I have long had a love of vernal pools. Almost every time I see or hear one near a trail I go to take a look. They come in many shapes and sizes, and not all will last through the season, but all are important to wildlife during breeding season. Especially invertebrates and amphibians. How wonderful is the sound of a poolful of spring peepers? It’s one of the best parts of spring.
What is a vernal pool? It is a temporary body of water often created by melt and rain water in spring. Sometimes they are called ephemeral ponds. Naturally occurring depressions collect this water but, the important part is that they don’t last. Eventually they dry up.
Some pools are large and run together eventually forming small streams at times. Some are tiny and fleeting –
But they are notoriously hard to photograph. I mean, basically they’re just big puddles with leaves at the bottom and plants hemming them in on all sides. They form in dense woods which can be rather flat which doesn’t get you much perspective. For that first shot I stood on a little hillock to get a tiny bit of elevation which works ok I think. The second was shot from my driveway which is a foot or so above the tiny pool, beside which grow ferns including my beloved maidenhair.
Ferns will be a big part of the landscape so I’ve given some thought to them in terms of the kinds of images I want to make. Reflections. Moss. Logs. Grass. All can be part of what makes a vernal pool vital. Discovering more about them is sure to bring me some surprises.
All of these photos were taken across the street from my house in a bunch of vacant land so it will be easy for me to visit often and document changes. That is the main reason I want to try my hand at this; ease of access. I dread bug season, but I will brave it for the sake of giving it a go. As a matter of fact, as I write this I already have a second visit done and I think I’ve found a couple of pools that will last long enough to show their cycles. I hope I can show how special and interesting these little habitats are. It certainly feels challenging and hopefully my creative spark ignites and I can break out of my rut a little bit.
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.
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.
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.
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 glory. 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!
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 the closer ones to the side keeping your eyes in frame, and also the rock that fixes your attention.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 –
A little twist and look at the corners now.
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.
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.
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?
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 –
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Compare with this realistic version of the same ice formation –
And of course monochrome works really well for this.
So while I wait for the color and energy of spring, I will keep playing and finding beauty even in the stark Wisconsin winter.