A Couple Tips to Working in Steam

Steam is one of the best parts of winter landscape photography. It adds so much drama and character to the images that the landscapes can take on a whole different life form. If you don’t believe me then find a good spot in winter, take a picture and then go back in the summer and you will see the awesome difference. But how do you protect your camera gear while working in that steam?

First off this is for those that are standing in steam while also photographing it. If you’re a good distance away then your gear really isn’t in any danger. With that when you are standing next to a steam pocket remember that the external surfaces of the cameras are quite resilient. It is the internal electronics that aren’t, so don’t change lenses, or cards or batteries while standing in steam. Next carry a towel with you to gently dab off any moisture that gets on the surfaces, especially by the buttons. Lastly be careful with the front element and what I mean is that steam is hot but the air around the steam is not so if you stick that lens into the steam and it gets hot and then you quickly move somewhere else where it is cool then that difference in temperature can cause damage. Instead try covering the front element afterward and then move. Let it be a little more gradual temperature change. I highly recommend NC Filters for these kind of shoots because if you damage a filter it’s no big deal where as a front element is. Don’t be afraid of nature just be aware of what can happen and be prepared.

Is Light Enough?

Every photographer knows that light is not only an essential element to any photograph but also shapes the story that is told in every photograph. We spend a lot of our time trying to understand and use light to the best of our knowledge but can a photograph be just about light? Does a photo need to follow the rule of thirds or any other of the many rules that we love to regurgitate? Can a photo be just about light and be successful?

Light is never the same in any two spots. It is constantly making everything around it change and thus in itself change. Can that variation be enough to fulfill the rules? Then of course are the shadows that are produced from the light. That adds a whole other element that can fulfill the needs of the photo. These sorts of questions I often wonder about in winter time when there is more time to think then shoot and with a blank canvas like snow, the options are truly limitless. Have you ever tried using a flash in snow? It can be fun. If you live in an area with snow, which right now in the US thats a few places, then try capturing just the light and see what happens.

Images Captured with Nikon D5, 70-200 VRII, on Lexar UDMA Digital Film

Where’s the Snow?!

December is often associated with winter, snow and of course Christmas. The one thing I’ve learned out of all my years living here in Montana is that winter can never be predicted. Even the weathermen a day beforehand can’t figure out what it’s going to do. So how as a photographer do you deal with that?

Lots of exploration. It really sucks when you’re out shooting in need of a good photograph and you just can’t find it. The days where you get skunked are all too real and can be very frustrating because you know what it should be but it’s not there. The answer is to be patient and to keep driving around until you find something. If you keep a journal of great places to shoot, which I encourage every photographer to do, then that can help with those lulls. Otherwise just keep your eyes open and see what comes your way.

Longer Lenses For Landscapes

I really like using longer lenses even mid range lenses when it comes to landscapes. I often find that there are avenues in landscape photography that make for a stronger composition then if you were to use a wider lens and capture more info. A big part of landscape photography is finding those areas where the light is making a statement about the land. Too much negative or positive space can lead to a boring image. Kinda like here, having a wider lens really wouldn’t add anymore to the story.

Winter landscapes and black and white photography really remind me of poetry. I don’t know why but that’s just where my mind goes. When the afternoon goes from gorgeous god beams to so flat a grey that you could use it as a color checker it makes one wonder what kind of poem is being written. Low clouds, steam from the rivers and folks burning ground clutter can make for some interesting backgrounds. Combined with Cottonwoods and snow the valley can become rather surreal, much like a poem.

Images Captured with Nikon D5, 70-200 VRII, on Lexar UDMA Digital Film

Fall means Steam

Spring and Fall yield some of the best photography because of the dramatic changes in temperature. When it gets down to below freezing at night and then warms up in the afternoon to the mid fifties the change can create some great atmospheric effects including steam. With the addition of some clouds the results can be spectacular.

A couple of things to think about when working with steam, the biggy being never to point your lens directly into the steam. If that steam hits the front element the combination of the cold metal and the hot air and then right back to cold can warp the front element or a NC filter if you have one attached. Next really look for interesting subject matter to put with the steam. Steam can be very overpowering just like snow can be because of the more solid color it provides. Adding in that extra element can help make the steam pop even more. Besides those basics just have fun because the options are endless.

Is Black & White the Best Option for Steam?

I absolutely love steam! Steam is a very graphic element in nature and it can be shaped and molded in so many different ways. Light is the best way to mold and if you watch geothermal spot all day you’ll see how different the steam looks throughout the day as the light changes. It’s a great way to learn about light. Well this past weekend it was quite cold with the highs in the teens. That seems to be the trend lately. It was also a good day to be out on the river since it was sunny. When you have below freezing temperatures and blue sky sunny days, the combination results in a drastic change in temperature between the surface of the water and the air temperature. This creates steam, which creates some great photography.

