The Piscataquog is my favorite river. I know, weird, huh? It’s an important waterway not only for people, but for many animals and plants that thrive in the ancient glacial habitats along its course. It has 3 branches (north, middle and south), runs for 57 miles with little interruption and its name translates from a local Indian dialect as The Great Deer Place or The Place for Many Deer.
Over the last couple hundred years, many local towns have sprung up on its banks using its regular and forceful flow to power mills, one of which is said to have been the very first shoe factory in the United States. Only remnants remain and much of the land around the 3 branches is officially protected. Each branch has unique geological features which I’m exploring as a project of sorts.
This is the only gorge so far as I can tell and unfortunately most of it is covered in no trespassing signs so I didn’t explore where it was prohibited. I hope someday easements can be granted to allow hikers and of course, photographers. : ) It is on the south branch and is on the border of two towns – Lyndeborough and New Boston.
The bridge in this shot used to connect the two ends of High Bridge road, but is now unsafe as the decking has rotted and there are many holes and the iron supports have rusted to lace in some spots. When a horse put its foot through in the mid 1990s, the bridge closed and has remained so. There is a project underway to raise funds for its restoration, but they have a long way to go. Further downstream is another set of gentle falls as well –
Over the coming months I hope to continue to explore different branches of the Piscataquog. I already have a few scouted and am waiting for some ferns to grow in, etc. There are some flood areas called eskers I want to try to locate as well, so hopefully you will like what’s to come as I explore.
From this morning. I couldn’t resist the patterns or the light.
Fall is one of the most productive…well, if I can call it that, times for me as a photographer. There are so many things that catch my eye and the season is so volatile that there is a surprise almost every day. Here’s a few of my favorite catches.
Early in October things are still relatively mild and all kinds of delicate things still thrive –
But as unexpected things go, one of the prettiest is this –
It’s pretty, but so, so destructive, too –
But at this time of year, it doesn’t last –
and paradise returns –
but the mystery doesn’t end –
Up until recently, I’ve been a catch-as-catch-can type of photographer. If I was going somewhere, I took my camera and tried for photos as I went. Rarely did I return to a location to do better or capture a different aspect of the place. Now though, I understand what scouting a location can do. Remember that old slogan the Boy Scouts used, be prepared? Or maybe it was Outward Bound. Whatever it was, scouting helps me do that really well; be prepared. I have no idea why I didn’t do it before. Just lazy I suppose. Now though, even if I don’t come away with the best portfolio-making shot on earth, I find just being in a location valuable enough to make it worth my effort.
The more familiar you are with locations near you, the more confident you’ll be going into the field. I’ve got shot list in my head and a ton of trail maps in my glove compartment so I’m never short of ideas. In New England we’re lucky to have distinct seasons and the changes that come are big ones. Locations look completely different and it’s an adventure to capture all aspects of them. And don’t forget local meet-ups. I love both being introduced to a new location by someone, and sharing one that might be new to others. We always have fun and it’s great to see how differently we view the same place at the same time.
Sunday for example, I met up with a photographer friend to take advantage of sunrise side-light at another Nature Conservancy Preserve – Lubberland Creek in Durham, NH. It’s part of the Great Bay estuary and is mostly a tidal wetland full of grasses, reeds, flowers, birds and oh yeah, poison ivy. That evil vine aside, the place is lovely and has potential for future sunrises when the sun is in a better position and when there are clouds in the sky. I think it would even work well for sunsets. There’s a beautiful island in the mouth of the creek’s delta and boy won’t that be great at high tide. I’ve really got to get some waders or at least knee-height rubber boots so I can go in the really squishy parts. As it was today I got my shoes pretty soaked, but that was probably more because of the dew than anything.
