At the Corner of Color and History

With a weekend of beautiful weather, fall color, and a new Nikon D850, I set out to capture some of the wonderful sights in the area. One of my favorite go-to's for a great shot is Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. This small city, which is also part of the National Park System, sits at the intersection of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Harper's Ferry is incredibly picturesque, but my favorite spot is on top of the Maryland Heights overlook. It has been several years since I've hiked the 2.5 mile trail to the overlook of the town, so we set out with the dog for a hike and a view.

The trail to the overlook has the following profile: uphill, followed by extreme uphill, then a stretch of straight uphill with a tease as though it will go back downhill before going uphill..... In other words, by the time I reached the top, I was more focused on my jello legs than I was on the photography.

Thankfully the view brought me back to the task at hand quickly, and I took the following images before the knee-breaking downhill journey. 

This was also my first serious outing with the new Nikon D850, and a chance for me to see how it held up in real-world landscape shooting. So far so good! There are certainly some notable differences between the D850 and Leica SL, but I'm leaning to embrace my new camera.

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Cold Days, Geomagnetic Nights

It's time for one last European adventure!

We had to cancel our three week trek through Thailand to support our ongoing move back to the United States, which is why you haven't heard much from me lately. I've been breaking apart my studio and getting the rest of our house in order - my car gets loaded onto a boat next week and our first load of movers is just days away.

But we couldn't leave Europe without sneaking away for one last adventure. So we called the Aurora Zone and asked about being slotted last second into one of their trips into the Arctic. This is a popular time to head north, as it's peak Aurora viewing season, but we managed to snag a week in Finnish Lapland.

There will be lots of photos to come, but I'll start with the highlight, which is the Aurora. We have been very lucky this week to witness several spectacular showings of the Aurora Borealis. The northern lights are the result of solar gases hitting the atmosphere (ok, that's the overly simplified science) and aurora activity can be forecasted several days in advance by monitoring solar winds.

For the layman, scientists use the KP scale to describe the intensity, with 1 being weakest and KP9 being the best. Before this week I had only ever seen KP2/3 displays, which are most common and still pretty spectacular. But this week we had two nights of high intensity activity registering KP5! At KP5, it's considered a minor geomagnetic storm.

In the photos it's hard to tell the difference, but it's very obvious to us as spectators. An Aurora at KP2/3 is nice and green, but not as fast moving, big, or dramatic. At KP5, almost the entire sky is covered, and I have to keep moving my head and camera to where the action is most intense. 

On a slow night, the green bands don't move very fast, but on a fast night, it's like watching a ribbon waving in the sky, and the movement is very easy to see with the naked eye. Our local Finnish guides - the ones who live here and see the Aurora most often - have even been animated and excited by the spectacular displays we've had the past two nights.

Normally, I use exposures of 10+ seconds with KP2/3 storms to get enough color and intensity to make a nice photograph..... however, I have been shooting this week at 4 seconds! 

This is also the first time I've used the Leica SL for photographing the Aurora, and so far, so good! I chose the 21mm Super Elmar Lens for the task, and it's been a great choice. 

Quick Shot: A Little Abstract

My favorite landscape images are hardly considered landscape photographs - they are abstracts. They are small extractions from a larger scene. They convey a grand vista in a tight frame.

This landscape is exactly that - although the sky isn't visible in the image, the reflection of the sky in the water gives a much grander image. I took this image at Blea Tarn, one of the more isolated lakes in England's famous Lake District. 

Photograph with the Leica SL Type 601 and 24-90mm lens.

Explorations of Llanddwyn Island

I discovered Llanddwyn Island last November during our first trip to northern Wales; it instantly became easily my favorite photo spot in the United Kingdom. And while I got some photographs last year, I wasn't totally in love with the results, so I was eager to try to shoot it again. 

So at the beginning of July, we packed up and did the long drive back out to northern Wales and to see the island. The island didn't disappoint, and the constantly changing weather kept me busy! As you'll see in these photographs, we went from sunny blue skies to clouds of impending doom, all over the course of a few hours. And just to be clear, this is a small island - no roads or cars - and it can only be accessed during low tide. But turning 360* in place could give me a huge diversity in landscapes, and therefore moods I could convey in the images. 

In actuality, all this weather diversity made it hard to shoot! Did I want a moody image, or a cheery image? Better face the right direction, or wait 10 mins for the weather to change! 

All of these photographs were taken with the Leica SL and Leica 24-90mm Vario Elmarit lens.

The lighthouse on the edge of Llanddwyn Island, northern Wales

Remains from an old church on Llanddwyn Island

Dark storm clouds approach over Llanddwyn Island

A narrow path in the grass leading to the edge of the cliff on Llanddwyn Island

Small boat houses line parts of the coast as storm clouds bear down on the island

The beachside forrest that surrounds Llanddwyn Island

Little Bits of Nature with the Noctilux

I feel like the Leica f/0.95 Noctilux is the most undervalued landscape photography lens...... Maybe because everyone thinks of it as a portrait and street photography lens with that insane f/0.95 bokeh. That same portraiture loving bokeh has some wonderful effects when used in nature and outdoors; I can isolate my subject from the background the same way a portrait photographer can isolate the eyes of the subject from the rest of the image.

