Posted by: kerryl29 | September 9, 2019

Flipping the Switch

It’s been a year since my last extended photo trip–the well-documented journey to the interior of Alaska.  On September 10 I will board a plane for Hawaii, the prelude to nearly two weeks in the islands (specifically Kauai and Maui).  This trip has been long in the planning; I booked the reservations back in February.  That, of course, was months in advance of the series of events that has dominated this year for me–the relocation from Indianapolis to the Houston area.  This relocation process–which still isn’t complete–has been a miserable experience.  (I will not bore anyone with the details here.)  And the fact that the relocation isn’t complete, four months after it began, forms the crucible:  can I put this process out of my mind while gone and concentrate on photography?

Sunset, Coral Cove Park, Palm Beach County, Florida

The answer is:  I don’t know.  I hope so.  I have traditionally been able to compartmentalize sufficiently well to thoroughly turn myself over to the task at hand:  photography.  But I haven’t faced quite this kind of a test in the past.  It has occurred to me that the visual stimulus–I’ve been to Hawaii before, on two occasions, four decades ago, so I have some idea of what to expect–may be so overwhelming that I will lose myself in it, as I frequently do.  But, as I stated, I haven’t had to overcome anything quite like this in the past, either.

And I know that if I can’t concentrate fully on what I’m doing, if I can’t “put myself in the zone,” I’ll just flail around aimlessly.  At its heart, landscape photography is about seeing and if I’m distracted, I won’t be able to see in the field the way I want to.

Pacific Coast, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, California

And so, I will hope for the best even as I dread the possibility of the worst.  I should know within a couple of days on the ground in Hawaii how this will go.  Here’s hoping…

In the meantime, I plan to prepare a couple of posts in advance that I hope to upload here while I’m gone.  But if nothing gets posted until late September, you now know why.  I’ll “see” everyone in a few weeks.

Pompton Lake Intimate, Terhune Memorial Park, Passaic County, New Jersey

Posted by: kerryl29 | September 4, 2019

The Story Behind the Image: Perseverance

The first time I visited Bear Rocks Preserve in the Dolly Sods Wilderness (Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia) it was blowing a gale.  I was on a brief (weekend) photo tour of the Canaan Valley area and on the first morning of the program we drove up to Dolly Sods in the pitch dark; the goal was to photograph sunrise.  To say that there were incumbent problems would be an understatement:  in addition to the pitch darkness, the unfamiliarity with the area and the howling wind (it was gusting above 40 MPH; the camera of one participant broke when his tripod toppled over), it appeared that there would be no sunrise at all, as fog swirled all around us.

With the aid of my trusty flashlight, I wandered off in the dark by myself, found a (relatively) sheltered spot and set up low to the ground, partly with the hope of avoiding the calamity that beset one of my colleagues.  Ultimately, enough of a crack appeared at the horizon, which produced a semblance of a sunrise and somehow I was able to produce an image that froze the dancing conifers you see in the frame below.

Bear Rocks Sunrise, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia

Success?  Meh.  Despite having turned into a popsicle (it was cold up there that morning, even without wind), when enough ambient light was available for me to look around, I could see that the location was loaded with potential.  I just needed better conditions.  Unfortunately, I was told that what we’d experienced that morning was pretty typical; Bear Rocks was frequently foggy and almost always windy at daybreak.

The conditions throughout that weekend were pretty bad, but the entire Canaan Valley area was plainly brimming with opportunities, so I made plans to come back the following year, for a week, on my own.  While there were many things I wanted to photograph, Bear Rocks at sunrise was atop the list.

When I returned the following autumn, the first time I made the long drive up to the preserve over the miserable forest service access road I was greeted with fog, drizzle and winds as bad as I had experienced the previous year; there was no sunrise visible from Dolly Sods at all.

The second attempt produced, shockingly, nearly windless conditions but plenty of fog.  It made for an interesting morning’s shoot, but the views from Bear Rocks were non-existent.  And upon returning to my vehicle when I was done I had a flat tire to deal with, which presented its own set of issues.

