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Backcountry Photography

Going the Extra Mile: When "Good Enough" Just Isn't

By Tamia Nelson

Making TracksMarch 3, 2009

Winter may put canoeing and kayaking on hold for a lot of Canoe Country paddlers, but it gives the shutterbugs among us plenty of opportunities. Shooting in the snow isn't for the faint of heart, to be sure, but the difficulties can easily be overcome by anyone who's mastered the J-stroke or the art of fire-making. I've already written about what you need to do to get ready for winter photography, and I've also had a few things to say about dealing with cold-season challenges in the field. Now it's time to get to the heart of the matter: shooting pictures that stand out in any crowd.

First, though, a word about cameras. Film has a well-deserved reputation for image quality. That's no surprise. With more than a century of history behind it, film photography is certainly a mature technology, and until quite recently few pros took a chance on anything else. But now digital photography is rapidly closing the gap. And you don't need to spend a fortune on a "professional" camera, either. Inexpensive point-and-shoot (PAS) models like the Canon A550 yield great results, and reasonably priced consumer-grade digital SLRs like my Pentax K200D do even better.

Are you worried that you don't have snow-capped peaks or thundering torrents in your shots? Don't be. It isn't necessary to live next to the Yellowstone River to take great photos, let alone set up camp at the foot of Virginia Falls on the South Nahanni. Yes, breathtaking scenery usually makes for take-your-breath-away pics, even if you just point and shoot. But if you're willing to do a bit more, you can get striking images almost anywhere, including a city sewer. It all starts with…

A New Point of View

Most of us shoot pictures standing up, unless we're sitting in a canoe or kayak. We're used to framing our images of the world around us from these two perspectives, and our photos follow suit. Such shots do little to surprise the viewer. Thumb through the typical trip photo album and what do you see? Lot's of snaps of folks standing and grinning, most of them taken by a standing photographer. Or maybe seat-of-the-pants panoramics of sunsets and shorelines. No surprises, in other words. Well, here's a not-very-well-kept secret: great photos challenge our expectations. They show us unfamiliar scenes, or they show us familiar scenes in a new way. And since there are fewer and fewer truly unfamiliar subjects—thanks in large measure to TV and the Web—photographers who want to get beyond "good enough" have to shine a new light on things we've already seen. The moral? Whether you're plodding along a drifted-in portage trail on snowshoes or slaloming down a snowmelt-fed mountain freshet in a kayak that's not much longer than you are tall, surprise yourself. That way you're almost certain to surprise anyone else who looks at your shots. And how do you do this? Easy. Eschew the everyday. Get down low to shoot. Real low. On-your-belly low. Or go up high. Real, climb-a-tree high. Or try a new angle. Shoot down at your feet or up in the sky. Or get close—real close!—to things you usually see from afar, and then stand back to shoot whatever's nearby.

Ambush your audience, in other words. Hit 'em with something they don't expect, something they've never seen before. Now let's look at a few examples…

Found on the Trail

What's this? It's a solitary burdock bur. Alone among the uncounted thousands of prickly seed cases that hitch rides out of northern New York on heedless hikers and hapless hounds every year, this one somehow missed the bus and got left behind. I shot it while lying on my stomach in the snow; the distance to my subject was measured in inches, not feet. The trail ahead, dwindling away toward the horizon, and the ghostly, out-of-focus building in the high background give depth to the picture and place the burdock in context. If you want to emphasize the seed case's microstructure, however, you'll have to get closer still.

Up Close

It's not a view you often see. Each hooked bract and imprisoned sleet pellet stands out. Now here's another shot of a different subject, taken from a similar vantage point, though with slightly more distance between lens and target. This one shows oak leaves carpeting a snowy trail after a late autumn windstorm:

Carpet in the Snow

Your dog might recognize the perspective, but it's not a common one in the lives of most featherless bipeds. The result? A familiar scene—a leaf-strewn, snow-covered trail—suddenly has the ability to surprise. Of course, it sometimes pays to gaze upward, too.

Free Lunch

The color in this shot is subtle, but the main interest is the limbless trunk of a long-dead tree, pockmarked by pileated woodpeckers in search of a good meal. How often do you look up when you're plodding along the trail? Not as often as you should, I'll bet.


That casual mention of color in the last paragraph reminds me: Shooting from an unfamiliar point of view isn't the only way to set your photos apart from the commonplace. Playing with light and color is another. Even on gray days, you can…

Find Color in Your World

Of course, winter's not an easy time for lovers of colorful landscapes. In much of Canoe Country, folks who venture outdoors in the dim interregnum between the deer and trout seasons are confronted by a stark composition in gray and black and white. It's a monochrome world, relieved only by the scattered islands of green that mark stands of spruce, cedar, or pine. But that's putting it a bit too strongly. There's plenty of color to be found. You just have to look for it.