Watching the light on the grasses was pretty wonderful even it it wasn’t dramatic –
I was fascinated by how the light transformed the scene and of course I got down for some bokeh action –
If you’ve got your Sherlock Holmes hat on, you’ll notice the difference in the bokeh between those two shots. It’s part of what fascinates me about using extreme bokeh and pinpoints of light, like these dewdrops. The shapes of the aperture blades in the lenses is different and gives you different looks. The blades in my Olympus Zuiko Digital 12-60mm are round and the blades in my 80s vintage Olympus Zuiko 65-200mm are octagonal. Oh and I used the close focus feature of that old lens, something I don’t do very often, and I think it came out really well. After playing with the depth of focus for a few frames, I decided this mid-point approach was best. It was tough finding a section of grasses that went all the same way. Reaching in and even delicately removing a blade going the wrong way would make all the dew fall off and ruin the shot. I think my shooting buddy Jeff found out the same thing and if anyone was watching us we must have been pretty comical.
It was all about texture, light and patterns and I think even monochrome works well –
So now that I’ve scouted it, I’ve got ideas brewing for other shots I’d like to get. Frost and snow in winter. A dreamy sunrise with fog. Now I just need to spend a little time with The Photographer’s Ephemeris…
Late last year I visited a nearby Nature Conservancy property called The Cedar Swamp Preserve. Yeah, real romantic sounding place, right? Well it’s got two great things going for it – Atlantic White Cedars and Great Laurel or Giant Rhododendron as it’s sometimes called. This is a small preserve jammed between huge condo developments, some commercial operations and an abandoned-before-it-was-built college campus. Lucky for me it’s only 15 minutes from my house. I’m very grateful for its presence.
I have a thing for trees. Not hugging or anything too silly, but a reverence for what they are and what they do. How long they live and how symbiotic our relationships to them are. I wish I still had my 10-year-old body and mind so I could keep climbing them. I am always saddened by the sight of a full logging truck. I think of the animals and birds dependent on those trees and how they’ve been destroyed. Sometimes when I see a particularly wonderful tree, I put my hand on it and feel the wind vibrate through it. I especially like to find trees that are extraordinary for their size or their mere existence. Like these Atlantic White Cedars for which the land was set aside.
According to the website, these trees are quite rare around the world and this 42-acre stand is part of only 550 total acres in NH. This swamp is the most northern of all Atlantic White Cedar swamps and also has a black gum tree which I have yet to actually find. The walkways are a bit treacherous in places, but I haven’t taken a dunk yet. Neither has my tripod which is too big for the planks. I do like taking a stroll through though. Check out those cinnamon ferns!
So the other thing that makes this special (and me glad that UNH chose the mill buildings in Manchester) is the Great Laurel or Giant Rhododendron. In all my wanderings and hikes I’ve never seen these anywhere else up here (except some cultivated plants which might be variations on the wild species). They’re giant, ghostly and faintly primordial trees. Much bigger than mountain laurel they can grow to 35 feet high. I wished for a taller tripod or a stepladder while photographing them, so much of the drama seemed to be taking place far above my head.
I missed the blooming last year and was determined to get there at the right time this year. Unfortunately because of the weird, wet spring we had, wildflower timing was all over the place and I had to keep coming back and back and back to check on the blossoms. The last time I did the bud casings were soft and springy to the touch, so I knew the time was near.
Each time I visited the groves, ideas would start to coalesce. I envisioned black and white primarily because the canopy above these huge bushes obscures a lot of light and I could play up their natural drama. And because when they do bloom, the flower clusters seem to hover in space a bit against their dark leaves.
But the light was amazing and so soft that I couldn’t resist doing some in color as well.
I had the idea of heading over just after dropping my husband at the airport at 6:30 am. Like I’ve been trying to do all year, I wanted to incorporate more dappled sunlight in my images. The low-angled, early morning sun was perfect. I couldn’t believe the wind was so still either. Wind! The bane of my existence. But it was still; just a breath. A perfect storm of conditions. Just look at the texture and depth the sun adds. And that subtle blush of color. OMG.
Sometimes when I’ve got an idea in my head for months and I finally get to execute on it, I’m disappointed, but not with these. I’m so happy they came out the way I thought they might; better even. It’s stuff like that that makes me light up inside.
