During 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.
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.
Generally during the holiday season I get a few weeks off at the end of the year from work and I try to get a good deal of photography work done during that time. The weather can be a fickle, Cruel mistress here in Vermont during the winter season and I had two weeks of disappointment waiting for some decent weather to role in. I suppose it’s the bitter irony of being a landscape photographer as you get fooled day after day into thinking the conditions for shooting are going to materialize and then they never do.
That’s probably the most frustrating thing about doing this kind of work and what challenges you to be a better photographer in the face of adversity. For example today’s image was shot around a half hour or so before sunset and the weather conditions were brutal even though you don’t get any indications of that from the image. I had left my house about an hour before sunset and the sky was clear blue but with the help of some trusty apps and my intuition it really paid off to go out and shoot on a miserable day. Sure enough as soon as I left my house the wind really kicked up but as the sun set more and more clouds rolled into the area assuring me of a decent sunset.
The challenging image
This image presented a bit of a challenge as the wind was really whipping around and the sun was setting making me have to decide about how best to shoot this scene. Normally I don’t point directly into the sun but in this case I felt like changing things up. The sun was creating excellent shadows in the snow and the glancing light on the ice made for some nice color versus all white in the snow. Because I was losing the light and with the windy conditions I bumped the ISO up to 500 so I could get some fast shutter speeds. I added in a three stop graduated neutral density filter on my lens to tame the sky and made two exposures….One at a high aperture for the sunburst and one to add some light to the foreground.
I wasn’t expecting to get anything sharp but I managed to get a few sets of keepers despite the windy conditions. In Photoshop I blended the two images together with a gradient but with the irregular shape of the icy shoreline I had to zoom in at 100% and tweak the middle ground with some brush work to fully refine the blend and make it seamless. The camera doesn’t always interpret what your eyes see accurately and that’s where my eyes and mind take over in the editing process.
I always wait to perform any edits until after the two images are blended together seamlessly. I did a slight crop of the top and bottom and added in a bit of color in the highlights and shadows that was present but the camera recorded more on the blue side. The highlights in the snow are quite strong in a few spots but not really all that distracting and pretty typical of winter scenes here.
I was really happy with the final result even though this image did present some issues with the jagged horizon in the middle ground. Generally you will have some areas that lose focus and there were a couple of small spots in the middle ground but nothing that wasn’t easily blended with the sharp sky image. Wind and blowing snow can be challenging but shooting in these tough winters for a number of years now gave me the experience to overcome.
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!
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.
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!
Usually the sunsets here in Vermont are just fantastic one day and then followed by several days of bad weather and overcast and flat skies. You have to make the most of the short windows you have especially at the end of Winter and in the early Spring. Every year is different of course but we seem to be in this pattern this year. We had a warm up followed by a cool down with more snow several weeks ago and the sky opened up just a bit for me to shoot this sunset.
Here in Burlington we have a huge open area park with quite an expansive view of Lake Champlain. The inner breakwater at the bottom of the image is used in Wintertime to store boat docks and off to camera right is Burlington’s Coast Guard station. The clouds here formed into one giant blob of darkness soon after I shot this so time was of the essence for this sunset. You can see to the last of the lake ice with some seagulls perched on top! In the background you can see the majestic Adirondack Mountains…I feel lucky everyday to be able to drive 5 minutes to see sites like this!
It’s all about perspective when it comes to shooting images at locations you have visited many times. Changing your perspective several times and really working a composition always 100% of the time will lead to some surprising results! I am fortunate to live in a state where the locations I often return to change throughout the year. While it can be a challenge at times especially in the icy grip of Winter to get something new from an old location I never leave a composition without first exhausting all of its possibilities.
This image was shot during a fairly cold sunset over Lake Champlain at a park that I visit quite often throughout the year. The waves from the lake over the course of the Winter build up a fairly thick coating of ice on the shoreline in the area making it difficult to get down to the water’s edge in places. Not finding good compositions on the ice I stepped back several paces and found this composition looking out between these two trees. I liked the combination of the setting sun with the fading light striking the ice.
Here I had to do an exposure blend of two images. I wanted a certain level of light on the foreground as well as to preserve the light in the sunset something impossible to do in one exposure given the composition and the contrast between the light and dark areas. I try to keep my blends rather simple…..I placed the two images over each other and I used a brush set to about 30 to 40% opacity to blend in the color in the sky. Fine tuning is the key along the edges of the icy rocks and the tree limbs but I think the results were worth it!
When the clouds and overcast skies do break around here in Vermont, We have been treated to some really fantastic sunsets and winter landscape photography! I try to get out as often as I can when I see the conditions are favorable and I was treated to quite a show last week. Due to the extreme cold we had the waves hitting the shoreline were creating some really great ice formations giving the rocks here an alien world sort of look. While there is not much snow to speak of there are all kinds of crazy shapes in the ice making for some good foregrounds.
