Using Lightrooms graduated filter and adjustment brush to correct a landscape photograph

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My final corrected image of Mount Mansfield in Winter from a camera raw file.

The initial image capture is only the beginning

When we capture our original camera raw files we need to look at them as simply the start of expressing our artistic vision. We are doing more than  just making an image. We are gathering enough data in our raw files to be able to realize that start into a finished image.

The image editing process is different for everyone but all of the tools are the same. Like in cooking there are a thousand different ways to peel an onion but eventually we get to the same result no matter what method we use.

It is the same for our raw files in that there is no one correct way to get there but by using the power  of our raw files we can come up with a final, polished and corrected image.

How can we get there? What tools do we need to achieve our photographic vision. The answer lies in The graduated filter and adjustment brush in Lightroom.

Camera Raw files are boring

The raw files come straight out of the camera with no processing so what you’re seeing on import into your computer is exactly what you shot. Keep in mind though that unlike a JPEG which is processed in camera, Raw files are flat and boring.

They need processing to bring out all of the best data in the image so a well composed and properly exposed image is essential. While JPEG’s tend to get corrupted over time as they are an already edited image, Raw files can be re edited over and over until your final image emerges. Take for example my original image file for the above image and it’s histogram in Lightroom…..

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View of Mount Mansfield with fresh snow and clouds from a field in Underhill, Vermont
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My example image’s histogram from Lightroom.

Now this is a typical example of a camera raw file as it is straight out of camera. You can see that the image is rather flat with no contrast and there are some issues that need to be addressed in the editing process.

A scene like this can be difficult to shoot as the clouds bounce around bright light at times with the sun popping in and out from behind them. Couple that with it being Winter and the snow being really reflective and you have a pretty tricky exposure situation on your hands.

My Histogram is actually looking really good as the image was exposed to the right just before the highlights would be blown out. This is good as we can pull those highlights in during the editing process without messing up the shadows or making the image to dark. The issues I need to address are easily fixed but do require some time….

  1. The upper portion of the image with the clouds – It’s a little too bright at the top and you can’t really see a lot of the darker shadows in the clouds, Those highlights wash everything out and there isn’t much detail. The blue is washed out a bit as well even though when I shot this it was much closer to what the finished image looked like….That’s the trick really. Making our image look dynamic and just as we shot it without going overboard with out edits.
  2. The Mount Mansfield range in the middle ground – There are nice highlights there but it’s the shadows that are somewhat washed out due to some haze and the fact that in the image it’s snowing on Mount Mansfield itself as I was shooting. It’s really not bad but it just needs some work to make the image more appealing.
  3. The band of trees and forest below the mountain – Again this area is flat and has no contrast. The clouds were casting some interesting shadows in this area and it just isn’t dynamic enough for me. I need to add some contrast and depth to this area as the foreground draws you in and leads you through the trees and to the mountain beyond.
  4. The foreground – This area here is ok but it just needs to be brightened up with some contrast added.  All of the grass sticking out of the snow gets washed out in all of that white so I also would like to see some contrast here as well.

The graduated filter and adjustment brush tools

So we have our camera raw file and I am feeling pretty good about it but I know that this image can be so much better. The main tools that did the heavy lifting on this image were the graduated filter tool and the adjustment brush tool. Both of these tools are great as you can target them to specific areas and use them multiple times within one image.

The graduated filter tool is very handy for corrections because unlike a traditional filter You can spin the tool 360 degrees making it more versatile for correcting landscapes. Manual filters and their holders are a bit more cumbersome in the field so I use them to get my images as close as I can then do more detailed corrections with the graduated density tool.

The other great thing about the tool is that you can use them multiple times in an image where this is not possible manually so it opens up some more opportunities in images that otherwise might not make the cut. I use them quite liberally because I can use one for a clarity adjustment in one area of the image but I can also use one to enhance color in the sky of a sunrise or sunset.

You can selectively use them for different edits just like you ca with the adjustment brush…..While the graduated density tool is used for more broad edits over bigger portions of the image you can use the adjustment brush for more targeted, precise adjustments in select areas to really build on your vision for the final, corrected image.

The adjustment brush work just like any other brush in Photoshop in that you can change its size and use it for specific adjustments in very localized parts of your image. You can also use it multiple times per image so say you want to make an exposure adjustment in one specific area you can just brush the area you want to change then move the appropriate sliders.

Using both tools on our image

Without getting into a very long conversation about my workflow I used three different graduated filters in the image to target the sky, the middle ground and the foreground. The image had a great deal of highlights to contend with and it also needed some contrast and haze adjustments.

Now these initial edits really improved my image however I performed four corrections with the adjustment brush to really make the image pop and take care of some of its flaws. One edit was made for some of the highlights in the clouds, another was used for the mountain to get rid of the haze and add in some contrast, Another was used on the middle ground forest and trees to add contrast and another was used on the foreground to bring out the contrast in the grasses and add some pop to them.

Essentially my workflow goes from a starting point which is a landscape preset I use on all of my images as an overall first step. I then hone this some more with some basic edits again to the overall image and then I dial in more concise edits with the graduated filter tool and the adjustment brush.

