How adding motion to a static Winter landscape image can make it more dynamic

Pancake ice and sunrise clouds on Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont

Landscapes don’t move

Generally when we are talking about or viewing landscape photography we are really looking at subjects that do not move or are static in nature.

Good landscape photography is always compelling and adding some motion into them  is a way to stretch our creative brains and make something that is static much more dynamic.

Typically we don’t want motion in a landscape as it can leave undesirable blur but it’s a whole other thing when we introduce it intentionally.

Combining static elements with movement can make our landscapes come alive and make the viewer pause and wonder about how the effect was achieved.

We can use motion to out advantage even when it is not the original intention of the image like today’s example above. here in fact I embraced the motion in my image as the sunrise was just phenomenal.

Difficulties in capturing motion at sunrise

There are a number of ways to add motion into a static landscape image but they all require some conditions to be met to achieve the effect in camera. Add in the challenge of quickly changing sunrise light and Winter weather and you have the recipe for disappointment unless you can think quickly on your toes and embrace the conditions you have been given.

In this image I had different ideas for what I wanted to capture but I had little time to find a good foreground due to changing conditions so I had to act fast. How can I capture this scene without losing that excellent light from the sunrise? This scene presented a number of challenges immediately which I used to my advantage….

  1. Overhanging clouds – I knew this sunrise was going to be good but I wasn’t quite sure from where. There was a lot of low cloud coverage and I though maybe that the color would not materialize but the clouds opened up just enough to get some stellar reflected light of the clouds. My initial exposures at the beginning of the sunrise were quite long because of all the clouds around.
  2. Melting ice – Originally I wanted some foreground ice images but due to a warm snap what little ice we had in the area was melting and breaking apart. With the weather conditions and wind there was a lot of movement on the lake ice which in the end made for a much stronger image due to the added motion.
  3. Long exposures – There was just no way around this one. The low and plentiful cloud cover reduced the available light so my exposures were going to be long no matter what. If I waited for the light to become stronger than I would miss the color in the sky and the sunrise would have ended.
  4. Foreground interest – The light was changing fast and I had no time to move to another location so I went with what I could find. I focused primarily on the channel between the two large pieces of ice as a leading line into the image with that spectacular color beyond. There was just enough chunks of ice in this channel to reflect some light and give some interest for the eyes.
  5. Waves – The waves were an issue because as the waves would come in the ice would move all over the place. In fact the ice in the middle ground was moving in different directions to the foreground ice which would have made getting a really sharp image in these areas impossible anyways.
  6. The sky color – This light at the end of the sunrise really did not last long. In  total out of all the images I shot the good color was around for maybe about 15 minutes and about 8 minutes of that was when the really excellent color showed up and then vanished. Too short of a window to hike around for a better composition and just long enough to hunker down in place and shoot frames. Up until the last ten minutes I wasn’t really sure if anything would happen but I stuck it out and was rewarded.

Shooting a series of images

In the end I shot a series of 25 images which I would need to use to make an exposure blended image. I chose three for my final blend, Two images were for the foreground ice blocks and middle ground and one for the ice and water movement in the channel and for the background.

The three images were necessary due to the ice moving all over the place. I had to wait for a good moment when the ice had the least amount of movement to get a nice, sharp foreground shot.

The water movement was a different story as each incoming wave was at a different speed so getting the right amount of movement in a frame was crucial to the image.

The background image for the sky was the least troublesome and easiest to shoot as the there wasn’t much movement there at all. The raw files did not capture the full range of color that was present but easily remedied in post….

Vermont-Lake Champlain-Winter-sunrise-landscape photography technique
First capture original raw file used for foreground sharpness in the ice.
Vermont-Lake Champlain-Winter-sunrise-landscape photography technique
Second capture original raw file used for foreground sharpness in the ice.

Here I used these first captures for sharpness in the giant blocks of ice in the foreground. I wasn’t as concerned about the middle ground simply because there was so much movement that there would be motion blur in this section anyways. I did manage to get one capture where the foreground ice was still enough to get a nice, sharp image for blending.

Vermont-Lake Champlain-Winter-sunrise-landscape photography technique
Third capture original raw file used to blend in the motion of the water and ice in the foreground as well as the background sky.

