Fire Man

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A photographer friend of mine doing some steel wool spinning in a ice cave left over from the ice age.

You should always be learning and growing as a photographer and this year I have been getting more and more into night photography and slowly adding in night images to my portfolio. Back in February I had the opportunity to go out and do some steel wool spinning with a photographer friend and we had a blast doing it! Burlington, Vermont has some very interesting geological features one of which is an old sea cave. You wouldn’t think it from its location but sometimes the best photo spots are right in your hometown.

This cave is made up of limestone dolomite and was created by wave action from retreating glaciers. The Champlain sea which covered this area was formed from retreating glaciers as it was an inlet for the Atlantic Ocean. The age of the caves is roughly 10,00 to 13,000 years old. The cave itself is not impressive in size and is located in a wetland area. You can walk to it in the Winter time as the water freezes but for the rest of the year you need a boat to get to the cave.

This was my first time doing steel wool spinning so after some instruction we spent a few hours shooting in and around this cave. I finally settled on this composition as my favorite as it showed a good deal of the cave and the low to the ground view showed off my friend Brian doing some spinning quite well. It’s nice to step out of that comfort zone once in a while and learn some new techniques!

Tracks

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Ski tracks on a sledding hill with forest and Mount Mansfield in the distance.

It has been quite awhile since I have done a proper black and white and the conditions were just perfect on the day that I shot today’s image to do one! The light and weather conditions were looking really good so I grabbed my gear and headed out to a few spots that I have been wanting to shoot for some time. The location here sits at the base of Mount Mansfield on the road leading to Underhill State Park. I have driven by this scene countless times and with a good coating of snow it was ripe for a few photographs.

The area here is a small hill and hay-field that gets quite tracked up after a good snow so it can be quite difficult to get to this field while it is still untouched. In this instance I really wanted to show the various tracks around the hill as that’s the areas purpose in the winter….Sledding, Skiing and fun times. I thought what better way to highlight the dramatic clouds and mountain in the background then to put these ski tracks front and center in the foreground. I thought they made a nice leading line into the distance and they drew me into those clouds above Mount Mansfield.

This image was part of a series that I though I would blend for focus but as it turned out this image was really sharp front to back so a blend was not needed. The focus point was roughly two-thirds into the image and it worked out well with a lot less processing for me. The sun was coming in and out of the clouds while I was shooting but there was just enough cloud cover to soften the light as it created some interesting shadows on the scene. I worked with what the scene gave me and while the snow was tracked up I think the tracks really added something special to this shot rather than a bland field of white.

Winter’s Dance

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Sunset over Lake Champlain looking South with ice and color reflections.

Finally after a few months of what I like to call a photography slump I am finally getting some decent Winter images. I did almost no shooting in November and December but things really started to pick up in January as the weather conditions improved and I wasn’t sick with whatever the newest funk was going around. I suppose we all go through these slumps from time to time but I fought tooth and nail through it and I am having a great time getting out and shooting the Vermont landscape again!

I shot this image the first week in February after a warm-up/freeze which left some really awesome ice formations along the shores of Lake Champlain. When this happens you have an unlimited set of compositions as long as there isn’t any snow to cover up the ice. In between storm systems the clouds opened up just enough for me to be able to make this shot. The cloud system here is streaking in a northerly direction with some build up happening in the left top of the frame. I take what nature throws at me so I let the sun and clouds do it’s thing and I was able to make this shot.

What really drew me into this image was the color from the sunset reflecting off of the ice. I thought the combination of the ice formations with the color on the ice was just too good to miss! I made two exposures here…One for the foreground ice and the other for the sky and background which I merged in Photoshop. I wanted to get some more light into the foreground as it was darker than the background but I also wanted to get as much of that reflecting color as I could. The blending made it possible to achieve both and come up with a unique shot of Winter’s grip on the lake.

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Ice Wave

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Shore Ice on Lake Champlain at sunset with a view of the Adirondack Mountains from Burlington, Vermont.

Finally after a tough start to the Winter I feel like I am getting into a photography groove again! The weather is still hit or miss and 9 times out of 10 I get skunked with the light but I feel that I am still getting out to shoot as much as I can and making some decent images despite all of the complications this Winter. Last week we got a few snow storms and in between the two storm systems the light and clouds cooperated so I made my way down to the lake to finally get some ice shots at sunset.