Despite the problems with the tire, I subsequently made one more trip up to Bear Rocks and was finally presented with windless conditions, and the only fog present was the ambiance inducing remnants in the valleys below the Bear Rocks overlook.  The morning was spent producing images epitomized by the one you see below.

Sunrise, Bear Rocks Preserve, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia

The moral of the story?  Sometimes persistence pays off.

Posted by: kerryl29 | August 21, 2019

Exploration and Preparation

A number of years ago I was on a waterfall shoot with a sizable group of people.  (The “sizable group of people” scenario is far from my preferred modus operandi, but that’s a story for another day.)  We arrived at a waterfall—Ludlow Falls, in Miami County, Ohio—that presented several challenges.  Ludlow Falls is located on Ludlow Creek, which is as wide as most rivers at the point of the falls, but access to the waterfall is limited.  You can walk down to the riverside with relative ease, but the falls are hundreds of feet away from the nearest exposed section of riverbank.  To make things more difficult, there’s a (very unattractive) concrete bridge that carries a roadway and spans Ludlow Creek almost immediately above the waterfall.

When the group I was with arrived at this location everyone more or less automatically collected at the same riverside spot, pulled out a telephoto lens and went about the task of taking head-on shots of one type or another of Ludlow Falls.  Everyone, that is, except me.

I sized up the “conventional shot” with a sidelong glance and pretty much immediately deemed it unappealing.  I then went about exploring the location to see if I could come up with something more interesting.

I thought—as I almost always do—that finding and expressing a different perspective—with a distinct foreground, middle ground and background—would help produce a more three dimensional feel using a medium that is, obviously, two dimensional in nature.  The way to do that, I quickly concluded, was to incorporate elements of the creek.  There was absolutely no way to do so without actually climbing into the creek itself and navigating my way to a series of rocks that were roughly 35 feet away from the riverbank.

Fortunately I had the appropriate footwear to do this. Since I had known that the focus of the shoot (waterfalls) would lead us to be around water, I was wearing a pair of waterproof knee-high rubber boats (as I always do when I expect to be around something wet).  The water level of the creek at this point was below knee level, so, using a combination of rock hopping and wading, I made my way in the direction of the aforementioned rocks.  I propped my tripod up on one of the rocks and then maneuvered around in the water, camera in hand, to try to find the ideal composition.  Once I did so, I retrieved my tripod, set up, and produced the image (which you see below).

Ludlow Falls, Miami County, Ohio


When all who were present that day subsequently shared images electronically, via a Web-based forum, the other attendees all heaped praise on my photograph of Ludlow Falls.  It was “so different.”  I had really “demonstrated outside the box thinking” in obtaining my shot.

So what’s the point of my story?  Am I patting myself on the back because I’m a “better” photographer than the people I was with that day?  No. What I was—at least that day—was the better prepared photographer.  I was one of only two people who had brought waterproof footwear.  What I had done wasn’t even an option for most of the people who were in attendance (though several of them, after seeing me wade into the creek, moved away from the “conventional” position to see if there was anything they could do with a different perspective).

I was also—again, at least that day—the more thoughtful photographer.  I didn’t simply settle for the most obvious, easiest-to-access vantage point.  (A clear view doesn’t always equal a compelling view.)  Even the one other person with waterproof footwear that day didn’t bother to attempt anything but a snapshot of the conventional view (much to her chagrin, she later told me).  She snapped that conventional shot, packed up and left, without even bothering to investigate other options.

Composing landscape photographs is about “seeing,” but in order to do so you have to give yourself a chance.  That means exploring different perspectives and that, in turn, means being prepared to be able to move around and investigate.  Sometimes the “better” shot is available only if you’re patient and inquisitive.

