About Me

My Photo
Spofford, New Hampshire, United States
Jeff Newcomer has been a physician practicing in New Hampshire and Vermont for over 30 years. Over that time, as a member of the Conservation Commission in his home of Chesterfield New Hampshire, he has used his photography to promote the protection and appreciation of the town's wild lands. In recent years he has been transitioning his focus from medicine to photography, writing and teaching. Jeff enjoys photographing throughout New England, but has concentrated on the Monadnock Region and southern Vermont and has had a long term artistic relationship with Mount Monadnock. He is a featured artist in a number of local galleries and his work is often seen in regional print, web publications and in business installations throughout the country. For years Jeff has published a calendar celebrating the beauty of The New England country-side in all seasons. All of the proceeds from his New England Reflections Calendar have gone to support the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program at the Cheshire Medical Center. Jeff has a strong commitment to sharing his excitement about the special beauty of our region and publishes a weekly blog about photography in New England.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Celebrating the Snow



Red Cape, Roxbury, New Hampshire

It is mid January and we finally have some snow to photograph, but with more rain predicted for the end of the week, this is a good time to celebrate the qualities of this magical crystalline substance. It is an oft repeated legend that Eskimos have hundreds of words for describing snow. It makes sense since snow is such an essential factor in their daily lives, but the disappointing truth is that they have no more descriptive words than we have in the English language. For photographers, the character of snow is every bit as essential as it is to the Eskimos and fortunately our visual lexicon for representing its infinite varieties of texture and color goes far beyond what we could hope to express in any language. Snow often begins as a blank canvas which comes to life only when it is painted by the light; its appearance varying widely depending on the angle and color of the illumination. For me the challenge of winter photography is to portray snow as more that just one half of a stark black and white composition. Here are some thoughts about how to bring forward the rich complexity of this white stuff that we are FINALLY beginning to see around us. Specifically, let's talk about brightness, color and texture.






Stay Out of the Mud

Over Brook, Dummerston, Vt
I should start with the most commonly discussed problem with snow photography. Your light meter doesn't know or care about what you are shooting. Its only job is the render the scene in middle gray and the results is that, without compensation, images of bright snow will be reduced to a dark, muddy and unnatural mess. The simple solution is to increase exposure by a stop or two, but when the goal is to find interest in the snow, it is critical to avoid over compensating and blowing out the highlights.
Break Trail, Spofford, New Hampshire
A margin of safety can be secured by bracketing your exposure, but with digital cameras a quick check of the histogram can confirm that the exposure is not shifted too far to the right. The use of bracketed images with HDR software has added an additional powerful tool to tame the high contrast in winter scenes, preserving highlights without blocking out shadow detail. The important thing to remember is that post-processing software can perform magic, but nothing can salvage highlight detail when all the information has been blown away. In order to preserve the highlights it may be necessary to produced images coming out of the camera appearing a bit darker than will be your eventual goal.




Painting the Snow

Unless desecrated by road grim, the color of snow is a direct reflection of the quality of the light.
Depending on the time of day, the color can vary all the way from the intense blue of the sky through the spectrum to the warm glow of the fading evening light. The color may also be dominated by reflected light from other sources such as from a bright red barn or from the green tones of a cool pine forest glade. This provides wonderful creative opportunities to "paint" the snow, but care is necessary to avoid letting the colors become overpowering. Fortunately the color intensity and hue can be managed in post to avoid over saturated or clashing tones. Most notably, I often find it necessary to slightly desaturate the brash blue tones that can appear in areas of deep shadow on bright winter days. When the reflected light comes from a gray overcast sky, the selection of the appropriate white balance becomes much more an individual artistic decision. Interest can be added to a flat, steel gray image with the addition of even a subtle drift toward warm or cool tones. The important thing is to pay attention to the light and use it to fulfill your vision. 