So for you technical peeps here’s the skinny. I used my normal rig; Olympus E-30 and ZD 12-60mm lens. No polarizer since the leaves are so beautifully shiny; like rubber almost and they catch the light to give depth to the shots. Lugged my ancient Bogen tripod since it is the taller of the two I own. I exposed for the highlights which is part of the reason there’s so much detail in the whites. I find the E-30 and most other modern digital cameras can hold lot of detail in the shadows, more than the highlights, so I just watched the clipping blinkies in Live View and held them down. Processing-wise the monochromes are pretty basic, just some stretching of curves to emphasize certain tones in certain shots. The color shots had a bit of vibrance intensity added and some white balance adjustments. Not much cropping post-capture on any of them.
The woods and forests are magical to me and when I can capture that I’m so pleased. I hope you enjoy it, too.
The weather and the hordes of mosquitoes have kept me from doing a lot of shooting, but I have been out. The thing is that the shots don’t really seem to go together. Then I had a morbid thought about some of them. Poison mushrooms and grave stones. Heh. It’s ridiculously me and goes with the Wicked Dark thing. So without further ado –
An online photographer friend said that he doesn’t do much black and white landscape work because he feels he needs the color to be there because it was there. I agree with him up to a point. No, I’m no Ansel Adams, but I do like how a black and white photograph can work when the major elements come together.
My job as a photographer is to make you see, not just make you look and I’m afraid that color sometimes gets in the way of that. It makes you look, but often you still can’t see. Our wondrous human brains are really keyed to color. So much so that I can force you through a photograph the way I want you to experience it without you even knowing. Sometimes that works, but sometimes we are distracted by color. We don’t see the other “hidden” strengths of a photograph unless we’ve spent a lot of hours studying them and getting past the ‘ooh pretty colors’ thing.
Another online photographer blog I follow features a lot of monochrome images of the Eastern Sierras and while I am not emulating his style, I was mindful of how he presented things with his photos. This country was made for B&W as the early landscape photographers have shown. As a non-native, I didn’t make intimate portraits of high desert and snowy mountains. Instead I tried to capture what awes me about the western United States. My husband and I love it out there and I can only think of two major vacations spent east of the the Mississippi. So, without further ado, here are some of my favorite B&W images from my trip –
Rock Creek Lake in Inyo County. Still in the grip of winter in late May. I had to stop the car and shoot this. The clarity of the air was amazing. It was cold, sunny and invigorating. Incredible that the lake ice is just breaking up.
Next is a microscape (what, you thought I gave those up?) featuring some tiny flowers that looked like stranded water lilies to me. They were on slopes where we stopped on our way to the bristlecone pine forest. It’s probably 9,000 feet in elevation here and there were still patches of snow in the shade.
Near Mono Lake (post coming, I promise) are the Mono Craters, remnants of the volcanoes that created the valley eons ago. Snaking through the desert are many roads winding around sagebrush and poking into canyons. A year or two ago they had a fire and, boy, was it eerie. Nothing living as far as you could see. No sound except the incredibly fierce wind that picked up handfuls of pumice dust and flung it. Good thing there was no need to change lenses. Processing-wise I didn’t really do anything to this one. I liked the conversion the way it came out and I left it pretty much alone.
Believe me when I say this was by far the best road we’d been on since leaving the pavement that day. It’s West Portal Road and it used to lead to mining camps that sprang up in the 19th century. Now it leads to other roads that wind their way into the canyons of the Mono Craters. I felt that a sepia tone would work really well here and low and behold –
This next one is Convict Lake. The water is a crystal aqua blue and so clear that I wished for a wider angle lens to get more of the submerged rocks in the shot (this was at my widest 12mm or 24mm in 35mm film terms). The lake was named after an incident in 1871, where a group of convicts escaped from prison in Carson City. A posse, led by Sheriff Robert Morrison, encountered the convicts near the head of what is now Convict Creek. Morrison was killed in the encounter, and Mount Morrison was named after him. That’s it on the left. I never did really capture the color of the water and so with it being so-so and a distraction, I deleted it.
