn’t get out as much as I should have, but when I did I found some beauty. Seems that for me when I’m out in winter I go after 1 of 2 things – small slices and abstracts or landscapes. This is a slice and abstract post, mostly done with the Lumix 35-100mm f2.8 telephoto zoom. It’s a compact lens with a fixed aperture, which I don’t really need in winter, but is very useful in less bright light.
Critter tracks are one thing about winter that I love. Sure, critters are always trekking somewhere, but only in snow can we see the evidence. And they make for great subjects. This first one is a coyote. I’d been following them along a road beside a dam spillway when it turned up the slope to the top of the earthworks.
The tracks are a few days old and have gotten that soft, melting aspect of older prints. The low angle of the sun really helps bring out the shadows and textures in a scene like this and after experimenting a bit with this landscape view and a portrait view, I decided I like this one better because of the contrast of lines, angles and orientation of the primary elements; the tracks, the plant stems and the shadows. To me it has more energy and tension than this image –
Little critter tracks are harder to photograph sometimes, but I keep trying. I think this was a mouse or vole that came out of its den, took a quick look, then decided it wasn’t worth it and went back in. At least that’s the story I’m trying to tell. I’m not sure it works because it’s so small and there isn’t much dynamic range in terms of black and white, but I keep experimenting.
You don’t have to have a fancy rig to take pictures of animal tracks. I did these two with the iPhone –
Sadly I didn’t see any bunnies, but now I know they are just downstream of me on the banks of the same river I live on. We’re neighbors. Oh and no wonder the eagles love it here. Surf and turf!
From a previous post about minimalist photography, you know that plants make terrific subjects for winter photos. I think this is some kind of grass –
By now you’ve probably noticed that we don’t have a lot of white snow here in Wisconsin. Not quite true and I wasn’t really cheating. Snow will take on the color of anything it reflects – the sky, trees, sunlight, your jacket – anything. The trick is to use that to enhance whatever look you’re going for in your images. If you want a stark black and white presentation, or a softer, pastel-shaded shot you can do that by managing the HSL panel and white balance. The quality of light is going to determine what you get in camera and you can emphasize it with post-processing. White balance will do a lot of it, but pay attention to the color cast slider that goes from green to magenta. I just nudged that to the magenta side a bit and got the feel I wanted for both the grass image and the coyote prints. The mouse house track shot was the same day and I used a monochrome image to isolate the hole and the tracks more than a color shot would have done.
With the phone it’s harder since I don’t use any post-processing software for those. I try to get the exposure right in the camera which is tougher, but can be done by getting it to meter on something that is more neutral gray, thus rendering the snow a brighter white. In a real camera I typically overexpose 2/3 to 1 1/2 stops over for snow shots. I usually let the camera set white balance, but sometimes I change that to match what my eyes see. It gives me a frame of reference for when I start messing with the image in Lightroom.
On the same trip that I visited Carlsbad Caverns, I also went to White Sands which in the grand scheme of things is nearby. If you’re going to one it makes sense to go to the other and since they’re such wild opposites, it’s a really interesting contrast. From deep underground where you pupils are dilated to their max and then to blinding sand where your darkest sunglasses are barely adequate. It’s great.
Over the years I’ve seen some amazing photography coming out of this area. Stark and otherworldly and so I had it in my head to replicate or try to replicate those images. I wasn’t prepared for how popular the park is despite being in the middle of nowhere (and next to a missile testing area). The place was CRAWLING with people. Mostly what they do is walk up the dunes and sled down them. Footprints everywhere. Very much NOT what I needed as a photographer.
So I got sneaky. Basically there is an out and back loop road that brings you to different sections of the dunes, some with or without picnic areas and/or comfort stations. Big parking lots. One of which was chained off so you couldn’t drive down it. But you could walk. It didn’t have a sign saying that was forbidden, so that’s what I did. It was the perfect solution and I couldn’t believe there wasn’t any monkey-see-monkey-do business that followed. Nope. My solitude (relatively speaking) sustained.
It was easy to get overawed by the immensity of the vistas. It’s a little overwhelming and sometimes challenging to put together a compelling and balanced landscape, but I slowed down and really tried to look and experiment.