Texture



Although a dramatically effective composition can be obtained by enhancing the contrast in winter scenes, I feel that an important part of the experience is lost when the snow is rendered as a pure flat white. For me the most interesting quality of fallen snow is the subtleties of texture that can present with endless variety. The simplest way to reveal snow’s texture is to photograph when the sun is low in the sky. The effect of the warm illumination, highlighting and coloring the detail in the snow, makes this my favorite time to shoot. At other times, when the sun is high in the sky or is diffused by overcast, the snow texture can be much more difficult to appreciate.
Split Birch, Chesterfield NH
This is where a little post-processing can help. The goal is to mute the spectral brightness of the snow and enhance the contrast to a point that allows the texture to become apparent. The challenge is to do all this while avoiding making the surface appear unnaturally gray and muddy. There are various approaches available from within Photoshop to achieve this result and although other image editing programs will manage this problem with different tools, the range of options are generally similar.  So for those not using Photoshop, please resist the urge to insert “Blah Blah Blah” in this entire section. 






Red Cape Unprocessed




Curves Adjustment
Greater contrast in the bright tones can be most directly salvaged with a curve adjustment restricted to the bright end of the curve, perhaps using masking to limit the effect to the desired areas. This can be a bit delicate, but once you master curves you will find an infinite potential for control.








Shadow/Highlight Filter
If you are fortunate to use a relatively new version of Photoshop, I would recommend starting off with the nearly miraculous “Shadow/Highlights” option. A slight increase in the highlight slider can add just the touch of detail that you want and the effect can be limited to the brightest areas by pulling back on the “Tonal With”. I often will go a bit beyond what seems optimal and then use the opacity slider to pull back to the best level. Excess correction can begin to make the snow look pasty and artificial. The “Shadow/Highlight” adjustment may also be done from within a “Smart Object” allowing further adjustment as the editing process proceeds.




Tone Mapped

High Dynamic Range software is another tool especially suited for taming high contrast situations, and any of the currently available programs can do an effective job salvaging the highlight detail in snow. As with all HDR approaches the decision about how drastic the adjustment should be is in the realm of individual artistic expression. In general I prefer a light hand to retain a more natural appearance, but there is no "wrong" approach.  The example is a tone mapped single image.

Across Pastures, Chesterfield, New Hampshire


First Light Monadnock
Winter photography in New England provides opportunities to see the landscape in refreshingly different ways, but it also presents us with a unique set of challenges. This year the greatest challenge has been just finding some actual snow to photograph, but rest assured that it will come back and when it returns don't forget to harvest all the complex beauty the snow has to offer.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Getting the Most Out of a Few Inches

Whetstone Brook
Brattleboro, Vermont

About a week ago winter finally arrived in the heart of New England. After the tantalizing late October storm we had no snow cover from November into early January. We were all getting a bit panicked, and as a result the few inches that fell a week ago seemed like a gift from heaven. It always seems that I am locked away in my office on the best snow days, but I tried to get out on every possible occasion for this event. In New England, and especially during New England winters, you have to make the most of what nature gives you and when it is given. With many other responsibilities, it is a challenge to try to structure my time to get out shooting during the best conditions. Fortunately, the photographic natural history of a snow storm generally evolves over a few hours to several days and the recent storm provided an excellent example. 




Day One


Guilford, Vermont
The storm started last Wednesday evening. I left a little early for work on Thursday morning and managed to catch a few images from the back roads in Guilford Vermont. The snow was still falling and the countryside was an expanse of soft contrasts. I spent the morning gazing pitifully out my office window praying that the snow would not change to sleet and rain. At noon the snow was still clinging nicely and, because many folks
Stickney Brook
Dummerston, Vermont
had canceled their appointments, I had about an hour to wander along Route 30 toward Newfane. I started by exploring the nearby Whetstone Brook in Brattleboro, but when the clock is ticking I usually fall back on old friends that are close by. Stickney Falls, in Dummerston Vermont, is one of my favorite local waterfalls.
Dummerston Bridge
The volume of water can vary greatly but on this day the brook was beautifully encased in snow laden trees. This was the first opportunity I have had to use the high wadding boots that I have been carrying in the car. It was nice to have dry feet for the afternoon. Sadly after grabbing some shots of the Dummerston Covered Bridge on the West River I had to run back to my office prison, and by the time I was done, all was dark.





Day Two

Westmoreland, New Hampshire
The next day offered a different window on the storm and happily I had the whole day off. With warming temperatures the snow fell from the trees as the morning progressed. To prolong the magic,
Walpole, New Hampshire
I headed north and up and was able to catch a couple of hours when the snow was still covering the branches and while the increasing temperature summoned some lovely mist. This narrow window of opportunity passed quickly. After taking the shot of the clump of trees in the fog on a ridge in Walpole New Hampshire, I literally turn around to capture the field below and the fog was gone. The rest of the day was overcast and dull with the trees looking sadly skeletal. 