Put the Noctilux on the Leica SL, and you have an insanely awesome duo. Seriously, go to a Leica dealer (or a Leica store) and ask to try the Leica SL with the Noctilux and tell me you don't love it. I've said it in previous blog posts, and I'll say it again.... If you have a Noctilux, you need an SL and the electronic viewfinder of the SL to really get the most from that lens.  

I have shot some "grand vista" landscape photographs with the Noctilux, but today I'm going to share some of the results you can get using it on smaller subjects. I don't dare call this "macro photography" - it's more like "small-ish landscapes."  Each of these images was shot on the Leica SL and edited in Lightroom. 

I don't like seeing people defile nature by carving their initials into a tree; however, this tree has aged significantly since it was carved with the heart, and the aging bark around it really contrasted nicely. I broke down and took the photograph..... 

I don't like seeing people defile nature by carving their initials into a tree; however, this tree has aged significantly since it was carved with the heart, and the aging bark around it really contrasted nicely. I broke down and took the photograph..... 

I usually shoot the Noctilux wide open, but in this case I stopped down to f/4 so that all of he flat leave scene was in focus. 

I usually shoot the Noctilux wide open, but in this case I stopped down to f/4 so that all of he flat leave scene was in focus. 

Here I'm back to my f/0.95 ways! I love how the ferns disappear into the background, while one fern reaches out to touch the viewer in the foreground. At an aperture like f/8, this image would have seemed very harsh..... But the Noctilux gives the dreamy quality to make this feel like it was photographed in a dream. 

Here I'm back to my f/0.95 ways! I love how the ferns disappear into the background, while one fern reaches out to touch the viewer in the foreground. At an aperture like f/8, this image would have seemed very harsh..... But the Noctilux gives the dreamy quality to make this feel like it was photographed in a dream. 

Quick Shot: Alone

It was a long hike to get this photo.....well, it was a long hike where I got this photo! After several miles of uphill through a swampy and overgrown mountainside in Wales, I began descending a steep rock face. Looking up along the cliff during my descent, I found this lone tree perched on the cliff. A lone tree would have been photographic, but the bizarre crooked shape of this tree really made the shot!

Photographed with the Leica SL and Leica f/0.95 Noctilux lens. 

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Quick Shot: Fairy Glen

Here's a photography tip for you..... if you ever come upon a place named "Fairy Glen," you can probably  bank on it being a great photographic spot! Sure enough, I visited the Fairy Glen in Snowdonia, Wales and was greeted with one of the nicest photographic opportunities of my trip.

I used a neutral density filter to get a long exposure, allowing me to capture the soft flowing water as it passed through the canyon and glen. The result needs almost no editing! And it's clear to me why the fairies would choose to live here.

Photographed with the Leica SL and Leica 24-90mm lens.

Quick Shot: Rain Storm

Bad weather makes for great photographs, which is contradictory to what most people think. I get a lot of comments from folks on the street who see me with a camera and remark "what a great day for photography" when the sun is shining and not a cloud in the sky. The problem is, nice weather is boring. There isn't drama and contrast to it.  

On the other hand, crap weather is great for photographs, even if it's not great for standing around in. For this particular shot, I had some of both. The sky was sunny and nearly cloud-free over my right shoulder, but to my left was a pop up rain storm and heavy clouds. The contrast was remarkable, and made for some great lighting and drama to photograph. 

I emphasized the dramatic clouds  and contrast of the rain over everything else.... I cropped to 16x9 to give a dramatic air to the whole photograph and converted it to black and white using Nik Silver Efex. Photographed on the coast of Wales with the Leica SL and Leica 24-90mm lens. 

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Quick Shot(s): Dark & Moody or Bright & Lively?

There's been a lot of ramblings about camera equipment here lately, so today we'll get back to the photography with this duo of photos.....

These are two very different images of the same set of trees that I came upon during a long hike this weekend. I couldn't decide which composition I preferred as I framed the shot, so took both and figured I'd work it out later when I could review them on my computer.... but I figure I'll share both because it might help you.

The two photographs were made with the same camera (Leica SL) and same lens. I am standing in the same place for both - the difference is that I crouched down a few feet on one to include more eye-level perspective on the shrubs and underexposed one image by -1/2 stop. But look at what a different feel these images have! One is darker and more moody, while the other is bright and lively.

The point is, composition and photographic technique will have more to do with storytelling than the equipment you carry. It doesn't matter what brand that camera is if you don't know how to use it to get the results you want.

Which of these two photos do you prefer? Dark and moody or bright and lively? Comment and let me know!