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.
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.
Up here on the Wisconsin river are a bunch of things called flowages. A flowage is a section of river blocked by two dams; one up and one down river. With the flow restricted the water acts more like a lake. There is a slight current all the time on the one I live on, but it’s nothing like how fast the water rushes below the dam where there isn’t another close by to slow it down. But dams need maintenance sometimes and what’s the power company to do?
They let out enough water to get the job done. It’s called a draw down. The dam up river from us is called the Grandmother dam and the flowage it creates is called the Grandmother flowage. To repair the dam (which makes power for the electric company) they lowered the water by some 14 feet, which made for some interesting landscapes –
I had no idea this was going on since the water level below the dam (and behind the house) wasn’t affected. By chance my husband and I happened to stop just to check out the dam since we hadn’t been there in a while. Well, he hadn’t, I padded there twice in spring. Lo and behold there was barely a trickle running through. The tree stumps with their exposed roots knocked me out and I made a mental note to go up there on a foggy or cloudy day.
I hoped for more fog, but since there wasn’t much water, there wasn’t much fog. They were letting water back in though and so there is more than there was when I first saw it. In any event, normally both of these stumps are under 3-4 feet of water at any given time. The current keeps the roots clear of mud and debris and I just loved how they looked.
I didn’t love the washed out, blah look of the shots out of the camera though, so I played with some presets to give things a bit more drama. Usually I process for realism, but this time I did so with an eye to an apocalyptic scene. Some ravaged landscape, irretrievably lost and ruined. I don’t know if it succeeded, but I like it.
The other day I went to the Mead Wildlife Area which is south of where I live, down in the lower section of Marathon County and crossing over into two other counties. My reading led me to believe there might be opportunities to photograph some wildlife, probably birds, so I brought my longest lens and I am so glad I did. It’s migration season and birds are restless this time of year.
While walking near the Visitors’ Center I noticed some really large white shapes in the distance. For a second I wondered if there was a small airport nearby. When a couple more appeared I got the binoculars and saw they weren’t planes, but birds. Only two white birds have wingspans wide enough to be mistaken for small planes; trumpeter swans and whooping cranes. Two approached and I followed with the binocs as they flew in low right over my head and landed in a small pond to my left. Amazing. I almost couldn’t focus the binoculars that close.
Aren’t they great?
Not being an experienced wildlife photographer, I followed my instinct which was to give them time to settle in. So I hung back and shot them with the long end of the lens, getting some of their environment into the photo as well. Then I walked away from them, out of sight of each other, to a bird blind at the end of the trail. It was well constructed and situated and I might use it in the spring migration period.
Then I walked back toward them. Slowly, stopping frequently to set up the tripod and occasionally just watching them with the binoculars. It worked. They came out from the grass and gave me a good once over. I got closer. They didn’t seem to mind. On the contrary, they seemed curious about this weird creature with all the legs. Soon I didn’t have to use the long end of the lens anymore.
As I’ve said before, I need practice with my 100-300mm and while I’m not glad it wasn’t whooping cranes I saw (and want to kick myself if I missed the shots), trumpeters were a fine subject for some practice. I still need to find a handheld technique, but with the tripod a single point of focus worked because I could change it quickly on the screen with my finger. Handheld using a multi-focus-point setting caused the camera to hunt a lot and miss focus. I’ll have to experiment more with it.
The light was reasonably bright, but still somewhat diffused by clouds and so the ISO didn’t get cranked too high. I use a custom mode I created for the GH3 that is shutter priority and auto ISO. That way I can freeze action with a high shutter speed, but not worry about aperture or light sensitivity. I also change from a single shot with the press of a shutter, to multi shot. And that’s how I got this next image –
I spent about an hour with this pair and took a ton of pictures, only a few of which I like enough to publish. Mostly it’s because they just won’t pose. Lol. I get why patience is the thing you need most in bird photography. Patience and time because as you see above, eventually one of them will do something and if you’re lucky, observant and know your gear, you’ll get the shot. I love how this one shows how the feathers are arranged on those amazing wings. And the depression in the water from the downdraft. Oh and if you look close, you can see water droplets on its breast and belly. So wonderful.
I don’t do it all the time, but if I can get under a mushroom I will. Well, not me exactly, I’m not Alice, but my camera. For these first two images I used the wider end of my 12-35mm lens. The first one was on a tripod, the second literally on the ground with sticks and the lens cap acting as shims to get the camera level. The perspective is terrific and it shows off those beautiful gills.
Sometimes the structures that hold and release spores are a bit different like with boletes that have an underside that looks like a sponge. I recently found out that a single mushroom can release millions of spores in a single day. They do this every day it fruits pretty much. Amazing.
