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.

Still Waters

Vermont-Sunrise-Lake Champlain-Burlington
Clouds with sunrise light over Lake Champlain from Oakledge Park in Burlington, Vermont.

*If you would like to purchase a copy of this image it can be found right here!

It is amazing how you can look at the sky one minute and say to yourself ” Damn not much is going to happen there for sunrise” and the next minute something magical happens. Such was the case early one morning when I was exploring some new compositions at Oakledge Park in Burlington, Vermont. I spend a great deal of time here as the park is very close to my home but it offers easy access to a wealth of compositions. I was looking for something I had not shot before when I came across this scene. The sky looked like it was just going to be a big wall of blue when this cloud started to develop just as the sun was rising above the treeline behind me!

This beach straddles a bike path that runs along the Burlington shoreline and this image is at one end of the beach. It is a small little area with a gnarly old tree and some reeds and at first glance wouldn’t look like there is much to shoot. The lake levels fluctuate throughout the year and they were on the low side when I shot this making the composition possible. The great part about shooting this area is that as the water levels change there are new shooting possibilities for an adventurous photographer. As this cloud formed and moved through the area it was kissed just at the right moment by the rising sun from behind me. The light was just beautiful the way it was highlighting the cloud and I was glad I was there to see it!

This is a composite image of two shots that I made for exposure and sharpness. The foreground was in some deep shadow and I really wanted to see the reeds and rocks so one exposure was made for this area while the second was made for the cloud and sky. I blended them together in Photoshop and did my final edits in Lightroom, Matching the tones together and doing some basic edits. The relative stillness of the water added a tranquil feel to this image the mood in the image was just right for a morning shot.

Valley Of Gold

Vermont-Lake Champlain-Charlotte-landscape
Lake Champlain and the Champlain Valley at Sunset with a view of the Adirondack Mountains from Charlotte, Vermont.

Lake Champlain spans quite a distance from the Canadian border along almost the entire length of the state sharing it’s shoreline with New York as well. The Champlain Valley is a low lying area with a lot of farms and rural areas and during the Spring this year I was able to capture a sunset from a new location. With several smaller mountains in the area there are a number of shooting opportunities but this location which sits in the middle of pasture land is wide open and provides more than a 180 degree view of the entire Champlain Valley. The views of this valley and the Adirondack Mountains beyond is quite impressive and not to be missed!

The area here is part of a network of hiking trails and an overlooked gem in the area. I myself had no idea of the potential here until recently when I talked with the people who were living on the property. The ridge that overlooks this scene was part of a working farm and there were some barns and a giant old farmhouse on the land. I was bale to get some shots of the barns however currently the house is in the process of being moved so there isn’t any access to the old buildings. However you can still go and explore other parts of this location as well as this view!

I shot this image in the early Spring so the tree growth was just beginning to come in. I was lucky enough to get some decent clouds and color in the sky as the sun was setting over the Adirondacks. Processing was minimal here with my usual standard edits but I changed the white balance slightly to emphasis the golden color that was present from the sun. I really love the rural feel to this image as it is a part of Vermont that is rapidly disappearing.

A Stones Throw

Vermont-Lake Champlain-Storm clouds-Oakledge Park
Rock formations with storm clouds on Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont at sunrise.

Lake Champlain here in Burlington, Vermont really is quite a beautiful site but I think the best time to shoot is during the sunrise hours. There is something about the calm waters and cool air that is hard to describe but easier to capture in an image. This Summer as I am laid off from my day job at the University of Vermont I took a temp job working 9-5 hours five days a week. I had to change my shooting schedule to the sunrise hours only and I have not been disappointed with that switch! I get up at four a.m. every morning and probably nine times out of ten I get skunked with terrible skies but it’s that tenth time that is worth getting up for.

On the day I shot this image a storm had passed through the area and another one was on its way in and this is what you are seeing in this image here. There was a bit of clearing in the sky with the next storm building right behind it. I love the light in the early morning hours that these types of storm clouds produce in the morning so getting up is almost always going to be fruitful as far as making images. The water was calm, the cloud formations were awesome and I happened to see this interesting formation of rocks along the shoreline at Oakledge Park.

