Bear Pond on Mount Mansfield in Stowe, Vermont in black and white

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Hiking to a remote Vermont location

I knew about the existence of Bear Pond for a number of years and finally I was able to visit this remote location.

The pond sits in the spine of the green Mountains on Mount Mansfield and requires a roughly four-hour hike from the base to reach. Bear Pond can be visited by a trail that is no longer maintained so the trek in to it is not for the faint of heart.

It’s a treacherous scramble over moss-covered boulders and down some steep slopes so a partner is essential.

While much more remote than Lake of the Clouds if you can find someone who has been there to use as a guide your efforts will be rewarded. You won’t meet another person there but you will certainly find enough photographic diversity to keep you busy while you are there.

How do we craft an image in one shot with multiple points of depth and focus?

The trick with this image is to make it sharp and in focus from front to back. I chose this particular composition because there was a lot of depth to it with multiple points of interest for the eyes and it really told a story of the location. It showed remoteness and unspoiled beauty but getting it all into sharp focus would be my challenge.

This image has a flow to it where you move from the foreground grass and dead trees to the middle ground logs and finally to the background and clouds in the sky.  First I needed to identify  my areas of concern and how best to get critical focus where I wanted it to be and my best course of action would be to make multiple exposures at various focus points within the image. This way I could choose the best, sharpest images and blend them together manually ensuring that the image is sharp from front to back.

My concerns about the image

  • The foreground – These alpine grasses and petrified trees make for a really interesting foreground but if I place a focus point there specifically it will throw a good portion of the image out of focus. I really wanted this area of the image to be there as I think it really leads you into the rest of the photograph. The textures and shapes are fantastic but I do not want to crop out this section.
  • The middle ground –This area is problematic as there are three different petrified trees all on different planes within the image. If I focus here the fore and middle ground will be sharp but the background will be soft. That is unacceptable to me  as I want sharpness throughout…..I felt anything less would be too distracting for the viewer.
  • The background – If we place our focus here then the fore and middle ground become much to soft and not what I want for my image. Due to the lack of clouds on my visit I want the ones that did happen to float by to be nice and sharp as well as being able to discern what is in the background. I want to see everything in a landscape and my eyes in particular like when things are nice and sharp.
  • Multiple depths in the image – When your dealing with multiple depths for instance where all of the different logs are sitting, It can be difficult to place where you want to focus in the image. You will have to make a compromise somewhere and usually that means something will not be sharp. The depth in the middle ground is my biggest problem here and focus blending will be my choice to overcome it.
  • Wind movement – While the water in the pond was very still creating a mirror reflection there was a very slight breeze blowing across the grass in the foreground. I had to wait for just the right moment for the grass to settle down in order to get my shots without any movement in the foreground. This would make blending the images manually in Photoshop much easier.
  • Interest in the sky – While not a huge concern on the day that I was at this pond their were clear blue skies so I had to make a choice to exclude a good deal of the sky from the composition. I was fortunate that while I was composing some clouds wandered by into the frame and I was able to add some interesting shapes from the sky into the shot. The clouds added shape and form to the reflections in the water and added some calm into the scene.

A three image exposure and focus blend

Generally when I shoot images of this type I make a series of test shots for my exposure values. Sometimes one exposure will work for the entire scene and other times I need to make separate exposures for the highlights and shadows.

Once I have my composition set I will make a series of exposures starting at my bottom focus point and working my way up through all of the middle focus points in a straight line. Generally this is enough to cover sharpness throughout the image but here and there you will always have to make adjustments.

In this case I made a total of three exposures with a focus point set in the foreground, One for the background and a last one for the middle of the pond and the three logs.

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My first exposure with no edits that was made for the foreground grasses and logs.
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My second exposure with no edits that I shot for focus in the middle ground. My focus point was right on the log in the middle of the pond which kept the entire middle portion of the image very sharp.
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The third image I shot in my series for exposure and for focus on the distant background. Notice the dark foreground but the lighter background.

As you can see in the progression of the images the first two are exactly the same with the exception of where I placed my focus point. These two images I used to blend together the fore and middle ground into one image and the last image was blended in for the focus and exposure in the background.

These images will always need some post processing work in order to blend everything into a smooth, coherent image. I try not to shoot my exposures so far apart that you have to push the processing to the extreme, I just want to process enough to make the lighting look natural and how it was when I shot the scene.