The third image here was the most important one as out of several frames I shot to get the motion just right in the water this one was by far the best. This coupled with the sharp foreground ice is what would draw our viewers into this image.

Remember as well that these three images are raw files so they are a bit flat and didn’t capture the range of color that was present when I shot the image. The final image better represents exactly what I was seeing when capturing images.

To sum up my captures for adding motion I shot two images for sharpness in the foreground and one final image for the movement of the water and for sharpness in the background sky. With the short time that I had this was the best course of action so that later in post processing I could blend all three together.

The blending was complicated by the foreground and the sharp contrast between the blocks of ice and the moving water. I needed to do some more intricate brushwork to get the images to merge together seamlessly.

An image is the sum of its parts

Adding motion into your images can be complex as there is a lot more to think about than what you would find in a static shot. With some quick thinking and patience we can however make our images more dynamic. Here are my tips for adding more movement into your images….

  • Look for static elements – By this I mean that once you spot some type of motion that you want to add into your image visually an image will be more compelling if there is a static element in the shot. Above for example in the final edited version the ice is very sharp and appears still while the motion in the water is clearly visible. Something static for the motion to move around is a great visual trick for a more dynamic image.
  • Multiple captures – To get just the right amount of motion in your shots you may need to shoot more than one image at different exposure times. It’s what makes the process more challenging because at times like sunrise you simply don’t have a ton of time to shoot multiples…This is where your photography instincts come in to play. At the very least you will have many shots to choose the best one with the right look.
  • Long exposures – To record the motion generally you will need longer exposure times so look to shoot at sunrise, sunset or during overcast conditions. All of the images I used here were shot at one second and this was just the right amount of time to record the motion present. This will always be different depending on the subject.
  • Don’t fear motion – When I first started out shooting I would always avoid shots like this with motion but as I learned and grew  into landscape photography I wanted to experiment and try new things. I could have walked away from this shot but I would have missed a great opportunity to learn. The world moves and is dynamic, Capture it and do not shy away from it!
  • Chose your compositions wisely – Take the time to really learn how to “see” compositions like this. The craft of Photography is more than just rolling up, taking a shot and leaving. Look at as many images as you can that are similar and you will start to see what works and what doesn’t. Time is your enemy and by learning how to shoot compelling images you won’t waste your time when the light is fading.
  • Give yourself time – Exposure blending like this takes some time to get all of the shots just right. I do not set out with any plan to do an exposure blended image but if the situation presents itself then I will shoot accordingly. With any landscape work that I do I try to give myself enough time to do what I need to do. Rushing is almost never good for your images and the final shots will show it.

I think our job as artists and photographers is to present a dynamic image that draws a viewer in and really gets them thinking about your view of the world. Sometimes images are planned and sometimes happy accidents happen like the above image. Things don’t always go our way when on location and being able to change gears is what lets you go home with keepers rather than duds or worse yet nothing at all.

Adding motion into a still, landscape image is just the sort of outside the box thinking that will set your images apart. If you make the most of what you are given rather than shooting nothing at all then you will grow as a photographer and not remain stagnant.

A stark winter landscape always provides a photography opportunity if you know where to look.

beach grass and storm clouds over the adirondack mountains in charlotte vermont

Stick season. It is the bane of my existence as a landscape photographer here in Vermont.

That subtle season right before the snow flies where all of the Fall foliage has been stripped from the trees leaving bare skeletons of limbs.

The landscape turns from vibrantly colored to muted and bare.

The challenge in all of this is finding an interesting landscape to focus on with your camera.

While this season can lead to despair I tend to look at it as a challenge to hone my eye to see what otherwise would be forgotten.

Why we overlook these beautiful, stark landscapes 

Often as landscape photographers we tend to want to shoot that grand sweeping landscape. The more colorful months of Spring, Summer and Fall her in Vermont provide a wealth of photo ops that are easy to find and shoot. It doesn’t take much to find a beautiful landscape to shoot but the real challenge comes during the transition periods between seasons. This is especially true during stick season which typically happens when the Fall foliage finally drops from the trees but before it starts snowing.

Why are we not seeing with our eyes? What is behind rejecting scenes such as the one I shot above….