Here I was getting some good color in the sky but the positioning of the sun made the foregrounds a bit darker than I would have liked. This image is a two image exposure blend and while the two exposures are pretty close to each other just that small difference in settings allowed me to add in a hint of light and detail to the foreground rocks while keeping the gorgeous color in the sky. I always want to keep my exposure blends believable, That is I don’t want to push the foreground exposure so much that it doesn’t match the light in the sky. I wanted a hint of light and to make the image as close to what I was actually seeing as possible.
Image Data: ISO 100. 17mm. F11 @ 1/8 and 1/25. No filters.
Landscape photography is kind of like gambling as it is so dependent on the weather.
You take as many precautions as you can, Do all of your research to get the best image and the weather can change on you in an instant leading to little to nothing to show for your hard work.
For me I have always looked at the pursuit of great landscape image like a duel between the Yankees and the Red Sox. While the games themselves are always filled with excitement they can bring you to these incredible emotional highs or lows.
Landscape photography is no different here in Vermont where we are always subjected to quickly changing conditions and challenging lighting scenarios. The real trick is how to overcome so-so conditions and pull a beautiful image out of what would otherwise be boring.
Can boring really be beautiful?
I have been through this scenario a thousand times shooting landscapes where you roll up to your intended composition and the sky just totally craps out on you leaving you with some decisions to make. Is there really nothing to shoot at the location? Do you leave? Do you continue on as a scouting mission? In the image that I captured above there were a few elements that drew me and made me want to stay versus throwing in the towel. Who wants to do that when you can employ all of your creative powers to shoot what others may dismiss….
The color palette- While the clouds crapped out on me the haze in the background sky caused the rising sun to create a lot of pink and purple hues in the sky. The sky may not be as dramatic without some big, puffy clouds in the background there certainly was some really interesting color.
The thin layer of Spring ice- Due to the air temperature while I was shooting there was a very thin sheen of ice which was covering the lake. The ice was reflecting all of the awesome color in the sky back up into the scene surrounding everything with this wonderful, purple color.
The weathered look on the barge poles- Normally during the summer season the area here is covered with boats making this image impossible except in the Winter time. These wooden poles take a lot of weather and abuse over the years but they have this time tested quality and weathered appearance that i did not want to pass up.
The elements in the background- There is almost an s curve in this image as your eyes move from the poles to the lighthouse and then on to the snow covered mountains beyond. The wooden poles draw you in front and center but the rest of the elements tell the story…..The lighthouse and breakwater are surrounded by water well above normal levels and you can clearly tell that Spring has come as the snow is melting on the mountain tops beyond.
Cropping- By cropping tight on the poles I got rid of any distracting elements including just a hint of clouds in the sky. Much of the scene here was on the boring side but the tight crop told the story of the image with just the right balance of elements better than a wide shot of really nothing in the sky. The purple colors act as a backdrop making the foreground really pronounced.
So how do we draw the viewer in?
There are a number of ways to move the viewer through the image but when it comes to challenging conditions it becomes much harder. This is a time when all of our time spent honing our craft comes into play as well as our artistic vision. You have to ask yourself in this situation how do I make something out of nothing? What is the best way to tell my story? In the image above I used a number of techniques to bring home a decent image including….
Composition and the s curve- The s curve is a classic composition technique that is very effective for leading your viewer through your image. In my case here while not a typical s curve the ridges of ice just behind the mooring poles do form an s curve leading your eye from the poles to the lighthouse and then over to the mountains.
Tight cropping- The original capture is not much different from this final image with the exception of a slight crop on the top and bottom of the image. The tight framing allowed me to get just three elements into the frame that tied together to the location while avoiding anything that made the image too busy.
The change in seasons- Suggested in the image is the change from Winter into Spring. Here in New England this is a welcome change and the image includes ice, snow covered mountains, thin lake ice, and higher than normal lake water due to snow melt which is visible at the lighthouse and breakwater.
Color- Color is always an effective way to draw in our viewers and here the image is dominated by shades of purple. The poles, lighthouse and mountains really stand out in all of the purple giving the image a lot of contrast.
Dominate foreground- Prominent foregrounds are the start of our story in the image and begin to lead your viewer through it. Here the barge poles split the frame in half but the curving lines of the ice lead you from the bottom of the image to the poles then on to the lighthouse and the mountains in the background. The foreground puts the viewer in a specific place and they are not left wondering where they are.
Contrast between elements- In my image there is some really nice contrast between all of the main elements in the image. While the wooden poles are somewhat dark in the foreground the lighthouse and mountains really standout as the foreground fades from dark to light in the background. The colors are subtly different in the lighting transition which adds a bit of drama and the white elements in the frame really stand out.