One thing to remember if you visit is that you would shoot this desert like you would a snow scene – overexpose by a stop or so, that way you preserve the whiteness of the sand. And it really is white. Not really like snow since it doesn’t sparkle or reflect light the same way or take on the color of the sky so it can be a little more stark than a snow landscape.
Going to black and white seems like it would be perfect, but I didn’t do a lot of it. Mostly because there isn’t a lot of absolute black or white in the scenes. This one is close, but I wish the mountains had been darker; the angle of the sun lit them up. I actually darkened the blue value in Lightroom to get the shade down to something reasonable, but I’m still not sure it works well.
The sand is white because it’s gypsum and when formed it was not powered yet, which has happened by weather and wind. There are a few spots where the stone itself still exists in strange little outcrops that reminded me of Tatooine.
Even though it was early November, some plants were still flowering and you could hear them before you got close. Well, it wasn’t the plants specifically but the hundreds of bees feeding on the nectar. Everyone was so overwhelmed by their gorging that it was easy to isolate a few beauties. It was a little surprising they were so pristine this late in the season. At home the surviving butterflies are ragged at the end of summer.
It being so bright I hand held everything and left the tripod in the car. I went into this more casually than I do many photo sessions, but I still made an effort to create interesting views. Hope you enjoyed and can visit someday yourself. It’s amazing and a tremendous place to see.
Way back in November 2016 I went to New Mexico for a long weekend and one of the places I visited was Carlsbad Caverns. I love caves and really hit it lucky that I could bring my tripod down into the depths of the earth (on the self-guided tour). It helped a lot. A few years ago I visited similar (but much smaller) caves in Oregon where tripods were not allowed and oh the ISO I had to use! Here I stuck pretty much to 500 ISO which is a good compromise between having fairly quick shutter speeds (just for time’s sake) and noise.
No matter where you are, it’s always important to remember your pictures are secondary and to respect the rules and regulations around photography. No tripod means no tripod. No flash means no flash. Sticking to the trail and not putting a leg off means just that. That’s important because a bunch of jerks flouting the rules just make it harder for the rest of us. I think I goofed once on this trip and a ranger pointed it out, nicely, but firmly and I paid better attention. Eek!
So, here are some things that worked for me. Shooting in caves is always challenging whether you have a lighted system like at Carlsbad or unlighted like the Lava Caves in northern California. Paramount is dealing with the lighting. If the caves are lit like these, it’s in pockets, pools and slices. It isn’t uniform which makes for great texture, but hot spots where you will blow the highlights. With today’s cameras though, you can still underexpose and capture a lot of detail in the shadows, so I recommend just barely clipping the highlights. For me it was overexposing by about 2/3 of a stop overall.
Then in Lightroom I pulled the highlights down, increased exposure, waved the adjustment brush around a bit and things evened out without being too noisy. With images like these, having lots of texture, I find boosting the clarity helps emphasize that primary aspect.
Another challenge is white balance. No matter what light source you have (flashlight painting is fun if you get the chance) it will create color casts that aren’t natural to the stone. It’s amazing what light does to color and for the most part, the white balance in camera was ok, but my husband had a very neutral flashlight with him and I realized how warm the light was down in the rooms. So I cooled it off a bit in Lightroom, just so that it wasn’t overwhelmingly golden. I also dialed down the green tint and boosted the magenta just slightly.
Then there’s composition. Caves are intensely three-dimensional. There’s a lot to look at and most of it relies on the mind’s ability to separate shapes, color, texture, light and shadows. The camera isn’t good at doing all of those simultaneously. So at first I shot with an eye to what I was seeing. Only after time did I change that to what the camera could convey. Compare these two images. The first is a pool of water that has collected at the very bottom of the cave and I find it to be pretty abstract at first glance. You have to figure out what you’re looking at and to my mind that takes longer to do than the first one (since you already have the cave context for the pics, that helps a lot rather than going in cold).
So that was my experience in Carlsbad Caverns. It’s a true wonder of nature and I highly recommend visiting even though it’s in the middle of nowhere. The walk down is staggering (if you’re up to it, if not there’s an elevator, but walk if at all possible). Jaw-dropping formations and just the age of the whole thing really makes you realize how insignificant you, and all of humankind is. We’re just a blip. The cave is eternal.