I shot and blended two images here for exposure and sharpness throughout the scene. The rock formations here are in a bit of deep shadow and an image blend was needed here to really see the detail in the rocks as well as exposing properly for the beautiful clouds over head. I blended them together with a simple gradient in Photoshop and performed my usual tweaks in Lightroom. Nothing major as far as editing but an adjustment in white balance was also needed to balance everything together into a seamless image. Never underestimate morning clouds as the sun starts to rise…Boring skies will usually change to phenomenal in an instant!

Home

Vermont-Winter-Snake Mountain-sunset
Sunset over the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain from Snake Mountain in Addison, Vermont.

There are lots of things that I love about the Vermont landscape. It is in a constant state of struggle between Modernization and the rural, farm life of days past. There are so many places to explore and a lot of them happen to be short distances away from where I live. I feel blessed to be able to jump in my car and within a half hour bear witness to scenes such as this sunset. This was a new location for me but the sweeping views of Lake Champlain and the lower Champlain Valley are just not to be missed!

The view here is from Snake Mountain which is 30-45 minutes away from where I live in Burlington. An easy drive to a small mountain requiring a hike of an hour or so to the top. At the top of the mountain is remnants of an old hotel foundation and a clear lookout of more than 180 degrees both North and South along Lake Champlain. From here you get quite the impressive view of Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains on the New York side of the lake. This image was shot in March as Spring was approaching with a bit of snow still left on the valley floor.

Sunset happens fast here because as the sun sets the valley floor gets progressively darker and you lose the good light. You really have only a few minutes to catch this glancing light in  the Lower valleys as the sun dips behind the Adirondacks. If you get up top early and are patient then the best light will be yours for making images!

A Colorful Song

Winter-2014-Lake Champlain-Sunset-Vermont
Melted and re-frozen ice on Lake Champlain at sunset over the Adirondack Mountains.

Sunset on Lake Champlain just does not get any better than when you have some ice to reflect all of the wonderful color coming from the sunset! We had several freeze/thaw cycles in Burlington and on the lake this year which made for some really great ice formations and photography compositions along the shoreline. I was able to get out and capture a few of these spectacular sunsets and this one really did not disappoint. I come to this spot quite often as it offers up many types of compositions but a really grand view of New York and the Adirondack Mountains.

With all of the wave action on the shoreline at times it can become quite built up with ice humps making getting closer to the water difficult. Here I went for a wide shot to get some of the clouds in the sky but also because it was hard to get down any lower in this particular spot. The ice was at an interesting angle to the shore verses in a straight line and I thought this added some interest to this wide shot with the mountains and sunset beyond. The reflected color really added quite a bit of drama to this one!

Here in this image I made a blend of two shots, One for the sky and background and one for the foreground ice. The foreground was quite a bit darker than the sky and I wanted to pick up all of that reflected color from the sky in the ice which was hard to pick up on from the exposure difference. The two images were blended in Photoshop with some tweaks to the colors and white balance. A few simple edits really brought out those colors and made this one shine!

Winter’s Dance

Lake Champlain-Sunset-Winter-Ice
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

Lake Champlain-Sunset-Winter-ice
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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Red Storm

Sunset-2013-Lake Champlain-Storm
Storm clouds at sunset Over Lake Champlain and Burlington, Vermont with the Adirondack Mountains in the distance.

Most of my photography work this year has focused around Lake Champlain as it’s close to home and our new baby keeps us pretty busy. Fortunately we are so close to some pretty beautiful scenery here in Vermont that I am still able to practice and keep up with my landscape work. It’s much easier for me to track the weather and cloud formations over the day for sunset shooting conditions than it is for me to guess at what conditions may be present at sunrise.

The storms that pass over the lake provide some phenomenal light at sunset if you can catch the tail end of them as the sun goes down behind the Adirondacks. This Spring and Summer we were graced with lots of rain and a ton of storms. I have spent a great deal of time learning these patterns this year and I think I have gotten pretty good at knowing when the storm and clouds will just fizz out and when they will turn into great shooting conditions. This storm produced some exceptional cloud formations and some beautiful red light!

I did have a pretty tough time shooting this composition however but in the end it was worth it. the rocky shoreline here rises about 5 feet or so quite severely right behind the camera position so not only was my tripod and camera only a few inches off of the ground in a puddle of water but I was sprawled out on my stomach in the water on some pretty sharp rock! I was aiming for getting a bit of the reflection of the clouds in the water and because of how flat the rocks here were I had to get as low as I could. Sometimes you have to get your clothes a bit dirty to get a decent shot!