Fog on the Ridge
Walpole, New Hampshire
Fog Clears





 

















 Day Three

Winter Sunset
Chesterfield, New Hampshire
The third day was hectic. The morning was still dull. I was occupied with the weekly dump run and in preparation for a Patriots Play-Off party at our house. The preparations had to be perfect since we were going against both Tebow and God. In the evening I snuck away for my last major pass at the storm. This time the skies had cleared and I was able to catch the first spectacular winter sunset of the season. I was also reminded that snow is made for more than photography, as a local family enjoyed sledding into the fading light coming across the Vermont hills. 






As I worked through the pictures that I had collected over three days, I was struck by how many different moods were generated by this relatively minor snow storm. It is typical of the rewards we can reap from persistently pursuing our changeable New England weather. Hopefully by the time this is published we will have more fresh snow to enjoy, but particularly in the winter, it is important to remember that the storms are not events but stories and you don’t want to miss a single chapter.

Finally, I know I said last week that, in hopes of increasing my audience, I was considering starting every blog title with “Naked Women”. This week however the title seemed to require no embellishment.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Naked Women and Three Years of Blogging

First I should apologize to those who came for the "Naked Women", I will explain this later, but you are welcome to move along.  Actually this week I wanted to write a bit about my photography blog. It seems a reasonable time to reflect on the process as I have been at this with varying degrees of dedication for three years. Also, considering the fact that for some time I suspected no one was reading this thing, for me it is an encouraging milestone to see that I recently exceeded 10,000 views. In three years I have ground out 67 posts, averaging a little less than 2 per month, To be fair, until this past year my blog was most notable for cob webs and the soothing chirps of lonely crickets. Over the last year I committed to posting weekly, trying to get something out every weekend. 49 of my 67 posts (73%) have been in the last year, The regular schedule has led to considerable pressure, but it seems to have garnered more interest. I have only recently learned how to review all the statistics on the blog and it is especially fascinating to see who is stopping by. The great majority of the audience is from the US, but the bog seems to have small followings in quite a few other countries, including England, Russia, Germany, India, Australia and Brazil. I am reluctant to report to my Mac friends that 78% of readers use Windows, only 11% Macintosh, although the number surges to 17% if we include iPods, iPhones and iPads. It has been instructive and fun for me to play with the numbers, but I'm sure that if I persist with the stats I will loose the few readers I have left.



Winners and Losers

Of course not all of my posts have been wildly popular. It is not always clear why some have caught on and others have died in obscurity. I suspect one important factor may be the titles. My most popular blog was bravely labeled "Call of the Sea" and despite it being a fairly routine, blatant self-promotion of a show of my seacoast images in Portsmouth New Hampshire last summer, it has received well over 400 views. My least visited effort was, I felt, a reasonable discussion of the value of going on shoots with other photographers. Unfortunately its uninspired title "Flying Solo ?" didn't generate the same interest. Only 7 people dropped by. Titles are important, so from now on all of my blog postings (or at least this one for awhile) will begin with the words "Naked Women". I deeply apologize to all those who have arrived under false pretenses, although I am confident you all left long ago. Good hunting.





A Second Look

Regardless of the reasons, there are a few of my posts that didn't get the interest that I felt they deserved. Perhaps it was the title, but some were published early when I had a nearly nonexistent following. Although they are all my children, I thought this might be an appropriate time to mention a couple that might be of belated interest.

One of the my most exciting recent photoshoots was a winter overnight at the Mount Washington Observatory on the highest mountain in New England. If you want to learn about cold weather photography there is no better place. Try 20 degrees below zero and winds gusting over 90 mph. For my readers in India that's 30 degrees below zero Celsius and 145 Kilometers per hour. To get a feeling for the experience check out my lonely blog from April 2009:
Winter on the Top of New England




New Hampshire's far northern region is usually referred to as the Great North Woods. I regret that I haven't been back to this photographically rich area since my weekend back in the spring of 2009. It is well worth the trip. Check out my brief early post:
New Hampshire's Great North Woods




 
 
 
Goals
In my first post in January 2009 I discussed my reasons for starting a blog:
  • To improve my ability to talk reasonably about my work without the usual pretentious "artsy" jargon. Sadly no tree, mountain or shrub has ever "talked" to me about how to capture its "essence". 
  • To tell stories about how my images were captured and processed. Story telling is, after all, what photography achieves at its best.
  • To share what I've learned and as a result expand my own knowledge.
  • To offer a forum to share information about my special and often under-appreciated corner of New England. 

