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?
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.
February, being cold, blizzardy, snowy and miserable I didn’t get out much. March is different. I’ve been out a couple of times and look what I saw –
Sunlight in the snowy forest can take on so many aspects. Shadows on smooth snow is one of the best though. This one is from the Pulpit Rock conservation area in Bedford. It’s an easy place to fall in love with and I go there several times a year. This time I noticed a new trail that I’ll have to explore come spring.
The brook at Pulpit Rock was mostly covered in snow and ice. You’d never know there are a few nice waterfalls along its course so muffled was the water channel. At Tucker Brook nature preserve in Milford, there was a bit of open water now and again. Few and far between though.
This scene is just downstream from some mill ruins I’ve never seen before. They’re far above the famous falls, but I’ve hiked up there and don’t remember seeing them. Knowing my near obsession with colonial hydro-mills, I know I’d have shot them if I’d seen them. Oh come on spring!
Another reason to long for spring. Well, summer really is the mountain laurel. The Tucker Brook preserve is jam packed with them and I think I’ll try to get to them while they’re flowering. They’re such a New England staple. Here they are sleeping the winter away. I’m really trying to capture sunlight in snowy forests and I think I’m making progress. I love this look up the slope with the shadows and snakey shapes of the laurel trunks.
I did more than shoot landscapes, but I’ll save those for another post. There’s lots of detail out there in the woods if you just look for it.
Another reason I’m fascinated with Indian Pipe wildflowers is because they over-winter and I can photograph them in January!
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 –
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…
The nice thing about shooting my local area is that I can have do-overs. My friend and fellow photographer Jeff and I have had conversations about this and although I stress over choking on vacation shoots, I don’t worry so much about local stuff. I’m not going to steal Jeff’s thunder with this post since I know he’s planning to write about the same thing, but suffice to say that on my 3rd trip to Cold Brook and Senter falls, I finally got a shot that’s eluded me.
Try as I might I’ve just never come away of a good image of this section of the falls. Today though I found a composition that works. I had to shoot fast because that beautiful sunlight was getting away from me. Too little and the scene is flat. Too much and there’s blown highlights all over the place. I’m pretty satisfied with the results.
I chased the light further up the falls and after some trial and error I got this –
I hadn’t caught light in the falls before and was so excited to try and capture its glow. I think I did. Was a little nerve-wracking though. I wasn’t sure if I was stepping onto a snow-covered boulder or just some snow between boulders and I’d slam down and break my ankle. Luck held though and even my ancient tripod made it through the ordeal.
That’s about it. Oh and one other tip for the field – if you’re setting your tripod down in mud, water, snow or something kinda mucky, slide the lowest section down first even if you don’t extend any other sections. Yeah, I know this is contrary to popular tripod technique of extending from the top sections down, but this way keeps the wet stuff out of the leg locks.
Anyway, that’s it for now. The first part of the week looks to be crappy weather-wise, so I’m not sure I’ll get out again soon. Cheers!