Conditions always change but your artistic vision does not
Weather and lighting conditions are constantly changing and something we will always have to contend with when shooting landscapes. There will be times and I can attest to this that you will simply get skunked when it comes to landscape work. While we are always free to walk away I personally love the challenge of finding an image in challenging conditions. It sharpens your artistic vision, Frees you creatively and when the time comes to make images in stellar light you will be ready.
The other day I saw a really great post by Mark Stagi at Digitalphotobuzz.com on how to create a simulated light leak effect from a toy camera within Lightroom 3. It was such great post and such a very simple technique that I link to the original article here. It sounded so interesting that late last night while editing images I decided to try the technique out myself. (I cannot claim credit for this idea but Link back to Mark’s article for the credit to him.)
Above is a HDR image I took a few weeks ago on Perkins Pier here in Burlington, Vermont. This is part of the waterfront area that sits on the shores of Lake Champlain. What struck me about the image was the no fishing sign on the side of the docks…They were still locked in some ice from the winter. After I processed the image I was happy with it but it seemed a little on the boring side.
I wanted to quickly describe what I did to produce the final image…
1. I imported the final HDR image into Lightroom 3 and edited with the following:
Vibrance and Saturation: +10
Medium contrast setting
Sharpening and Noise reduction both set to 30
2. Next I imported into Nik Silver Efex Pro and applied the Holga preset and a red filter to the image.
3. I then imported the image into Focal Point 2 adding a blurring effect to draw the viewer to the sign and dock.
4. Next I re-imported back into Lightroom 3 where I added two graduated filters to the left side of the image. I tried to place them so that the light leak effect looked random and off centered a bit. I added a bit of a red/pink tone to the image as well. I then added a post crop vignette of +15 which blew out the highlights just a bit in the image adding to the effect. Instead of the corners being darkened I think it made the light leak a little more interesting by lighting them.
5. Finally I added Grain/Size and roughness all set at 50 to give the image a vintage feel! See that’s all their was to it…easy and simple but a really cool effect. I must thank Mark for his original and great piece on this technique!
Sometimes I have all of the best intentions to get some good photography work done but I do have those days where the resulting work is not quite what I expected. I can hike to a location, pre-visualize the composition, read maps, check the weather and plan all I want but there are times when you just can’t “find your set” as I call it. The despair sinks in as I hike and hike and look in all direction for just the right composition but it is nowhere to be found. It’s a hard to describe feeling but probably most like a painter who does not have any paints to create with.
It is a strange sensation on that one day every so often where the creative mojo just is not flowing and you end up hiking for hours with maybe one or two shots to show for it. I try to handle these days in a positive way, Telling myself at least I came out and looked, got some exercise in the process, and tried as hard as I could to work on my images. For me it’s a simple matter of keeping my focus with photography and going out rather than sitting at home and complaining that I did not get any work done.
Winter hiking can be a crapshoot
In the Winter months I often find myself hiking in the Mount Mansfield State Forest around the Smugglers Notch Ski Area. This is a favorite area for me as most importantly it feels like home when I go there. I have spent many years snowboarding at Smuggs but also the last four years exploring the area quite extensively looking for some good photo compositions. Route 108 runs from the town of Jeffersonville up to the Smugglers Notch Ski Resort and the base of Mount Mansfield. It continues through the notch and down the other side to the Stowe Ski Resort and Stowe village. After the first snow this road is closed which makes it even easier to have access to this area for hiking.
On a rushed drive in early November 2010 for a short window of ok weather before a “winter storm” of warm temps and rain moved into the area. Normally I don’t come out at this time of day but I wanted to try to get some work done and the weather was going to become uncooperative soon. The day itself was very overcast with not a hint of sunlight anywhere. The clouds were flat and lifeless making wide-angle shots with the sky pointless. With no sunlight the light on the snow had no contrast making everything look grey, difficult exposures but not impossible.
Hiking into the lower valley the snow was up to my knees making it slow going. The trees themselves were trying to stop my progress grabbing me and my backpack at every turn. It was almost as if the forest was trying to say “Not today son.” With the temps being warm the snow had the consistency of “good snowball snow”, easy to compact when you walk on it. I had to be careful where I walked as I didn’t want to ruin the snow in any possible compositions. My location was a stream which runs through this valley and down into the Brewster River a few miles downstream. The snow had covered much of the rocks in the stream with those awesome domes of snow making for some great compositions.
Always look on the bright side
Being that it is early winter here the compositions were difficult as along the stream there wasnt many places to set up for some decent shots. The ice was not that thick and several times as I stepped down to the water I broke through. I tried many different angles and compositions along a pretty long stretch of the stream. Bad light, No contrast and a host of other factors made this one of the days where no matter how hard I tried I could not get the image I was after. In total after three hours of hiking I got four images. I did not look at this day as a failure though. I always try to look at the positives of any shoot versus the negatives, No day is the same and I take it as a learning experience. The one thing that I always tell myself is “If you come away from the shoot with just one image you are proud of then the day was a success.”