  • Preconceived notions about what is beautiful. We build up over years of practice at photography what it is that we like to shoot. We get attached to certain scenes or elements and we stick to them and then the seasons change as in Fall to Winter and the landscape becomes devoid of color or interest. Or does it? Instead of packing up your gear for a few months maybe it’s possible to wipe away all of your ideas about beauty and challenge yourself more.  Think outside of your box and you will see that even something as benign as beach grass as in the above image has beautiful shape and color.
  • Not separating decent images out from the chaos. Landscapes during stick season can be very chaotic. Like in the beach scene above this location can be hard to shoot upon first visiting it. A rocky shoreline that changes with lake water levels, tree stumps and logs, and empty, open areas are just some of the locations challenges. You have to be able to separate out a really decent fore, middle and background. Look at them all as separate elements that are part of a much larger whole. Jettison anything that does not tell your story in the image and boil your image down to its most essential elements. 
  • Nothing to anchor your scene in the foreground. Shooting in the vertical orientation is challenging in itself as your frame is compressed on the sides making your foreground most important. 99% of my images are shot vertically and my foregrounds have to count. I want to draw the viewer in and have their eye naturally move from the foreground into the middle and background. My story starts in the foreground. Don’t overlook the simplest of elements to use as a foreground. In my image here while there is no pronounced element the grasses were what I wanted to be to most dominant feature in the image. I wanted the viewer to feel like they were walking into this scene.
  • There are no elements that say what season it is in the image. Right off the bat you can see that it’s not apparent that this image was taken in the winter time. There is now snow or ice but the only thing telling you that there is a change in seasons is the dead foreground lake grass. The lake will recede a bit in Winter and the grasses die back turning this wonderful golden color until the Spring when things start growing again. The tendency is to skip a scene like this but I did not because anyone who shoots in Vermont knows the beginning and end of Winter will often look like this, Somewhat dreary. In this image though I felt the color of the grasses and the camera position lead you into what is happening in the background with the approaching storm clouds and the Adirondack Mountains beyond.

How to bring out your best image of a very stark, Winter landscape

Now that we have identified why we rush past these scenes we need to look at how we go about capturing them and bringing out all of the actual beauty that is there. After we find one of these challenging compositions we then need to figure out the best way to shoot them.

For me most of the time that is going to be exposure blending.

It can be difficult especially in scenes like this one where the sky is really bright and the foreground is very dark to get the correct exposure in a single capture.

My personal technique for exposure blending is very simple but requires some forethought in order to produce a high quality image. Below are the two images that I used for the blended, final image that is at the top of this post…

The image capture that I used for the foreground grasses. This is an uncorrected raw file and while the light is nice on the grasses I want it to be just a bit darker. The range is good here and I will match the exposures in post.
image capture for an exposure blended image used for exposure and sharpness in the sky and middle ground.
The image capture that I used for the sky and foreground. This is an uncorrected raw image with flaws that will be corrected in post. There is some bowing of the horizon from the wide-angle lens and you can see the transition of the graduated filter I was using on my lens to tame the light in the sky.
  1. Look for images with a strong fore, middle and background. With this image I was looking for some separation between the foreground grasses and the background mountains so that I could have a nice transition area for the exposure blend. This middle transition area allows for much easier blending in Photoshop as there will be a lot less brush work involved. While the middle ground trees do add a bit of complexity to the exposure blend as there is some wind movement those issues can be overcome with your brush work. I composed the image so that the viewer would be placed directly into this field of grasses and when it was viewed I wanted the sense that your were walking through them into the background.
  2. Shoot multiple images using the various focus points in your camera. My current camera has 18 focus points which is more than enough to capture sharpness throughout this scene. I composed and shot my images knowing that I would only have to use all of the center focus points which equals 7 images in the vertical orientation. The reason why I shoot a series of images is so I have enough images to create a seamless blend from front to back using as few images as possible. I want to be able to pick out at least two images with acceptable focus all the way through the image. Obviously this will change on what your shooting and at times I will cover all 18 focus points. While it’s not entirely necessary to shoot all seven shots I do so I am not limited when it goes to selecting shots for the blend. With my first focus point at the bottom of the frame on the grasses I work my way up focusing and shooting at each focus point. The last focus point I place somewhere on the horizon whether it be the clouds or the mountains so the background is in focus.
  3. Do test shots of the foreground and sky to determine exposure values. Really the first thing that you want to do is to determine what exposure values to use with your shots. This scene is no different in that the sky and the foreground have different exposure needs. The foreground grasses needed to be light enough to show their color and the highlights needed to be tamed in the clouds. The sky was shot at 1/5 of a second and the grasses were shot at half a second. With the wind gusting off of the lake I had to wait in between gusts for the grasses to stop moving for a clean shot. After I do my test shots and get the light correct I then shoot my series of images for sharpness using the settings determined in my tests. Everything else will be smoothed out in the editing process after the images are blended.
  4. Decide which images you are going to use for the blend. This is one of the harder parts of the process as you have to look at each image in the set and determine which shots will be the best for the blend. I always wait until after I blend my raw images together before doing any edits. This way you can ensure that each image is identical which makes stitching them together much easier and fixing any inconsistencies like a visible neutral density filter line easier as well. Zooming in at 100% will allow you to see how focus changes from image to image and which ones are the sharpest. In the case of my example image I only needed two to make a sharp image throughout and that had proper exposure in both the foreground and the sky. The image for the foreground was the one in the series taken with the focus point just under the center point and the sky image was taken with the top most point placed on the mountains in the background. Below is the blended raw files straight out of Photoshop with no edits….
An exposure blended landscape photograph after blending in Photoshop with no corrections applied
Here are the two images blended together with no editing done.

