A Vermont landscape off the beaten path in Groton State Forest and Lanesboro, Vermont

Vermont-Autumn-Landscape-clouds-field-stream

The wondering photographer

Lanesboro, Vermont is a tiny speck of a town on a Vermont state map but it sits smack dab in the middle of some of the best foliage viewing the state has to offer.

Route 232 travels through the Groton State forest and on a side dirt road with a tiny sign for the town of Lanesboro you will come across this scene. It’s a blink and you’ll miss it location that’s between Groton, Marshfield and Plainfield.

During the Fall foliage season many photography spots can be overwhelmed with visitors and if you feel adventurous and want to get lost then scenes like this one can be found.

I had passed by this scene many times and on this occasion what really grabbed my eye was the wonderful color in the grasses in this open field along with the changing Autumn color in the background.

Tips for getting yourself lost on Vermont’s back roads

The road this location is near is an old railway bed that has since been converted into a dirt road and recreation path which connects to two very picturesque ponds and some of the more stunning foliage during  peak color of the Autumn season.

With more dirt roads than paved ones you can be assured that there will be a photography adventure around just about any corner in the state. With over 26 years of experience traversing the state’s roads I have come up with some tips for traveling and finding unique locations in Vermont.

  1. Bring a map – Seriously, Google Maps is good but what it won’t tell you is there are roads here that get closed or don’t allow certain types of vehicles or that its mud season. I would highly recommend having a set of paper maps as Vermont’s roads at times can be labeled differently on a map then they are on the road signs. Hell there are still places in Vermont that still use wooden road signs and those are often worn away or illegible. Have maps and know how to navigate, Don’t rely on Google Maps alone.
  2. Don’t be afraid to stray off a main road – Often times the side roads will offer up some really stunning imagery and while not noticeable at first will connect with main roads that can get you back into familiar territory. Most side roads in Vermont can be a little convoluted and can twist you around but most will make giant loops or connect to other roads to get you back onto a main road.
  3. Avoid mud season – This one is a no brainer but that period of time after winter ends but before spring officially starts can play havoc on vehicles. The mud gets deep and it likes to suck in cars or create ruts that are just impossible to navigate around. I have driven on many roads during this season and it just really isn’t worth it. Getting stuck in the middle of nowhere is a pretty unpleasant experience.
  4. Have a rugged vehicle – This one goes along with number three but have a tough vehicle if your going to get off the beaten path. A truck, A car with all wheel drive or four wheel drive, Anything that will not be hampered buy road conditions. I don’t have a truck but I do have awd and it will save your bacon on a muddy or washboard, rutted road.
  5. Not all landscapes will be sweeping vistas – Look for the smaller more intimate scenes as sometimes that grand Vermont landscape can be illusive depending on your location. The northern part of the state tends to be more mountainous with forests and trees tightly packed together and you have to climb above the treeline while the Southern sections are more like flat, rolling hill farmland landscapes. Forests will have ponds with tight forest cover and hard to access areas but you can also find abandoned rock quarries or farms. The smaller scenes will let you hone in on a specific element like my image above and the sky reflection in the small stream.
  6. Look for multiple places to shoot in or around one central location – By having one main shooting location and several side locations you can up your chances of coming home with a keeper. It can take a lot of drive time to reach some of the more scenic places in Vermont and you don’t want to waste your time while out. Have a plan a, b, c, and d around where your main location is so you can maximize your shooting potential.

Trusting your vision

I drive right by today’s image but as you progress as a photographer you learn to trust your eyes and your brain when it says “Stop!” That’s preciously what happened to me and I am glad that I listened to my inner artist otherwise I would have missed this shot.

This small stream here is right along the side of the road and I noticed first that it made a nice leading line into the image. The color on the field grasses was quite striking as well as the changing foliage in the background trees. Grasses like this are a common site here and their color changes throughout the foliage season. The reflection in the water provides a nice focal point to draw you in and to follow through the rest of the image. Here is my original image….

Vermont-Groton State Forest-Lanesboro-Autumn-landscape photography
Here is my original Camera Raw image file and as you can see the sky is a bit bland and the highlights on the grass wash out their detail.

My original shot was off a bit so this one would need some edits to make it really shine. Cropping to center the stream reflection, The highlights, The sky and coaxing some more detail out of the water reflection were all that was needed to really make this one shine. I used the HSL panel to make the colors really pop and add some drama to them.

Getting off the main roads and opening yourself up to the adventure really isn’t so bad is it?

Let the adventure be your guide

Vermont pretty much has it all in terms of what you can find for landscape imagery. All of it really is there if your willing to venture away from the crowds and really explore the state.

I do a great deal of planning when I shoot my landscapes but there as always room to roam the unique back roads that we have here. While we are sadly losing a lot of our rich farming traditions and the industrial production of years past, There still is a lot of vintage charm to find.

Get out there, Zig when you should zag and find your next great landscape image.

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.

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.