How adding motion to a static Winter landscape image can make it more dynamic

Pancake ice and sunrise clouds on Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont

Landscapes don’t move

Generally when we are talking about or viewing landscape photography we are really looking at subjects that do not move or are static in nature.

Good landscape photography is always compelling and adding some motion into them  is a way to stretch our creative brains and make something that is static much more dynamic.

Typically we don’t want motion in a landscape as it can leave undesirable blur but it’s a whole other thing when we introduce it intentionally.

Combining static elements with movement can make our landscapes come alive and make the viewer pause and wonder about how the effect was achieved.

We can use motion to out advantage even when it is not the original intention of the image like today’s example above. here in fact I embraced the motion in my image as the sunrise was just phenomenal.

Difficulties in capturing motion at sunrise

There are a number of ways to add motion into a static landscape image but they all require some conditions to be met to achieve the effect in camera. Add in the challenge of quickly changing sunrise light and Winter weather and you have the recipe for disappointment unless you can think quickly on your toes and embrace the conditions you have been given.

In this image I had different ideas for what I wanted to capture but I had little time to find a good foreground due to changing conditions so I had to act fast. How can I capture this scene without losing that excellent light from the sunrise? This scene presented a number of challenges immediately which I used to my advantage….

  1. Overhanging clouds – I knew this sunrise was going to be good but I wasn’t quite sure from where. There was a lot of low cloud coverage and I though maybe that the color would not materialize but the clouds opened up just enough to get some stellar reflected light of the clouds. My initial exposures at the beginning of the sunrise were quite long because of all the clouds around.
  2. Melting ice – Originally I wanted some foreground ice images but due to a warm snap what little ice we had in the area was melting and breaking apart. With the weather conditions and wind there was a lot of movement on the lake ice which in the end made for a much stronger image due to the added motion.
  3. Long exposures – There was just no way around this one. The low and plentiful cloud cover reduced the available light so my exposures were going to be long no matter what. If I waited for the light to become stronger than I would miss the color in the sky and the sunrise would have ended.
  4. Foreground interest – The light was changing fast and I had no time to move to another location so I went with what I could find. I focused primarily on the channel between the two large pieces of ice as a leading line into the image with that spectacular color beyond. There was just enough chunks of ice in this channel to reflect some light and give some interest for the eyes.
  5. Waves – The waves were an issue because as the waves would come in the ice would move all over the place. In fact the ice in the middle ground was moving in different directions to the foreground ice which would have made getting a really sharp image in these areas impossible anyways.
  6. The sky color – This light at the end of the sunrise really did not last long. In  total out of all the images I shot the good color was around for maybe about 15 minutes and about 8 minutes of that was when the really excellent color showed up and then vanished. Too short of a window to hike around for a better composition and just long enough to hunker down in place and shoot frames. Up until the last ten minutes I wasn’t really sure if anything would happen but I stuck it out and was rewarded.

Shooting a series of images

In the end I shot a series of 25 images which I would need to use to make an exposure blended image. I chose three for my final blend, Two images were for the foreground ice blocks and middle ground and one for the ice and water movement in the channel and for the background.

The three images were necessary due to the ice moving all over the place. I had to wait for a good moment when the ice had the least amount of movement to get a nice, sharp foreground shot.

The water movement was a different story as each incoming wave was at a different speed so getting the right amount of movement in a frame was crucial to the image.

The background image for the sky was the least troublesome and easiest to shoot as the there wasn’t much movement there at all. The raw files did not capture the full range of color that was present but easily remedied in post….

Vermont-Lake Champlain-Winter-sunrise-landscape photography technique
First capture original raw file used for foreground sharpness in the ice.
Vermont-Lake Champlain-Winter-sunrise-landscape photography technique
Second capture original raw file used for foreground sharpness in the ice.

Here I used these first captures for sharpness in the giant blocks of ice in the foreground. I wasn’t as concerned about the middle ground simply because there was so much movement that there would be motion blur in this section anyways. I did manage to get one capture where the foreground ice was still enough to get a nice, sharp image for blending.

Vermont-Lake Champlain-Winter-sunrise-landscape photography technique
Third capture original raw file used to blend in the motion of the water and ice in the foreground as well as the background sky.

The third image here was the most important one as out of several frames I shot to get the motion just right in the water this one was by far the best. This coupled with the sharp foreground ice is what would draw our viewers into this image.

Remember as well that these three images are raw files so they are a bit flat and didn’t capture the range of color that was present when I shot the image. The final image better represents exactly what I was seeing when capturing images.

To sum up my captures for adding motion I shot two images for sharpness in the foreground and one final image for the movement of the water and for sharpness in the background sky. With the short time that I had this was the best course of action so that later in post processing I could blend all three together.

The blending was complicated by the foreground and the sharp contrast between the blocks of ice and the moving water. I needed to do some more intricate brushwork to get the images to merge together seamlessly.

An image is the sum of its parts

Adding motion into your images can be complex as there is a lot more to think about than what you would find in a static shot. With some quick thinking and patience we can however make our images more dynamic. Here are my tips for adding more movement into your images….

  • Look for static elements – By this I mean that once you spot some type of motion that you want to add into your image visually an image will be more compelling if there is a static element in the shot. Above for example in the final edited version the ice is very sharp and appears still while the motion in the water is clearly visible. Something static for the motion to move around is a great visual trick for a more dynamic image.
  • Multiple captures – To get just the right amount of motion in your shots you may need to shoot more than one image at different exposure times. It’s what makes the process more challenging because at times like sunrise you simply don’t have a ton of time to shoot multiples…This is where your photography instincts come in to play. At the very least you will have many shots to choose the best one with the right look.
  • Long exposures – To record the motion generally you will need longer exposure times so look to shoot at sunrise, sunset or during overcast conditions. All of the images I used here were shot at one second and this was just the right amount of time to record the motion present. This will always be different depending on the subject.
  • Don’t fear motion – When I first started out shooting I would always avoid shots like this with motion but as I learned and grew  into landscape photography I wanted to experiment and try new things. I could have walked away from this shot but I would have missed a great opportunity to learn. The world moves and is dynamic, Capture it and do not shy away from it!
  • Chose your compositions wisely – Take the time to really learn how to “see” compositions like this. The craft of Photography is more than just rolling up, taking a shot and leaving. Look at as many images as you can that are similar and you will start to see what works and what doesn’t. Time is your enemy and by learning how to shoot compelling images you won’t waste your time when the light is fading.
  • Give yourself time – Exposure blending like this takes some time to get all of the shots just right. I do not set out with any plan to do an exposure blended image but if the situation presents itself then I will shoot accordingly. With any landscape work that I do I try to give myself enough time to do what I need to do. Rushing is almost never good for your images and the final shots will show it.

I think our job as artists and photographers is to present a dynamic image that draws a viewer in and really gets them thinking about your view of the world. Sometimes images are planned and sometimes happy accidents happen like the above image. Things don’t always go our way when on location and being able to change gears is what lets you go home with keepers rather than duds or worse yet nothing at all.

Adding motion into a still, landscape image is just the sort of outside the box thinking that will set your images apart. If you make the most of what you are given rather than shooting nothing at all then you will grow as a photographer and not remain stagnant.

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

Vermont-Autumn-Landscape-clouds-field-stream

The wondering photographer

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

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

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

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

Tips for getting yourself lost on Vermont’s back roads

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

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

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

Trusting your vision

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

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

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

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

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

Let the adventure be your guide

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

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

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