Posted by: kerryl29 | August 12, 2019

Wisconsin: Devil’s Lake State Park

My last Wisconsin entry was posted more than a month ago; there’s no time like the present to get back to the series.  This entry focuses on the second (and final) full day of my time in Wisconsin this past spring, all of which was spent at Devil’s Lake State Park.

The first few hours of this day were forecast to be cloudy and that was borne out.  Despite no chance of a sunrise, I got up early and made the relatively short drive to the park entrance.  There was no one manning the fee station, but I dutifully paid the entrance fee using an ATM-like machine, drove to the parking area serving the head of the East Bluff Trail, grabbed my things and headed out, with the intention of spending as much of the rest of the day exploring this part of the park as the weather would allow.  It’s a steep climb from the trailhead to the point where the trail levels out atop the bluff, hundreds of feet above Devil’s Lake itself, but if you’re fit and determined it doesn’t take very long to conquer the incline.  In no more than 10 minutes I had accomplished this task and began looking in earnest for possible compositions.

East Bluff Trail Intimate, Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin

The trail meanders through a mixed forest, rich with interesting rock outcroppings and periodic views of the valley that includes Devil’s Lake.  The deciduous trees were still in the budding stage along the trail, which was a bit of a double-edged sword.  There were more bare limbs than might be desirable but views were better than would have been the case if everything was completely leafed out.

Devil’s Lake View Black & White, East Bluff Trail, Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin

I ended up spending time on the East Bluff Trail–and on several relatively short (but quite steep) secondary trails–well into the afternoon.  The image below is a fairly indicative portrayal of what much of the forested part of the trail feels like.

East Bluff Trail, Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin

Along the way, I ended up finding a fair number of comparatively intimate scenes that I found quite intriguing.

East Bluff Trail Intimate, Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin

Mushrooms Black & White, East Bluff Trail, Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin

Tree Roots, East Bluff Trail, Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin

Tree Roots Black & White, East Bluff Trail, Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin

East Bluff Trail Intimate, Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin

The spur trails that I checked out were plenty interesting in their own right.

Balanced Rock Trail, Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin

Balanced Rock Black & White, Balanced Rock Trail, Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin

Devil’s Doorway, East Bluff Trail, Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin

By late morning, the sun had made its appearance, and a hazy sunshine would remain in place for most of the rest of the day.  I spent the duration of my time on the East Bluff Trail photographing the still-budding trees in the Devil’s Lake watershed and nearby hillsides far below me, using a telephoto lens.

Budding Trees, East Bluff Trail, Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin

Budding Trees, East Bluff Trail, Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin

Budding Trees & Conifers, East Bluff Trail, Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin

Budding Trees, East Bluff Trail, Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin

Conifer & Scree, East Bluff Trail, Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin

After I returned to the parking area, following a hike that totaled roughly nine miles, I spent some time looking for images in other parts of the park.  Largely because of the light, I didn’t find all that much until late afternoon.

Overhanging Branch Black & White, Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin

Upland Loop Trail, Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin

Backlit Maple, Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin

Shortly after the image of the backlit maple tree was made, clouds rolled in.  The forecast was for rain later that night and drenching rain the following day.  There would be no sunset this evening and, given the rain forecast for the next 24 hours, I decided to head back to the Chicago area a bit early.

So ended my short–less than two full days–sojourn to Wisconsin.  I hope to return to the north land, perhaps for somewhat longer stretches of time, in the years to come.

Posted by: kerryl29 | August 6, 2019

The Story Behind the Image: Perfection

My profuse apologies for the uncharacteristically long gap between posts.  This relocation from Indianapolis to the Houston area has been a hellish experience that has sapped virtually every hour of every day for me for nearly three months now.  It’s finally starting to wind down and I will attempt to return to the pattern of a new post a week–if possible–moving forward.

The image accompanying this post comes from the end of my very first–and all too brief–visit to one of my all-time favorite locations:  the Kootenay Plains, located in the front range of the Canadian Rockies in Alberta.  As I have mentioned in the past on this blog, I came to realize just how much I’m drawn to meadows during my forays into the Canadian Rockies on consecutive years earlier this decade.  There’s something about these locations that has a special feel for me that I can’t really explain.

