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As the sun sets in the west, the blue hour settles in. Lights come on in the towns and cities, and the first stars show up in the darkening sky.
Most of the Adirondacks has excellent dark sky conditions. If you're in some of the larger towns, you just need to get a few miles away to find completely dark skies, tons of stars, the Milky Way, and perhaps even a nebula or comet.
Comet Lovejoy C/2014 Q2 has been moving slowly across northern skies for the past month. While it's barely visible to the naked eye, binoculars have helped it's green fuzzy nucleus stand out better. A camera can help record the soft brightness of the tail. I used a special stacking process to help eliminate background noise in each photo I combined to help bring through the more subtle details of Comet Lovejoy.
There is also a nebula in the sword of Orion that records easily on camera, and can also be seen with binoculars.
This coming year, a number of my one day photo tours are scheduled to include both evening and night photography - and we always take time out during my multi-day workshops to take advantage of 'night light' to photograph stars, or the night landscape in the soft glow of moonlight. I do these all across the Adirondacks - from our home office in Brant Lake, to the Adirondack Folk School in Lake Luzerne, View in Old Forge, the Elk Lake Lodge, and The Wild Center in Tupper Lake.
Every now and then winter weather creates conditions so sublime, it's simply beyond words. Storms most often drop snow that melts off quickly, or is easily blown off in the wind. But every so often the snowfall in a 'perfect' storm sticks to every branch, needle, and blade of grass, transforming the landscape into a winter wonderland.
After most storms, by the time I've finished running the snow blower up and down the driveway, the snow has already begun melting - or is being blown off the trees. The storm we had this mid-December (2014) though, just hung on for several days and the landscape was spectacular everywhere one looked.
The day after the storm, I took a morning and photographed around the Brant Lake area, not travelling too far from home. I spent several hours out with the camera, and barely scratched the surface of all the locations I would have liked to get to.
I also headed out a couple of days later to do some additional photography up north. I headed up to the Essex area for some sunrise light views across the Champlain Valley to the peaks off in the distance.
From there I headed into the High Peaks themselves and did some climbing in the Chapel Pond/ Giant Mountain area. The peaks are especially nice in the winter when trees are covered with snow from the valleys right up to the summits.
This winter wonderland stays around much longer at higher elevations since rime ice builds up on trees and rocks as super cooled moisture filled clouds blow over the summits, building a feathery frost on anything the moisture touches.
So, this winter head out when you have a chance as soon as it's safe to travel after a storm. Take along a camera, or just head out to enjoy the magical light and snow. If photographing, overexposing the image slightly will brighten up those pictures where the snow looks dark and grey. Pay attention to the histogram so the graph reaches the right (white) side - but doesn't spike along that 'white' edge.
We get to see some amazing sunrises and sunsets over the Adirondacks. It takes the right combination of clouds, and moisture in the air to get the really dramatic reds and yellows though. I was climbing Giant Mountain just before Thanksgiving to photograph some early morning light over the High Peaks when the first subtle tones of red appeared on the horizon. This earliest light will glow about a half hour or more before sunrise, and then fade some, before the sun rises enough to start lighting up the clouds with a more intense, direct light.
I always shoot raw, so I have best control for enhancing the images in post processing. For the tighter detail shot of the clouds, I wanted to accentuate all the layers of clouds I saw that morning, while for the panorama I wanted to give the feel of seeing the expanse of clouds spread out across the beautiful High Peaks landscape. The second panorama was taken during a brief period after the sun rose, before it went back behind the clouds again.
I managed to take a picture of Comet PanStarrs last evening (3/13/13). It was a beautiful evening, but the comet certainly wasn't the spectacle I thought I'd see. The only reason I managed to get a photo was because the sky was clear enough above the low clouds on the far horizon, and I stayed and kept taking photos as the twilight began fading in the western sky - and then continued doing so until the only light left in the sky was the starlight overhead. The best shot I got of the comet was at about 45 minutes after sunset. The sky needed to be dark enough so the comet was visible, as well as clear enough for the comet to show up in a photo. Soon after that it was covered by the clouds.