The lake has been in a cycle of freezes and thaws which create these really fantastic shapes in the ice as the waves move it toward shore. When there is no snow cover on the ice it is a great opportunity for some great foreground interest in a photograph at sunrise or sunset. Another bonus for shooting ice or snow at sunrise or sunset is that they take up whatever color is in the sky and you can get some really brilliant color if the light is right. In this image I did not get that effect as much because I was pointed a little bit away from where the sun was setting but the clouds here were pretty awesome!

I focused in on this cracked piece of ice sticking up from the water and setting my tripod low to the ground I crawled out onto the ice to make the shot. I took a risk here on the ice closer too shore as I could here ice cracking everywhere and you could feel the movement of the waves in the ice. However it was quite strong here in the image so without any danger I shot a few frames for focus and exposure and blended them together. The clouds really gave this one a painterly quality as they were drifting in straight lines off to the north and not directly overhead. Images like this make sitting out in the cold on lake ice worth it!

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Frozen Tides

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Ice on the Lake Champlain shoreline with clouds at sunset.

Finally we are getting some favorable conditions for Winter photography but for quite a few months I was worried we wouldn’t have much of a Winter here in Burlington. I shot today’s image a few weeks ago during a warm spell that broke up a good portion of the lake ice that we did have. Now we have a good deal of snow and Lake Champlain is completely frozen over for the first time since 2007! It has been a tough Winter for me with lots of different things keeping me from shooting regularly but I do what I can and go out as often as I can.

As the warming temps here a few weeks ago broke up the lake ice the waves push the leftovers ashore into these really interesting formations among the rocks of the shoreline. For the first time in weeks we had a decent sunset with some nice clouds and I was really looking for a nice bit of ice to use as a foreground to the clouds and color of the sunset. Needless to say even with the warm temps the ground around this composition was quite icy but with a little care I was able to pull off this image!

This is a blended image of two frames that I shot for sharpness and exposure as the foreground ice was much darker than the sky. I merged the two images in Photoshop, equalized the exposure between the two images and made my usual general corrections to come up with the final piece. The clouds were moving quite fast at this point so I had to shoot fast to catch them before they were gone along with the color! The view is looking North from Oaklege Park to Rock Point.

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Titan

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View of Mount Mansfield from Spruce Peak and Sterling Mountain on the opposite side of Smugglers Notch, Vermont.

I love finding new vistas and exploring all of their photographic potential. In this case a photographer buddy of mine showed me the location for today’s image and it was quite the view! Years ago I looked for this spot as I had seen it on maps but it is quite well hidden at the top of a ski resort. Needless to say I jumped at the chance to hike up a mountain to shoot some snow and to finally see where this spot was located. The area here is just like home to me as I have hiked and explored it for years now. It certainly is a thrill to hike up a pretty icy trail to finally see this view at the end of the journey.

This view is exactly what you see when you walk up a slight incline through some tight trees to a view of the backside of Mount Mansfield and Smugglers Notch. I knew right away that this was going to be my shot of the day as the small tree with the imposing mountain behind really spoke to me when I first saw it. The view from here is just incredible with spectacular views of Mount Mansfield ,Smugglers Notch, Stowe and the Stowe ski area and even Lake Champlain off in the distance. This really is the heart of the Green Mountains!

The day that we hiked was blue skies and zero clouds so I made two exposures for blending here as the close trees threw the mountains beyond too out of focus for my tastes as well as the pretty intense sunlight making exposing for both challenging. If you look closely at this image at 100 percent you can even see three people standing on the top of Mount Mansfield in the background. It’s nice to be able to hike in these mountains ans see how they change form season to season. A nice hike on a warm day with some fresh, first snow of the season. It really doesn’t get any better than that!

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Whiteface

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Whiteface Mountain and the Sterling Range.

Here we are in 2014 and I wanted to start things off right with a shot of a remote Vermont beaver pond. The pond here is quite a trek to get to requiring some driving on dirt roads and a two and a half mile hike into the mountains! Normally hikes like this are no problem for me but I was not up to snuff at the time with a pretty severe cold, sore throat and cough. Conditions while sunny on this day were quite cold and in the single digits but thankfully there wasn’t much wind which made the long hike that much more enjoyable.