Some images require more and some less and it all depends on where I want to go with the final outcome. Editing is as subjective as wine tasting and how we best utilize the tools at out disposal. This image was quite flat to begin with and originally I made a really nice black and white out of it but I also felt the color version was quite nice as I love the blue color in Winter scenes. Lightroom has a lot of powerful tools including ones that may be overlooked and the graduated density tool and adjustment brush can really help to lift your images from boring to exciting.

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…..

 

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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.

 

Walking On Giants

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View of “The Chin” on the Mount Mansfield ridge line with building storm clouds.

I had a chance recently to hike Mount Mansfield from the Stowe, Vermont side and spend an overnight shooting the sunset, the stars and milky way at night and then the sunrise in the morning. I usually only get the chance to do one or two hikes like this during the year so I jumped at the chance to do this one. I have hiked on or around this mountain many times over the years but this was my first time going up the toll road on the Stowe side and hiking up the ridge line from the visitors center. There are two ends to the ridge line one of which is called “The Nose” and at the other end is “The Chin.”

The Nose which is located next to the small visitors center unfortunately is no longer accessible for hiking as there are several cell towers located on it. You can still shoot around the area but hiking isn’t allowed. The Chin is Mount Mansfield’s other distinctive feature and sits at the other end and the entire ridge line forms a very distinctive shape that is well-known here in Vermont. This entire area is a black and white photographers dream providing a wealth of compositions no matter where you look.  While the color file looks great I felt this image really would be a stunner in black and white. This was one of my first shots of the evening a few hours before sunset and I saw the clouds building up over the Chin.

There really wasn’t much work to be done to this file to get it ready at all. I did a very slight crop on the top left corner because there was a small bit of blue sky that I wanted to minimize slightly. I did my usual tweaks for exposure, clarity, contrast, etc and some lens correction because the Canon 17-40mm has distortion at every focal length. The black and white conversion was done in Silver Efex Pro 2 and here I toned down the highlights a bit because the setting sun was shining into the trees on this face. The clouds building behind the mountain is what caught my eye on this one. The mountain top was a great foreground to them!

Tracks

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Ski tracks on a sledding hill with forest and Mount Mansfield in the distance.

It has been quite awhile since I have done a proper black and white and the conditions were just perfect on the day that I shot today’s image to do one! The light and weather conditions were looking really good so I grabbed my gear and headed out to a few spots that I have been wanting to shoot for some time. The location here sits at the base of Mount Mansfield on the road leading to Underhill State Park. I have driven by this scene countless times and with a good coating of snow it was ripe for a few photographs.

The area here is a small hill and hay-field that gets quite tracked up after a good snow so it can be quite difficult to get to this field while it is still untouched. In this instance I really wanted to show the various tracks around the hill as that’s the areas purpose in the winter….Sledding, Skiing and fun times. I thought what better way to highlight the dramatic clouds and mountain in the background then to put these ski tracks front and center in the foreground. I thought they made a nice leading line into the distance and they drew me into those clouds above Mount Mansfield.

This image was part of a series that I though I would blend for focus but as it turned out this image was really sharp front to back so a blend was not needed. The focus point was roughly two-thirds into the image and it worked out well with a lot less processing for me. The sun was coming in and out of the clouds while I was shooting but there was just enough cloud cover to soften the light as it created some interesting shadows on the scene. I worked with what the scene gave me and while the snow was tracked up I think the tracks really added something special to this shot rather than a bland field of white.

Titan

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View of Mount Mansfield from Spruce Peak and Sterling Mountain on the opposite side of Smugglers Notch, Vermont.

I love finding new vistas and exploring all of their photographic potential. In this case a photographer buddy of mine showed me the location for today’s image and it was quite the view! Years ago I looked for this spot as I had seen it on maps but it is quite well hidden at the top of a ski resort. Needless to say I jumped at the chance to hike up a mountain to shoot some snow and to finally see where this spot was located. The area here is just like home to me as I have hiked and explored it for years now. It certainly is a thrill to hike up a pretty icy trail to finally see this view at the end of the journey.

This view is exactly what you see when you walk up a slight incline through some tight trees to a view of the backside of Mount Mansfield and Smugglers Notch. I knew right away that this was going to be my shot of the day as the small tree with the imposing mountain behind really spoke to me when I first saw it. The view from here is just incredible with spectacular views of Mount Mansfield ,Smugglers Notch, Stowe and the Stowe ski area and even Lake Champlain off in the distance. This really is the heart of the Green Mountains!

The day that we hiked was blue skies and zero clouds so I made two exposures for blending here as the close trees threw the mountains beyond too out of focus for my tastes as well as the pretty intense sunlight making exposing for both challenging. If you look closely at this image at 100 percent you can even see three people standing on the top of Mount Mansfield in the background. It’s nice to be able to hike in these mountains ans see how they change form season to season. A nice hike on a warm day with some fresh, first snow of the season. It really doesn’t get any better than that!

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Mountain Fire

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Last Light from sunset on the slopes of Mount Mansfield.