Of these meadows, the Kootenay Plains is my favorite.  I find it so enchanting that I made a special trip there–entailing a two-hour round trip detour–when I undertook my second visit to the Canadian Rockies in 2015.

On the first experience, the previous year, I didn’t have much of an opportunity to scout the place.  We arrived–this was part of the photo tour portion of the trip–when the light was already good and getting better with every passing minute.  Composition finding had to take place in real time.  I tried to size the location up quickly and immediately decided that doing the place justice required putting my grand landscape cap on.  This was big sky country and the best way to convey that feel was to let the wide open nature of the spot speak for itself.  The clouds and the ensuing sunset were exceptionally cooperative and snow-capped peaks, including the pyramid-shaped Mt. Peskett, accented by the stands of yellow-leafed aspens and the dark green conifers, provided the icing.

The image provides one of my fondest memories of a great trip.

Majestic Kootenay Plains Sunset, David Thompson Country, Alberta

Posted by: kerryl29 | July 9, 2019

The Story Behind the Image: Conifer Silhouettes

During our trip to Alaska late last summer (early fall in Alaska), Ellen, Debbie and I dealt with more than our share of poor weather.  We encountered rain in some form or fashion on at least half the days of the trip, with two in particular near total washouts.  The heaviest rain day came during our transition from the Denali area back to Fairbanks in preparation for our foray north into the Brooks Range.  It was raining when we got up, it was raining when we loaded the car, it was raining during the entirety of our drive back to Fairbanks, it was raining when we unloaded the car that afternoon when we arrived at our hotel, it was raining when we made what seemed like our millionth trip to the camera store in Fairbanks, it was raining when we made our (futile) attempt to avoid having to take our rented vehicle to a car wash before returning it by cleaning the SUV ourselves…well, you get the idea.

We were sitting in the hotel that evening, when I noted that the rain had finally stopped.  I was in a chair but half-turned toward the window, when I noticed that the light was starting to look interesting for the first time that day.  Within a minute it started to look really interesting, and I said something to Ellen and Debbie before racing to my room to grab my backpack and tripod.  Ideally we would have set off for an interesting location–a return to Creamer’s Field, perhaps?–but there wasn’t time.  It would have taken us about 15 minutes just to drive to Creamer’s Field and who knows how much longer to advance by foot to an interesting spot.  One thing I’ve learned over the years is that the very last thing I want to do when the light is great is to be in a vehicle attemptimg to arrive somewhere before the spectacle fades.

What there was time to do was race down a flight of stairs into the hotel parking lot.  I had noticed, upon arrival, that there was a very nice stand of conifers right next to the lot and with a nice sky…let’s just say it had possibilities.

Hands down, this turned out to be the best sunset of the trip.  It was unfortunate that we weren’t somewhere else, somewhere spectacular–the Denali Highway, for instance–during this impressive display, but it was an opportunity to implement another maxim I’ve come to appreciate over the years:  don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Sunset Sky, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska

Posted by: kerryl29 | July 1, 2019

Wisconsin: Baxter’s Hollow

When I left off the narrative at the end of my last Wisconsin-based post, I was wrapping up at Parfrey’s Glen just as the sun burst from behind the clouds, right around noon.  It appeared that the sun was going to remain visible for the rest of the day, which would not be fortuitous given the photography I was going to be doing.  So, I decided to do some scouting.  Around mid-afternoon, with the sun still very much a factor, I drove to Baxter’s Hollow Preserve, 10-15 minutes from where I was staying in Baraboo.

Otter Creek, Baxter’s Hollow Preserve, Sauk County, Wisconsin

Baxter’s Hollow is a Nature Conservancy property in Sauk County, open to the public.  I wasn’t sure what to anticipate when I went there, since there wasn’t much of a description that I could find online, but I certainly didn’t have great expectations.  I drove to the end of the paved road that runs through the property and then walked back along the road for a mile or so to better scout possible photo opportunities.  I found much more than I expected.