The pond here sits at the bottom of Whiteface Mountain with Sterling Mountain and Smugglers Notch ski resort off to camera left. It is a difficult hike in the Summer as the trail and beaver pond are quite wet and tough to navigate. The Summertime brings a huge amount of bugs which is why it’s much easier to make the long hike here in the Winter…No bugs and the ground is frozen! This spot is off the beaten path and hard to find but the images were well worth the effort. I had just enough time to do an hour or so of shooting before the clouds started to roll in but this is quite the majestic view.

The image is a three shot composite as I had to crawl out onto the ice to get the shot! I was really taken with the circular patterns in the ice so I took a shot and crawled out on my belly and set my gear close to the ice. Luckily it had been really cold for a week prior to this shot so the ice held and I was able to realize my vision for this one. I blended two shots for the ice and one for the background mountains getting a nice and sharp shot from front to back. This was shot in early November when we had out first cold snap and snow in the mountains….Much success to everyone in 2014 and happy shooting!

Stars Over Burlington

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Star trails over Lake Champlain and Burlington, Vermont from Oakledge Park.

I wanted to take this opportunity to wish all of my photography friends and followers a happy holiday season! I have been struggling with a never-ending and terrible cold for three weeks now so my posting has been a bit erratic. It’s been three years since I started this blog and my Twitter account at the same time and it has been quite the journey. It has been a great pleasure to meet and interact with photographers from all over the world and I am truly grateful for the support and friendship. While it has been slow going building a small photography business I feel I have made great strides forward with my work in the past year and a half. There are ups and downs of course and I wanted to thank everyone for joining my journey!

I have been thinking about the shot above for a number of years now and with the ending of the Autumn foliage season I decided to get more seriously involved with night photography. It’s been a challenge learning the ins and outs of shooting at night but the rewards for all of the hard work are well worth the effort. I love the city of Burlington where I live and I wanted to capture it in a new and unique way. It really is a beautiful city to look at from a distance and a star trail shot is just what I had in mind!

The final image consisted of 120 images that I took over an hours time stacked in Photoshop. My settings were F4 at ISO 400 for 30 seconds and I used Lightroom to perform the final edits. The only speed bump with this one was a small cloud in the bottom third of the frame that slowly dissipated over the time that I was shooting. A minor annoyance but I loved the final result of one of my first decent star trail shots! I hope you all enjoy this one and that you have the best holiday season!

Exposure Blending for Landscape Photography: A Guide for Beginners

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The final, completed exposure blend of two images, One image shot for the foreground rocks and another image shot for the background horizon and sky.

Like learning anything in photography, Exposure blending requires a ton of patience and time to become familiar with the process. Everyday as we are out shooting our images we are confronted with the challenges of bright skies, dark foregrounds and how to best balance each into a single photograph. My own journey into exposure blending actually started with focus stacking and getting a tack sharp image from front to back. This naturally evolved into exposure blending and typically for me a mixture of the two so that I have one image that is sharp throughout with an exposure as close to what my eye was seeing as I can get.

You might first ask yourself, “Couldn’t you use filters to achieve the same effect?” The short answer is yes you could and I do use filters quite often in my work however there are times when the light is changing rapidly and I have to move from composition to composition fairly quickly and I don’t want to be messing around with filters taking up valuable time. Another thing to remember is that anything you put in front of your lens like a filter or multiple filters can at times add in a bit of softness that isn’t always desirable. You could also argue for doing HDR photography but for me personally I abandoned the HDR process a few years ago because I never really liked the look of it in Landscapes.

Now there are multiple ways that you can do this for sure but I wanted to show beginners an easy way to start learning the process. I have done blends with only two images and some with several images and no image is ever the same. The key is to set yourself up with a good set of initial captures and if you nail this part then the processing can become like second nature after a bit of practice. A word of caution in doing these blends is sometimes they just do not work because of focus “bloom.” Focus bloom happens when you have two images where you focused at two different points and if you look at the images side by side parts of them will not align.

As a beginner trying out this technique I would start with images where there is a clear break between the foreground and the horizon. This way you will have an easier time with the blend and then you can work your way into more complicated ones. As you can see in the final image above there is a clear, dominate foreground followed by a break with the water and then the horizon and sky at sunset. There isn’t anything from the foreground intruding into the horizon line which can complicate the blend.

