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.

Table setting at a Diner- An iPhone image

Utensils-diner-fork-knife-spoon-restaurant

The funeral and the Diner

I am traveling for a few days to New York to attend my Grandmothers funeral and am without my main camera. I still have my iPhone on me and that allows me to process and upload here and there when I can. Traveling with a young child is daunting as I am sure any parent can attest too and the photographer in me is always looking for images no matter the situation.

As we left Vermont and came into New York a hungry four year old means stop at the closest Diner and grab a bite to eat! We did not know the area well so a quick google search led us to Kerries Northway Diner in Queensbury, New York. I am always dubious of star recommendations from the internet but four year olds do not like to be hungry and waiting.

I have been on a kick lately of trying to find beauty in the mundane and challenging myself to look at scenes I might otherwise pass by to unlock whatever images they may contain. I want to shed any judgements of a particular scene and really dig down to it’s essence. Simplifying my work and coaxing images out of something that many would find ugly is most certainly one way to find daily inspiration.

The Diner and training your eye to see

I was skeptical for sure but always up for adventure I wanted to approach the Diner the way my daughter would….No judgements or any pre-conceived ideas about what may be inside. Changing my mindset here looking for images served me well because I was pleasantly surprised by what we found.

Photography for me is a lot of ups and downs. One minute I am in love with the process and the next discouraged with the work I am producing. I think it’s how we get through these low points that define us As Photographers and at the same time Even during a low point I am still always training my eyes to see images.

The Diner was filled with locals, decor with lots of old school charm and friendly staff. The place had a lot of positive vibes, no pretense, A raw atmosphere for the average joe. I could have spent a whole day in there with my main camera but unfortunately time was not on my side in this regard.

The final image and simplicity

When we were ordering the waitress set down our table settings and I slide one of them over in front of me. Looking at the shapes of the napkin and silverware against the backdrop of the vintage table I knew that I had my image. The color and texture of the table was most striking to me and I processed the image to give it a vintage feel.

It’s funny how the simplest of things can stare you in the face you just have to be open to the opportunity. While this was not a complicated image it’s simple nature tells a story all by itself with nothing much needed to be added. Out of all the things that I could have shot this table is what drew me in. I could have overlooked it but if your not constantly shooting, training your eyes or pushing yourself and your work then that to me is how your inspiration dies.

Still Waters

Vermont-Sunrise-Lake Champlain-Burlington
Clouds with sunrise light over Lake Champlain from Oakledge Park in Burlington, Vermont.

*If you would like to purchase a copy of this image it can be found right here!

It is amazing how you can look at the sky one minute and say to yourself ” Damn not much is going to happen there for sunrise” and the next minute something magical happens. Such was the case early one morning when I was exploring some new compositions at Oakledge Park in Burlington, Vermont. I spend a great deal of time here as the park is very close to my home but it offers easy access to a wealth of compositions. I was looking for something I had not shot before when I came across this scene. The sky looked like it was just going to be a big wall of blue when this cloud started to develop just as the sun was rising above the treeline behind me!

This beach straddles a bike path that runs along the Burlington shoreline and this image is at one end of the beach. It is a small little area with a gnarly old tree and some reeds and at first glance wouldn’t look like there is much to shoot. The lake levels fluctuate throughout the year and they were on the low side when I shot this making the composition possible. The great part about shooting this area is that as the water levels change there are new shooting possibilities for an adventurous photographer. As this cloud formed and moved through the area it was kissed just at the right moment by the rising sun from behind me. The light was just beautiful the way it was highlighting the cloud and I was glad I was there to see it!

This is a composite image of two shots that I made for exposure and sharpness. The foreground was in some deep shadow and I really wanted to see the reeds and rocks so one exposure was made for this area while the second was made for the cloud and sky. I blended them together in Photoshop and did my final edits in Lightroom, Matching the tones together and doing some basic edits. The relative stillness of the water added a tranquil feel to this image the mood in the image was just right for a morning shot.

Valley Of Gold

Vermont-Lake Champlain-Charlotte-landscape
Lake Champlain and the Champlain Valley at Sunset with a view of the Adirondack Mountains from Charlotte, Vermont.

Lake Champlain spans quite a distance from the Canadian border along almost the entire length of the state sharing it’s shoreline with New York as well. The Champlain Valley is a low lying area with a lot of farms and rural areas and during the Spring this year I was able to capture a sunset from a new location. With several smaller mountains in the area there are a number of shooting opportunities but this location which sits in the middle of pasture land is wide open and provides more than a 180 degree view of the entire Champlain Valley. The views of this valley and the Adirondack Mountains beyond is quite impressive and not to be missed!

The area here is part of a network of hiking trails and an overlooked gem in the area. I myself had no idea of the potential here until recently when I talked with the people who were living on the property. The ridge that overlooks this scene was part of a working farm and there were some barns and a giant old farmhouse on the land. I was bale to get some shots of the barns however currently the house is in the process of being moved so there isn’t any access to the old buildings. However you can still go and explore other parts of this location as well as this view!

I shot this image in the early Spring so the tree growth was just beginning to come in. I was lucky enough to get some decent clouds and color in the sky as the sun was setting over the Adirondacks. Processing was minimal here with my usual standard edits but I changed the white balance slightly to emphasis the golden color that was present from the sun. I really love the rural feel to this image as it is a part of Vermont that is rapidly disappearing.