Now I’ve been going to the Missouri River for a few years now but I have never seen this amount of steam before. It was just insanely gorgeous. Since I was shooting landscapes I kept a basic setup, D5 with 24-70 f/2.8. I did close down a bit to bring out more detail and depth in the steam. Then in post I using SilverEfex Pro, I was able to really bring out the detail in the steam using the structure slider.

Pick Up the Camera and Shoot

It can be hard at times to find the motivation to get out shooting. You start thinking about having to drive somewhere, the time it takes, the work you haven’t done, the other things you could be doing, etc. We’ve all been there and we all struggle with it. But the simple fact is if you don’t shoot everyday then you’re not pushing yourself. One of the best ways to keep pushing yourself is to shoot out your window. I’m sure some of you might be saying, “well I live in a city.” Well one of my favorite photographers spends more time shooting from his roof then anywhere else and he lives in a city. If you’ve ever seen a Jay Maisel class then you know he spends a lot of time photographing New York from his roof and it seems to have worked out pretty well for him.

Why not? Shooting from your house or office can be a good way to breakup the monotony of the day and keep your skills sharp. Will you get a great photo that will make you lots of money every time? No probably not. Then again if you’re in this business then you know that’s not really a reality any of the time. The point is to stay sharp throughout the week when you’re stuck at work. These shots I took outside my window. Are they the best? No. Did it feel good to be holding a camera after hours on the computer. YES! These were taken with the D5 and 70-200 VRII. Nothing special in the camera and nothing special when it came to finishing. Just a quick way to think through the process and keep the mind sharp.

Trees and Steam

One of the great things about living so close to a geothermal area like Yellowstone is that the scenery is often very diverse in the winter time. The cold temps throughout the night often lead to snow not melting but in the morning when the sun hits the water we get great steam. Around the outer edges of the park we see this a lot but it’s not specific to just that area. In fact it is a common winter trait for any free flowing body of water and the cold temps. But how do you take advantage of it?

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There are a number of ways to work with the steam because it is so abstract with no defined shapes or color, it can be composed in all sorts of ways. Two of my favorite ways is finding that lone tree that is surrounding by the steam and then in post converting it to black and white. One of the great things about steam is it creates a basic white point. It also creates this great moody feel to any image when composed correctly. It’s always a good idea to try and compose with as much space in the frame as possible yielding to the steam and never centered. This helps to exaggerate the effect.

the 18-35mm is just wicked Sharp!

I’ve only had the 18-35mm f3.5 for a couple of weeks now but I got to say I really like that lens! It’s just a great light weight lens. It’s wicked sharp and the 18 to 35 range is great for landscapes. It’s also great for working inside of planes or other small spaces, as I tested that out last weekend at the LA County Airshow. But one thing that I wanted to make sure I did this year was try the 18-35 with snow.

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On Monday I went up to Hyalite Canyon after the snow stopped to work with the fresh powder. I love fresh powder. There is something about fresh snow that it’s just crisper or brighter. Whatever it is, there is a visual difference when compared to snow that has been on the ground for a couple of days. Well this one spot just happened to be rather low in the river so it seemed like the right spot to bring out the 18-35. Real simple one click image that was finished in Adobe Camera Raw.

Time Will Tell

If you follow my blog then you’ve probably seen me post images of barns. I photograph barns a lot because they are great subjects to work with. Each one is a little bit more unique and each one has it’s own story. The best part is as soon as you find one the hard part of finding a subject for a landscape image is done. Well this particular barn I’ve known about for years but I’ve never gotten a shot of it that I have liked. Until now.

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This is actually a well known barn as it sits right by the entrance to Hyalite Canyon. A lot of people go by it everyday making it a very popular barn. In fact I’d be willing to bet that just about every photo student that went through MSU has stopped and thought about this barn at some point. While it’s easy to get to it’s not easy to photograph and believe me I’ve tried! Due to the angle and proximity to the road it’s a challenge. We just had a nice storm come through dropping off a couple of inches of fresh powder in the valley. The clouds opened up in the afternoon so I went out for a little bit. These are the days I enjoy the most. Just going out shooting with no real agenda and what do you know this barn finally looked good. All the elements finally came together for me to actually stop and want to capture an image. In the past there was always an issue, whether the light, the angle, the background, cars going by, something. Not this time. With the D4 and 70-300 VR, it was just right. This really has to be one of those being patient and constantly trying images because it really has been years of waiting for that right moment. The funny part is as I am writing this I’m already thinking about how this could be better and having to wait for the next opportunity.

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