The final look of the image

Once I import all of the images into my computer I always first do the blending and then as my final step I will edit the combined image. I find that it’s easier to do it that way and match the exposure them it is to edit all of them separately and then combine them. In a series of three images like this one or if there are several images I will always break it up into two image chunks so I don’t get lost in the editing process. Most of the images will be so similar that it’s very easy to forget which one you are working on.

Here I took the fore and middle ground images and combined them and once I was happy with the blend I would add in the final background shot and blend that in as well. Especially in this particular shot there are s lot of elements so there was quite a bit of brushwork along with my usual gradient process to get everything looking just the way I wanted to. The final image after processing is what the scene was like and the lighting is accurate. While I don’t always do these exposure blends as at times it’s not necessary but it is a tool that we can utilize.  In  this image we have an example of how to get multiple depths and focus points into one harmonious photograph.

 

A Mount Mansfield reflection at the Lake of the Clouds in Stowe,Vermont

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Summit of Mount Mansfield and reflection with the shoreline at Lake of the clouds.

Hiking to a majestic Vermont photography location

 Lake Of The Clouds is a glacial tarn located on Mount Mansfield in the spine of the Green Mountains.

A glacial tarn is a glacial lake in a circular shape formed by glacial scouring or movement during the retreat of glacial ice.

This location was on my list to visit for many years and finally in 2013 I was able to make the hike and shoot one of Vermont’s most wonderful landscapes.

The hike to the “Chin” or summit of Mount Mansfield takes about three hours and for this image I started hiking up at 3 a.m. to catch the sunrise. I knew ultimately I would probably miss the sunrise by a few minutes and on the day I made this hike there just was no cloud cover whatsoever.

In the end I was ok with the conditions that I had to shoot under as being in the location without another soul around and taking in the silence and majesty of it all was reward enough for me.

Sunrise light and difficult exposures

The scene above on the day that I visited presented a number of challenges. As with any landscape shoot generally they are entirely dependent on the weather and this sunrise was no exception. I am not the fastest hiker when I have 20 plus pounds of camera gear on my back so I missed sunrise by a few minutes but with no cloud cover any color was non-existent from my vantage point. The difficulties in getting this image included…..

  1. The weather- As I mentioned while a little on the cool side for an early morning hike the clouds had dissipated overnight leaving me without much of anything in the sky to anchor the composition. This is the curse of a landscape photographer but not an insurmountable challenge by any means.
  2. The position of the Sun- The suns position was still very low in the sky and being that I was on Vermont’s highest peak meant that parts of the image would be in deep shadow and other parts would be in bright sun. My best course of action was to use neutral density filters, a polarizing filter and to shoot two images for blending later on. It was just really close to impossible to capture the range of light here in one image.
  3. The fragile landscape- The area here is surrounded with fragile and rare vegetation and as such I tread very lightly and try not to disturb the area. My compositions were limited but I knew I wanted a shot of the mountain summit reflecting in the water. In the end I chose this composition as it was a good compromise of foreground interest, giving the viewer a sense of place all while not including much of the sky and with no impact to the environment.
  4. The sky- No clouds meant that I would have to try and include as little of the sky into my composition as possible. I wanted enough to give some scale and to show the brilliant blue color but not so much that the image looked empty. There are times when you can creatively use a blue sky in an image but my personal preference is to not include it in this situation as it wouldn’t add anything to the final image.

How I shot my landscape for an exposure blended image

Exposure blending images can be very easy or very difficult depending on the composition. This situation warranted shooting two images but the difficulty came in combining them as trees and driftwood on the left side extended into the horizon line making a simple composition from the horizon impossible. Essentially I used an angled gradient, lots of brushwork and a lot of corrections in post to get the image right where I wanted it.

The first image here that I shot was made for the shadows. Because of the suns position the shadows were hard to bring up in a single exposure and as you can see the highlights are quite extreme. While not blown out they did allow me some wiggle room for my exposure blend……

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My second image was made to control the highlights which were on the bright side with no cloud cover. Imagine a line from the top left corner of the image to the bottom right corner of the image and this is how I made my blend….Blending the best parts of the highlights and shadows along that imaginary line.