This next one was taken just as we started to climb Black Point on the shores of Mono Lake. It’s a volcano remnant, too, and a quite easy climb. The pumice here is very dark and despite the sky being a brilliant blue, I decided on monochrome to bring out the texture and highlight the huge tonal range in this photo. I messed with some color sliders as usual to bring up some contrasts and used the graduated filter a bit, too.
I didn’t envision each on in monochrome specifically, but I knew instinctively that pretty much anything I shot would work as long as it had white and black and so…
Been working on my microscapes this year. Experimenting with light mostly. Including dappled sunlight, trying for some drama and separation. That’s what the sunlight does in the woods, it highlights certain things and shadows others. It’s some of what makes the woods magical, at least to me.
Here’s one of a medium-sized painted turtle I found on a trail the other day. Boy was it feisty. Raring to go.
It was cooperative and surprisingly unafraid (compared to the Blanding’s turtle this one was posing!) so I carried it to a disused trail I knew to have a large vernal pool next to it. Before letting it go I had a little portrait session, deliberately putting the turtle in the shade with some sun to highlight the top of the shell and that great curve. It took a few minutes because try as I might, that turtle just wouldn’t take direction. Then it just stopped and gave me the stink eye. Perfect.
This next one is kind of fun. I love ferns as you’ve probably noticed, and these Christmas ferns are no exception. I found them on a trail that I took by mistake. Aren’t happy accidents great? The sun lit them up and I thought of seahorses. Someone else suggested dragons. The sun moved fast though and the shots I took right after this (I mean seconds after) don’t have that great highlight on the new fronds. It really was right place, right time. I copied the leading fern from last year from another shot I took earlier in the month that didn’t work out well. This time I think it does.
Both shots were done with my standard Zuiko Digital 12-60mm lens and both had some work in Lightroom done with the adjustment brush and the graduated filter tools. As I worked the fern image I realized the color version wasn’t cutting it. It had no punch unless I slid the saturation slider to ludicrous. So I switched to monochrome and yeah, baby, that was it. A little work with the color level sliders and I had what I wanted. I think it brings up the texture and shapes more than the color one does and that was what caught me in the first place. That and the ferns themselves all lit up. Ah spring, it is magical.
On the vacation side we’ve got a few more details buttoned down. Driving from Reno to Bishop on Sunday. I’m sure we’ll stop A LOT along the way. Highway 395 through there is supposed to be one of the most beautiful drives in the country. I read that another photographer tried to get to a trailhead outside Bishop the other day and was stopped by a 7-foot wall of snow in the road. It will definitely be an adventure. We’re going to try for Convict lake and canyon at any rate. Then a day at Mono Lake (OMG!!!) and some time a Bodie the preserved mining town. We’ll be a day in South Lake Tahoe and the options there are almost mind-boggling. Whatever we do I’m sure it will be great and I’ll try not to be an obsessive photographer.
The next step along the monochrome brick road is manipulating images once you’ve converted them and done the basics like cropping, white balance and sharpening. Sometimes the color palette we’re presented with isn’t as dynamic in monochrome as we want it to be. I mean that the gray values of the colors aren’t separated, they’re the same. So try as you might the image just doesn’t work in some ways even though your composition and subject matter might be perfect. This often happens with colorless landscapes like this one –
What made me take this photo was the big tangle of trees and shrubs and the orderliness of the walkway in the midst of it. I knew when I took it that my end product would be in black and white, but also was worried that the tonal range wouldn’t be great enough. I was right. Notice how the walkway disappears as you move from the stairs to the back of the photo. The color of the wood and the color of the vegetation are about identical even to the eye. So how can I make this photo work?
Color sliders were the first thing I went to. In Lightroom’s Develop module there is a panel called B&W and it only functions when you’ve done a conversion using the black and white button in the Basic panel (if you just move the saturation slider to 0, it won’t work since you took all the color out of a color photo). All the major colors from red to magenta have an individual slider that changes the intensity of that color in the photo. Slide it all the way to the left and the colors are saturated to 100, slide it the other way and they’re de-saturated to 0. In the photo the shade of gray is either darkened or lightened.
