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?
Another subject I love in winter are brooks, streams and rivers. Or more properly for Wisconsin, a creek. Ripley Creek in particular. It’s a lovely, but overgrown waterway that feeds into the Wisconsin river just south of my house. The trailhead is 8 minutes away so it’s becoming a go-to spot in much the same way as Tucker and Purgatory brooks used to be for me in NH.
My usual approach to this kind of shot is to use a slow shutter speed and smooth the water, but this time I decided that the smooth element was already there – the snow – and so I left off the filter(s) and used a faster shutter speed. This gave me a rougher, more jagged texture in the water and that contrasts nicely with the snowy blanket on the shore.
The camera was on the tripod for both those shots, but sometimes I just couldn’t get it into the right position and I had to hand hold. Luckily I could brace myself pretty well and there was enough light that I didn’t have to go to a very high ISO.
I had to go for it though because of the shapes the ice forms behind the boulders. Isn’t it great? You can see that the water slows down behind the rocks and so that’s where the ice forms first. I was jammed into the branches of a hemlock sapling for this one, trying to back up enough to get the near ice formation and the right bank into the shot without getting the branches in the way. Not a bad effort and one of my favorites for the series.
Another big choice for winter water scenes is monochrome or color. Going black and white works especially well because there is true white and true black in just about every shot (even if you do have to tweak in post). It’s dramatic and shows off the textures and contours of the landscape, which you can see here supports a lot of plant growth and is sometimes steep and rocky. The color of the water though, is part of what fascinates me about doing stream work. The tannins.
Just look at that richness down there. It is most definitely not pollution. Tannins are chemical substances that come from phenolic acids (also called tannic acid) that are produced by plants. These acids are found in all parts of plants including leaves, bark and stems. As water moves through the soil the acids leach out and collect in surface waterways. They bind with starches, minerals, cellulose and proteins and are NOT water soluble and don’t decompose easily. This means those molecules are carried along in water, staining it like tea (tannins are exactly what makes tea that color). So when I like the composition and the contrast, I keep my shots in color.
But when I want to focus attention on structure and line, I leach out those tannins.
This last one was a little challenging in terms of getting those big logs in the foreground. My tripod was on its tiptoes (should have had the center column with me, but I didn’t) and I was on a bridge (luckily a high one), but it was close.
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.