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.
Here in northern Wisconsin we have a lot of wildlife. What is a non-wildlife photographer to do? Get a wicked long lens and give it a go.
Alas, it’s winter and it’s been pretty cold and so sitting around freezing my ass off waiting for a badger to happen by isn’t something I’m keen on. So what else can you do with a long lens? Play!
I bought this particular lens when it went on sale just before Christmas. In 2015 I watched a similar price drop, but didn’t buy. This time I decided to because well heck, there was a loon pretty much in front of my dock all summer! I got the Panasonic Lumix G Vario 100-300mm F/4.0-5.6 OIS –
It’s a bit of a monster and so I took it out with the battery grip on the GH3 and it worked beautifully. I’ve always found heavier or bulkier lenses balance better with a grip of some kind. Plus it makes the camera easier to hold onto with gloves.
There are a lot of reviews out there of this lens and so I knew that it was a good performer for the money, but not a high-end lens. Of course, about a week after I bought it, Panasonic released a longer lens with better glass. It was more than triple the price though so I think I’m ok with this one considering that wildlife photography isn’t a big part of what I do. If it does, I’ll think about trading up.
Judging by my one time out with it, playing along the Wisconsin river, I’d agree with some reviews that this is a bright sun lens. I think in full or nearly full sun it will be a decent performer. I also think I need practice with it. I’ve never worked with a lens so long before (200-600mm in 35mm terms) and like any specialized lens there’s a knack to it. I think a tripod will help, too. I don’t mind practicing though. It’s fun.
Sharpness depends on having excellent light and a steady grip. A couple of these shots were done with me braced against a tree, but even that isn’t a guarantee. I have a custom setting that is shutter-priority with the camera choosing the aperture and the ISO and that seems to work pretty well with this lens. Rule of thumb for handheld work is you want a shutter speed at least equivalent to the lens length in millimeters, but I try to double it or come close. So at 200mm you should have 1/200th of a second or faster. I also need to refine my technique to steady the camera; grip, breathing and stance are all part of it and funnily enough, the other kind of shooting is a help here. Hitting what you aim for with a pistol requires a lot of the same principles.
Come spring I should be ready. I’ve got a beautiful little side channel up river from here that has a healthy water bird population (about 35 minutes paddling without sightseeing or chatting with neighbors). There’s also a big National Wildlife Refuge downstate that is important for migrating birds including the sandhill cranes and their great dances. Oh and eagles, too. I just saw two of them from my windows today so hopefully I can sneak up on one or two of them. Oh yeah, good luck with that!
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.
Landscape photography is something you fall into if you’re a nature photographer, and I’m no exception. Huge vistas and eye-popping panoramas are very easy to get caught up in. But when I’ve got my eyes screwed in right and start to really see, lots of other things pop out at me. Microscapes, macros and small scenes can be just as fascinating and often give a fresh, intimate view of nature’s beauty. Winter makes me put in more of an effort, but it’s part of what I really love about this season’s photographic possibilities. It challenges me to do more than just observe. It’s easy to be enchanted by spring or autumn, but winter is perceived as more stark and less bountiful. Working those eye-candy summertime images is terrific fun, but so is finding winter’s bounty.
When I shot this first image there was so much snow on the ground that walking the trail put me anywhere from one to two feet above the normal grade. That got my line of sight into a different place. I KNOW I’ve passed this tree before, but then my eyes were on the brook that cascades to the left here, not up the ledge and certainly not on this tree with the lovely tinder fungus growing on it. This time, elevated by the snow pack, I noticed it. And luckily for me, the light in the trees made it even more beautiful and otherworldly. Like low-level clouds.
Then there’s ice – something only in winter’s provision. Oh how I love icy brooks. For all of these shots I was up to my knees in snow (nope still no snowshoes, doh!). Both are on Tucker Brook in Milford, one of my favorite places to go with a camera and a tripod. Working these images is both physically tricky sometimes and it’s sometimes harder to get what you want because you can’t get the camera where you want it. The whole falling through the ice thing just isn’t something I’m into. This little section of stream had a great leading line in the water though and so I maneuvered as best I could to line it up. A little processing magic brought its more sinister quality to the fore.
As water levels change, ice takes on even more intricate patterns like this next one. The motion, light and reflections in the water below made me think of some of the fantastic images the Hubble Telescope brings to us from deep space.
