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.

Phoenix Rising. Charlotte Town Beach. Charlotte, Vermont.

Vermont-Charlotte-sunset-2015
Sunset over Lake Champlain and the Charlotte Town Beach in Charlotte, Vermont

I think as photographers we all want to make that one image, That one money shot that will define us as artists and keep people talking. A challenge that I think gets overlooked all to often is making the everyday, the mundane look extraordinary especially in a photograph. With the Winter sun setting so far south right now here in Vermont it can be difficult from where I live to shoot a decent sunset over Lake Champlain. In the first week of January I made a quick trip south along the lake to see what I could find. This day was particularly grey and uninviting for photography but my photography sixth sense kicked in when I noticed some small breaks in the cloud cover. I had a feeling that some great light was going to come my way during this sunset and I found my way to the Charlotte Town Beach in Charlotte, Vermont.

This beach is a small one 15 to 20 minutes away from where I live in Burlington and this was my first visit to the location. The beach is more of a rocky one than a sandy one and at first glance you wouldn’t think that there would be much to shoot. After investigating compositions for a while and getting a feel for the location I started to really notice some nice lines and curves in the sand along the shoreline. As I was shooting in the opposite direction to this image I was keeping a watchful eye on the sky and sure enough the clouds started to break a bit as the sun was setting. I turned my attention to this tree which looks south down Lake Champlain and for about 5 minutes the sky opened up with some pretty amazing color!

A very small window of sky and color opened up framing this small tree that sits on one end of the beach. The suns position really made the oranges and pinks pop and I really couldn’t believe it. Winters can be quite harsh here and this Winter we have seen very little in the way of snowfall so getting to witness this was quite a boost to my spirits! With very little time I was frantically running around on this rocky beach and settled on this composition. I really didn’t have much time and after shooting several frames this beautiful light and clouds got swallowed up by more clouds dashing this great sunset. There hasn’t been many times that I have been made speechless as a photographer but this was one of them.

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.

The Watchers

Vermont-Charlotte-Sunset-Clouds
Hay field and trees overlooking the Champlain Valley and the Adirondack Mountains at sunset.

*If you like this image it is available for purchase right here!

When looking for new locations going on scouting missions and researching the area thoroughly is always a good skill to have but talking to landowners is also another. It can be nerve-racking going up to someones door that you do not know but a handshake and introducing yourself can go along way to shooting property that is otherwise inaccessible.  The property in today’s image I have driven by thousands of times and have wanted to make some photographs there for a long time. One day this Spring I finally got the gumption to go and shoot on the periphery of the property when one of the owners saw me shooting and came out to talk to me!

I was a bit surprised at this but I nicely introduced myself, shook his hand and we had a pleasant conversation about photography. (Turned out he was a photographer himself although with people and not landscapes!) He told me all about the property and behind the hay fields you see here is actually a nature preserve with trails and a sweeping view of Lake Champlain and the Champlain Valley. The driveway through the property which turns into a dirt road through the hay fields is a right of way for the town where I shot this and it was perfectly fine to walk onto the land and shoot!

The property itself contains an old farmhouse with a couple of really large and old barns with some pretty fantastic views all the way around. I made this shot of two trees that sit on the edge of the hay-field and they reminded me of guards or watchers as they look out over Lake Champlain. The setting sun was providing some nice light on the grass fields and just as I was about to move positions this rather large cloud floated directly over the two trees! Sometimes you get lucky and other times you make your own luck.