This is one of the reasons why this blend was on the difficult side as generally I try to have a clear horizon to make the stitching easier. In this image because of the composition I could not use a straight up and down gradient. The gradient to blend the images would have to be at an angle and this meant some more complicated brushwork would be needed. The highlight image exposure was pretty accurate to the conditions…..

 

Vermont-Mount Mansfield-Lake of the Clouds-Landscape photography-exposure blend

You can really see the difference here in this image for the highlights and how much shadow there was in the left side compared to the right. With no easy way to get a single capture I had to shoot two and correct the lighting for both and try to match them as close as possible to the original scene. Both of these files are original, straight out of camera files that did need a lot of post processing. It really is amazing that camera raw files have such a tremendous amount of information that can be pushed to create a striking image.

Work with what you are given

After all is said and done you often times need to just work with whatever conditions present themselves.

Knowing that I would not be back to this location for a long time I made the best choices I could to come home with something exceptional.

With a three a.m. start time and a three hour hike up coming away with no images was not an option.

Words cannot describe what it feels like to be in this location early in the morning with no people and not much in the way of sounds. It’s one of those Vermont locations that can be a crap shoot in terms of weather but the experience of being there and seeing the peak of Mount Mansfield rising above the water just cannot be missed.

 

Swift Currents

Canon 7d/ Canon 17-40mm F4 L series lens, UV filter, Cokin circular polarizer and three stop neutral density filter. ISO 100 35mm F16 @ 1 second. Smugglers Notch, Vermont.

A few weeks ago I was up hiking in Smugglers Notch near Mount Mansfield trying to catch some of the spring runoff we are having. It all starts up here and winds its way down into Lake Champlain. This particular falls is hard to get a good composition on from the front so I tried this angle from the side. I wanted more of a detail shot here as this particular section of falls is kind of ugly. Things are still pretty brown in the area as the forest is just starting to bloom..Hopefully in a few weeks there will be some more life to the woods here. Enjoy!

Ten pieces of Photography gear to never leave home without

An image of photography gear including a tripod, filter case, dust blower, tools, and related items

I am a huge fan of being a minimalist when it comes to the equipment that I carry on a hike. Weight and fatigue as I carry everything in my backpack are always a concern so I try to pack light and only carry the things I need. As Photographers have a huge bounty of available equipment to us and I must say that not all of it is useful. I always want to keep in mind variables like weather, where I am going, what I plan to shoot, how long I am planning to be out,  and what would be the minimum amount of equipment I would need to accomplish my goals for the day. This list covers only ten items but each are important and should be a part of any photographers basic kit of gear.

When starting out as a budding landscape photographer the tendency is to over pack with gear but with experience comes the knowledge that less is more. I really try to minimize what I carry down to the bare essentials because I would rather carry more water and food than anything else. Without the energy from the food you bring with you,  You may as well pack up and go home because it will show in your images. Keep your focus sharp, carry only what you need and your mind and body will thank you for it!

1. Dust blower -This is probably one of the more important items that I carry with me and I would never be caught without one. Often when there is wind present there will be small particles of dust in the air which can get on your gear. I have taken a perfectly clean and dust free camera out of my backpack and within a few minutes there is dust present on the lens. Use the dust blower first for getting rid of those larger, pesky dust particles, It really will be an image saver when your out in the middle of nowhere. Dust is our enemy out in the field and this is out first weapon to fight it. There are several companies that make these in various forms, I personally use the Giotto’s Red Rocket which cost me about 11 bucks. Simple, cheap and effective.

2. Microfiber cleaning cloth – After the dust blower the microfiber cleaning cloth comes in handy to gently clean your optics for removing fingerprints, water spray and other small dust particles. I always keep a few on hand so I can rotate and wash them as needed. These are very cheap running under 10 bucks but it’s always something I have on me. I clean mine with a tiny amount of liquid soap and some warm water every so often to keep them in tip-top shape. Always use the microfiber cleaning cloth…Never packets of lens cleaning tissue. The wood fibers in the tissues are just too rough for delicate camera optics and gear. I learned early on that they can leave tiny scratches in your glass, I’m just not willing to chance ruining thousands of dollars worth of equipment.

