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 Bear Pond can be visited by a trail that is no longer maintained so the trek in to it is not for the faint of heart.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!

Farmhouse In Blue- A Quick Primer In Star Trail Processing

A blue hour image of an abandoned farmhouse in Vermont with star trails and fireflies.
An abandoned farmhouse at twilight with star trails and fireflies in Duxbury, Vermont.

Finally after a few weeks we had some clear nights so I headed about an hour away from my home to shoot this abandoned farmhouse. One thing that we have a lot of here in Vermont is old barns and farmhouses and this one sits in an area that is just great for night work… No light pollution and a nice subject to place in the frame underneath the star trails. It really is a great feeling to be under the stars by yourself on a country road with no one bothering you. As an added bonus the fireflies were out in force on the night I was here adding an interesting element into this frame!

I challenged myself on this one as I was shooting during the blue hour at twilight and I shot multiple exposures of the house for later blending. In my rush to get to this spot I forgot any lighting implements so to begin processing this star trail I first started with two shots…One for the sky and one for the house at a higher ISO so that it would be more than just a silhouette in the frame. This blended image was used as the base to layer all of the other images in the series. The added bonus in this shot were the fireflies…Each frame on its own looks quite uninteresting but when they are all combined it adds a bit of magic into the shot.

I was a little hesitant to share this one as my white balance was a bit off but the more I looked at this one the less that imperfection bothered me. I was shooting at twilight during blue hour so the light did have a really pleasing blue quality to it. The processing for this one went as follows…

1. I first blended two shots for my base image of the house and sky. One image was shot for the house at ISO 800 just to bring up the shadows and add a bit of light onto the house…I wanted to see the home not just a silhouette. I brought both images together with a gradient and made some tweaks to this base image in Lightroom for white balance and lighting.

2. Once I was done with the base image I imported the base shot plus all of the other images in the series into a separate folder on my computer.

3. In Photoshop CC I then chose File-Browse in bridge- Then choose the folder you placed the series of images into. Select all by right clicking on the first image which should be your base image and the start of your star trail series.

4. Once all of your images are highlighted in Bridge choose Tools-Photoshop-Load files into Photoshop layers. Photoshop will place all of the images onto one canvas in their own separate layers. Here you will have to wait a few minutes depending on how many images/layers you have.

5. Once all of the images are layered in Photoshop highlight and select all of the layers and then set the blending mode to lighten. Before your eyes the magic happens and the star trail will appear!

Fire Man

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A photographer friend of mine doing some steel wool spinning in a ice cave left over from the ice age.

You should always be learning and growing as a photographer and this year I have been getting more and more into night photography and slowly adding in night images to my portfolio. Back in February I had the opportunity to go out and do some steel wool spinning with a photographer friend and we had a blast doing it! Burlington, Vermont has some very interesting geological features one of which is an old sea cave. You wouldn’t think it from its location but sometimes the best photo spots are right in your hometown.

This cave is made up of limestone dolomite and was created by wave action from retreating glaciers. The Champlain sea which covered this area was formed from retreating glaciers as it was an inlet for the Atlantic Ocean. The age of the caves is roughly 10,00 to 13,000 years old. The cave itself is not impressive in size and is located in a wetland area. You can walk to it in the Winter time as the water freezes but for the rest of the year you need a boat to get to the cave.

This was my first time doing steel wool spinning so after some instruction we spent a few hours shooting in and around this cave. I finally settled on this composition as my favorite as it showed a good deal of the cave and the low to the ground view showed off my friend Brian doing some spinning quite well. It’s nice to step out of that comfort zone once in a while and learn some new techniques!

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.

Winter’s Dance

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Sunset over Lake Champlain looking South with ice and color reflections.

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.

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Ice Wave

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Shore Ice on Lake Champlain at sunset with a view of the Adirondack Mountains from Burlington, Vermont.

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!

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Frozen Tides

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Ice on the Lake Champlain shoreline with clouds at sunset.

Finally we are getting some favorable conditions for Winter photography but for quite a few months I was worried we wouldn’t have much of a Winter here in Burlington. I shot today’s image a few weeks ago during a warm spell that broke up a good portion of the lake ice that we did have. Now we have a good deal of snow and Lake Champlain is completely frozen over for the first time since 2007! It has been a tough Winter for me with lots of different things keeping me from shooting regularly but I do what I can and go out as often as I can.

As the warming temps here a few weeks ago broke up the lake ice the waves push the leftovers ashore into these really interesting formations among the rocks of the shoreline. For the first time in weeks we had a decent sunset with some nice clouds and I was really looking for a nice bit of ice to use as a foreground to the clouds and color of the sunset. Needless to say even with the warm temps the ground around this composition was quite icy but with a little care I was able to pull off this image!

This is a blended image of two frames that I shot for sharpness and exposure as the foreground ice was much darker than the sky. I merged the two images in Photoshop, equalized the exposure between the two images and made my usual general corrections to come up with the final piece. The clouds were moving quite fast at this point so I had to shoot fast to catch them before they were gone along with the color! The view is looking North from Oaklege Park to Rock Point.

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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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