Impressions of Winter 2010
Wow, what a whopper of a winter it has been here in the mid atlantic states, and a good thing for me since I have had no time to travel out west chasing big landscapes and big light in the Rockies or Desert Southwest. Truth be told, the vast portion of a pro nature photographers time is spent behind the soft and seductive glow of the monitor. Responding to emails, writing, making reservations and obtaining permits, planning workshops and tours and prepping images for the web and print sales. Sounds like fun doesn’t it. Still wanna do this full-time? Hell yeah!
Well anyway, back to this norse winter of sorts that we are having back east. Let me throw a few numbers at you just to give you lucky folks who happen to live in parts of the world that see lots of snow and ice every year how much of the white stuff we got in the past couple of months. The average total snow accumulation in Maryland is 18 inches per season. So far this year we have received over 75 inches of snow with higher amounts in the Appalachian Mountains of 180 to over 200+ inches so far this season. So what do you do when you are trapped close to home and can’t break away to travel to more exotic locals, work the area in which you live.
Now for a nature photographer living back east, this is a challenge. We have no big 14,000 foot volcanic peaks, monumental glaciers or wind sculpted canyons. What we do have is lots of rolling hills, small mountains and barren forests to work with. Sounds like it might be a better idea to stay in the warm retreat of my office then to brave the icy roads and freezing cold temps in search of new images right! Not so, not for me anyway. I know most nature photographers on the East Coast either get the hell out of dodge or simply work on other projects untill spring arrives. This gives me a unique opportunity to get out into the field and produce new images of oft photographed locations that others reserve for warmer months.
The image above was taken after the first record snowfall in the Potomac Highlands of West Virginia. Over the course of this storm the mountains and valleys around Davis and Canaan Valley got over 4 feet of snow in 48 hours. Needless to say the conditions were amazing and it transformed this area into a winter wonderland. The trick to getting good winter images is to get out in advance of the storm or right after it passes. I arrived up on the mountain as soon as the roads were passable and hiked up on Backbone Mountain to get this shot. The chaos of the woods was a real challenge and I searched for nearly an hour before I found a section of tress with good separation. The sun star was a must to add a that touch of visual drama to this image.
Later on that day, clouds began to roll in from the west. I knew this might be my only chance to get any dramatic light for the next week as another storm system was approaching with the promise of more snow and even some rain in the forecast. I hiked out to Pendleton Point which overlooks Blackwater Canyon facing south-west, a perfect spot for sunset light. I was surprised on the way out that there were no other snowshoe tracks. This promised the chance of shooting the overlook free of foot prints in the snow. I arrived on location an hour before sunset and set up my composition and then made some warm tea and waited for the light. It was a spectacular show and the only dramatic light I got this entire winter season!
A few days later on the trip, after more snow and record cold temps, I made my way down to Elekala Falls. I was incredibly disappointed to find that the waterfall was completely frozen with a 2 foot layer of snow sitting on top of it. Not a very exciting image to say the least! As I sat in disappointment at the base of the frozen falls, I couldn’t help but be amazed at the amount and color of the ice that formed on the rock wall to the right of the waterfall. I was getting ready to pull out the camera and begin to shoot some tight images of the ice when i noticed a small circular break in the ice sheets to the left and up the side of the steep embankment. I gingerly and carefully climbed and fought my way up to the opening and found that it was just wide enough for me to squeeze through lying on my belly. I made my way into the ice cave and was flat-out blown away with the beauty of this hidden gem. Strapping on my crampons, I made my way down the small cave and found a few jagged rocks that were perfect power shapes to lead the eye into a wide composition of the cave. The yellow and blue color of the ice was like a colored gel and bounced the most beautiful and soft light into the interior of the cave.