5     Blend your images together in Photoshop. I prefer to do these blends manually versus having software do the heavy lifting. Software can be broad in its corrections versus honing in on exactly where the blends will occur and what edits on the final image that you will be making. I always try to get my blends down to two images but this all depends on the type of scene you are shooting and how complicated the scene is (i.e. trees, moving objects, etc.). The scenes that require more than two images are generally ones that will need some sharpness in the corners and sides of the image depending on what lens you use and where the focus falls off from maximum sharpness. Check out this older post here which explains the blending process that I use in much more detail. While it was written using Adobe Photoshop CS 2 the process is exactly the same with the newer versions of both Lightroom and Photoshop. Once I complete the image blend I then import the TIFF file back into Lightroom to do my final corrections on the image.

6     The final editing process. Now at this final stage is where your artistic vision will come into play. My first corrections will fix any of the broad issues like straight, level horizons, bowing from my wide-angle lens, sensor spotting and consistent exposure throughout the image. Next I use my own personal landscape preset which I use on all my landscape images where my corrections are almost always the same, dehaze, clarity, etc. After I apply my preset I go from there and fine tune the image to have it look exactly like I saw it when I was shooting it. The image at the top of the post is where I wanted to be with it….Showing off the color in the lake grass while showing the stormy sky over the Adirondack Mountains beyond.

Never miss an opportunity

As landscapers I think we should be always constantly evolving how we look at the world and our techniques for realizing our vision.

We must train our eyes to look beyond our preconceived ideas and judgments about the world otherwise we can miss exciting images. Sometimes the most boring landscape can have the most profound image if we stop for a few moments, Soak in the area and really open our eyes to the possibilities.

You won’t always get it right and you most certainly will shoot a ton of dud images but it’s always that one out of a hundred image that makes all of the sacrifices you make as a landscape photographer worth it.

Always look at the world with a fresh perspective and a new set of eyes…It’s worth it.

A Winter sunset on Lake Champlain

Winter sunset with clouds on Lake Champlain looking towards the Adirondack MountainsDuring the Winter months here in Vermont we go through cold snaps and this year has been no exception. In December of 2017 we had a few weeks where the temps ranged from zero to well below zero on a daily basis.  Difficult shooting conditions for not only your body but all of your camera gear as well. Armed with plenty of cold weather protection I went out on a 20 below zero evening to shoot the sunset over Lake Champlain.

Generally when it is that cold with wind you don’t really have a whole lot of time to make images. I was only ably to stand it for about an hour but I did manage to get this image as the clouds wandered by. As the sun was setting the clouds started to dissipate but luckily the ones that were around reflected some really nice light around the scene. I did not have a ton of time to hunt for compositions as this light was fading fast and the cold made it tough for operating the camera.

Despite all of the challenges in shooting during bitter cold temps I was able to use this foreground rock to anchor everything else in the background. Sometimes with lake ice due to wave action it gets pushed up against the shoreline even with the rest of the lake not entirely frozen over.  I think it adds some interesting contours to the scene and it does add to the cold, Winter feel. The pop of color in the sky at least adds some much-needed warmth. Typically these scenes shoot towards the blue side with the snow and ice and the sunset gives it another range of colors and interest.