A Stones Throw

Vermont-Lake Champlain-Storm clouds-Oakledge Park
Rock formations with storm clouds on Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont at sunrise.

Lake Champlain here in Burlington, Vermont really is quite a beautiful site but I think the best time to shoot is during the sunrise hours. There is something about the calm waters and cool air that is hard to describe but easier to capture in an image. This Summer as I am laid off from my day job at the University of Vermont I took a temp job working 9-5 hours five days a week. I had to change my shooting schedule to the sunrise hours only and I have not been disappointed with that switch! I get up at four a.m. every morning and probably nine times out of ten I get skunked with terrible skies but it’s that tenth time that is worth getting up for.

On the day I shot this image a storm had passed through the area and another one was on its way in and this is what you are seeing in this image here. There was a bit of clearing in the sky with the next storm building right behind it. I love the light in the early morning hours that these types of storm clouds produce in the morning so getting up is almost always going to be fruitful as far as making images. The water was calm, the cloud formations were awesome and I happened to see this interesting formation of rocks along the shoreline at Oakledge Park.

I shot and blended two images here for exposure and sharpness throughout the scene. The rock formations here are in a bit of deep shadow and an image blend was needed here to really see the detail in the rocks as well as exposing properly for the beautiful clouds over head. I blended them together with a simple gradient in Photoshop and performed my usual tweaks in Lightroom. Nothing major as far as editing but an adjustment in white balance was also needed to balance everything together into a seamless image. Never underestimate morning clouds as the sun starts to rise…Boring skies will usually change to phenomenal in an instant!

Home

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Sunset over the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain from Snake Mountain in Addison, Vermont.

There are lots of things that I love about the Vermont landscape. It is in a constant state of struggle between Modernization and the rural, farm life of days past. There are so many places to explore and a lot of them happen to be short distances away from where I live. I feel blessed to be able to jump in my car and within a half hour bear witness to scenes such as this sunset. This was a new location for me but the sweeping views of Lake Champlain and the lower Champlain Valley are just not to be missed!

The view here is from Snake Mountain which is 30-45 minutes away from where I live in Burlington. An easy drive to a small mountain requiring a hike of an hour or so to the top. At the top of the mountain is remnants of an old hotel foundation and a clear lookout of more than 180 degrees both North and South along Lake Champlain. From here you get quite the impressive view of Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains on the New York side of the lake. This image was shot in March as Spring was approaching with a bit of snow still left on the valley floor.

Sunset happens fast here because as the sun sets the valley floor gets progressively darker and you lose the good light. You really have only a few minutes to catch this glancing light in  the Lower valleys as the sun dips behind the Adirondacks. If you get up top early and are patient then the best light will be yours for making images!

A Colorful Song

Winter-2014-Lake Champlain-Sunset-Vermont
Melted and re-frozen ice on Lake Champlain at sunset over the Adirondack Mountains.

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!

Summer Storm

Vermont-Lake Champlain-storm_summer 2013
Storm front moving over Lake Champlain from the New York side.

Sometimes you have to give up a night of shooting to step back a bit from the camera and do some scouting for future shots. Last week I did just that, However as always I never leave home without my camera gear. I decided to take a walk o the bike path which runs along the Lake Champlain shoreline here in Burlington. It extends into the next town of Colchester and makes its way out to the Champlain islands which is some distance away.

I really was hoping for a bit of color but the hot and humid conditions had other plans. My intention was to scout out the shoreline on the northern section of the bike path but the beach areas here are pretty shabby and the high water right now essentially means there is no beach in these areas. As I was walking along the storm clouds kept building gradually covering up the sky and this was towards the end when I knew the color wasn’t going to appear and the rain was going to let loose at any minute!

The very hot and humid conditions made for a pretty boring raw file when I first looked at this one. There was a misty haze in the bottom of the frame from all the humidity and I am not sure how to describe it but I really think the humidity does something to an image. This one just had a weird vibe to it until I converted it into a black and white. Some simple processing in Silver Efex Pro 2 really brought out the drama in this one almost as if the clouds were swallowing up the brighter areas in the sky! It really was an awesome sight watching this storm build!

Image Data: ISO 100. 17mm. F11 @ 1/4. No filters.

Frozen Embrace

Ice formations on rocks and sunset Over Lake Champlain. Oakledge Park. Burlington, Vermont.
Ice formations on rocks and sunset Over Lake Champlain. Oakledge Park. Burlington, Vermont.

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.

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Across The Pond

Tree silhouette with sunset over Lake Champlain.
Tree silhouette with sunset over Lake Champlain.

I like this tree. It’s one of only a handful that are on the Burlington waterfront. I happened to be out at sunset on another cold Winter night with little snow but I did get some nice color! I really wanted to frame the clouds with a silhouette shot if this tree but getting the right color in the sky with some good clouds seems to be the real trick this Winter. You just have to keep going back day after day and often I am rewarded with a shot like this.

Nothing fancy with this one… I wanted to have the tree dominate the frame and catching some of the light on the ground around the base of the tree. I use the term Pond in the title loosely because Lake Champlain is quite large. Not as big as the other Great Lakes but equally as impressive.

Image Data: ISO 100. 17mm. F11 @ 1/4. No Filters or blending.