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.

A Painted Sky

Lake Champlain-Vermont-Sunset-Storm
Storm and rain clouds over Lake Champlain at sunset.

We had a ton of rain in the Spring and early Summer this year and lucky for me that I am a Photographer and I was able to capture quite a few of these storms coming over Lake Champlain! The Lake is only a few minutes drive from my house so I can react quickly when they come in and get into position for some shots at several different locations. Every time I shoot these storms I am amazed at how varied they are…I never know what I am going to see from night to night.

If you notice in this image there are raindrops visible on the rocks and I only had a few moments to capture an image or two before it started to rain on me! I was fortunate that there were a few trees around for me to stand under while the rain quickly passed so I could keep shooting! The thing that impressed me most about this storm was the painterly quality to the clouds and light behind the rain clouds. The foreground clouds were really defined with some great depth but the sunset light and clouds behind looked almost like an abstract painting to me!

I had to do an exposure blend here due to the exposure difference on the foreground and in the clouds. A slightly more difficult one than usual because the rocks here were jagged making it a bit more challenging to blend the two together. I almost deleted these images but in the end I stuck with the image files and managed to make a cohesive image out of them!

Sleeping Dragon

Vermont-Lake Champlain-Storm Clouds-Sunset
Storm clouds at sunset over Lake Champlain.

Nothing makes me happier as a photographer than when a good set of storm clouds rolls over Lake Champlain at sunset! You really never know what’s going to happen…Sometimes you get it right and are in position for a great photograph and sometimes you guess wrong and are sitting at home while the magic happens outside. The light takes on a special quality at the beginning and end of a storm and I love when I am there to capture it!

As I was shooting this passing storm I was lucky to capture a number of small boats zipping around the lake. The boats and activity give the image scale in relation to the massive storm clouds above. At times the good cloudscapes like this peter out pretty quickly and even in this image you can see the tail end of the system in the lower left corner where the clouds are thinned out and there is a bit of rain coming down!

There wasn’t much in the way of processing on this one. The image here is pretty close to the original raw file with the exception of some lens correction, white balance and exposure changes. It’s nice that you get a hint of color way off in the distance with the looming clouds dominating the scene. Blue sky conditions just never are as exciting as some good storm light!

Red Storm

Sunset-2013-Lake Champlain-Storm
Storm clouds at sunset Over Lake Champlain and Burlington, Vermont with the Adirondack Mountains in the distance.

Most of my photography work this year has focused around Lake Champlain as it’s close to home and our new baby keeps us pretty busy. Fortunately we are so close to some pretty beautiful scenery here in Vermont that I am still able to practice and keep up with my landscape work. It’s much easier for me to track the weather and cloud formations over the day for sunset shooting conditions than it is for me to guess at what conditions may be present at sunrise.

The storms that pass over the lake provide some phenomenal light at sunset if you can catch the tail end of them as the sun goes down behind the Adirondacks. This Spring and Summer we were graced with lots of rain and a ton of storms. I have spent a great deal of time learning these patterns this year and I think I have gotten pretty good at knowing when the storm and clouds will just fizz out and when they will turn into great shooting conditions. This storm produced some exceptional cloud formations and some beautiful red light!

I did have a pretty tough time shooting this composition however but in the end it was worth it. the rocky shoreline here rises about 5 feet or so quite severely right behind the camera position so not only was my tripod and camera only a few inches off of the ground in a puddle of water but I was sprawled out on my stomach in the water on some pretty sharp rock! I was aiming for getting a bit of the reflection of the clouds in the water and because of how flat the rocks here were I had to get as low as I could. Sometimes you have to get your clothes a bit dirty to get a decent shot!

Storm Glow

Lake Champlain-Vermont-Sunset-2013
Rock outcropping on the Lake Champlain shoreline at sunset with a passing storm.

With storms and otherwise terrible weather that comes over Lake Champlain I pay attention to what’s happening with the weather and if the light looks great I will grab my gear and head out to shoot. The view from my house is not the best but I can see how conditions are changing over the lake which makes deciding to go out to shoot or not fairly easy. I tend to look for the tail end of the storm systems as the light and clouds can be quite fantastic. You have to be quick however because the conditions can be awesome one minute and the next the clouds can completely dissipate leaving you with an empty, boring sky!

This shot was a desperation move as the park was crowded with people at all of the best compositions. The light was fading fast when I came across this grouping of rocks so I had to set up and get my images as quickly as I could. The rocks are pretty tight against the shoreline and wouldn’t you know it but this specific spot was infested with mosquitoes! The rocky ground made setting up my tripod difficult and the pesky mosquitoes were all over me but I managed to get my images and witness the end of a beautiful sunset!

I got lucky catching the tail end of a passing storm just as the sun set below the horizon. There was some awesome orange light in the sky and washing over the water and I even managed to capture a small sailboat off in the distance! Processing took a bit as I wanted to bring out some more light in the rocks which were very dark. I captured two images here for the sky and the rocks and blended them together in Photoshop. Nothing much was needed in the sky but I had to brush in a bit of light into the rocks and water in the foreground. It really is amazing the sights I get to see around here!

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.