At the start I had no conception of the amount of time and effort this would require, but I find that my goals have not changed and that the task remains remarkably rewarding. Now I have to start trying to find SOMETHING to talk about next week!   I'm thinking the snow outside (Finally !) may help.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

In the Fog







It continues to be a tough winter for photography with cold temperatures threatening to freeze my pipes, but not encouraging any insulating snow. I have captured all the images of moldy decaying leaves that I will require for a lifetime so I was excited last weekend when I awoke to find a nice blanket of fog settled on the hills around my house. I guess the rule should be that when the scenery is uninspiring the best thing to do is either bath it in golden hour light or mute it with fog, but fog can add great dimension and mood to your images. Here are a few brief thoughts about how to get the most from your misty opportunities.





First an entirely worthless answer to a question you didn't ask. What is the difference between fog and mist? Actually they are both essentially clouds which have come down to earth, but the difference has to do with how far you can see through the cloud. Fog is thicker, limiting visibility to one km or less, while you can see through mist for 1-2 km. Who decided this? Obvious NOT an American. How far is a km anyway?







Perhaps the most valuable attribute of fog is that it adds a wonderful sense of depth to images. I always look for compositions that accentuate this effect. It can be challenging to find focus and interest in a picture of a distant, uniformly soft misty scene, but a line of trees going off into the distance, boats across a foggy harbor or merely one sharp element in the foreground can make the dimensions of an image pop off the page. I always start by looking for the foreground element(s), and build my composition from that focal point. Consistently soft images can be very effective especially when communicating a mystical mood, but in many situations this choice abandons perhaps the best advantage of the foggy conditions.












 










Foggy images are most often found with the sunlight diffused through an overcast sky, but when the sun shines through the mist it makes the light dramatically palpable. To catch the brightest rays of light it is usually best to angle your view toward, but not directly into the light. The rays of light may only last for a few minutes as the fog lifts, but during that time you can find some magical images. It is well worth waiting for. Here, as in many other situations, the most dramatic light tends to occur as the weather changes and, to slightly modify the old saying about New England weather; If you don’t like the light, wait a minute. 



 

The penetrating light may also create nice silhouettes whose sharp edges can add depth to the image. The pattern of important foreground elements that would normally be lost in a busy background can stand out nicely when the mist softens the clutter. For example, one of the challenges of photographing spider webs is finding a background which doesn't compete with the delicate pattern. Fog accomplishes this nicely while often coating the strands with shimmering water droplets.






 Of course fog can also be dramatic when seen from above. Around here relatively modest increases in altitude can change your perspective from moody and subdued to brilliantly majestic as your view opens to valleys blanketed with puffy white.




In all these situation it is important to keep a close eye on exposure.
Fog can fool a light meter, often leading to dark images requiring an increase of exposure by a stop or two. The problem is easily corrected on digital cameras by closely monitoring the LCD and histogram. Finally, when processing these images I always have to be careful to avoid my natural tendency to heighten contrast. With fog it is ok, if not mandatory, to avoid the deep darks and brilliant whites that I usually seek to add pop to my images. I usually feel uncomfortable when the histogram is floating somewhere in the middle of the graph, but here I just have to let it go.