Otter Creek, Baxter’s Hollow Preserve, Sauk County, Wisconsin

A waterway–Otter Creek–runs along the road at Baxter’s Hollow and my investigation found numerous possibilities under the right conditions (i.e. even light), particularly if I donned my rubber boots.  I spent 45 minutes or an hour scouting and then walked back to my vehicle.  The sun was still out, but it was now late in the afternoon and I moved my car closer to one of the shooting locations I had earlier identified.  Shortly thereafter, in a (very) rare bit of serendipity, it started to cloud up and essentially from that point on, the location was shootable.  I spent the next several hours working the variety of locations that I’d found.

Otter Creek, Baxter’s Hollow Preserve, Sauk County, Wisconsin

Most of the spots I’d identified were of Otter Creek, in one form or fashion.

Otter Creek Black & White, Baxter’s Hollow Preserve, Sauk County, Wisconsin

While the majority of images were made with a 24-70 mm lens, I did pull out the telephoto rig on a few occasions.

Otter Creek Intimate, Baxter’s Hollow Preserve, Sauk County, Wisconsin

Baxter’s Hollow Preserve, Sauk County, Wisconsin

While most of the early creek photographing I engaged in was from the bank, about midway through the session I climbed down to creek level and into the water.

Otter Creek, Baxter’s Hollow Preserve, Sauk County, Wisconsin

The final location at which I spent time was particularly fruitful.  There was a small cascade, edged by fallen tree trunks, and surrounded by plethora of rocks.

Otter Creek, Baxter’s Hollow Preserve, Sauk County, Wisconsin

There were a number of conifers on the adjoining bank at this spot and you can see evidence of this given numerous pine needles covering some of the foreground rocks.

Otter Creek, Baxter’s Hollow Preserve, Sauk County, Wisconsin

I simply moved closer and closer to the cascade and kept finding new compositions and perspectives to explore.

Otter Creek, Baxter’s Hollow Preserve, Sauk County, Wisconsin

Otter Creek Black & White, Baxter’s Hollow Preserve, Sauk County, Wisconsin

Upon finishing at Baxter’s Hollow, I drove out of the woods, back into the adjoining farm land and made one image of the sinewy part of Otter Creek that meanders through this pastoral setting.

Otter Creek Farm Black & White, Sauk County, Wisconsin

The clouds parted enough so that there was actually a sunset of sorts, and I drove about five miles west into the midst of a sprawling area of Sauk County farms in an attempt to take advantage of the conditions.

Pastoral Evening, Sauk County, Wisconsin

It was not an epic sunset by any stretch, but it was interesting enough to keep me in place until dusk.

Pastoral Sunset, Sauk County, Wisconsin

Pastoral Dusk, Sauk County, Wisconsin

And with that, the first of my two full days in central Wisconsin came to an end.  The second day would be spent entirely at Devil’s Lake State Park…

Posted by: kerryl29 | June 24, 2019

The Next Step

Long-time readers know that during the nearly 10 years that this blog has been in existence I’ve split my time more or less evenly between the Chicago and Indianapolis areas.  In truth, I’ve been doing this for nearly 16 years, all told.  The reasons for this vagabond existence are complicated and, I’m sure, of no interest to readership.  This is a photography blog and the content has always reflected that fact.  People who come here do so for the discussion of the art and craft of landscape photography, and (I assume) to view the images.  They do not come here to keep up with missives detailing the sine wave of my personal life.

Autumn Oak, Brown County State Park, Indiana

The entries that have made up this blog have, with only one exception that I can think of, reflected this fact.  When you come to this blog, you’re going to read about my photography-related impressions and/or see images from a recent day trip or extended foray to some (relatively) far flung location.