The image here is a blend of two images that I shot, One for the foreground and one for the sky. In most situations it can be hard to match up exposures as the foreground is always going to be much darker so two separate exposures are needed so you can see the detail in the foreground. I also used a three stop graduated neutral density filter to hold back some light in the sky and pull out some of that color.

Blended landscape image from Photoshop before lightroom edits are applied
Here is the two exposures blended in Photoshop but before any Lightroom editing and cropping. The camera doesn’t always pick up all of the color that my eye can see both in the sky and the foreground. using my artistic vision I have to interpret that and apply it to my photograph.

The advantage of shooting in raw is that I can bring the image back to what my eyes were seeing. The camera at times might not accurately pick up the color happening especially in the foreground snow. In this case I wanted to lighten up the foreground and add a touch of color to the light that was reflecting off of the snow.

A how to guide for Salt Printing part two-An alternative photography process

Continuing on in my how to on salt printing series I will finish up in this post on the rest of the equipment that you will need to start making your prints. You really don’t need as much equipment to get started as in developing film so it is relatively easy to get set up to do salt printing.

lets dive right in to the rest of our gear:

The transparency sheets

After a great deal of research online I finally came across the Pictorico line of transparency sheets. I had to read a ton of really old forum conversation threads and amazon reviews to find out that this is what you want to use. These sheets are made for working with alternative photography processes so you are going to want to spend the money and get them as they do work in inkjet printers.

One thing to note when using them is to always hold them up to the light and inspect them before use. Once in a while just like with your paper there will be some kind of anomaly they may interfere with your image. After several packs I have come across one or two sheets that couldn’t be used because of some random spotting. It’s rare but it does happen.

One other thing to note that when printing on these I always set my images to print at a higher dpi. With my digital work I always go with 300 dpi but at these lower settings with negatives and transparencies I found you will see more lines from where the print heads move across the transparency sheets. For my salt prints I use 600 dpi and I have never had any issues with it. You could go higher than that but for me 600 has worked great.

Something to tack your paper too

This piece can be simple and cheap but you will need something to tack your paper too in order to keep it flat while coating and drying your paper. Here I am using a Styrofoam block I had lying around the house with some basic thumb tacks.

You really could use anything for this purpose but it should be flat and something easily thrown away as you may get chemicals on it. This thing was cheap and it serves its purpose.

A smock of some kind and safety glasses

You are going to want to wear something over your regular clothes to minimize any chemical spills you may get on your clothes. I am always careful and handle the chemicals with safety in mind but accidents happen and you want to be prepared. Here I am using an old chef’s jacket I had in my closet. In my day job I am a chef and had this lying around but it’s heavy with long sleeves and it just works. Again you could really use anything for this purpose. The safety glasses are self explanatory. You really don’t want to screw with your vision so you will need at least some minimal protection in case of spills or splashes.

Developing trays

For salt printing you only need two trays, One for washing your print in water and one for your fixer. It doesn’t matter what color they are really but I used a white one for my water wash and a grey one for my fixer. These are cheap and you can find them anywhere.

Odds and ends

In this image are some odds and ends you will need including:

  • rubber gloves-you really want to be careful mostly with the silver compound as it can stain your skin black. These are a necessity and give you protection from handling the chemicals.
  • LED yellow safe light. You cam buy these in any hardware or building supply store and they are not very expensive. I chose yellow but you could use red also. I chose LED lighting for its efficiency and long-term usage. Again here we are adapting modern technology to a very old process.
  • squeegee you can find these anywhere….Amazon, hardware stores or janitorial supply stores. You don’t have to spend a lot of money it just has to be of decent quality as you will be using it to get water off your prints which will be essential for proper drying of your paper. This one I got on amazon for around $7.00.
  • Measuring spoon – You only need a to measure teaspoons for your fixer and this simple one I bought at the grocery store works well. Just label it and keep it away from your other kitchen utensils…only use it for your fixer.
  • Tongs- I bought a pair of really cheap tongs and two is all you will need to salt print. You need one for the wash and one for your fix and while I notice their shortcomings as a cheap alternative to more expensive ones they have performed well for over a year now.
  • Face mask – The chemicals for salt printing are nowhere near as bad as collodion is but there are vapors present and you do want to protect yourself. These have been adequate so far but in the future I will get the respirator type to exercise even more caution.
  • Two small mixing cups – You will need two small cups for portioning out your salt and silver solutions. We have tons of these little medicine cups around with a four-year old in the house and they are perfect for measuring out your chemicals. Just be sure to properly label which is which, I use one for the salt solution and the other is for the silver.

