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.
Ah winter, with your muted color palette and your blanketing snow, you call to my inner minimalist in a way that the more riotous seasons don’t. Spring heavy with budbreak and flowers. Summer with its riot of wildlife. And fall with its panoply of colors. They don’t make it easy to strip a scene down to its essentials the way winter does. There’s too much competing for a photographer’s eye and, unless you work at it, arriving at a truly minimalist image is tough. Don’t lose hope though, you can start to develop an eye for minimalism during the season that helps you see it best; winter. And once you have some practice time it will be easier to spot these scenes during the more clamorous times of year.
For me, minimalism is about removing extraneous elements from the image. Textures, shapes, colors must all be simple and stark to some extent. Often it comes down to providing the viewer with just one element to focus on – a color or form or texture. A single element, or a very few of them in a conspicuous pattern. Simple backgrounds.
My first go-to is always the small scene and so let’s look at that first. The season’s first snowfall made these flowers in my yard really stand out. The trick was to find a group that was isolated. Once I located some, I needed to use a lens long enough to carve out small scenes without trampling them. Remember to get the focal plane (film or your sensor) lined up with as much of your subject as you can. Because macro or telephoto lenses have narrow depths of field you can accidentally have parts of your subject out of focus which may not provide the strongest image.
Snow makes it easy to notice tiny things. It automatically creates a uniform backdrop. And it’s easy to clean up any tiny bits of debris that might otherwise distract from your main subject. Spot and blemish removal tools are quick and easy enhancements to a minimalist image.
Sometimes a streak or pop of color will be enough to create something eye-catching, but making an image even stronger takes some processing. I love this shot of some rock cap fern curled in the cold, but as I shot it the line was straight up and down and was boring; too static. A bit of cropping and rotation in Lightroom and I got a more interesting visual just by tilting things so that the fern forms a diagonal.
Never underestimate the power of a good diagonal!
As you look through the images here, you’ll also notice I follow the rule of thirds with most, if not all, of them. When you’ve isolated your subject so severely it’s doubly important to create a harmonious and balanced scene. The rule of thirds is an easy way to make sure your shot is as pleasing to the eye as possible and one you probably already use every time head out. If you can’t quite get the shot in camera, use a wider, more inclusive angle of view so you can crop the image with the rule of thirds in mind. Using your software’s cropping guide may also be helpful when you do this.
Stepping back a bit, but still armed with my medium telephoto lens, I start to see larger scenes that still remain simple, stark and dramatic. Shadows can help a lot with this and once you start noticing them, more and more will pop out at you. Don’t get lazy though, move those feet to find the best angles that eliminate everything but your subject.
Can you sense a theme here?
Going farther back, and using a wider angle requires an even more discerning eye. The lone tree to the right is the obvious draw, but to make the image even more dramatic, I adjusted the blue channel after converting to black and white. By sliding luminance and saturation to their lowest values, it rendered the sky nearly as featureless as the snow. It reinforces the bold quality of the trees and makes them pop.
So that’s a quick look at how winter can help you hone your eye for the minimalist photograph and so to recap –
- Choose a medium telephoto to isolate your subject
- Align your subject with your focal plane
- Clean up snow debris in post processing
- Focus on color for instant drama
- Use strong lines, like diagonals, to keep things from being too boring
- The rule of thirds is your friend
- Look for repeating patterns (shadows are great for this)
Besides finding interesting ice formations, winter is a great time to play with shadows. With enough snow, the low angle of the sun makes this something you can do almost all day. Just recently I posted a forest landscape with shadows that brought out the contours and the silky texture of the snowpack. You can also use a landscape view to emphasize the contours of the objects casting the shadows. Apple trees are perfect for this kind of thing because they’re so gnarled and twisted.
If you start to limit the angle of view with shadow photos, you can bring an abstract art quality to the image that is especially fun to play with.
Playing with processing is part of creating an even more dramatic image. Here is a light selenium tone treatment. I chose this technique to preserve the feeling of lightness I get from the photo. The delicacy of the shadows and the birch. Traditional monochrome or sepia didn’t preserve the mood so I tried different things until I found something that worked. Never be afraid to experiment!
Man made objects can work for this as well like this bench I found in a small park in Manchester, NH.
And of course you don’t have to convert everything to monochrome. Even in the dead of winter there are subtleties of color to capture. The sun had barely risen when I found these tracks winding through the trees; the warm yellow sky reflects beautifully in the snow.
Even a tiny fern sprig can be interesting with the right background. I just love the differences in intensity between the shadowed snow and the lit snow.
I was struck by the geometry in this next scene and so perched on a large rock to frame a more abstract view of how the shadows and reflections intersect with the trees themselves.
So if winter hasn’t drawn to a close where you are, maybe try some shadow play yourself.
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.
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.
A lot of nature photographers hibernate in winter. I used to be one of them, but no longer. There’s a lot of beauty to be found if you pay attention and look for it. And having the right gear helps, too. There’s no such thing as bad weather, just poor clothing choices. And always remember to overexpose your winter scenes – about a stop depending on the light, but at least that.