The following should be taken as guidelines because there is a thousand ways to peel an onion so to speak within Photoshop. The process can vary from image to image and each image, each composition will present it’s own challenges. This is my process when I first start out to make a blended image but each image rarely follows the same path. Some work and some don’t but I hope that this at least starts you on the path to a better well rounded image!

1. Pick your candidate images.

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The two selected candidate images that I used for my exposure blend side by side in Lightroom.

As you can see in the two images that I chose for the blend the image exposed for the rocks has a blown out sky and the image exposed for the sky has the rocks much too dark. A common problem especially at sunset but by combining the best parts of each we will get a natural looking image that will be exactly what my eye was seeing. In this composition I shot a series of several images covering all the focus points I could on the rocks and on the horizon.

From these images I inspected each at 100% to check for sharpness, alignment and overall quality. From this series I chose the best two that I wanted to work on. It really starts to get complicated if you have compositions where there is a middle ground you want to blend in or when there are elements in the composition that are not completely straight. In this instance we have a nice, pleasing foreground that is common along Lake Champlain and some nice color and clouds as the sun is setting on the horizon.

At this point we will not be making any corrections to the two images until they are merged together and imported back into Lightroom. I don’t want to edit twice and it’s easier to clear up any lighting inconsistencies between the two images in Lightroom. We just want to make sure the images are sharp where they are supposed to be and that the two will line up correctly when layered together.

2. Export your candidate images from Lightroom to your computer as TIFF’s at 300dpi with a bit depth of 16 bits. I generally will label the images as foreground, middle ground, back ground, etc. as the more images you have the more confusing it can become when you are blending. This is a personal choice so you should do whatever is easiest for you.

3. Import into Photoshop.

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My two selected images open in Photoshop side by side.

Here are the two images side by side and open in Photoshop CS2. (CS2 has all the tools you will need for an exposure blend and I am cheap. Adobe makes CS2 available as a download on their site for free!) Using the foreground (lighter image with the blown out sky) as the bottom layer I will click on the move tool and while holding down the shift key I click  on the darker background image and drag it into the lighter image. By holding the shift key you ensure that the dark image will snap to proper alignment directly over the lighter image.

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The two images layered on top of each other in Photoshop for exposure blending.

Now that we have the layers on top of each other we can begin the blending process. You can chose to duplicate the bottom layer but in most cases all I want is the final merged image…I have backups of the originals so most of the time I am ok with not duplicating the first, bottom layer. Occasionally a composition will be easier to blend with the lighter foreground as the top layer and in that instance I will go ahead and duplicate the bottom layer and move it on top of the darker sky layer. It’s a fluid process that is never the same.

The final thing that I want to do to prep this image for blending is to add a layer mask to the top layer. In the layers palette click on the add layer mask icon and add the layer mask to the top layer. The layer mask will allow us to use the gradient tool to blend the two images together as well as to do some brush work later on.

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The two images in Photoshop with a layer mask on the top image.

4. Using the Gradient tool to blend the two images together.

Select the gradient tool in the tools palette and the gradient editor will pop up at the top of the screen. Click on the rectangular bar the goes from solid color to transparent and in the window that opens you will be able to fine tune the gradient based on your images.

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The gradient editor window where you can fine tune the fade of the gradient based on your images as well as change the style of the gradient.
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The gradient bar will appear at the top of the screen where you can adjust opacity and the ability to reverse the gradient if needed.
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Here I am setting the gradient to fade at roughly 2/3rds of the way in the image.

In the presets area at the top of the gradient editor window you want to select the foreground to transparent box. This will allow us to fade from one image to another on the layer mask on our top layer. You can move the sliders for the gradient to change the position of where the fade begins and in my images I set more of a hard edge gradient with the fade starting about two thirds of the way into the image. My composition is roughly two thirds foreground so I can use this as a starting point and tweak as necessary. My blend mode is normal but I have set my opacity at 80%. The opacity is key because here I don’t want the rock layer to show through at 100% because it will have too much light showing which would not be natural. Instead I lower the opacity and later I will brush in light from that layer in small quantities until I get the scene to match how my eye was seeing it. Remember I shot several images at different exposure values and the layer with the bright rocks gives me enough light to play with to blend the two images into a realistic whole.