One quart container with lid (not pictured)- While it’s not in the picture you can get plastic or metal one quart containers for mixing paint at any hardware or home improvement store. I use one to mix one quart of fixer that I keep on hand for making prints.

I saved the exposing light for last because it will require a lot of explaining as it has been a thorn in my side since I started salt printing. Here is some images of the light I am currently using and then I will get in-depth about why it is such a pain in the ass…..

This is a cheap way to have something on hand to expose your salt prints. UV exposing boxes cost thousands and all they are really is just wooden boxes with fluorescent light fixtures put inside them. This really isn’t economical for most people and unless it’s LED lighting your wasting electricity. I wanted LED’s to save on power consumption and I needed something small, light weight and portable that didn’t cost thousands of dollars. The original box that I built consisted of an 11×14 shadow box frame with LED strip lights mounted inside with a power plug. Strip lighting is great because you can cut the strips and make it into any shape that you want only the cut strips need a connector to attach them together. This set up while cheap proved unusable for a few reasons..

  • The LED strip lights are too under powered with exposures taking over an hour to complete. Better than using the sun but still not good enough.
  • The connector strips used to attach one piece of strip lighting to another are the weak point in that scenario. You only have so much length of the strips and connectors before you start losing power, It gets weaker the longer the strips and the more connectors you use. The strips can be quite flimsy and it can be difficult to get a solid connection making shorts common with this setup.
  • Unless you mount the strips right next to each other you will have strips of over and underexposed spots on your salt prints. Not acceptable to make quality prints.
  •  I abandoned this approach as it’s cheap but does not work very well.

Eventually I came across these LED floodlights that are used for concerts and lighting shows. These lights are great because the are cheap, LED and efficient meaning short exposure times and you can just plug them in and go. This particular unit covers a 5×7 area which is the size I like to print at however after about a year of using it I am finding some drawbacks that has required some hacking of the light unit…

  • The LED’s are mounted in a small square in the center and reflected outward with a metal insert under the glass of the light. Using the light as is creates hot spots in your exposure in the center if the light is too close to the glass of the contact printing frame. To mitigate that I moved the light away from the glass a few inches and through some testing have found that this spreads the light to far out creating really light exposure on the edges of your image area. That’s just not good enough for prints that will be exhibited or sold. I want an even exposure. I have experimented with several distances and can’t quite get the even exposure I am looking for.
  • I did a test where I turned all the lights off and flipped the light so it was shining towards my face with the glass from my contact printing frame for reference. The goal was to see where exactly the light was shining at different distances. This way you can see where exactly the light is shining and how far it is spreading or falling off from the center and at what distance it does the fall off at. Sure enough my the distance I was exposing at is wrong, This light likes it around an inch off the glass which gives a nice 5×7 exposing area with no fall off.
  • The LED’s in the center are another problem as that’s where they are at their brightest and at one inch off the glass does cause a hot spot in the center of your exposed image. My solution right now is to simply cover the LED’s with small squares of copy paper to reduce the light’s intensity and evening out the exposure. I have not as of yet made an actual print this way, I am only in the experimenting phase.
  • These floodlights have a glass covering over the LED’s with a black border on the glass with an interior silver reflector. Both of these together get reflected onto the image when held at certain distances. I never noticed it before as currently I am exposing prints with the lamp about three inches away but up close the lines from the shape of the reflector are clearly visible.

All of these issues coupled together make exposing a big pain in the but however they can be overcome. Currently I am tinkering with removing the silver reflector and the glass top and that should solve the issues. I really want this light to work 100% as it is a good cheap alternative to spending thousands on an exposure table which would make the process financially unworkable. I will report back when I can get to making some prints with my hacks on this light.  So there you have it, Two posts covering everything you need to start salt printing!

