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Backcountry Photography

Shooting the Breeze Lee ShoreBy Tamia Nelson

November 5, 2013

If Louis Pasteur can be taken at his word—and I think he can—fortune favors the prepared mind. Or to put it another way, it doesn't pay to fight mother nature. Far better to go with the flow, always ready to make the most of whatever opportunities the day affords. I'm often reminded of this when I'm playing the part of peripatetic photographer. A case in point: Not long after I purchased a macro conversion lens, in the hope that it would facilitate my shooting acceptable close-ups on the cheap, I decided to put it through its paces. So I decamped to The River, confident that I'd find no end of suitable subjects to test my new lens's capabilities. But my field trial was doomed to failure. I'd neglected to take the wind into account. And wind there was aplenty. A stiff nor'easter was making even The River's sheltered backwaters dance. And that put paid to my plans for macrophotography. Any movement of a small subject, however slight, will spoil a close-up shot. At best, the resulting image will be soft and fuzzy. At worst, it will be an indecipherable blur.

Nonetheless, I persevered. But at the end of the day I had very little to show for my efforts. Only later, when I was reviewing my scant harvest of barely acceptable images did I realize what I'd missed. Nature had presented me with an opportunity, but in my blinkered determination to give my new lens a proper outing, I'd turned my back on nature's gift. And what was this bounty I'd so churlishly spurned? The very force that doomed my close-up efforts to failure:

The Much of a Which of a Wind

And no, those aren't my words. They're from a poem by e. e. cummings. Still, I shouldn't have needed a poet's help to see what lay before me. As every paddler knows, the wind is your constant companion. Whichever way you turn, it's always in your face. (That's how it seems, anyway.) To the voyageurs, the wind was La Vieille, the Old Woman. They knew they could never escape her nagging presence. Only on the rare good days would she condescend to help them on their way. That's when the broad square sails would come out, and the North Canoes would fly across the big lakes. The voyageurs made the most of these happy interludes, too, knowing full well that in a matter of hours (or minutes) the Old Woman's fickle favors would be withdrawn. Then it was back to the sweaty work of paddling.

The voyageurs are long gone, of course. When we paddle, we paddle for pleasure. The routine privations and commonplace miseries of the fur trade era have been transmuted by the passage of time. They're now lost to view in a haze of sepia-tinted romance. But the Old Woman still looms large in our lives, and amphibious trekkers, those hardy souls who marry their enthusiasms for boating and biking and leave their cars in the garage when they head out for the territories, are twice cursed. Being a member of the clan Amphibia myself, it pains me to say this, but however much of a hindrance the Old Woman can be on the water, she's even more of a nuisance on the road. (And no sane cyclist will rig a square sail to take advantage of the rare following breeze.)

Despite my long acquaintance with the Old Woman, though, on the day when I was putting my new lens through its paces I'd failed to take the wind into account. That's not a mistake I'll make again. The Old Woman is important to paddlers, and she deserves the attention of the paddling photographers for this reason alone. In short, the wind seems as worthy a subject as moving water, the seasonal tints of the autumn hills, or the vivid colors of the summer woods in the hours following a hard rain. But how do you do it? How can you capture something you can't see? Well, the Old Woman may be invisible, but she leaves her mark everywhere she goes. Consider these signs of her passage over land and water:

  • Swaying trees
  • Undulating meadow grass and marshland cattails
  • Clouds of milkweed and dandelion seed
  • Tumbling autumn leaves
  • Sheeting rain, drifting mist, and blowing spume
  • Pounding waves
  • Dancing riffles
  • Whirlwinds and waterspouts
  • Scudding clouds

Nor can we paddlers remain unmoved in her presence:

  • She blows our hair into our eyes.
  • We have to shout to make ourselves heard over her roar.
  • She makes it hard for us to walk from place to place.
  • She forces us to pay dearly for every canoe-length of progress.
  • She alternately tugs and presses at our loose-fitting clothing.
  • Our ponchos become sails—and sometimes drive us backwards.
  • She makes the walls of our tents flap and crack and split.
  • The lunchtime kettle takes forever to boil.
  • She hurls beached canoes into the air and tumbles them into the water.
  • She rips our maps from our hands, and tears pages from our journals.

Nor are these lists exhaustive. We're almost never out of sight of the Old Woman, and even on those rare occasions when she's occupying herself somewhere else, we can still see her handiwork all around us. There are…

  • Ripple marks on the beach
  • Stormwrack on the shore
  • Rub-marks and scars on limbs and tree trunks
  • Windrows of fallen leaves
  • Hollows and drifts in the snow

Once you begin looking for her spoor, you see it everywhere. And that's the secret to…

Getting the Old Woman to Pose

Remember what Pasteur had to say? Fortune favors the prepared mind. And preparation entails taking command of those things you can control. You can't order the Old Woman to make an appearance at a time and place that suits your convenience, but you can certainly use care in choosing shutter speeds, apertures, and EV compensation. Only then can you be sure that the Old Woman will get the exposure she deserves. (Scratching your head already? Then read the user's manual that came with your camera, check out the linked article, and then come back here.)

OK. Let's go in search of the Old Woman and her works. Come with me to a spot by The River that I know to be one of her favorite haunts. We've picked a good day, too. Occasional gusts are tossing the tops of the taller trees back and forth, dying leaves are being torn from their parent limbs, and we can see ripples in all but the smallest and most secluded pools. I've settled on two strategies to capture the Old Woman at her work. One is to use a slow shutter speed to emphasize movement-associated blurring. (This will be most effective when stationary objects are included in the photo to provide a point of reference.) And the other? To use a fast shutter speed to freeze moving objects in mid-course. In short, this is no day for half-measures and happy mediums. It's a day for extremes. Now let's take a closer look at both alternatives, beginning with…

Life in the Slow (Shutter Speed) Lane.  In the photo below, you can see how the Old Woman is chivvying a raft of floating leaves across a shallow pool. The slow shutter ensures that the images of the leaves are blurred by movement, while the stolid bedrock outcrop in the background provides an anchor for the viewer's eye. (Notice the sharply defined images of the stationary leaves in the lee of the outcrop.)

Windy Leaves

What did I do to get this shot? I used Shutter Speed Priority Mode, allowing my camera to choose an aperture to complement a ½-second exposure. I was shooting at a focal length of 32 mm (the lens is a Pentax 18–55 mm). And to ensure that no hand tremor contributed to the motion blur, I made the shot from the prone position, bracing my elbows braced on solid bedrock..

Bedrock or not, however, no brace can be trusted under all conditions, especially when the Old Woman is buffeting the photographer's body. Which is why I mounted my camera on a tripod for the next shot. And this time my target was a quaking aspen:

Shaking Aspen

Here I had to place the tripod so close to the little aspen that the leaves almost brushed the camera body. Since a wide-angle lens was called for, I opted to bring the focal length down to 18 mm. The shutter speed stayed at ½ second, however, with the result that you see above: the trembling leaves are blurry and indistinct, but the foreground rock—too stalwart to be moved by any of the Old Woman's blustery gusts—stands in sharp focus.

Now for something entirely different—capturing the Old Woman's calling cards with a fast shutter speed, or, to put it another way,…

Stop the Wind—I Want to Get (a Shot) Off!  And here I'm going to turn to the work of paddler-cyclist-photographer Pat McKay, many of whose photos can be found on my own website:

High Winds by Pat McKay

Pat shot this as the fringes of Winter Storm Nemo approached Maryland's Assateague coast, using a shutter speed of only 11600 second. Note the plumes of spindrift frozen in mid-flight. This was no summer zephyr. It was a near gale—aka Beaufort Force 7, to judge from the airborne spray—and Pat had all he could do to stand upright as he composed the photo. But it was worth the effort. The sharp lash of the Old Woman's tongue has seldom been caught to better effect.

My own much more modest effort caught windblown leaves in flight last autumn:

Blowing Leaves

I used a shutter speed of 1500 second, and the low light flattened the colors to such an extent that I converted the image to monochrome. I was happy that I'd managed to freeze the skittering leaves against the backdrop of the leaden sky, but the swaying pine boughs in the background were still too fast for the shutter. In a sense, therefore, this shot embodies both techniques for revealing the Old Woman's presence: blurring and freeze-frame capture.


But what if no wind is blowing? As I've already mentioned, even on the rare days when the Old Woman has retired from the fray,…

Evidence of Her Passage is Everywhere.  You don't need a degree in geology to know that, next to water and ice, wind is the force that's done most to shape the face of planet earth. (Geologists speak of aeolian processes, in tribute to Aeolus, the Greek god of the winds.) And one of my favorite pastimes is hunting for the wind-sculpted rocks known as ventifacts. (You can see a picture of one here, taken on an exposed post-glacial beach.) But there's plenty of contemporary evidence of the wind's action to be seen, too, like these scour marks made in soft sediment by a bracken frond caught in a whirlwind:

Wind Scour

I happened on this scene the day after an equinoctial storm had blown through, ripping many dead leaves from the nearby oaks in the process. The storm winds also whirled this lonely fern around again and again, sweeping a nearly perfect circle of sand clear of leaf litter and most small pebbles. The Old Woman had come and gone, but she'd left her mark on the land when passing through.

Of course, the Old Woman is active year-round, as winter wanderers know all too well. And the snowy landscape gives her a broad canvas on which to practice her art. Here, for example, is the wind-scoured moat at the base of a maple:

Sculpted Snow

The Old Woman was taking a breather when I made the shot, but it was clear she'd passed this way in the recent past, nonetheless. And she'd taken the time to sign her work.

Have I convinced you that it's worthwhile shooting the breeze, even if your subject is always an invisible presence? I hope so. And here are…

A Few Hints That May Help.  Most of them are only common sense, of course, but if you're anything like me, you have days when your common sense seems to have deserted you. That's when it pays to remind yourself that…

  • You'll need to brace your body against the gusts, and if you're planning to use a tripod,…
  • You'll want to crank the center column all the way down, thereby lowering the tripod's center of gravity and lessening the danger that one of the Old Woman's more energetic blasts will topple it, taking your camera with it. If you're shooting in a howling gale, in fact, you'll find that…
  • Suspending a weight from the tripod head or central column makes a lot of sense. (Many professional tripods come with hooks to facilitate this, but even if yours doesn't, you can probably improvise something.)
  • And while we're speaking of gusts, don't get so caught up in the business of framing your shot that you neglect the danger inherent in working near steep drops in high winds. (Farwell once came very close to flying after a soaring hawk that he was trying to follow in his binoculars. He stopped short only a second or so before becoming airborne. Just as well, too. It would have been a brief flight, with a very hard landing at the end.) You'll find that having a companion helps you…
  • Keep your feet on the ground, both literally and metaphorically. But failing that,…
  • You should at least seek a sheltered spot from which to shoot, especially in really strong winds. (It's no fun being hit on the head by a falling tree, either.) In less heroic conditions, it's still worthwhile to…
  • Take the time to rig a windbreak with a tarp or poncho. And lastly,…
  • Chimp your shots in your camera's LCD display before moving on, just to be sure you have the pictures you want—while there's still time to try again.

That just about does it. I've been shooting the breeze for a while. Now it's your turn. The Old Woman is waiting.

Shooting the Breeze

Every paddler knows the Old Woman—the name the voyageurs gave to the wind. After all, the wind is always with us. Or more likely, against us. And when the Old Woman raged, the voyageurs could only grunt and bear it. But we can do more. If we have our cameras, that is, and if we're prepared to take advantage of the gifts she scatters so freely as she passes through the pines. In the end, we may even learn to enjoy her mercurial company, notwithstanding her uncertain temper. The secret? It's as easy as shooting the breeze.



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