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 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.

 

Walking On Giants

Vermont-Mount Mansfield-clouds-black and white
View of “The Chin” on the Mount Mansfield ridge line with building storm clouds.

I had a chance recently to hike Mount Mansfield from the Stowe, Vermont side and spend an overnight shooting the sunset, the stars and milky way at night and then the sunrise in the morning. I usually only get the chance to do one or two hikes like this during the year so I jumped at the chance to do this one. I have hiked on or around this mountain many times over the years but this was my first time going up the toll road on the Stowe side and hiking up the ridge line from the visitors center. There are two ends to the ridge line one of which is called “The Nose” and at the other end is “The Chin.”

The Nose which is located next to the small visitors center unfortunately is no longer accessible for hiking as there are several cell towers located on it. You can still shoot around the area but hiking isn’t allowed. The Chin is Mount Mansfield’s other distinctive feature and sits at the other end and the entire ridge line forms a very distinctive shape that is well-known here in Vermont. This entire area is a black and white photographers dream providing a wealth of compositions no matter where you look.  While the color file looks great I felt this image really would be a stunner in black and white. This was one of my first shots of the evening a few hours before sunset and I saw the clouds building up over the Chin.

There really wasn’t much work to be done to this file to get it ready at all. I did a very slight crop on the top left corner because there was a small bit of blue sky that I wanted to minimize slightly. I did my usual tweaks for exposure, clarity, contrast, etc and some lens correction because the Canon 17-40mm has distortion at every focal length. The black and white conversion was done in Silver Efex Pro 2 and here I toned down the highlights a bit because the setting sun was shining into the trees on this face. The clouds building behind the mountain is what caught my eye on this one. The mountain top was a great foreground to them!

Hiking to nowhere

Shoot and be positive

Sometimes I have all of the best intentions to get some good photography work done but I do have those days where the resulting work is not quite what I expected. I can hike to a location, pre-visualize  the composition, read maps, check the weather and plan all I want but there are times when you just can’t “find your set” as I call it. The despair sinks in as I hike and hike and look in all direction for just the right composition but it is nowhere to be found. It’s a hard to describe feeling but probably most like a painter who does not have any paints to create with.

It is a strange sensation on that one day every so often where the creative mojo just is not flowing and you end up hiking for hours with maybe one or two shots to show for it. I try to handle these days in a positive way, Telling myself at least I came out and looked, got some exercise in the process, and tried as hard as I could to work on my images. For me it’s a simple matter of keeping my focus with photography and going out rather than sitting at home and complaining that I did not get any work done.

Winter hiking can be a crapshoot

In the Winter months I often find myself hiking in the Mount Mansfield State Forest around the Smugglers Notch Ski Area. This is a favorite area for me as most importantly it feels like home when I go there. I have spent many years snowboarding at Smuggs but also the last four years exploring the area quite extensively looking for some good photo compositions. Route 108 runs from the town of Jeffersonville up to the Smugglers Notch Ski Resort and the base of Mount Mansfield. It continues through the notch and down the other side to the Stowe Ski Resort and Stowe village. After the first snow this road is closed which makes it even easier to have access to this area for hiking.

On a rushed drive in early November 2010 for a short window of ok weather before a “winter storm” of warm temps and rain moved into the area. Normally I don’t come out at this time of day but I wanted to try to get some work done and the weather was going to become uncooperative soon. The day itself was very overcast with not a hint of sunlight anywhere. The clouds were flat and lifeless making wide-angle shots with the sky pointless. With no sunlight the light on the snow had no contrast making everything look grey, difficult exposures but not impossible.

Hiking into the lower valley the snow was up to my knees making it slow going. The trees themselves were trying to stop my progress grabbing me and my backpack at every turn. It was almost as if the forest was trying to say “Not today son.” With the temps being warm the snow had the consistency of “good snowball snow”, easy to compact when you walk on it. I had to be  careful where I walked as I didn’t want to ruin the snow in any possible compositions. My location was a stream which runs through this valley and down into the Brewster River a few miles downstream. The snow had covered much of the rocks in the stream with those awesome domes of snow making for some great compositions.

Always look on the bright side

Being that it is early winter here the compositions were difficult as along the stream there wasnt many places to set up for some decent shots. The ice was not that thick and several times as I stepped down to the water I broke through. I tried many different angles and compositions along a pretty long stretch of the stream. Bad light, No contrast and a host of other factors made this one of the days where no matter how hard I tried I could not get the image I was after. In total after three hours of hiking I got four images. I did not look at this day as a failure though. I always try to look at the positives of any shoot versus the negatives, No day is the same and I take it as a learning experience. The one thing that I always tell myself is “If you come away from the shoot with just one image you are proud of then the day was a success.”