I never did see actually see the comet while I was there, and didn't notice it then in the photos I shot either. I figured it was too low, or in the clouds, or not in the general area I thought it would be in. It wasn't until I got back home, checked the internet to verify where the comet should have been in the sky relative to the moon, and checked my photos again, that I noticed a soft, fuzzy, bright point in my photo just above the clouds, that was in line with the moon. I zoomed into the photo with the zoom button on the camera, and there it was!
This was my second time out. The first was on Friday March 8. I watched a beautiful sunset, and took photos the whole time, but never did see the comet. The pictures I'd been seeing posted on the web made me think it should be readily visible, but the reality is - at least for our latitude here in the Adirondacks, the comet is still so close to the sun that it's quite difficult to see with the naked eye. As it gets further away from the sun each night this month, it will become a much easier target in the evening sky. It will also be fading ever so slightly each night, but at least it will be higher above the glow of twilight, and easier to see.
For now, it's best to pick a nice clear evening, find a high location with a clear view to the western horizon. Enjoy the beauty of the evening as day fades to dark. Then about 40 minutes after the actual time the sun sets (roughly 7 PM right now - but this gets slightly later each night this month), start scanning the sky just above where the sun set with binoculars and look for a soft, fuzzy point of light within the glow of twilight.
Looking to get photos? The photo of the crescent moon, comet, and clouds was shot with my D300S camera, at 800 ISO, using a 60 mm focal length on my Nikkor 18-300 zoom, for 2 seconds at f /5.6. If I knew that focal length would have worked fine, and also knew that I was actually taking a photo of the comet, I would have used my 50 mm f1.4 lens, with a faster shutter speed, larger aperture, and lower ISO. It's best to use at least an f 2.8 lens. With slower lenses you'll just need to bump up the ISO to as high as 800 so you can set a fast enough shutter speed so there is minimal motion blur on the stars and comet because of the motion issues from the rotating Earth. Try to keep shutter speeds no longer than 2 seconds at that focal length. Be sure to use a good sturdy tripod with a cable or remote release to avoid moving the camera while taking a shot. Happy comet hunting!
This year's mix of freeze and thaw cycles created a lot of options for photographing icicles and fresh snow in a lot of different situations around the Adirondacks. During the below zero cold, rivers and streams freeze over completely, then open again in the thaw. Icicles build on rocks and cliffs, and then gently drip away, or fall to a heap in the warm air and sun.
The thaw cycles create more water for the next set of icicles as the water seeps under the snow cover on the ground to the overhangs and outcroppings. As the ice builds up in the cold temperatures, fresh snow decorates the details and creates many different options for photography.
When photographing snow and ice it's important to consider how the camera is reading the light values for each exposure, especially when a photo is composed mostly of these brighter details. The camera's light meter wants to balance the tonal values of a photo to a mid-tone 18% gray value. That's just right for green grass and leaves and deep blue sky. Subjects like fog, snow, and ice though are brighter than 18% gray, and the camera needs to be adjusted so the brighter snow and ice will appear closer to a white value.
The easiest way to make the adjustment is to use a camera's exposure compensation feature while working in Aperture or Shutter Priority, or Program modes. A snow scene should be overexposed by about 1 to 2 stops depending on the proportion of light snow to darker details in the image. The bottom line is, if you take an image and the overall details are too dark - add more overexposure. If image details are too light, dial in some underexposure.
This shooting process and more tips and techniques for exposure and working with histograms are explained in greater detail in my books - 'Contemporary Landscape Photography' (Amphoto), and 'The Landscape Photography Field Guide' (Focal Press). We also go through these shooting techniques and many others in my photography workshops. Happy shooting!
As winter settles in around the Adirondacks, cold Canadian air slips south and gives a good chill to the region. Ice forms on puddles, ponds, streams, and finally the larger lakes in the region. Both Lake Champlain and Lake George are the last to freeze over, with the main body of Lake Champlain, and sometimes Lake George, often remaining open throughout the winter months.