This last one, when I got it into Lightroom, made me think of some landscape out of Jules Verne’s nightmares. Isn’t it cool? I would have liked to get closer and lower down for this one, but it wasn’t in the cards. Too much snow and the stream is fairly wide here. Luckily a longer lens helped.
It’s not a fern, which I’m so partial to, but that green just pops doesn’t it? Tucker Brook preserve is also loaded to the gills with mountain laurel. Even in winter it is evergreen and I had to wade through the drifts to get to this gorgeous spray of leaves. By this time of the year, my eyes are thirsty for color and this quenches it. The red just pops out at you, doesn’t it? Funny how I never much noticed that in summer when there is so much competition for my eye’s attention.
Sometimes it’s texture that grabs my attention. Winter and its long shadows are great for this kind of seeing. Long stripped of its bark, this log caught my eye the second time I walked by it (the light changed I think and that’s why I noticed it on the walk back). The ice and the shadows are so varied and interesting and so I turned my lens to it. I just love the random nature of the debris.
Winter is still hanging on here in the North East. Get out there and enjoy what is found only now, when it’s cold. Some say winter is the meanest of seasons, but I disagree. It’s a time for rest and rejuvenation and there is beauty to be found, high and low.
Alchemy is the ancient “science” of turning mundane elements into gold. For a long time many people (including Sir Isaac Newton) believed it was just a matter of time before they had success. As far as I know, it has never worked. Except maybe it has.
For the last few days I’ve been grounded with the car in the shop for new brakes and some other fiddly bits. So I went into the yard with the 90mm macro, a 25mm extension tube and a ring flash. What do you know, abstract macro.
And if you know where your towel is you’ll easily figure out why the titles are what they are. See you at Milliways! PGGBs are on me.
to paraphrase Robert Burns. Sorry, Bob.
With all the tools at our disposal now like Photographer’s Ephemeris and just plain Google maps, we can really get a handle on a location, the light and how best to showcase both. In our minds we envision the photographs we want to take. We move the pin all over the map deciding on the best vantage point. We make ‘shot lists’.
This morning I set out for Lubberland Creek Preserve with visions of a lovely saltmarsh sunrise in my head. I knew just the spot. Saw that a certain little island would be backlit perfectly this time of year. Felt that the marsh itself would be frozen enough that I could walk out and not get my feet soaked. I hoped for a bit of mist or frost or both. Maybe even deer in the meadow. And clouds. Don’t forget clouds. The forecast called for partly cloudy, so things would be perfect.
Then shit happens.
Yah. It’s inevitable, right?
First I was low on gas and had to stop. After a false start at an exit that only had a single gas station – closed! – I lost a few minutes there and at the station that was open. By the time I got to the preserve, I was running late. I could see color in the sky and it was building. But wait…where are the clouds?? Well no worries, maybe there will be some mist, fog or dare I hope? – deer in the meadow. Ok deer, where are you? Didn’t you get my memo? And wouldn’t you know it, above freezing so no mist, no fog no nothing.
What’s a photographer to do?
Find something else!
With the rest of nature doing its best to thwart me (it feels like that sometimes, doesn’t it?), I had to regroup really fast. For a few minutes I found myself falling into the trap I wrote about in my last post. My pre-determined shot list wasn’t materializing and I didn’t have a fall back position. So I just stood and looked for a while and realized where my eyes were going.
The light in the grasses was beautiful. And the contrasting colors really worked well…finally nature was giving me a little break!
I changed lenses to my old 90mm f2 so I could have a bit more reach and just kept crunching over the reeds and grasses, hunting for new compositions and arrangements while the light lasted.
I had a great time until the light ran out. When I got home and saw what I had, I was very happy that Lightroom helped me keep the processing uniform so as to bring the images together as a set. No, I didn’t get precisely what I wanted, but I did get something worthwhile and pushed myself to find it. I’m content. Besides, it’s not like it’s going anywhere and I can always have a do-over!
Just a quick post of some more unusual shots I’ve taken lately. No, I haven’t abandoned my hyper-literal, documentary style, but I had some fun and thought I’d share.
It’s sometimes VERY hard for me to see in abstract. My brain’s not wired that way, but I sometimes go out of my head.