Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Falling for Ice

What's to be done when the winter turns bitter cold and the river is filling with ice?  I could get caught up on my reading, or home repairs, or just hibernate.  What could get the creative photographer in me to venture out and face the elements?  Why, it's the magical ice sculptures that appear where ever there is falling water.  I've fallen in love with ice falls and don't mind the cold hands or heavy insulated shoes.

Less than an hour from home is the tallest single-drop falls in the eastern United States- Taughannock Falls.  It's a 215 feet drop. It is one of the few waterfalls that can be safely approached in winter.  This is how my iPhone4 recorded a cold morning below the falls.

(Technical note:  iPhone 4, Pro HDR app, tripod with Joby tripod adapter)

I have also been fascinated with the tones that are revealed when converting the images to monochrome (black and white) images. The above scene depicts those cold but sunny winter days with a blue sky contrasted by the shaded gorge in subtle colors including green, or all things.  Going to monochome creates a different response if the blue is filtered to darken it.

Now it looks cold and stormy.  I've explored this scene in some detail with my Nikon D800, and find some images are more effective with a slight bit of color.

I feel a chill when I look at this image of a small part of the falls. My mind fills with a replay of  the subtle hiss of the falls. At the same time, some of the scenes in monochrome have a pure feeling like this one. 

I think the monochrome above captures  the contrast of the hard, immoveable ice against a streaming ribbon of falling water flashing into a mist of ice crystals.

One inner voice says to me that winter is the one time of the year when monochrome works consistently, so just forget the color until spring comes along. Another voice says no, you've got color, use it. Maybe you, the viewer, can help me?  Your initial reaction is something I cannot capture myself after looking at these so much. Obviously, I cannot keep showing two versions of the same photo.  That becomes boring.

At left is a color rendering of the falls with the light blue and green tones that are found naturally.  I like the sense of cold that it conveys.  I've set the white on the clean show in the upper left corner.

At the right is the same photo processed into monochrome. I like it also. I see more of the forms in the ice and the falling water.  The stream of water seems to have more power. 

There is my conflict. Which to show?  I've looked at these so much that I cannot capture the initial response of a first time viewer.  Which works best for you?  ... or is it a matter of which works best for different scenes?  I welcome any comments on how you first react to these. They will be sincerely appreciated.

Now, I am also experimenting with another way to look at falling water and ice.  At another little waterfall after dark, I illuminated the totally frozen drop with a blue gel filter on a flashlight.  What could make the scene seem any colder than blue light? It was, in fact, brutally cold on my first trial of this method. A little bit of moonlight came in to make it easier to see what I was doing.

This scene can be rendered in black and white, but it does not have the same cold feeling to me. In grey tones, it seems more about forms than about cold.

I'll be back at this lovely little falls when there is a little more flowing water to see what more can be discovered.

Yes, I've fallen in love with ice's elegant forms and its ability to convey a beautiful side of winter.

Paul Schmitt

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Going South for the Winter

It is January. The snow is a hard, crusty boilerplate.  Some houses in the neighborhood have been abandoned temporarily for a few months of living down south.  Similarly, many birds have left us for Central America or even farther south. I am staying here for the most part and hoping winter will be short.  It is all a matter of perspective, as this writer suggests.

To shorten winter, borrow some money due in spring.

                          W. J. Vogel
But, following that plan could result in losing some friends.  Better to tough it out. Winter is also a time of solitude, so I'll catch up on reading and other quiet passions.

For these winter months, the woods seem deserted of the springtime song of courting birds and our bird feeders are seeing waves of birds hungrily seeking suet and oil-rich sunflower seeds. These are the hardy ones, or so I presume.  Maybe they are just intent to get the best nesting spot when spring comes?  Somehow, they have evolved to find shelter and food in a time of want. I treasure these few birds. Winter is no time for the weak, whether man or bird.

Foremost among these hardy ones is the Tufted Titmouse, ever shy even in winter.  It waits in a nearby bush for a moment when the feeder is nearly empty, grabs a seed and again takes refuge in the bush to crack open the sunflower seed.  I've tried to get them to take seed from my hand, and they just cannot bring themselves to land even when the feeder is empty.

Another of my favorite visitors is the Black-capped Chickadee. They have none of the shyness of the Tufted Titmouse. While tending a feeder today, it only took them a few minutes to begin feeding out of my hand. They are so light that I felt no sense of weight when one landed.  They are precocious, but also discriminating.  Once in my palm, they pick through the seeds to find the plumpest one.  Didn't you always pick the best apple from the bowl?

Perhaps the Chickadee gives an insight into why some birds remain in winter.  They cannot store up fat and that is a requirement for long distance migration.  So, they stay out of necessity and even have to feed on the foulest day to survive.  None of this implies anything about my neighbors who go south each winter.  Really!

I must also add a third winter hold-out that brings joy to us every time that we see it.  The Northern Cardinal shares the shyness of the Tufted Titmouse, and the reason seems pretty obvious. Even on a gray day, the male's color is rich and lustrous. They are an easily seen target for a hungry hawk.  When I get up at first light, they are always on the feeder at the hour when the brilliant red is hard to see.  The same goes for the evening when they are always last  to leave. When he comes in at midday, he grabs a seed and retreats into the nearby bush, again for safety.

So, these are three of the reliable winter guests at our bird feeder.  All are entertaining, and if not rare, are still savored each January. But, sometimes we also get migrants from even farther north. In 2012, we had a rare influx of Snowy Owls from the high arctic. That caused great excitement  to all who were able to see one of these beautiful big owls. Only a few Snowy Owls were seen in our region and people traveled for hours just to see one.

In 2013, another unusual bird has decided it is "Going South for the Winter".  In years when the spruce or beech seed crop fails, the Common Redpoll abandons the boreal forest of northern Canada and comes south to visit us.  Yes, we are living in this bird's "South".  My reference says it commonly survives to -65° F.  That's real winter.

At first sight, a flock of Redpolls looks like a group of House Finches or common Sparrows.  In fact, it is often in a mixed flock with House Sparrows, Goldfinches and maybe a few Pine Siskins.  Where we were content with one Snowy Owl last winter, our group of Redpolls has swelled on some days to over fifty.  We love to watch them. The brilliant red cap on its head and the light red blush on the male's streaked breast are lovely.

They perch in a wonderful array of attitudes, and never stay in place for long.  Getting them in the camera viewfinder and in sharp focus is a frustrating string of failures with only a few successes.

They can be comical as they skip across the snow, scattering snow crystals.

They are a social bird, and often interact in ways left to human conjecture.

This little red capped bird reminds me that winter has many levels.  The Common Redpoll, like the Snowy Owl, makes me admire how animals somehow survive. They do it in a far simpler (but more desperate) way than we can imagine.  Our hard winter is another's average. Going south for the winter now means something new to me.

Accept winter for the joy that spring will bring. It is the season of perseverance.

Paul Schmitt