Photo Journal: Snow and Trees, Hudson Valley

Olympus E-M1,  f/5.6 @1/100th sec, ISO 640, 80mm (35mm format), no filters

We’ve had some significant snow fall in the Hudson Valley recently, and wth the forecast calling for more during the morning hours, it was an invitation I couldn’t resist.

Hiking in the snow is one of my favorite activities, and if it’s snowing, its all the more special. Instead of the sublime silence that you normally experience in the woods with snow on the ground, there’s the almost inaudible, yet unmistakable sound of snow crystals in the air. 

There’s also the ephemeral diffusion that snow imparts on the landscape, similar in many respects to fog, yet more energetic and transitory-the individual flakes create movement, streaks, and even directional lines.

It’s all fascinating visually, but capturing something that has a sense of harmony is difficult at best. I’ve been in situations like this many times, but often return with images that seem like a bunch of elements thrown together haphazardly.

As I came across this scene however, I recognized the potential for a good composition containing the three elements that I look for in every image – otherwise known as “LCU.”

  • Does the composition Lead the eye? Yes, the staggered pattern of the tree roots creates a diagonal starting at the bottom left and moves up through the middle ground continuing up along the dark shapes of the trees.
  • Is there a Center of interest? Yes, the trees themselves have the strongest tonality and visual weight in the image, and they create a pattern and rhythm that is easy to see. This promote a sense of importance, distinct from the background.
  • Does the composition look Unified? Yes, and this is where the falling snow and the effect it creates as I mentioned above, helps to add a sense of continuity from front to back, and also adds a diagonal component to add tension to the vertical nature of the trees.

While I was using a tripod, I did raise my ISO to 640 because I wanted to make sure my shutter speed froze the snowflakes just enough to prevent them from becoming white streaks only. A quick check on my LCD at 1/30th sec (ISO 200) showed that wasn’t the case. I also wanted to maintain a good depth of field so that the background trees looked distinct, adding to the sense of rhythm and pattern of the whole scene.

All of this is an exercise in analysis, important to understanding the compositional decisions I made in the field. But I really don’t think about these things in such specific terms until it’s time to explain them in writing, like I’m doing now.

Otherwise, I prefer it to remain more organic, more intuitive, more improvisational. I made other images, reacting to tonal variations, the changing snow, and most importantly my own emotional response.

I walked slowly, stopping often to simply observe, respond, and smile. I realized how fortunate I was to feel the snow hitting my face, the cold awakening me to the simple beauty of nature, and life.

The red lines show the main path leading the viewer, established at the bottom corner, and repeated by other similar shapes and tones diagonally and dimensionally (front to back) adding to the sense of depth. The yellow lines show the rhythm created by the vertical shapes of the trees -notice the variation in their tones and their spacing, no two are the same. That mostly comes from moving the camera ever slow slightly left and right to change their relative positions, and relationships. The green boxes represent the major division of the composition creating the background, and tonal balance, for the dark trees. 

Simplicity Inside and Out

Snow Color, Hudson Valley / Olympus E-M1, 1/100sec @f/8, ISO 400, 100mm, no filters

“If you aim to dispense with method, learn method. If you aim at facility, work hard. If you aim for simplicity, master complexity.” – John Daido Loori

For any given situation, a nature photographer is faced with a myriad of visual choices, yet there are usually only a few that actually correspond to what really excites and inspires. By that I mean that we look more than we see, and by doing so are often tempted to make images that are just images, which doesn’t correspond to what we feel.

Simplicity for me is trying to capture what matters, leaving the rest out of the frame. 

How do you know what matters? Pay careful attention to your emotions, to the way you react and respond to your surroundings. Then try not to filter them out with all of the self talk that often inhibits creativity – doubt, fear, self-judgement, distraction, and expectation. 

That’s the simplicity that can really offer a window into your personal vision without the baggage that fear brings with it. Of course that’s difficult to accomplish—I work at it constantly—but not impossible.

The complex is both the chaos of the landscape and our mental activity. Mastery is essential in both areas so that the creative side we all possess can grow and flourish. 

The Process of Starting

The process of composing a captivating image has to start somewhere, yet so often we’re not quite sure where to begin. The temptation to capture everything often leaves an image feeling isolated and detached from the original experience that inspired you. Consider that as photographers we are taking in information through all fives sense, sometimes consciously, but more often than not subconsciously.

One technique I use and recommend to help you gain some clarity about where to start is to ask yourself the following questions as you explore a location:

  • What do I notice?
  • What am I wondering about?
  • What does this remind me of?

You can also phrase them as statements:

  • I notice…
  • I wonder…
  • It reminds me of…

This type of exercise can often help to clarify your vision and start to notice what really interests you at that moment. The idea is to become aware of what you’re really seeing, and grab hold of any idea that might lead to stronger, clearer ideas.

In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert says that curiosity is the key to that creative spark that we value and seek.

“But in that moment, if you can pause and identify even one tiny speck of interest in something, then curiosity will ask you to turn your head a quarter of an inch and look at the thing a wee bit closer.”