With this shot I concentrated on the orange slider, moving it to the left to darken the gray value of the orange in the branches and dead leaves on the ground. This helped make the far pathway more visible because the gray value of the planks wasn’t changed. So far, so hoopy. But I still wasn’t satisfied. The thing makes this shot work is the big distinction between the mad tangle of branches and the imposed order of the boardwalk, so that meant that the boardwalk had to pop more. What to do…ah, the adjustment brush.
This is a tool I’ve just begun to use more often. I liken it to the dodging and burning I did in the darkroom in the 80s. With this tool you can lighten or darken the exposure of an area easily. The brush proportions and intensity are almost infinitely variable and you can do much more than just change exposure with it, but for this article I’m only concentrating on exposure. Typically I’ll dial in a huge change just so I can see it clearly on the image. Once I know the area I want to cover is covered, I’ll dial it in to the exact value I want. It takes practice, but since Lightroom is non-destructive, I don’t worry about it. You can have as many do-overs as you want.
Using these two techniques in Lightroom made the most of this photo. The changes aren’t huge, but they work. I never want my images to be about the processing. Instead I want the processing to clarify and enhance the point of the image. I think leaving the mass of gray makes the chaos look even more chaotic, but the subtle use of the adjustment brush and the color sliders reinforced the sense of order provided by the walkway. Here are some other shots where I used either the brush or the sliders or both.
Hopefully, if I’ve done my job right, the processing doesn’t reach out and smack you between the eyes. I think my touch was light enough, but definite enough to bring out the strengths of each photo (or in one case, to minimize a weakness). That’s the key though – the image has to work in the first place. The composition, exposure, framing and subject matter have to be appropriate for monochrome. Then if the gray values aren’t helping those things, or some of the exposure values aren’t, the adjustment brush or color sliders can assist.
I’ve mentioned only Lightroom because that’s the editor I use, but most robust programs will include the same functionality at least where the color sliders are concerned. I’ve also not mentioned white balance or curves, things I also use in my black and white photography, I’ll save those for another article. For me, working a monochrome image in the ways I just talked about helps me reinforce the ideas and feelings I want to convey with my photograph. They’re part of the process that begins in my head, goes through my camera and then my computer to the final product. The key is knowing what you want to show and the tools that will help you do it. These are just a couple you should get to know and learn to wield with skill if you want to make the most of your B&W work.
Black and White 101 article in case you missed it
It pretty much always happens about now. Especially if we’ve had snow since December. At first it’s magical and a joy to be out in, but after a while. After it snows a dozen times. After there’s 3 feet of it with 5 foot drifts and 6 foot snowbanks. When it’s too deep for snowshoes. When you don’t feel like skiing anymore. The snow isn’t so magical. Now it’s in the way.
Between the uncooperative light and the need to see some color I’ve been adrift, photography-wise. Sure, I’ve been out, but I’ve hardly shot anything. Pretty much the only things have been abandoned stuff by the side of the road.
The naked trees reveal them, but also obscure them. The accumulated snow, well, I’ve dealt with it as best I can. Using it to further isolate the crumbling structures.
Some of them I hope to visit again, come spring. If I remember. This one above is on the list. It’s big enough to have been a hunting cabin or something. Some are small though, like this next one. It’s child-sized. Or maybe just sheltered machinery once upon a time. But why the window? It’s regular sized, so that makes the door tiny. Strange.
I’ve always been fascinated by these strange structures. Here’s one from this past summer. Isn’t it great?
That little turret part had a sink, and maybe a toilet if I remember correctly. Running water in a tiny house like this. Also a bed and an easy chair inside. Solidly built with real construction techniques. I have no idea if it was a glorified play house or if someone actually lived in it. It’s like a free-standing bedsitter. Or maybe a mother-in-law suite.
Anyone else intrigued by little buildings like this? Am I the only one who gets on the brakes to stop to shoot them?
Anyway, I hope all you other northern photographers are making it through the ragged end of winter. Hail spring!