When you select the gradient tool the cursor will turn into crosshairs on the screen. Here you have a choice to draw a freehand gradient or if you hold shift while clicking and holding the left mouse button you can draw a perfectly straight gradient which is what I did here. With the crosshairs starting at the very bottom of the image on the layer mask of the top most layer and holding down the left mouse button I will draw upwards on the image right about in the middle of the cloud layer and then release the key and the mouse. It is at this step that you will see the two images start to blend together.

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The image with a gradient applied to blend two exposures together before I start to brush in some light from my light rock layer.

In this image above you can see the two images in the layers palette, the layer mask on the top most layer and the gradient applied to the layer mask blending the two exposures together. Remember to set your foreground color to black…”Black conceals and white reveals.” In my case the opacity of the gradient is at 80% so some of the light rock layer is now showing through on the sky and horizon layer. Here though we are not quite perfect…The sun is to camera left and we need to brush some more light into the rocks to clean up and balance the exposure. In this image you can see that I have my brush tool already selected in preperation for painting with the brush tool. Same thing applies to the brush tool in that you need the foreground color set to black. By doing this we are concealing the dark rock layer and letting the lighter layer come through when we use the brush tool on our layer mask. There are some obvious inconsistencies which will be taken care of in lightroom on the final stage of our image edits.

5. Use the brush tool.

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The brushes palette in Photoshop with my chosen brush selected.

Next I want to brush in some more light from the bottom most light layer into the top layer to get a better match between the blended exposures. This will allow me to have an image that is as close to what I was seeing as possible. I have chosen a soft edge brush at 300 and using the bracket keys I will make this brush larger or smaller while I am painting. I always begin by setting the opacity of my brush anywhere from 15% to 30% as a starting point. I always try to paint in small amounts rather than large because I can layer the painting to get a more natural effect. There is no secret to this part of the process and it will take a lot of practice to master. Again with my foreground color set to black and being careful around the rock edges I slowly paint in light from my light exposure layer revealing more of the rocks and balancing the exposure. If you look in the layers palette of the image below you can see how the layer mask has changed from a solid mask and where I have painted in the light from the bottom layer. I also don’t paint in a uniform manner to better mimic how the light is falling on the rocks. There will be portions of the rocks that are darker and do contain some shadows so here is where you have to practice, have patience and use your best judgement.

There are some subtle differences between the before image and this one but again we will be importing this into lightroom for the final edits. Images like this are a bit more difficult because of the sharp edges of the rocks so great care must be taken around the many jagged edges, This is another reason why I paint in with a very low opacity, Any mistakes you make may be imperceptible to the viewer but you can always switch the foreground color to white and paint back in with the darker layer. This image is now right where I want it to be…From here I will flatten the image and export as a TIFF file to my computer for importing into lightroom.

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My blended image after painting to revel portions of the lighter layer below the dark layer. Here I am cleaning up any exposure issues with final edits to be done in lightroom.

6. Import into Lightroom for final edits and fine tuning.

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The final blended image imported into Lightroom and before any edits are made.

Here I have imported the image into Lightroom and at this point I will inspect it for any flaws and corrections that need to be made. There are several that jump out at me right off the bat such as the sky is a bit too dark for my taste, A crop is needed to get rid of a small amount of the blue sky above the clouds, straightening of the horizon and a general exposure adjustment to name a few. This image required multiple uses of the graduated filter (5 to be exact) to better fine tune the exposure but some images don’t require much work at all. First off I use a landscape preset in lightroom as a starting point for my corrections. It take care of about 70% of the corrections and includes a contrast, clarity, vibrance and saturation adjustment along with a lens correction and chromatic aberration adjustment. After I apply my preset I then fine tune the corrections with the ones I listed above…Straighten any horizon issues, cropping if needed, white balance and tweaking the lighting with the graduated filter and the adjustment brush. Here I don’t want to get into every single little edit I made as each image should be evaluated on it’s own as to what corrections should be made to it.

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The before and after view of my blended image in Lightroom.

If I had to sum up the process in a nutshell it would be Chose your composition, Shoot several images covering the exposure range and your focus points, chose your candidate images, Use the gradient tool to blend your images together and fine tune with the brush tool and then perform your final touch up edits in Lightroom. The final image is balanced and has a much better exposure then I could get with just one image. Again I wanted to present an easy way to get into exposure blending and one that would be easy to follow and understand for beginners. Hopefully this will start you on your way into the many doors that exposure blending can open in your images and allow you to get some images that maybe you thought were never possible!