Open water and zero (F) or below air temperatures create unique photo opportunities with a combination of ice, mist, snow, and light. The extremes in air temperature cause mist to form, and sometimes freeze on all the branches along the shore. Wind blown lakes in these temperatures creates icicles and a buildup of ice all along the shoreline. Once the lake water temperature is cold enough, ice crystals form, as well as ice pans that blow into bays and gently bob up and down on the waves rolling in. As the surrounding air becomes saturated with enough moisture, fog and clouds may form along the length of the open water in the lake.
The general rules for exposure apply. When working in Aperture or Shutter Priority, if the scene is mostly white, add some overexposure compensation to brighten up the snow in the photos. Most important, bracket the exposure (shooting additional over and under exposures) to be sure you get a good enough exposure of the composition you have set up, and have enough highlight and shadow details in the exposures to do any needed HDR (high dynamic range) compositing work. I shoot in RAW with the white balance on Auto so I have the greatest amount of image information to work with - and can easily make any slight white balance adjustments needed in post processing. If shooting jpeg, it's best to get white balance right while you're shooting.
Dress warm! In sub-zero temperatures I wear synthetic long johns and a Primaloft insulated jacket and pants under my wind / waterproof parka and pants, as well as extra layers of fleece if needed. Nice warm Outdoor Research Primaloft mitts keep my hands toasty once the camera is set up, and I use windstopper fleece gloves as needed when making detailed camera adjustments. If you're interested in learning more about how to take these types of shots, sign up for one of the many one day to several day photography workshops I do each year (full list on my website), or check out my landscape photography techniques books. 'The Landscape Photography Field Guide' is packed full of information and tips in a book that easily fits in most camera packs.
The satellite view on the internet showed the clouds moving in as expected, so I packed up my camera and outdoor gear, and drove off about 4 AM to Newcomb and the Goodnow Mountain trailhead. The temperatures were hovering around zero or below as I organized my gear and put on the snowshoes and my pack. Heading up the trail, the light from my headlamp illuminated thousands of sparkles on the fluff of crystals from a recent snowfall. Stars shone brightly through the bare treetops, and as I was nearing the top of the mountain, the crescent moon shone brightly in the sky above the summit ridge, diffused slightly through the high clouds that were moving in.
By the time I reached the fire tower, there was already a beautiful warm glow on the horizon, and a deep red glow to the clouds in the northeast. I wasted no time in taking off my snowshoes, and climbed the tower stairs for the broad open view from the cabin above the snow covered spruce and balsam. Stars were disappearing quickly as I set up my tripod and Nikon D300S camera. Since I was going for the broad view of the clouds and landscape, I exchanged my 18-200 for the 11-16 mm zoom, mounted the camera on the offset center head, attached the cable release and started shooting.
As the light began changing quickly, I also pulled out my Nikon Coolpix P7700 and shot a variety of handheld images of the dawn light, checking as many as needed after I shot them to be sure they were as sharp and detailed as I expected them to be. There wasn't much wind until about the time the sun started to rise above the horizon. It's always a balance in the winter between having a thick enough glove to keep the hands warm, and having enough dexterity with gloves on to work with the camera. My hands are usually pretty chilly by the time I put the cameras away. The glow of a beautiful sunrise generally keeps me thinking more about the photography than how cold the fingers are.
A spectacular sunrise always passes by far too quickly. The warm red and yellow tones of dawn soon brighten to white, blue, green and gray not long after the sun rises fully above the horizon. But there are still plenty of great angles to shoot in the low angle 'magic hour' light, and it was another hour or more before I snowshoed back down to the car and headed home to the office to check through the images from the morning shoot.
When shooting with film, image quality depended on the film being used - the ISO, and the characteristics of the film, in addition to the quality of the optics in the lens being used. The issues are similar with digital, with image quality still depending on the quality of the optics, and the image capture device (the sensor and processing technology). Digital image capture keeps improving as the technology keeps getting better.