See part one of this series right here! The header image in part one is an example of what is wrong with my lighting setup….That image shows a nicely exposed center but at the edges is where the light really falls off. That tells you that I am holding the light too far away.

A how to guide for Salt Printing part one-An alternative photography process

 

A alternative process photography salt print of a field of daisiesFinding my alt process medium

I first came across salt printing during my initial research into the wet plate collodion process which was something that I wanted to attempt for a number of years. I decided in the end to focus on dry plate tintypes which are far less dangerous to produce and the subject of a future blog post.

I looked at a ton of different vintage processes and finally settled on salt printing as the best medium to start learning how to do alternative process work. Like any of these vintage ways to print images there are a lot of points in the process where things can go wrong and you have to learn to embrace flaws. Salt printing is a good first step because…..

  1. You do not need a traditional darkroom. You do need subdued lighting and you have to use a safe light but the room does not need to be completely dark. In my case I use my kitchen as there is only one window to cover and I have a source of water. I take great care to clean and cover all of my working surfaces and remove any items where there could be a chance of contamination. alternatively you could also use a bathroom.
  2. There are only four chemicals involved in the process and compared to other processes they are relatively safe. While great care and respect must be taken when using these chemicals, I do store them in my home but out of the way where only I can access them. They are also available in kits so you don’t have to have a chemistry lab on site  to make salt prints.

A minimum amount of equipment is needed, Some you can be thrifty and cheap on but some of it You should really spend money on to get the highest quality. Everything I use for the process can be kept in a space the size of a dresser drawer.

The negative side 

You control the entire process from image capture to printing and it will give you appreciation for the history of photography. You have a physical object you can hold in your hand that is one of a kind and the process is well suited for portraits.

There are a few minor negatives to the process but nothing that can’t be overcome with lots of trial and error. Hopefully with these posts you can avoid some of what I had to go through as the information online about salt printing is fragmentary and outdated. The negatives are…..

    1. It takes some time to do even two or three prints so you have to set aside a good chunk of time to print. I have gotten my exposure times down to less than 15 minutes but between coating and drying the paper, printing and exposing you are looking at close to an hour for one print.
    2. Whatever you use for a light source to expose the prints will be your biggest issue. This is something I have tinkered with for over a year now and still I feel the exposures need work. I will go into more detail when I get to the exposing part but you can either spend over a thousand bucks for an exposing table or go cheap. The sun was used when the process was invented but this is too inconsistent and it would take all day to make a print.
    3. Embrace flaws and take mistakes in stride. There are a lot of steps in making salt prints and when you are adapting a process invented in the 1800’s to modern techniques you will make mistakes along the way. No two prints will ever come out the same and there will be times when a print or two just will not come out. My hope with this series is to help you keep the mistakes to a minimum as I think I have made them all trying to adapt this process.

The gear you will need

Salt printing chemicals

An image of the chemicals in brown bottles used in the salt printing process

Thankfully all of the chemicals that you will need to do salt printing can be found in a convenient kit made by  Bostick and Sullivan. You can buy the kit online from their website, It comes well packaged and protected  and it’s cost is reasonable. The kit contains full instructions, eye droppers for the chemicals, fixer (sodium thiosulphate), salt solution, silver nitrate( makes the paper light-sensitive), And potassium dichromate for contrast in the prints. In a future post I will detail the entire process of making a print.

The contact printing frame

The contact printing frame is one of the more crucial parts of this process so I would recommend either finding a vintage one like I did, buying a brand new one which can be extremely expensive or being crafty and making one yourself.

I experimented with making them myself but in the end I wanted a vintage one because I felt the process warranted it. It took me about a year of looking to find one in  decent shape but the 8×10 in the above images was at a reasonable price considering it was 70-90 years old.

The frame consists of a wooden outer frame with a glass front and a wooden, hinged back with pressure springs to hold the paper and negative tight against each other and the glass which is important to maintain sharpness. The hinged back allows you to check the print during development without disturbing the registration between the print and your negative.

Your printing paper

I use Bergger cot 320 8×10 sheets that come 24 sheets to a pack. Your paper is another one of those items that I would not cheap out on. Spend the money, You will save yourself a ton of frustration by trying to use cheap or inferior papers. This paper is made for alternative process work and most importantly dries flat. I dry my prints about 3/4 of the way and then press between heavy books, This way you will have a flat print for printing that is not warped or crinkled.