How often have you turned your head to look at something just a bit longer, but decided it wasn’t worth the time to explore? It may not yield anything visually captivating, but it might also be the beginning of a compositional “thread” that leads to something meaningful.

Never underestimate your own sense of intuition and curiosity, it’s what makes you different from everyone else.

Twilight on the River

“The pictures which do not represent an intense interest cannot expect to create an intense interest.” – Robert Henri

Familiar landscapes can seem limiting, and they often are if approached in the same way. But light is always dynamic, with infinite possibilities for tonal and color variation, and for discovering the undercurrent of a place or subject. 

The undercurrent is something famed painter and teacher Robert Henri talked about often, contrasting it with surface appearance which may be “novel and attractive at first, but soon grows  tiresome.”

He suggests that every potential subject has this undercurrent, which comes from the personal experience of the artist, the emotional attachment to the subject or moment. It’s this moment that I refer to often, because it’s the only thing I think matters for any real connection to the viewer.

Light continually generates new and exciting experiences for me regardless of where I am. And it’s that combined with study, curiosity, and living life fully that makes an image captivating. 


The Image-Centric Approach to Paper Selection

One of the most common questions I receive about fine art printing is Which paper is best for…black and white images, or landscapes, or portraits?” And I totally understand those questions because I used to ask myself the same questions when I started down the path of printing my own work.

But eventually either you start to look at other paper options and wonder if there’s a better choice, or one (or many) of your prints don’t quite work as well as you’d like on your “chosen” paper.

Perhaps you’ve had the feeling that there’s something missing, but you don’t know exactly what that is. Or you simply accept the doubt because you think that’s the best you can do given the materials at hand. I’ve been there too.

On one such occasion, I decided to experiment with some sample papers I had received from my local dealer, and before the day was over, a whole new world had opened up to me. I had stumbled upon a new way (at least for me) of imagining my prints, and my landscape photography. For the first time I saw more of what I had envisioned in the field simply by using a paper that had a different texture or finish than what I was used to.

And that’s when I learned that there was more than one approach to selecting papers, one that could potentially allow me to become more creative with my prints. I learned that papers that have more contrast or saturation don’t lead to better prints. Nor is texture to be avoided with highly detailed images. It all depends on what you want to say with your prints. 

Lets examine the two approaches that I think are most common amongst photographers and print makers.

  • Paper-centric Approach – In a paper-centric approach, you evaluate different papers and their characteristics and decide which paper is best for you. This implies that most if not all of your images will be printed on this paper. You may have more than one favorite paper, but the focus is generally on the paper, not the image.
    When photographers ask me to recommend a paper for their images, or for a particular subject matter, ie. landscapes, I can tell they are using this approach. My answer is usually I don’t know.

  • Image-centric Approach– Instead of finding one paper that works best for your images, or even which paper is best for b&w or HDR, you evaluate each image based on what you’re trying to convey and choose a paper that best complements or strengthens that vision.
    The paper selection comes after you’ve determined what the image is about, not before. This allows you to be much more expressive with your prints, and use the unique qualities that a great paper can add to your images.

Because I use Canson Infinity papers, there is an exceptional range of high quality papers to choose from. But this doesn’t mean that I select from the whole range  because there are some papers that generally don’t complement the style of my images. 

Once you identify the papers that do complement your style and vision, and get to know those papers well, you can leverage them for their strengths and make stronger prints. I also love how this promotes a creative approach to print making, which can lead to many eye-opening surprises

I’m not saying that one approach is necessarily better than the other, but for me the image-centric approach definitely allows me to make the most expressive prints possible. It lets me become more creative and effective with paper selection. Given that we have the choices and technology that were never available to generations of photographer before us, I think it’s an artistic privilege tat I want to take advantage to produce the best work I can. 

Learning how to match an image to a specific paper requires at least these four factors:

  1. Clarity about what the image is about and how you want to convey that to the viewer.
  2. Understanding the specific tonal, textural, and aesthetic characteristics of a specific paper or range of papers.
  3. Allowing a print to become an object separate and distinct from the digital file or representation on your monitor or electronic device. Too often we fall into the trap of wanting to match what we see on screen, yet I believe this is a mistake. These are distinct mediums with their own unique ways of representing tone and color. Furthermore, this diminishes the role of the paper in creating a new or enhanced interpretation of the image—the reason we print in the first place. What matters most is not matching what we see on screen, but making a print we can be proud of. 
  4. Trial and error – Yes it’s unavoidable that paper will be wasted, but it’s the only way to truly learn the nuances of paper selection. Printing workshops can help as well, assuming paper selection is a major focus. (We dedicate a large portion of our workshops to this very topic.)

A painter adapts his approach and methods to the medium he’s painting on for the greatest aesthetic and emotional impact. Likewise I think a similar approach to paper selection yields the most captivating prints. Combine that with the excellent papers available from Canson Infinity, and there’s much to explore for the creative print maker.

I love paper and how it impacts and refines my vision as a landscape photographer. If you want to elevate your prints, or your photography though print making, the use of the right paper can make all the difference and set you on a new path of photographic discovery as it did for me years ago.

I’ll share more tips and insights about paper selection in future posts. Thanks for reading!