3. Tripod – Ah, Our old friend the trusty tripod. This is the most important tool that we can carry around and I am comforted to know that it is there and will perform faithfully for me. Getting my images straight and sharp are important qualities in a landscape shot. This is an instance where buying cheap will do you no good. Cheap tripods are just that…Cheap. You will never be happy and spending the money to get even a modest one that you will have for quite a long time is always better. Excellent tripods can be found in the $150 to $300 dollar range and will serve most Photographers needs. I use an Induro 8m alloy tripod with a bhd-1  ball head and together they cost me $300 dollars or so but worth every penny. It is well constructed, very stable and it is a panoramic ball head so I can do more types of work than a cheaper set up.

4. Headlamp or flashlights – Often I shoot on the fringes of the day at sunrise, sunset or late at night and find myself needing a little light once in a while. Headlamps are very useful and can be found at any outdoor gear store or online.  I use one made by Petzl and is very effective for night shots to illuminate parts of the scene or to otherwise add a little light on the subject at sunrise/sunset. You can find decent ones for $30 dollars and if you shoot when its dark out you are going to need one of these. Small, led flashlights are widely available on Amazon for cheap and I always carry one or two with me.

5. Circular Polarizer – One of the three must have filters for landscape and nature Photography. They reduce glare, Let you see through water and saturate colors.  They can help transform an otherwise dull shot into a great one and I always carry a screw-in type and one for my Cokin filter system. These can be expensive with a screw-in type at 77mm costing over $100 dollars but again well worth the expense. You will get immediate payback with much better image quality.

6. Graduated neutral density filter – Another must have filter for the nature Photographer which come in different strengths, Some block more light and some block less. These filters are neutral grey on one half and clear on the other half allowing you to even out the exposure and block light in areas of the composition such as sky with the landscape in the foreground. These will save your bacon when out shooting during the day. A basic set of one, two and three stops is more than enough to capture most scenes. Currently I am using  Cokin stackable ones with a Cokin filter holder and run about $25 dollars each but are worth the money. You can go all glass with this filters but then they start getting really expensive and you have to be much more careful with them.

7. Neutral density filter-The last of the must have filters for nature work. The neutral density filter works the same way as the graduated only the entire filter is neutral grey not one half which will block light throughout the image. These come in various strengths as well and help in achieving long exposure times. Again a set of one,  two and three stop neutral density filters and are great for for most situations and will really help you to make better images. One note of caution: Regular Neutral density filters are harder to stack together as it can create weird color casts to your images depending on the shooting conditions. However I routinely stack two graduated filters together and never really had an issue with the color cast.

8. Extra batteries and memory cards -It seems simplistic but I always carry a plentiful supply of both. Video and live view mode generally suck up a lot of juice and I prefer to shoot stills but I like to have enough power with me to do both. Memory cards can fail or you may be doing a ton of shooting and they are cheap so always carry a lot of them.

9. Remote shutter release-While not entirely necessary I do carry Canons rc-1 remote with me at all times. For night time shooting and star trail work they are essential and that’s mainly what I use it for as well as long exposure work. The Canon one is small, simple, easy to use and cheap to replace if lost. If you have shaky hands or it’s really cold out I would highly recommend one for those situations.

10. Tripod mount for a smartphone- I am using the Adobe creative cloud photographers subscription that comes with the lightroom app. In that app is a really good manual camera that lets you change exposure settings as well as recording the image in dng format. I find it’s easier to share online this way as I can shoot and edit raw files on my phone. It also transfers them into lightroom wirelessly when your near your computer so an excellent addition to the subscription.

 

10 tips for making better waterfall Photographs

Lower Bingham Falls cascade in Stowe, Vermont

Shooting waterfalls can be a great way as a beginning photographer to learn more about camera settings and filters. They provide great subject matter showing the power of nature and can be a great learning tool to master your camera. Here are ten tips that I have put together for you to use as a starting point when working in this type of photography. Mastering the waterfall shot can be a huge confidence boost when your are just beginning to learn how the camera controls work. Of course all shooting situations are different but by following these ten simple steps you can come home with more keepers.

1. Look for overcast light- Always check weather reports and look for overcast or relatively cloudy days. You will need an even light throughout the composition to avoid what I call “hot spots” or blown out highlights. (These are areas where the water is cresting over rocks or direct sunlight that is filtering down through the forest canopy. Without the overcast light these areas are difficult to expose properly in a long exposure.  I generally use evaluative metering as the camera is going to take into account the whole image area including the areas around the water which without even light can become over or under exposed. Experimentation is key here as it may take a few shots to nail down the exposure.