So whether it is fog or mist have a great time out there. Maybe we can forget about the lack of white, at least for a magical misty moment - you can tell that I'm desperate when I descend to alliteration.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Harrisville New Hampshire










Minnewawa Brook, Harrisville
On a regular basis I have blathered on about the unappreciated beauty of my home corner of New England. I do believe that the Monadnock Region and Southern Vermont is less appreciated and underrepresented in popular photography when compared to the admittedly spectacular northern mountains or the rocky coast of Maine and New Hampshire. But we in the heart of New England, it's true, check the map, live in a more authentically traditional New England in part, because of the fact that we lack the extreme spectacle that attracts, and can be overwhelmed by,the road choking hordes of tourists.  Also it is not easy to get to the Monadnock Region. There are no
Mount Monadnock
superhighways penetrating our territory. I often say that we are a community united within itself by miles of bad road. As the popular joke goes; "You can't get there from here.", and in few parts of New England is this admonition more apt. I would never claim that we have been totally forgotten by the outside world. We certainly have our attractions. By virtue of its manageable stature and proximity to cities, Mount Monadnock is one of the most climbed mountains in the world and during the winter we have a number of popular ski areas. But it doesn't take long to wander away from the few beaten tracks to find what has been called the Currier and Ives corner of New England.  Of course I am biased, but after years of exploration I think the best way to express the difference is that ours is a more natural and less self-conscious New England.

Harrisville Library
December Ice Storm, 2008
I say this not to trigger the inevitable flaming retorts defending the honor of the rest of the beautiful northeast, but rather as an introduction to what I expect will be a series of posts highlighting some of my favorite photographic locations around my home. Come by and check us out, but don't expect to blown away. Our magic takes time to seep into your soul; then we'll talk.




I can't think of a better place to start our tour than Harrisville New Hampshire. Harrisville is a classic old textile mill village located east of Keene New Hampshire. It is widely recognized as the best preserved example of a small 19th century New England mill town. Harrisville is most notable for its well preserved brick manufacturing buildings, but abundant water power has always been the key to the village's prosperity. The first textile mill began operation in 1794 harnessing the rushing waters of the Nubanusit River as Harrisville Pond drains through the village to Skatutakee Lake. The last mill closed in 1970, but  the people of Harrisville have done a marvelous job preserving and celebrating this irreplaceable asset. The classic textile manufacturing structures in the village center are essentially unchanged from the 19th century and are an National Historic Landmark protected by the Harrisville Historic District. It is not surprising that this is a unique location for photography. Harrisville is a place dominated by the water that made it possible and the opportunities are endless. The brick structures can be viewed across the Mill Pond, Harrisville Pond or composed with the rushing water that literally flows around and through the buildings.
Harrisville Design
At the head of the Mill Pond is a classic old school house which now serves as the village library. The factory buildings have fascinating architectural detail, with interesting doors, windows and an impressive bell tower. Many of the structures have found new life with other businesses.  Perhaps the most interesting and historically appropriate is Harrisvile Designs which has continued the tradition of producing high quality 100% wool yarn and features an extensive collection of weaving products. The Harrisville General Store fits nicely into the village. Owned and operated now by Historic Harrisville  it is the perfect combination of a classically preserved New England village store and WiFi.  Stop by for coffee, lunch or most importantly to buy one of my New England Reflections Calendars (I told you, I never stop!).








Mount Monadnock from
Cobb Hill, Harrisville
There are many more attractions in the hills surrounding the village. I feel that I have only begun to explore the many beautiful streams, lakes and farms. Hill-top locations often feature nice views to Mount Monadnock to the south. Harrisville Village runs northwest to southeast and can be nicely photographed in both morning and evening light, with the view across the Mill Pond to the Library best in the evening. This is one of the most photographed scenes complicated only by the maddening mesh of wires that ensnare the library. Given the hours that I have spent cloning, I would gladly contribute to a fund to BURY THE DAMN WIRES!
Mill Pond, Wires Gone!

Although I must confess to a touch of reluctance as I share one of my favorite photographic locations, Harrisville is certainly not a secret. I hope you get a chance to explore and I look forward to seeing the fresh angles and locations that you will discover. Just stay out of my shot!





Storm Coming, With Wires
Harisville is located east of Keene New Hampshire (42.94565167, -72.09463333).   Coming from the east take Route 101 west to Dublin New Hampshire, the home of Yankee Magazine.   Dublin Road heads north from 101 just past the village and goes straight to Harrisville.  From the west and Keene. follow Route 101 east  through Marlborough then north on Chesham Road to the little train station in Chesham.   Brown Road bears off to the right and takes you straight to Harrisville village.  If this is all too confusing, get a freaking map!  It's worth the effort.


Check out more images on my Harrisville Flickr Set.