Cypress Black & White, Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge, Indiana

This post marks a second departure from tradition.  Without boring everyone with unnecessary details, my wife recently accepted an offer for a new job in the Houston, Texas area.  We are already waist-deep into a long, rather obnoxious process of relocating from Indianapolis, a process that won’t be formally complete until some time in August, in all likelihood.  This will surely affect my ability to produce blog entries in the coming weeks, so I wanted to give everyone a heads up.

Rocky Hollow, Turkey Run State Park, Indiana

And in the long run, it will surely make for some different imagery on this blog as the move will provide access to some new (for me) locales.  Until about a week ago, I had never been to Texas (there are now only three states in the U.S. that I haven’t visited) and, when the transition process is over, I’m looking forward to exploring some new areas–particularly during the bluebonnet bloom next spring and at any convenient time when I can get to Big Bend National Park.

I will still be spending half of my time in the Chicago area, so I’m not saying goodbye to the American Midwest.

Tunnel Falls, Clifty Falls State Park, Indiana

So, that’s it.  I hope you’ll bear with me if I miss a week here and there in terms of posting new content over the next month or two.  I’ll attempt to continue my once-a-week posting schedule, but if I can’t keep up, you’ll know why.  ‘Til next time…

Redbud Serenade, McCormick’s Creek State Park, Indiana

Posted by: kerryl29 | June 17, 2019

Wisconsin: Parfrey’s Glen

The same morning that saw me spend time at Pewit’s Nest and McGilvra Woods ended with a stint at Parfrey’s Glen State Natural Area.  (One of the most attractive things about the Baraboo Hills area of Wisconsin is that there are a large number of interesting locations all within a 15-20 minute drive of one another; that’s how I was able to visit all three of these spots in the same morning.)  It was still blissfully cloudy when I arrived at the deserted Parfrey’s Glen parking area and I quickly put on my rubber boots (as I expected to spend time in the water), grabbed my tripod and photo backpack and headed up the trail.

The trail in Parfrey’s Glen follows a creek through a pleasant wooded area for roughly half a mile before entering the glen itself.  I found myself checking out compositions along the creek within a few hundred yards of the trailhead.

Parfrey’s Glen Creek, Parphrey’s Glen State Natural Area, Wisconsin

Many of these images were made while standing in the middle of Parfrey’s Glen Creek.

Parfrey’s Glen Creek, Parphrey’s Glen State Natural Area, Wisconsin

The creek is relatively shallow in many places, but it was necessary to watch my step, as there were numerous spots that were two or three feet deep, at least.  Despite what appeared to be slippery rocks, footing was actually pretty good, for the most part.

Parfrey’s Glen Creek, Parphrey’s Glen State Natural Area, Wisconsin

Though, as noted in the prior posts in this series, the spring leaf out was still in its early stages during my time in central Wisconsin, blooming marsh marigolds were frequently observed creekside and made a nice complement to the rushing stream.

Marsh Marigolds, Parfrey’s Glen Creek, Parphrey’s Glen State Natural Area, Wisconsin

Eventually I reached the entrance of the glen itself, and I paused at this spot to produce the image you see immediately below.

Parfrey’s Glen Creek, Parphrey’s Glen State Natural Area, Wisconsin

Within 200 feet or so of this spot, I found myself adjacent to the creek, with tall walls on both sides of me.  This was Parfey’s Glen proper, and it reminded me of some spots at Turkey Run State Park in Indiana.  It was at this point that some kind of waterproof footwear was not merely a convenience.

Parfrey’s Glen Creek, Parphrey’s Glen State Natural Area, Wisconsin

The Glen itself narrows quickly at this point.  The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which is responsible for this site, had maintained the trail at Parfrey’s Glen all the way to a waterfall at the head of the canyon, and the trail up to the point where the glen narrows is still in fine shape.  But a series of huge floods over a few years caused the DNR to abandon maintaining the trail through the canyon itself and it now requires a bit of scrambling to make it through to the waterfall.