2. Use a circular polarizer – Don’t be afraid to use one of these bad boys. I was at first but once I did use them they became an indispensable part of my gear. In this instance, I would not buy cheap. You will have this filter for a long time and more expensive equals better. My first one was a B+W 77mm circular polarizer which I still have. B+W make excellent, well constructed filters. In fact the one I own I accidentally dropped on a rock, putting a small scratch in it but has no resulting loss of image quality. This investment will pay off as the filter will help to reduce glare from the water’s surface and give you that “see through” look to it. It will add depth to the image by saturating the colors and will allow a slightly longer exposure.

3. ISO- Right off the bat when setting up the image I know that if I want the long exposures I will be using Iso’s from 100 to 200 and no more. Using a low Iso will help to reduce grain in the image from the long exposure but is also another tool to make the exposure longer by allowing less light to reach the sensor. However if you are doing the opposite and freezing the waters motion Iso’s in the 400 range in sunlight will allow for a shorter exposure. Remember to use your judgement depending on the scene and the light. Ask yourself what you want to do..Do I want to freeze the water?,  Which would mean Iso’s above 200 or do I want to record the water over a long period of time? Which means an Iso of 100.

4. F-stop I always have my camera in aperture priority mode and using F-stops in the 8 to 16 range will give you the best depth of field while reducing the effects of blur that can come from diffraction at the higher F-stops. F8 will be the sweet spot but I always shoot in the F11 to F16 range. You must test your own equipment but for me these work by letting me lengthen that exposure time and giving me great sharpness throughout the image.

Green moss and vegetation with a waterfall

5. Shutter speeds and Neutral density filters –  Shutter speeds from ¼ to 1 second will give you perfectly acceptable results. I prefer to work from the 1 second and up range but again it all depends on the light in the scene. I am currently using the Cokin filter system which lets me stack different filters in front of each other rather that the more expensive screw in type. A neutral density filter simple has a neutral grey color throughout and restricts the amount of light entering the lens without changing the image. They come in different strengths and are a crucial component in long exposure work.

6. Choose your time of year carefully This point is important as the time of year will affect how the water is running in a particular falls. While they can be shot successfully in all seasons here in Vermont I think the summer and fall     months are best. The spring months bring fast-moving water from melting snows however the landscape around the falls can be a bit boring. Not much is growing and their isn’t much color so I think close up views are best here. In     the summer and fall seasons you have your friend the forest canopy to help in providing a nice, even light as well as blocking a good portion of direct sunlight from hitting the composition. You also will have the green colors in the summer and all of the various foliage colors in the fall. Winter is a challenge as I think you can have too much white in an image from a long exposure but not impossible to get a decent waterfall shot in this season.

7. Use a stackable filter system Using a stackable filter system from Cokin or Lee instead of the screw in type will allow you to get the benefits of your three main filters for landscape and waterfall  work…The circular polarizer, the neutral density filter and the graduated neutral density filter. The other major advantage to these is cost. I use a Canon 17-40mm L series lens with a 77mm filter diameter and just a screw in circular polarizer alone is well over $100 dollars. The cost savings has allowed me to have a number of these filters in different strengths to cover most shooting situations that I would face.
8. Compose so the viewer is right in front of the falls – While this is not always possible I want the viewer to feel like they are standing right in front of the falls. I want them to feel the rush of the water and the mist from the water spray. I just like how dynamic that kind of composition can look versus one from above or from really far away.

9. Wide angle or close up?- The weather in Vermont can be a cruel mistress some times as it can change very rapidly. There are days when the clouds are low, flat and have now form or shape which can make exposures with waterfalls in them difficult and the resulting composition sometimes can be a little boring. I never let weather stop me from shooting and in these times I try to look for some really interesting close up views instead of the wide-angle ones. These detail shots are great as they slow you down and let you see what otherwise you may have missed. I save the wide angles for when I want to get the entire falls into the shot or when I want to include the sky in the frame.

10. Shoot at sunrise or sunset-  This is a time honored piece of advice but one that works equally as well when doing waterfall work. The low and even light at these times will give you nice long exposures and highlights that are not overexposed. The white from the water will really stand out against the darker background,  The glare on the water will be reduced and these times of day make getting the exposure right much easier. I love these shots when I am out in the woods early in the morning as it can be really quiet and lets you focus on your craft.