Later on that day after shooting the ice cave, the temps began to rise and in moved the rain. I couldn’t believe it! Just my luck I thought as I sat in the warm retreat of the lodge. It rained all night, and hard. By the next morning, much of the snow that had blanketed the landscape was gone and the waterfalls were liberated from winters frozen embrace. Looks like my luck wasn’t so bad afterall! I made my way back down to Elekala Falls and carefully climbed out across a partially ice and snow-covered rock ledge to get into position for a more dramatic wide-angle composition. The wind was gusting and in no less that 60 seconds I was completely soaked! Needless to say, keeping my lens free of water was a huge challenge. In order to get this shot, I ended up shooting close to 25 images. Only one was clear enough to process.
I also took the chance to get down to the base of Blackwater Falls for some compositions of the partially frozen waterfall. Instead of shooting a the falls in its entirety, I focused on recording vignettes. This was my favorite image that series of shots.
A few weeks later, after another round of office work, I returned to the Potomac Highlands. The trip coincided with another record snowfall in the mid Atlantic of over 50 inches. I was immediately amazed with the conditions this time around. The snow storm that pounded the region also coated every single tree on the mountain tops in a fine layer of ice and hoar-frost. The contrast between the bright snow and dark trunks was too great to pass up, and I spent two days shooting isolated scenics on Keyser Ridge and Backbone Mountain.
Forest intimate on Backbone Mountain. This image was shot during blizzard conditions the next day. The snow and wind was blowing the limbs of the tree and I had to bring up my ISO from 200 to 400 and shoot at F8 in order to freeze the motion. Critical focus and Depth-of-field were essential to get the image sharp from front to back.
The graphic nature of the trees and the contrast between bright and dark tones was the perfect combination for creating an abstract image of the forest. For this shot, I set my Nikon to record a 10 shot multiple exposure and panned the camera up following the line of the trunks for each shot. This technique created a stacked impressionistic look.
And finally, the last image I will share. This is one of my personal favorites from this winter. It certainly won’t get a big response on any of the forums like NPN or DA simply because it’s not a big landscape with knockout light, but for me these intimate and thoughtful vignettes speak on an entirely different level. First of all, you need a sensitive eye to even see the image. Secondly, creating a good composition is often more of a challenge and the photographer needs to really focus on abstract constructs to make it work. In this image, the counter point between the vertical lines of the ice and horizontal bands in the rock wall in combination with the softer texture of the ice juxtaposed with the highly textured and colorful rock wall and lichens makes for a killer combination.
While I’ve got your ear, or eyes I should say, let me indulge myself in a bit of shameless self promotion. He’ll if I don’t do it, nobody will!
My course, Fine Art Abstract Photography – The art of seeing and special techniques starts on March 1st, 2010. NPN online courses are conducted in “virtual classroom” private forums. Students are granted access to the virtual classroom for the duration of the course. All lessons and interaction with the instructor (and other students) take place in the virtual classroom. Each course includes six lessons, which are presented in publication-quality PDF format. Each lesson is allotted one week for completion and includes a shooting assignment. The student may post questions in the virtual classroom at any time during the week for the instructor to answer. Once the assignment is completed, the student will post their work in the virtual classroom for instructor and peer review. For more information or to enroll, click here.
I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be leading a Creative Vision workshop with Ian Plant in Arches National Park, Utah, from April 4-8. Although Creative Vision workshops are held in some of the most beautiful locations in the country, they are more than just scenery tours. Rather, the goal of each workshop is to allow participants to fully explore their personal artistic vision, and to challenge their perceptions to take their photography places they never dreamed of before. We focus on a number of professional field and digital darkroom techniques to help participants create dramatic and powerful nature images. For more information or to enroll, click here.
I have some really exciting mini workshops scheduled this spring in the Mid Atlantic including Waterfalls Of White Oak Canyon, West Virginia Waterfalls in May and a 3 day workshop in Shenandoah National Park in June shooting the new-born fawns and mountain scenics in the park. Most of my workshops fill up months in advance, so if you are interested in joining the group, get in your reservations as soon as possible. You can see all of my mini workshops and well as location workshops and tours around the country at my website.
And finally, check out my cover image and feature article in this months edition of Outdoor Photographer magazine.