Curiosity got me during the foliage season as I wanted to see up close how sunset looked on the slopes of Mount Mansfield. Normally I can see it from a distance but I had a feeling that the light would do some amazing things when you add in the color of the leaves. The road to one of my favorite spots has a small pull out with this view and I can tell you I have looked at this shot countless times. I shot this years ago with a wide-angle but I think a much better shot is with a telephoto so you can get much closer and really show off what an incredible mountain this is. Lucky for me a friend has loaned me a long lens so i was finally able to pull off this shot!

I made this image just before peak color and this frame is moments before twilight and the sun dipping below the horizon. Literally right after I shot this the whole face of the mountain here turned dark and I lost this beautiful color. The area just below the image frame is on private property and there is a small house that sits in a field with probably the most stunning view of Mount Mansfield. The sunset light really added something special here and with the foliage color made the mountain look like it was on fire.

A challenging shot for sure due to the difference in exposure levels of the sky and the slopes of the mountain. Most of the weather I had during this foliage season was blue skies and zero cloud cover so I tried to minimize the sky in this one. I had to tame the sky exposure with some neutral density filters but other than that just my usual minor corrections for exposure, white balance, etc. Not a bad way to end a day of foliage shooting!

Mountains Shadow

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Forest foliage at the base of Mount Mansfield in Underhill, Vermont.

This year during the foliage season I decided to take a different approach to my photography work. In years past I would head into the woods, Shoot waterfalls and trees, Then repeat over and over. Don’t get me wrong I love that type of work but this year I wanted to do something different and take a big step out of that box. I did much more scouting then shooting to prepare for future foliage photo ops but I also started to make more trips to random roads and places I have never been to before. I really believe that getting lost on a country road has a ton of benefits…One of which is finding new and unique compositions!

I focused a lot of my attention in the Mount Mansfield area this year and I was rewarded for all of my driving and hiking with shots like today’s image. The road I was on here is a dirt one and it skirts around the base of the mountain giving some impressive views of the peak. It was a blue sky day but I really liked the contrast between the colorful leaves, The mountain top and the tiny bit of blue sky I included in the top of the image. There is something special about Vermont’s mountains and finding views like this really leave you speechless.

The weather for this year’s foliage season I do have to say was fantastic with a few exceptions. My days of shooting fell into two categories…Either blue skies with no clouds or stormy days with mixed lighting of all types. Exposures were a challenge and with several weeks of little to no rain many of the streams and rivers were just not flowing. I made do with the weather I was given and found some new shooting locations in the process!

Tranquility

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The top of Mount Mansfield reflected in the Lake Of The Clouds.

There are certain places here in Vermont that instill a certain amount of peace and tranquility in me when I am on location and making images. In many places around the world it’s rare to find places where you are totally alone and at peace with what you are doing there. I am fortunate here where I live to have many such places especially in the early morning hours. It’s nice to go and reset myself after a long week of work or if I haven’t been out shooting for more than a week.

This was my first time up here at The Lake Of The Clouds and it was quite a beautiful site. With the exception of a few overnight campers up on the very top of the mountain my hiking companion and I were the only soul’s here at the pond! A 3 a.m. start time brought us to this spot at about 7 in the morning and while there wasn’t a cloud in the sky it was still breathtaking none the less. A tough spot to shoot as the pond is in deep shadow and if you wait too long for the sun to add in some light your highlights can look a bit harsh. It can also be tough to predict what the weather will be like at the elevation here so often you have to run with what your given!

The water here is hardly disturbed by the wind so you can get some awesome shots here of Mount Mansfield’s distinct shape reflecting nicely in the water of the pond. The water is also very clear with many of the shoreline rocks visible so you can also get some great shots with different foreground elements in them. Made a simple blend of two images here due to the extreme exposure difference in the rocks and the mountains. The hike is quite a moderate one but your exertion will pay itself off with a great set of images!

Under The Surface

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A culvert and waterfall near Underhill State Park in Underhill, Vermont

It’s amazing the things you can find sometimes just wondering around familiar territory. I have hiked around this area for a number of years and driven on the road which is above the image frame here many times and I never noticed these old style cement culverts which were running under the road. Normally I hate shooting these because they are the modern, metal type, But I happened to find two of these old, gnarly looking culverts while exploring this section of river. The river winds its way down from Mount Mansfield and along the road which leads its way up to the state park parking lot.

I shot this at the beginning of our current rainy season in May which is still ongoing this week. Portions of the road and riverbank were well saturated with water when I shot this image and some spots were completely caving in and down into the river. Compositions were difficult because of the trees and debris from the washed out riverbanks falling every which way across the river. Here I was drawn to the forest growth which is starting to envelope the old culvert. It’s hard to find these remnants of the past but probably 80 percent of the roads here are still dirt so if you look hard enough you can find them!

Pretty straightforward processing here with some simple tweaks in Lightroom. I fixed a slight yellow tint in the highlights with some basic clarity and exposure adjustments. Nothing fancy here….Just a peaceful composition shot on a rainy Vermont day!

Image Data: ISO 100. 20mm. F11 @ 5 seconds. Cokin P series circular polarizer.