In addition to gills and pores there are also teeth. The idea of toothed fungus makes me a little giggly, but that’s how they’re categorized. This one happily turned itself inside out so I could get a peek at those teeth. I shot this with a medium telephoto because it was way inside a bunch of bushes that I had to hold out of the way to get this shot. I couldn’t tell it was a toothed mushroom until I looked at it on the computer. And the ID took a while because this is a remarkably pristine specimen. The ones in my books were ragged, dirty and stained. Just lucky I guess.
Here’s another example of a toothed mushroom –
It’s sometimes called a hedgehog mushroom (aka Hydnum repandum) and is not only edible, but reportedly delicious. Now I know where they grow (some chanterelles conveniently nearby) I can gather them next year and have a taste. I could use my tripod to shoot that image (and many others from the down low) because I do not have the center post attached. My particular model came with one, but it is removable and so the legs splay to 90 degrees and the head touches the ground. Very handy. If you want to do a lot of this type of work either take out your center post or get a tripod that doesn’t have one to begin with.
It is occasionally a bit of work to get under a small mushroom that isn’t on a nice stump or log. Usually there are only little slopes and depressions in the forest floor, but sometimes the tripod in its lowest position is too high. In those cases I reach for my homemade beanbag camera prop. Then I can usually get low enough since it’s only a couple inches thick. I use a 1 quart ziplock bag with 2 bags of barley inside it. I’ve stuck some friction tape to one side of it to keep the camera from sliding. And, as I mentioned above, sometimes I still use sticks and/or my lens cap to shim. It’s magical when I can get so low that the foreground changes dramatically and helps me highlight only the cap, which adds a dash of mystery.
I also like the foreshortened perspective that helps to emphasize the mushroom, not where it fruits. And there’s the lovely bokeh that often comes with shooting in dappled sunlight.
In the end, there are only so many ways to shoot mushrooms, but up from under is usually a winner!
My ongoing fascination with Indian pipe continues. This first one I almost didn’t see, being hot and sweaty with bug spray running into my eyes, I just wanted a blast of air conditioning in the car. But I went down a little side trail and on the way back, this little beauty appeared.
Background is key to good wildflower photography and so with some careful tripod placement I was able to get the distracting highlights out of the frame. When I shoot Indian pipe, I expose for the highlights, just barely clipping some whites at times, but managing that in Lightroom is key also. Preserving detail, but keeping the bright white takes a little finagling, but it can be done.
Here’s another with a background of green; this time a lovely mossy log. I’d have liked a better angle on the log itself, but that would have meant that some flowers would be sharp while others would be blurry. Lining up the angles is sometimes hard, but I do try. In this case the sensor is so much smaller than the scene and it wasn’t too difficult. A couple of checks in the LCD screen and some tripod shifting and I had the focus I wanted. When the sunlight hit I had a shot I love.
Here are some more “neighbors”! First a common loon –
I wish there was a way to know if this is the same loon that hung around the flowage last year. According to a book I read about loons, they often return to the same body of water they were born on, or one nearby. Pairs often nest in the same location for years. Because this particular section of the river doesn’t seem to be protected enough for loons to nest, I think the ones that stay here are non-breeding adults. This is a period of 1-3 years that occurs just after fledgling. These birds will often have to take bodies of water that don’t have an already established pair. The next flowage up river has a pair of loons nesting (it has a really large swath of small trees and bushes that they seem to like). I wonder if this adult, or the one from last year if they’re not the same, are offspring from prior seasons. No way to know, but just one of the eternal mysteries of the common loon.
Next up is a mother mallard and her eight babies –
I think she must have laid her eggs nearby because I saw her quite a bit on the banks to either side of the dock. My husband and I had been sitting out on the far end of the dock for a while when she came from up river, keeping close to the edge where the trees and bushes provided cover for her brood. For a while she herded them around and over the low-hanging branches and they gobbled up anything they could reach; sometimes coming up off the surface in a big stretch, little wings flapping, catching a bug as it raced to escape up a twig. So cute you could hardly believe it. In this shot they’re a little older and a lot bigger, but still pretty cute. Mom was leading them around the dock to the down river side. When they’re smaller they don’t string out behind like this, but stay bunched up all around her, touching her if they could.
Both pictures were taken from the dock using my 100-300mm zoom in shutter priority mode with auto ISO. They’re handheld and I find that keeping the shutter speeds above 1/2000s of a second works fairly well if I’ve got the battery grip attached. I’m getting a bit more adept with it, but damn I still need practice. It’s very hard for me to keep the bird in focus as it moves. I have many shots of the loon with the water in front of it perfectly crisp, but the bird itself hopelessly out of focus. There’s got to be a better way to do this. I just need to figure it out.
Looks like the toad I photographed on the garden wall is back again this year. Check out the throat markings. It’s about the same size and color as well.
What do you think?