Parfrey’s Glen Creek, Parphrey’s Glen State Natural Area, Wisconsin

I had to cross the creek numerous times over the last few hundred yards, and I also walked up the creek bed at times in an attempt to work my way around some of the boulders.  In one or two spots, I had to climb over the boulder fields.

Parfrey’s Glen Creek, Parphrey’s Glen State Natural Area, Wisconsin

Parfrey’s Glen Creek, Parphrey’s Glen State Natural Area, Wisconsin

Ultimately, I made it to the waterfall, which was a bit of an anticlimax.   You can see it in the background in the image immediately below.

Parfrey’s Glen Waterfall, Parphrey’s Glen State Natural Area, Wisconsin

I did produce one image that actually featured the waterfall, with a composition I kind of liked.

Parfrey’s Glen Waterfall, Parphrey’s Glen State Natural Area, Wisconsin

Moments after the above image was made, the sun popped out…and it stayed out for a long time thereafter.  Lucky for me that I’d made it to the end of the trail by that time.

This wasn’t to be the end of the photographic day for me, however, as I ventured to Baxter’s Hollow Preserve that afternoon.  But that story will have to wait for a later entry.

Posted by: kerryl29 | June 10, 2019

Real Notes on Forest Photography

Over the years I’ve had a number of people ask me about the in-the-field experience of photographing in the woods.  They’re particularly interested in knowing how I go about the process of composing in such settings.  I’ve resisted writing about this subject because I’ve struggled trying to put something together that’s even vaguely actionable for others, but having received a few additional inquiries since posting the last entry, I’ve decided to give it a shot.

My last post was entitled “Wisconsin: McGilvra Woods (and Notes on Forest Photography)”…unfortunately it was almost completely lacking the notes.  I made a few generic comments, of little value to anyone, and spent the rest of the time talking about the specific experience of photographing at McGilvra Woods (and, truth be told, I didn’t say very much about that, either). Let’s see if we can rectify that shortcoming this time around.

Good Light in the Woods

I’ve discussed the subject of “good light” on a number of occasions on this blog.  As I have stated previously, “the practical definition of ‘good light’ depends…on the subject matter and on the emotion you’re trying to project. Good light is the product of a set of circumstances, not an inherently objective thing.”

So, what is “good light” as it pertains to forest photography?

Coastal Trail, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, California

I posted the above image because it’s such an outlier for me.  I almost never photograph in forests when the light isn’t even.  (I would note that the light was even when I started photographing on this particular morning; eventually, the sunlight began to burn through the fog, producing the conditions that you see here.)  But something like this is extremely rare for me.  Much more typical are the conditions you see in the image below.

Rockefeller Grove, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California

When the light is even–be it open shade or overcast–the annoying, distracting hot spots that dominate forest scenes when the sun is shining are absent.  Hot spots pull the eye of the viewer, and almost always in haphazard, undesirable ways.  The “god beams” image at the top of this post is an exception precisely because the “hot spots” are desired, creating the image’s center of interest.  But, again, this is atypical.  Most of the time, hot spots are more or less randomly placed in the frame, creating the aforementioned distractions.

Evans Notch, White Mountain National Forest, Maine

Compositional Considerations:  Myriad Options

Over the years, this is the subject I’ve received the most questions about regarding forest photography.  It’s also the subject I’ve had the greatest difficulty describing in a way that’s meaningful to most people, because the method I use to find compositions is more intuitive than formulaic.  In other words, I don’t have a kind of a formal, structured manner that I use to compose.  Instead, I typically simply see something that interests me and follow my instincts.  That said, there is something of a pattern that can be detected upon examining the results, so I’m going to try to kind of reverse engineer what I do and see if that’s of any value.

Aspen Hillside, Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico

Forests are, visually speaking, generally chaotic places and so what I’m ostensibly trying to do when composing in the woods is bring a sense of order to the chaos.  How does one go about doing that?  In broad terms, I’m almost always looking to establish some kind of a visual anchor to the frame–some element or set of elements that the eye can latch onto and make sense of.