Nightshade by Daylight

I took this picture after an early winter snowstorm. Plunging overnight temperatures garlanded the stalks of streamside plants with spirals of hoarfrost, while the scarlet nightshade berries shriveled in the cold, dry air. But they didn't lose their brilliant color. They lit up the landscape whenever a rift in the clouds allowed a shaft of sunlight to break through. You can also glimpse a touch of muted green in the drooping blade of grass.

The sun proved a fickle friend that day, though. Later on, the sky reverted to a seamless gunmetal gray, leaving only the rusty leaves still clinging to a red oak to brighten the drab woods:

Hearts of Oak


What's the matter? Has all the color leached from your world? Don't give up and hibernate in front of the television. Instead, just…

Look for Contrasts

Here's a for-instance. On another early winter ramble, the billowing clouds of a lake effect storm greeted me as I turned homeward:

Stormy Weather

There's not much color in this shot, but it certainly doesn't come up short in the drama department. That's largely on account of the striking contrasts between trees and sky, on the one hand, and between the dirty gray storm clouds and the ragged island of light high overhead, on the other. Now here's another example:

Light Show

The variegated surfaces of the icicles reflect the muted light from a lowering sky, while the background remains dark. Contrast and pattern replace color as the focus of interest.


So what's the big deal? Ice is just frozen water, right? No way! That's sort of like saying that Rembrandt was just a painter. Or Laphroaig is just a drink. Ice invites the backcountry explorer to take a chance—it's as close as any of us is likely to get to walking on water, after all—then checks his venturesome spirit in the blink of an eye with a chilly putdown. In short, ice is both alluring and treacherous by turns. To the photographer, however…

Ice Always Extends a Warm Welcome

Check out this shot. It showcases an ephemeral memorial to the passage of thousands of drops of water, frozen in time as they made their way on a zigzag course along the branch of a jack pine, urged on by the relentless tug of gravity:

Frozen in Time

Only by moving in close could I reveal the flowing topography momentarily fixed in this tiny "found" ice sculpture, framed in sharp relief against the piney wood's soft, variegated swatches of green, russet, and black.

A very different scene greeted me further down the trail:


Here the setting is a turbulent plunge pool directly beneath a high falls on The River. Deep snow blankets the shore, and a solitary ash sapling hangs tight, poised on the verge, sheathed in frozen spray, braving almost daily assaults of water and ice. The result is—or would be, if we humans still believed trees to be sentient beings—a portrait in courage, a tribute to single-minded tenacity. As a composition, it's a masterpiece of subtle contrasts, from the mottled drapery of the ice itself to the juxtaposition of frozen tranquility with the surging floodwaters beyond.

Which brings us to a subject dear to the hearts of paddlers everywhere—water. Whether it's placid or heaving, quiet or fast, water can always be counted on to draw the eye of the passerby and capture her imagination. But the combination of water and ice is even more powerful, as this next photo shows:

Change of State

Wood and water. Ice and rock. Frigid air cements layer after layer of surging water to the trunks of riverbank ash trees, leaving intricate networks of bark as a just-visible palimpsest beneath a jacket of ice. The camera's shutter freezes the tumbling waves in mid-swell, and while there's not much color in this photo, there's plenty to hold the viewer's attention.

Don't make the mistake of thinking that ice and water can't wield a wider palette, though. They can.

On the Brink

The River runs aquamarine between midnight blue rollers, except at the lip of the falls, where a final surge—frozen by my camera's fast shutter—reveals the water's tannin stain. Half-hidden by the drop, a tree stands tall, its branches and limbs adorned with frosty lacework and framed by the forested slope beyond.


Here the trail leaves The River and climbs a wooded ridge, but that doesn't mean there's less to see along the way. The winter woods are studies in…

Texture and Pattern

Who isn't fascinated by the intricate grain in the hand-rubbed walnut stock of a fine side-by-side? Or the curl and swirl of an ancient stump, wave-polished and sun-bleached, stranded high on some deserted beach by a long-forgotten storm surge? Or the crystalline geometry of a smooth, round pebble plucked from the bed of a fast-flowing stream? Well, the forest has similar surprises in store for any alert winter wanderer.

Old Man of the Woods

Checked and fissured like the skin of some now-extinct sauropod, this blasted stump rises defiantly from the drifts to confront the photographer, daring her to record its intricate calligraphy. The warm hue of the weathered wood makes a striking contrast with the icy blue of the sky and the chilly white mantle of the enfolding snow.


In the picture above, the drifting snow frames the stump. And as generations of art dealers have known, no matter how striking a picture may be in its own right, it never hurts to…

Put It in the Frame

Frames direct the eye and concentrate the attention. They say "Look at me!" Luckily, you don't have to hand over your life savings to a frame shop to benefit from this simple insight. A lot of good things are free for the asking, as in this example:

Off Limits

What's going on here? You only need to look once to guess the answer. The steel frame of the gate forces you to focus on the center of interest—the padlock and chain. And that tells the story. The road leads to a trailhead. The trail is off-limits to motorized recreation, and the gate forces all but the drivers of authorized vehicles out of their cars and onto their feet. (At least that's the idea. It's not foolproof. Still, it's a start.)