-On a side note I have done some research on exposure blending and please note that this is not the only way to achieve this result. There are numerous ways to do this and my particular way works for me. It’s also an easier way for a beginner to start learning about processing exposure blended images. There is now right or wrong way but this tutorial can be used as a jumping off point in learning more complex blending techniques.

Spinning

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A tree near Lake Champlain with the North star visible in a star trail image

It’s the time of year again here in Vermont that photographers like to call stick season. All of the foliage is gone, All you can see for miles is bare trees and Winter is on its way. Instead of not shooting anything for the next two months I decided to embrace night photography and learn how to do some proper star trail imagery. I think my time could be better spent while waiting for the snow to fly learning some new photography technique and nighttime work is challenging for sure!

To get the circular star pattern you must be pointed North and in Burlington where I live this is difficult. There are only a few spots that point north that are also image worthy and I have been on a mission to investigate them. I have looked at some and still have a few more spots to go to but you can make some really nice star imagery around the city. This image was accidental as I was shooting a different star trail sequence and I bumped my tripod in the dark making the shots unusable for stacking. Undeterred I quickly looked around and framed up this tree!

This image is composed of 95 images stacked in Photoshop and nothing fancy in terms of processing the final image. There are some street lamps near the tree and I liked the orange glow they added to the trees. I wasn’t crazy about the composition here but I had to move fast as these shots take quite a bit of time to make. I do not have an intervalometer so I have to use my wireless remote to trigger the shutter manually for every shot. It’s very boring at times but I get to watch the stars and make an image with a little something special to it!

Mountain Fire

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Last Light from sunset on the slopes of Mount Mansfield.

Curiosity got me during the foliage season as I wanted to see up close how sunset looked on the slopes of Mount Mansfield. Normally I can see it from a distance but I had a feeling that the light would do some amazing things when you add in the color of the leaves. The road to one of my favorite spots has a small pull out with this view and I can tell you I have looked at this shot countless times. I shot this years ago with a wide-angle but I think a much better shot is with a telephoto so you can get much closer and really show off what an incredible mountain this is. Lucky for me a friend has loaned me a long lens so i was finally able to pull off this shot!

I made this image just before peak color and this frame is moments before twilight and the sun dipping below the horizon. Literally right after I shot this the whole face of the mountain here turned dark and I lost this beautiful color. The area just below the image frame is on private property and there is a small house that sits in a field with probably the most stunning view of Mount Mansfield. The sunset light really added something special here and with the foliage color made the mountain look like it was on fire.

A challenging shot for sure due to the difference in exposure levels of the sky and the slopes of the mountain. Most of the weather I had during this foliage season was blue skies and zero cloud cover so I tried to minimize the sky in this one. I had to tame the sky exposure with some neutral density filters but other than that just my usual minor corrections for exposure, white balance, etc. Not a bad way to end a day of foliage shooting!

Mountains Shadow

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Forest foliage at the base of Mount Mansfield in Underhill, Vermont.

This year during the foliage season I decided to take a different approach to my photography work. In years past I would head into the woods, Shoot waterfalls and trees, Then repeat over and over. Don’t get me wrong I love that type of work but this year I wanted to do something different and take a big step out of that box. I did much more scouting then shooting to prepare for future foliage photo ops but I also started to make more trips to random roads and places I have never been to before. I really believe that getting lost on a country road has a ton of benefits…One of which is finding new and unique compositions!

I focused a lot of my attention in the Mount Mansfield area this year and I was rewarded for all of my driving and hiking with shots like today’s image. The road I was on here is a dirt one and it skirts around the base of the mountain giving some impressive views of the peak. It was a blue sky day but I really liked the contrast between the colorful leaves, The mountain top and the tiny bit of blue sky I included in the top of the image. There is something special about Vermont’s mountains and finding views like this really leave you speechless.

The weather for this year’s foliage season I do have to say was fantastic with a few exceptions. My days of shooting fell into two categories…Either blue skies with no clouds or stormy days with mixed lighting of all types. Exposures were a challenge and with several weeks of little to no rain many of the streams and rivers were just not flowing. I made do with the weather I was given and found some new shooting locations in the process!