There are a number of ways to do this with forest scenes.  In the image below, for instance, the visual anchor is the group of white birch trunks, arching through the frame.  The trunks are bright and eye catching, and form a comparatively structured place for the viewer’s eye to rest, amid a plethora of supporting color.

Maples and Birches, Crawford Notch, White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire

The tulip tree trunks in the below image serve the same purpose.  They’re not as bright as the birch trunks, but they’re larger and more uniform, thus creating a bit of a pattern in the frame below.  Either way, they create an identifiable structure to the viewer.

Tulip Trees & Red Maple, Elkmont, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Another way to go about forming some sort of identifiable structure is to lower the camera position and introduce a form of depth into the image by using a foreground/background type of approach.  This, almost by definition, involves thinking somewhat counterintuitively–using a wide angle focal length in close quarters.

Toothwort Forest, McGilvra Woods State Natural Area, Wisconsin

Many photographers don’t give much consideration to using wide angles in settings such as this, but I think that’s an oversight.  I like to set up very close to forest foreground objects–ferns, wildflowers, etc.–and then let the trunks of the trees serve as mid-ground and background objects.  This approach has the benefit of establishing depth in the image as well as allowing the most chaotic parts of the frame to kind of fade into the background.  The use of a wide angle naturally produces an effect where comparatively distant objects are reduced in relative size in the frame while nearer images are enlarged.

Fern Forest, Kebler Pass, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado

Bendix Woods County Park, St. Joseph County, Indiana

This approach almost always requires use of a focus stacking process; I almost literally never have enough depth of field when I use this technique to render the entire frame sharp with one exposure.  I posted an entry devoted to the focus stacking approach a year ago and you can check it out here.

Fern Forest, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Bluebell Forest, East Side Woods, Morton Arboretum, DuPage County, Illinois

Another approach I use with wide angles and foreground objects is to find something with leading lines–fallen tree trunks and trails are a good example of this–to provide depth.

East Woods, Morton Arboretum, DuPage County, Illinois

Forest Path, Dark Canyon Loop Trail, Kebler Pass, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado

Lady Bird Johnson Grove, Redwood National Park, California

Wildland Trail, Jasper National Park, Alberta

Boreal Forest Trail, Creamer’s Field Migratory Wildlife Refuge, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska

Getting very close to trees with normal, or even short telephoto focal lengths, and employing a focus stacking technique is another way to introduce an unusual technique to emphasize depth and/or produce a more abstract image.

Fern Forest, Kebler Pass, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado

Birches and Beeches, Long Pond Road, Orleans County, Vermont

Dogwood and Sequoia, Tuolumne Grove, Yosemite National Park, California

I spend a significant amount of time looking for intimate scenes in forest settings, where such opportunities abound.  There’s effectively no limit to the kinds of intimate compositions you can effect in the woods.  Let your imagination run wild.

Arethusa Falls Trail, Crawford Notch State Park, New Hampshire

Red Maple, Orleans County, Vermont

Forest Floor Intimate, Dark Canyon Loop Trail, Kebler Pass, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado

Bluebells Intimate, Morton Arboretum, DuPage County, Illinois

Spring Forest Floor, Forty Acre Rock Heritage Preserve, South Carolina

Fallen Maple Leaves Close-up, Blackwater Falls State Park, West Virginia

Trillium Ravine Preserve, Berrien County, Michigan

Fern Forest, Riverbend Park, Palm Beach County, Florida

Fallen Leaves, Eagle Creek Park, Indiana

Forest Floor, The Roost Trail, Evans Notch, White Mountain National Forest, Maine

I hope this post has given you some practical notions about ways to photograph in the woods.  Forest scenes may seem hopelessly chaotic until you are able to envision techniques that will winnow out the chaos.  There are countless ways to do so; this entry highlights just a few.

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »