Glorious Steam and the Challenges it Produces

Fall is one of my favorite times of the year for many reasons. The fishing is great, the days are colder, I’m still a ski bum at heart and of course the landscape is beautiful. Everyday it’s just a little bit different with more snow and a little more frost. With the colder temps at night, the heat of the day as the sun comes up and the free flowing water not freezing, one great element that is created is the steam coming off of the water. I’ve spent many Falls and Winters chasing those great steam images and each year I think I’ve found the best one until the next year rolls around. As for photographing steam, a lot depends on the volume that is being produced. When there is a smaller amount it’s harder to go wide so a longer lens would work better. If there’s dramatic lighting or a dark background behind the steam then those elements are definitely worth incorporating into your composition. It’s kinda hard to make a bad steam image but it’s easy to make one that is boring. You just have to play around with the amount of steam there is available.

Image Captured with Nikon D5, 24-70 AF-S, on Lexar UDMA Digital Film

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.

Shallow or Max DOF with Landscapes?

It’s fun to play around with this area because you can make some very interesting and some very bad images as a result. While I have some basic guidelines that I myself go by, I’m always playing around with landscapes because there is a lot of room to do just that. When it comes to depth of field you have to remember what the story is. Depth can really change how the viewer looks at a photo. I put up these two images because they were taken at the exact same spot just different depths of field.

Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park has some great pools and formations to work with. I’ve gone to those spots many times over the years and each time it’s different. This time I was looking at the steam and the formations. Top image was taken at F/22 and the bottom at F/5.6. The difference is pretty noticeable but each one tells a different story of the same spot. Both exist at the same time so which one is better? There’s no good answer it’s just a different story. If you’re not sure which way to go then take the same composition both ways and see which looks better. Never plan on going back because odds are it will be different when you go back.

Images Captured with Nikon D5, 18-35 f3.5-4.5, on Lexar UDMA Digital Film

When Blue Sky Landscapes Work

I often don’t like shooting landscapes that have just a blue sky because they are kind of boring. Unless there is a lot going on in the composition, having a lot of blue sky just doesn’t make for much of an interesting composition. Why is that? Landscapes are often a multitude of colors and there needs to be a balance of those colors, so when one is more dominant, whether dark or bright, it sticks out. Bright blue sky can be like that. There are times when having nothing but a blue sky works.

One great example of when nothing but blue works is with steam. Steam tends to blend in when there is a cloudy background. Makes sense right, white and grey steam blending in with grey clouds. This is where that whole color pallet with landscapes comes back into play. Landscapes aren’t just about majestic areas and great light, a lot comes back to color.

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

Fall Color and Snow

Whenever someone says fall color the mind instantly goes to leaves. Mine doesn’t. I think about the geothermal’s that exist in Yellowstone because in the Fall there is more visible activity coming from the geothermal then there is Summer. The colder temps make for more dramatic compositions and the colors can be just as striking as the fall color. For instance the vents at upper Mammoth Hot Springs.

The bacteria that grows in the geothermal’s create a range of different colors and the fallen debris inside the geothermal’s creates some unusal textures. Leaves, branches, even animals all break down in the boiling water and the results are well, interesting. It’s a lot like looking at another planet. Photographically there are many ways to work with this type of subject from a macro to a wide angle, being so bright and colorful the viewers eye will go to it no matter what. The downside is you can’t really use a tripod in Yellowstone because the boardwalks have to remain passable. It’s a little easier in winter time when you go out on a private tour when the park’s roads are closed but thats another post.

Is There To Much Flare?

I always wonder about flare because I often include starbursts in my landscape shots when it is appealing to do so. It’s a simple and old technique to use a starburst. Simply close down and you should be able to get a result. Depending on if there is something between the sun and the camera, such as a cloud, a tree, a mountain, will change the starburst outcome. This was real popular for a while and then died off, it came back and is slowly going away again. That could be said about many things in photography.

So, Flare, is it good or bad? Everything comes back to the story. What you saw and felt when you took the photograph of course comes into play so I won’t bother to much with that point. I like to think about it more as does it help the image or does it hurt the image? A starburst by itself grabs the eye. It’s bright and dramatic. So is that extra flare needed under those circumstances? It’s one of those things that is hard to come up with a definite answer for and for myself I’m still trying to come up with one. If the flare acts like a guiding source then I think it can work but it really does depend on the other elements.

Images Captured with Nikon D750, 24-70 AF-S, on Lexar UDMA Digital Film

Steamy Goodness

Fall color isn’t the only thing worth going out for this time of year. One of my favorites has always been and will continue to be steam. After a cold night with fresh frost along the banks of the Madison River, the steam that comes up from the sun heating up the water molecules can make some true magic happen. Not only does the sun provide this drama but it enhances it even further by adding light.

When it comes to working with steam be real careful with the front element because the sudden change of temperature on glass from hot to cold can cause damage. Also depending on how much steam you are working with you might want to carry a towel in your pocket to blot your gear dry. As for the photo itself it all comes down to the story you want to tell to show what you saw and felt that day.

Images Captured with Nikon D750, 24-70 AF-S, on Lexar UDMA Digital Film

First Snow Has Come!

This past week we saw our first snow fall of this upcoming winter. Every year we usually get some snow on the ground in the beginning of September and right on cue after a few days of rain that snow showed up. It was a welcome sight to help deal with the many fires in the state currently. The crisp days are going to hang around for a few days this week which means some great photo opps.

Fall is one of the best times to be in the Rockies. Between the snow, changing colors, clouds, constantly changing light and the generally feeling of the land just makes for some great opportunities. The one big tip I can give for this time of the year is to be outside as much as possible. I fortunate to be in Yellowstone fishing on the Madison after the snowfall and it was just beautiful.

Images Captured with D750, 24-70 AF-S, on Lexar UDMA Digital Film

Keeping the Diversity Together

If there are two animals that really sum up “the plains” it’s the Bison and the Pronghorn. These are true plains mammals. Both were hunted for their hides and meat and at one point were on the edge from being over hunted. Today both can be witnessed throughout the west.

Photographically these two mammals couldn’t be further apart. One is massive and dark brown the other is tiny and a bright tan/white. Both together they represent a history. This morning was perfect for the two of them as the cloud cover created a nice scrim to diffuse the light so neither stuck out or blended in. Using the D5 and 600 f/4, I watched as the two herds moved by each other.

The Right White Balance

So I know right off the bat that this post may or may not be well liked because of the title but it came up recently so it seemed like a good learning experience to write about. What’s the right white balance? Notice I said right not best. There is no such thing as best. The answer is, the right one is the one that best tells the story that you’re trying to communicate in the photograph at the moment of capture. Since each moment is different it’s impossible to say that one works the best with everything. This Bull Elk was the perfect example this past week.

On a very windy day this bull was bedded down with his buddy just below him on top of a ridge. He was very nice to lay down where he did. Notice the ears, as I mentioned earlier this week little details like the ears forward is important. As for the white balance, that day was nothing but clouds with intermittent sun shining down on the ridge. So what was the answer? First off, he’s a light subject putting a dark background behind him makes him pop more. Second, the white balance depended on what the light was doing. When it was behind the clouds, the light was very different from when it was directly on him. I ended up jumping back and forth between Auto, this image and Cloudy WB.

This image was taken in cloudy WB. The difference when the sun is behind the clouds is pretty apparent. But there is another option.

This last one was taken with more direct light on the Elk, notice the harsh shadow under the neck. I went back to Auto WB but I added in A +2.0. This raised the Kelvin Temperature which brought out more warmth in the image. This is a very useful option when it comes to white balance. While holding down the WB button and spinning the front dial you can change the kelvin temperature either up or down, B or A, which adds blue or adds yellow. Thus changing how cold or warm the image is. So in the end the answer kept changing as the scenario kept changing and how I wanted to tell the story. This applies the same to you.

Images captured with Nikon D5, 600 f/4, TC-17EII, on Lexar UDMA Digital Film

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