I've been following advances in point and shoot technology for some years, looking for certain shooting and image quality features. With the recent jump in sensor technology, I started looking pretty seriously this year at a number of point and shoot cameras and finally settled on Nikon's Coolpix P7700. With a 28-200 mm full frame equiv., it's a little short on the focal length range I'd like - and it doesn't have a Bulb setting, multiple exposure, and image overlay creative effects, but otherwise the camera has all the features I'm used to using with my Nikon D300S. The camera will do a 60 second exposure and 12 megapixel RAW files (slow writing to memory), plus 1080p video, panoramic mode, and HDR.
I've had a few days to play around with the features, and really enjoy how easy it is to access settings through buttons and dials on the camera, as well as with a customizable My Menu feature accessed via one of the knobs. And, as fun as it is to be able to have full control, or play with the special effects, it's also nice when the grandkids are running around to set it to fully automatic and get some great photos that are at least as good as I shoot with the D300S, without thinking about the settings. And the whole unit is a fraction of the size and weight of my D300S w/ 18-200 mm zoom!
The accompanying photos were all shot with the Coolpix P7700. All shot RAW, with the Christmas lights converted to jpeg from RAW in the camera, and the moon photos with Photoshop. Of the two of Christmas lights, one was a pan on led lights, and the other an in camera zoom effect.
For the second time within a month, a solar wind passed by Earth when it was clear enough here in the Adirondacks to see the northern lights glowing on the horizon in Brant Lake. They were bright enough of a glow that it's quite obvious there's an aurora, but not quite bright enough so the soft shimmering shafts are visible to the eye. The camera picks up more than the eye can see, both in color as well as detail.
This first photo was taken on 10/13/12 at about 3:30 AM - looking north over the western end of Brant Lake.
This second one was taken last night (11/14/12) at about 2:30 AM. You need to be someplace out of city lights, with dark skies to the north to see them. Hopefully before too long, we'll even have some overhead here again! These were both 30 second exposures at f /2.8, 800 ISO - shot with a Nikon D300S camera.
I thought I'd share a few photos from two of my recent workshops that I led recently at the Adirondack Folk School in Lake Luzerne. The first was my 1 day comprehensive 'Perfect Pictures Every Time' workshop on Saturday, followed by the 'It's How You See It' workshop on composition and more advanced shooting techniques on Sunday. There is a really nice diversity of shooting within a short distance of the Folk School - from the cascades just upstream of the school on Mill Creek, to Adirondack chairs along the Hudson at the neighboring Chamber of Commerce, and Rockwell Falls on the Hudson within a short walking distance.
On Sunday we took a short ride to the historic Bow Bridge and railroad trestle over the Sacandaga River in Hadley. With the water release over the weekend for those tubing or kayaking the river, there was plenty of water flowing under the bridges when the train went over - on time - just after 5 PM, heading south. While I compose mostly to create a dynamic balance between contrasts of light and dark areas, and color within an image, the railroad / bridges photo also exhibits a good balance of 'thirds'. The rule (guideline) of thirds suggests placing horizon or detail lines at approximate 'thirds' in an image, and placing main subjects at intersecting lines of thirds. The main 'energy' of the train engine on the bridge is at an intersection of 'thirds', the Bow Bridge near the bottom third. The edge of the trees on the left and bridge abuttment on the right are almost a 'third' in from either side.
If looking at the composition by 'contrast evaluation', the train engine has a lot of energy and attracts the eye. The amount of lighter sky balances out the heavier energy of the darker trees. The lines of the bridges catch your eye and lead you from side to side, and there is enough energy in the water and lines there to pull your eye down - plus having the lighter color and detail contrast in the stone bridge abuttment. This creates a pleasing dyanamic balance between all the lighter and darker areas and lines that lead your eye throughout the image. My books, 'Contemporary Landscape Photography', and 'The Landscape Photography Field Guide' both discuss composition in greater length and with much more detail. I'll be doing a 2 day workshop at the Folk School later this month (Aug. 2012), as well as workshops at View in Old Forge.