Two of my outings had me looking for the small scenes, which are easier to find in the snow. If you find that it’s too much to do this in the full sprawl of summer, maybe try during the fallow season or in the snow to get a feel for what to look for. Simplicity was the key for me and I think it is for a lot of winter photography. It’s easy to lose depth in blankets of white, so you have to make it work for you. Here are some examples of what I mean –
My preoccupation with ferns is well known, so how could I resist these beauties? Rock cap fern is one of the few species that stays green all winter and so the color is just perfect against newly fallen snow. These were on a boulder trailside. Most of these shots were handheld, which I don’t do often, but like the spontaneity it gives me. It’s like, woo hoo! shoot any way you want.
Of course, color is at a premium during the winter months, but it is there, subtle, but there. When there wasn’t much snow on the ground, many wildflowers were still visible and even though I don’t know what this one is, its beauty lingers.
Isn’t it great? I especially love the different shades of white in snow. Basically whatever the color of the sky, will be reflected there. Another wildflower still putting a brave face on it are pink lady slippers. Not all of them produce seed pods, so I love finding them, especially in snow.
Then you hard core minimalists, there is monochrome. Because so much of winter photography is about contrasts and form, black and white is a natural choice to emphasize both. Just be sure you have actual black and white, otherwise you’ll lose a lot of vitality in your images.
Freezing temps and running water can be endlessly fascinating and totally worth getting some cold toes.
So that’s some of what I’ve been up to lately. Sorry for being a really bad blogger.
It’s as much a part of being a photographer as clicking the shutter – the ebb. Maybe not exactly an ebb, but a slack tide kind of time. The time between the rushing. When things are still. Calm. I used to resent my ‘photographic funks’, but now I sort of relish them. I think it was when I stopped beating myself up about them that it happened – the allowing. The forgiveness. It used to be a belief of mine that if you were really passionate about something, the passion was constant. Now, I’m not using the word really as in very, I’m using it as in genuine. As in I genuinely believed that if a person had a genuine passion for something the level of that passion stayed the same.
(damn I wish I was English sometimes…they have all the great slang. Oh sorry.)
Ahem. Bullshit. (now that’s American!)
Passion waxes and wanes. It’s natural. It’s normal. Because your enthusiasm for something has gone off the raging boil and into a mellow simmer does not mean you’ve lost it. It doesn’t mean you’re not dedicated. It doesn’t mean you’re weak. It doesn’t mean you lack depth. It doesn’t mean you’re a poseur. It means you’re human.
And human passion fluctuates. Can you imagine being a raging photographer all the time? Going out every day to shoot shoot shoot. Filling 16 and 32gb cards. Constant uploading, downloading, processing, printing. Ugh. Yah. I get it now why passions wax and wane. Boring. Uninspiring. Monotonous. Burdensome.
When shit I love becomes a chore, I know it’s time to hang it up for a while. It’s like when you binged on your favorite snack when you were a kid and got your first taste of spending your own money. How fast did that once favorite treat become totally gross and like you’d never want to see it again, ever?
You think that would have taught me. But it didn’t and I used to beat myself up about my periodic low points in photography. This was especially true when I worked in a photo store (remember them???). I thought that I should be carrying a torch. I actually felt bad if I didn’t have a roll of film or two every week to analyze and frustrate myself over. Like I had to show everyone who walked in the store how life-fulfilling and soul-kindlingly awesome photography was and how every minute of every day should be spent in the pursuit of this most amazing art form.
Now I go with the flow of my own impulses and if something doesn’t feel right, I don’t push it. I won’t get anything good going out with that attitude anyway. I know that now. Part of my downtime includes a bit of a disconnect with the online photography community as well. I get overloaded and saturated with images and images and more images to the point where I can’t appreciate any of them anymore. Where’s the fun in that?
And isn’t that the point? That your passion be fun? I mean, life is too short for agony over art anymore. Passion and enthusiasm and the desire to explore and create images should be bubbly and fizzy inside. It should tickle your brain and load endorphins into your system, not feel like you’re trying to carry 10 suitcases though the airport without wheels or handles.
So…what do I do with my passion’s ebb? Lately I’ve been reading a lot more than my usual book a week or so. McGrath. Highsmith. Dickens. Shelley. Rice. Stoker. I’ve started a new exercise program to do on the days I don’t go out for my cardio workout. And when my mind turns to photography, it’s to concepts and things I want to try and places I want to go. I joined about two dozen other people on a botanist-led tour through one of my favorite micro-environments – the Atlantic White Cedar Swamp and lo – I turned into a photographer for a second!
So the next time you find yourself in a photographic funk, don’t sweat it. Don’t let it get you down. Use the time to indulge your other passions. You do have them, right? Remember the other stuff you loved before you just had to have that bright, shiny DSLR? Go do that stuff. Have fun. Feel fizzy. And when your photographic tide returns, you’ll be renewed and just dying to go out and make the images you’ve been dreaming of in the passion’s ebb.
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!