Print screen and a squeegee board

Now here are two things that you will need that you can most certainly go cheap on and it  won’t hurt your prints in the least. The print screen is used to evenly dry your prints. It allows air to flow over and under the print and these are used for regular film prints as well. You can buy them but here I simply took an old picture frame and taped window screen to it. Cheap and things I already had lying around. In the future I will construct a better one but this works for now.

The squeegee board was just the glass from the frame I used for the print screen with some tape around the edges for safety. It really helps to have a flat surface to squeegee prints and this does the trick nicely and basically it cost nothing.

Self healing cutting mat and hair dryer

The cutting mat will be useful in marking where to align your negative before you sensitize the paper. You can then use those marks to align your image and you will have a guide for applying the chemicals when you are under the safe light. I use 8×10 sheets of paper but my image area is 5×7 because I like the look of some white area around the image. The mat lets you be precise when centering the image and applying the chemicals on your paper. You can find these at office supply or art supply stores and the run around 20 dollars.

The hair dryer is used to simply to speed up the drying time when your chemicals are applied and to dry your finished prints. This is a cheap one that has a high and low setting and you can find them at any pharmacy.

In part two I will go over the rest of what you need to get into making your own salt prints. You really don’t need much equipment or space and with the exception of the contact printing frame can be found just about anywhere or online! Check out part two in this series detailing the rest of the equipment you need to make your own salt prints!

A Winter landscape on Lake Champlain at sunset

The long waitIce formations and snow at sunset on Lake Champlain in winter

Generally during the holiday season I get a few weeks off at the end of the year from work and I try to get a good deal of photography work done during that time. The weather can be a fickle, Cruel mistress here in Vermont during the winter season and I had two weeks of disappointment waiting for some decent weather to role in. I suppose it’s the bitter irony of being a landscape photographer as you get fooled day after day into thinking the conditions for shooting are going to materialize and then they never do.

That’s probably the most frustrating thing about doing this kind of work and what challenges you to be a better photographer in the face of adversity. For example today’s image was shot around a half hour or so before sunset and the weather conditions were brutal even though you don’t get any indications of that from the image. I had left my house about an hour before sunset and the sky was clear blue but with the help of some trusty apps and my intuition it really paid off to go out and shoot on a miserable day. Sure enough as soon as I left my house the wind really kicked up but as the sun set more and more clouds rolled into the area assuring me of a decent sunset.

Before editing image example of a winter sunset on Lake Champlain
This is the original image file before editing which consists of two images, One for the sunburst and sky and one for the foreground snow and ice. The sky image was shot at ISO 500 F22 @1/100 and the foreground image was shot at ISO 500 F11 @ 1/250.

The challenging image

This image presented a bit of a challenge as the wind was really whipping around and the sun was setting making me have to decide about how best to shoot this scene. Normally I don’t point directly into the sun but in this case I felt like changing things up. The sun was creating excellent shadows in the snow and the glancing light on the ice made for some nice color versus all white in the snow. Because I was losing the light and with the windy conditions I bumped the ISO up to 500 so I could get some fast shutter speeds. I added in a three stop graduated neutral density filter on my lens to tame the sky and made two exposures….One at a high aperture for the sunburst and one to add some light to the foreground.

I wasn’t expecting to get anything sharp but I managed to get a few sets of keepers despite the windy conditions. In Photoshop I blended the two images together with a gradient but with the irregular shape of the icy shoreline I had to zoom in at 100% and tweak the middle ground with some brush work to fully refine the blend and make it seamless. The camera doesn’t always interpret what your eyes see accurately and that’s where my eyes and mind take over in the editing process.

I always wait to perform any edits until after the two images are blended together seamlessly. I did a slight crop of the top and bottom and added in a bit of color in the highlights and shadows that was present but the camera recorded more on the blue side. The highlights in the snow are quite strong in a few spots but not really all that distracting and pretty typical of winter scenes here.

I was really happy with the final result even though this image did present some issues with the jagged horizon in the middle ground. Generally you will have some areas that lose focus and there were a couple of small spots in the middle ground but nothing that wasn’t easily blended with the sharp sky image. Wind and blowing snow can be challenging but shooting in these tough winters for a number of years now gave me the experience to overcome.