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.

How to draw the viewers eye to subjects of interest with less than ideal skies in a landscape image

Barge poles at sunrise with light house,breakwater and mountains. Lake Champlain. Burlington, Vermont.

Landscape photography is kind of like gambling as it is so dependent on the weather.

You take as many precautions as you can, Do all of your research to get the best image and the weather can change on you in an instant leading to little to nothing to show for your hard work.

For me I have always looked at the pursuit of great landscape image like a duel between the Yankees and the Red Sox. While the games themselves are always filled with excitement they can bring you to these incredible emotional highs or lows.

Landscape photography is no different here in Vermont where we are always subjected to quickly changing conditions and challenging lighting scenarios. The real trick is how to overcome so-so conditions and pull a beautiful image out of what would otherwise be boring.

Can boring really be beautiful?

I have been through this scenario a thousand times shooting landscapes where you roll up to your intended composition and the sky just totally craps out on you leaving you with some decisions to make. Is there really nothing to shoot at the location? Do you leave? Do you continue on as a scouting mission? In the image that I captured above there were a few elements that drew me and made me want to stay versus throwing in the towel. Who wants to do that when you can employ all of your creative powers to shoot what others may dismiss….

The color palette- While the clouds crapped out on me the haze in the background sky caused the rising sun to create a lot of pink and purple hues in the sky. The sky may not be as dramatic without some big, puffy clouds in the background there certainly was some really interesting color.

The thin layer of Spring ice- Due to the air temperature while I was shooting there was a very thin sheen of ice which was covering the lake. The ice was reflecting all of the awesome color in the sky back up into the scene surrounding everything with this wonderful, purple color.

The weathered look on the barge poles- Normally during the summer season the area here is covered with boats making this image impossible except in the Winter time. These wooden poles take a lot of weather and abuse over the years but they have this time tested quality and weathered appearance that i did not want to pass up.

The elements in the background- There is almost an s curve in this image as your eyes move from the poles to the lighthouse and then on to the snow covered mountains beyond. The wooden poles draw you in front and center but the rest of the elements tell the story…..The lighthouse and breakwater are surrounded by water well above normal levels and you can clearly tell that Spring has come as the snow is melting on the mountain tops beyond.

Cropping- By cropping tight on the poles I got rid of any distracting elements including just a hint of clouds in the sky. Much of the scene here was on the boring side but the tight crop told the story of the image with just the right balance of elements better than a wide shot of really nothing in the sky. The purple colors act as a backdrop making the foreground really pronounced.

So how do we draw the viewer in?

There are a number of ways to move the viewer through the image but when it comes to challenging conditions it becomes much harder. This is a time when all of our time spent honing our craft comes into play as well as our artistic vision. You have to ask yourself in this situation how do I make something out of nothing? What is the best way to tell my story? In the image above I used a number of techniques to bring home a decent image including….

  1. Composition and the s curve- The s curve is a classic composition technique that is very effective for leading your viewer through your image. In my case here while not a typical s curve the ridges of ice just behind the mooring poles do form an s curve leading your eye from the poles to the lighthouse and then over to the mountains.
  2. Tight cropping- The original capture is not much different from this final image with the exception of a slight crop on the top and bottom of the image. The tight framing allowed me to get just three elements into the frame that tied together to the location while avoiding anything that made the image too busy.
  3. The change in seasons- Suggested in the image is the change from Winter into Spring. Here in New England this is a welcome change and the image includes ice, snow covered mountains, thin lake ice, and higher than normal lake water due to snow melt which is visible at the lighthouse and breakwater.
  4. Color- Color is always an effective way to draw in our viewers and here the image is dominated by shades of purple. The poles, lighthouse and mountains really stand out in all of the purple giving the image a lot of contrast.
  5. Dominate foreground- Prominent foregrounds are the start of our story in the image and begin to lead your viewer through it. Here the barge poles split the frame in half but the curving lines of the ice lead you from the bottom of the image to the poles then on to the lighthouse and the mountains in the background. The foreground puts the viewer in a specific place and they are not left wondering where they are.
  6. Contrast between elements- In my image there is some really nice contrast between all of the main elements in the image. While the wooden poles are somewhat dark in the foreground the lighthouse and mountains really standout as the foreground fades from dark to light in the background. The colors are subtly different in the lighting transition which adds a bit of drama and the white elements in the frame really stand out.

Conditions always change but your artistic vision does not

Weather and lighting conditions are constantly changing and something we will always have to contend with when shooting landscapes. There will be times and I can attest to this that you will simply get skunked when it comes to landscape work. While we are always free to walk away I personally love the challenge of finding an image in challenging conditions. It sharpens your artistic vision, Frees you creatively and when the time comes to make images in stellar light  you will be ready.