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A slice of winter

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.

It is also possible

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 –

In search of

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.

A quick reversal

You don’t have to have a fancy rig to take pictures of animal tracks. I did these two with the iPhone –

Cottontail rabbit

Look, bunnies!

Snowshoe hare

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 –

Proof of propriety

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.

No, this is not Tatooine

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.

In the company of strangers

In the company of strangers

 

Songs of yesterdays and tomorrows

Songs of yesterdays and tomorrows

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.

Desert duo

Desert duo

 

Fellow sufferer

Fellow sufferer

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.

Communing with geology

Communing with geology

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.

Moisture farming anyone?

Moisture farming anyone?

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.

Smudge of blue

Smudge of azure

 

Artful dodger

Artful dodger

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.

Down Below

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.

Safer travels

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.

Out of eternal shadows

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.

Haunt strange

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.

Rise blackly, Babylon

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).

The Deeps

The Deeps

 

Ghost of Yog-Sothoth

Ghost of Yog-Sothoth

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.

Best of 2016

I don’t think I managed to do this last year for whatever reason, but this year I have collected what I think is the best I’ve done this year. Normally I select 12, but added two more because I just couldn’t cull any further. These are my rules, I make ’em up.

Here they are in order of when I shot them and a brief word about why I’m proud of them.

February – I love this stark, minimalist approach to landscape photography. The line of trees and then the exclamation point in the large one is just so striking. A little Lightroom magic and the tone of the image was in keeping with its dramatic presentation.

Keynote

March – Exploring abandoned buildings is something I’d like to do more of, so when I found a log cabin not far from my house, I decided to take a look. I just love this image. It’s colorful, yet the tin isn’t new. In order to emphasize it a little more, I desaturated the colors in the background. I can’t remember if the tilt is in camera or Lightroom, but without it the shot would be too static.

De-caffeinated

April – We have tons of trout lily both in the yard. It comes up in a beautiful yellow blanket, well ahead of the greenery of other plants. When its done blooming, even the leaves disappear until the next spring. With this photo, I wanted a single flower with leaves, an uncluttered background and a relatively emphatic composition. The light could be better, but I still think it’s a strong image.

Taking the Queen

May – Part of what I challenge myself with is to photograph quotidian things in a distinctive way. Yup, this is a ubiquitous flower, but when I saw the light from the window I rushed out with the camera, knowing it would be backlit in just a few minutes. I set up and cleared the shot of debris and distractions and bang – the sun lit them. The fact that they aren’t fully open makes this a little more unusual, but I would have shot them either way.

Have a little mercy

August – I’ve been working on my macro technique a little this year – that is to incorporate natural light in a more visible way. This one was taken in the very early morning and I think the subtlety of the light adds to the shot in a way that flat or artificial light wouldn’t be able to do.

Wee freeloader

August – Every year it seems I photograph more and more mushrooms. I’m improving, but serendipity still plays a big role in what makes an image really stand out. Light, light, light! With this one, I noticed the mushroom itself, because it’s so lovely and fresh, but the light knocked me out so I had to work really fast to get this shot and I’m proud of the results.

Tawny grisette

August – Working quickly to capture light is one thing, a reasonably known quantity with a timed start and stop, but wildlife is another thing altogether. No matter how small, critters are unpredictable. Luckily some will panic and freeze. Instead of getting closer, I decided to use negative space to emphasize the solitary state of this spring peeper. I hadn’t planned on making this monochrome, but when I was working with it, the background competed too much with the tiny frog and so I made the change. I think it adds something emotional and poignant to the image.

Surveyed worlds

September – Photographers never seem to shut up about light and so I’ll join the chorus. Light gives depth, texture and subtlety to a scene that can really draw you in as a viewer. Because it is a 2-dimensional medium and we see so acutely in 3 dimensions, making a successful photograph can be tough and sometimes scenes just don’t translate into 2 dimensions. That’s where knowing a thing or two about light and composition comes in handy. It’s only been about 30 years, but I think I’m catching on.

Let your spirit breathe

September – Not all my wildlife work is with wee creatures. My short 2 summers on the water has given me some new instincts with regard to water fowl. They will tolerate you if they get used to you. So with no blind, I did my best to encourage a pair of trumpeter swans feel that I wasn’t a threat. Soon they were curious about me and why I had so many legs (tripod), lol. With patience, practice and a little reverence I got this shot which is about the best bird photograph I’ve taken –

Power thrusters operational

September – The same day I shot the swan, I saw this storm building in the distance. Lucky for me Wisconsin is pretty flat and I managed to race around and find a decent vantage point before the whole thing blew by. It’s another case of recognizing a potential image and having the luck and experience to take advantage of it. The experience part came in knowing what would (and wouldn’t) make a good composition and the luck was that the field was unharvested. When processing the image, I knew I wanted to emphasize the drama, but not introduce anything that wasn’t already in the file. By changing the white balance a little, I brought out purple instead of blue and then I just slid the black point down a bit. I really like the results.

Under threatening skies

September – Another mushroom in wonderful light, this one spied on the edge of the driveway by my husband. No surprise that I raced in the house for the camera. I knew I wanted to keep the background soft and that the direct sunlight in the leaves would make for some lovely bokeh. If I’d caught it earlier the shade in the immediate foreground would be natural, but I’m not above making my own when I have to. This one makes me smile every time I look at it.

Tippler’s bane

October – Wisconsin seems to be the spider capital of the world. With a head’s up from my eagle-eyed husband, I nearly trod on this lovely girl before I saw her for myself. It was a little cool out, but also near the end of the season, so she stayed fairly still for me. Her colors are lovely and the contrast with the concrete near my garage is pretty excellent even though normally I prefer a more natural setting. In processing I cranked up the clarity and gave it a bit of a vignette. Using the 90mm macro lens and the 25mm extension tube meant I didn’t have to crop. Isn’t she lovely?

Eyes on you

October – This next one is maybe my favorite from the year. The last glacier left pockets of tightly packed hills in certain areas and luckily one is nearby. Last year I decided that I would head there during the peak of foliage season. The trails are lovely and this light was really amazing. I moved around quite a bit before finding just the right foreground element in that log. It points up the trail where it curves up and out of sight. I think it’s inviting and serene and I think I might have it printed and framed one day.

Return to Glory

October – Barns are everywhere in Wisconsin, but hardly any are this picturesque. When I saw it on one road, I doubled back down another hoping for a foreground element. Yay for a drainage ditch! Who knew it could be the perfect thing?

Changes are mere moments

That wraps up my best of 2016 post. I don’t know what next year holds for me, but I’m not planning to change a thing. Outdoors with my camera, mostly in solitude, bringing back what I find. I hope you’ll come with me.