And, no, you don't need to wait for a gate to block your path in order to frame your picture. Nature herself often obliges.

Cock of the Walk

This male pine grosbeak is both wary and confident. He looks out on the winter landscape from his perch in a jack pine, bracketed by the branches around him. There's no doubt who's the center of attention, is there? Maybe you've also noticed that he's lit from behind. While pointing your lens directly at the sun isn't a great idea—it can fry the CCD that's your camera's eye, and it won't do your eyes any good, either—with care and careful metering you can keep both your sight and your camera safe. And that's worth remembering, because there's often very good reason to…

Shoot Into the Light

Novice photographers used to be told to keep the sun at their backs. Maybe they still are. But like most simple maxims, it ain't necessarily so. Keeping the light behind your subject—backlighting, in shutterspeak—can lift many an otherwise dull scene above the commonplace. Here's an example:

Mist on the Water

The temperature hovers around zero degrees Fahrenheit. Mist rises from the open water in The River, backlit by the morning sun hanging low over the ridge on the far horizon. The result is a striking image, but the effect would have been lost if the sun had been at my back instead. Now here's another for-instance:

Cold River

The same day. But it's later in the morning, and we've moved downriver. The sun's higher, but it hasn't done much to take the chill out of the air, and The River still smokes as it roars over one of the many falls. Once again, backlighting develops the picture, revealing things that would otherwise be invisible. Notice the hoarfrost on the branches in the upper left? Cool, isn't it? In more ways than one.


Light is the photographer's most important ally, and backlighting is just one of many tricks of the trade. It's also vital to keep an eye on…

Shadows and Reflections

My friend Dan often speaks of Canoe Country in winter as the "Land of Long Shadows," and he's onto something. Like backlighting, shadows can elevate the commonplace to the extraordinary. Take this picture from a very cold morning in January:

Season of Long Shadows

There's not much to show the scale here. It could almost be an aerial photo of an Antarctic range. But it's not. It's just a snap shot of a nearby field. Old snow sloughed from a tall pine, only to be molded and sculpted by an icy gale before being dusted by new flurries. The resulting snow dunes bear a striking resemblance to barchans, and that resemblance is highlighted by the long shadows.

Shadows can also be used in portraiture, as this silhouette of the Enquiring Photographer shows:


Silhouettes were all the rage in the 18th and 19th centuries, and maybe they're due for a comeback. After all, sometimes less is more.

Moving on, reflections, too, invite the speculative eye to explore further.

On Reflection

Here we have what amounts to a master class in all the elements: color and contrast, shadow and reflection, ice and water. A weathered brick building rising about The River is framed by steel railings, its image mirrored in the not-quite-still water below. A skim of ice encroaches tentatively on the open channel, marking the boundary between sunlight and shadow. It's a scene I see almost every day in winter, but it never presents exactly the same picture twice, so I never tire of it.


We're coming to the end of the trail now, and this a good place to say a word about composition. Many of the photos I've reproduced above have a hidden structure, a tripartite division of elements that's guided visual artists in composing their work for centuries. Since the late 1700s it's been known as…

The Rule of Thirds

Simply put, the Rule dictates that the elements of any work of art should be arranged so as to divide naturally into three approximately equal parts, though whether these divisions are horizontal, vertical, or diagonal will be determined by the subject. You can find examples of the Rule in action in the work of artists as dissimilar as Dürer and Dali. And you'll find another example right here:

Mouse Tracks

Floodwater knocked these weeds down. Then they froze in place, and snow blanketed the icy crust left by the receding waters. The snow didn't stop a mouse from going about his business, though. Notice how the weeds divide the composition into three parts. There are also three horizontal zones, and three sets of mouse tracks. Maybe the mouse was named Fibonacci.

Of course, there's one Rule that trumps all the others: There are no hard and fast rules. Which means that, notwithstanding the Rule of Thirds, there are times when you want your subject to be…

The Center of Attention

If you're shooting photos to show how something is done, for instance, you'll be smart to put that something, whatever it is, dead center in your shot. Here's what I mean:

Packing Up

Our walk in the woods is over. It's time to head home, but I won't need my snowshoes to trudge along the town highway. They've carried me over the snow. Now I have to carry them. What's the best way? The picture above answers the question, and it puts the snowshoes front and center, right where they belong. Come to think of it, though, this composition also divides neatly into three roughly equal zones. So maybe there's no escaping the Rule of Thirds, after all, eh? But I'm too tired to wrestle with such questions now. Tomorrow is another day.


Next month: Seeing the light.

Digital cameras make it easy to get good-enough pictures with a minimum of effort. But what if you're somebody for whom "good enough" simply isn't good enough? Then you'll need to do more than just point and shoot. Luckily, it's not hard, and while the emphasis in this article has been on winter—it's March, right?—the tricks I've described work equally well in midsummer. Now there's nothing to stop you from going the extra mile to lift your photos above the commonplace. Good shooting!

Copyright © 2009 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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