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From the February 2014 Conservationist

A canoe rests in the partially frozen water on the shore of an Adirondack lake

Photo: Carl Heilman II

Photographing the Adirondacks

By Carl Heilman II

Text adapted from Photographing the Adirondacks-Where to Find Perfect Shots and How to Take Them by Carl Heilman II, available from The Countryman Press .

All photographs by Carl Heilman II

For as long as I can remember, the spectacular Adirondack Park region has been in my blood. My grandfather bought property there in the early 1950s. As a child, I would travel to the Park from southern Pennsylvania with my parents, who later bought property there as well.

Sunset over a partially frozen river in the Adirondacks
Sunset over the Moose River from the
Green bridge, Thendara.

After moving to the Adirondack region full-time in the early 1970s, I began hiking and exploring the mountains. It was during my first winter hike in the High Peaks, while snowshoeing up Algonquin peak, that I was inspired to pick up my first camera (a Minolta SRT 101) to try and capture on film the sense of wonder I felt. It was many rolls of film later before I began to understand the dynamics of composition and light, as well as the principles of aperture and shutter, and was able to capture images that evoked a sense of place.

An ice encrusted tree limb sticks up from the smooth water in a pond with the high peaks of the Adirondacks in the distance
High Peaks from Clear Pond on the Elk Lake
Lodge private preserve.

Decades later, I'm still seeing new angles and places, and I continue to marvel at the diversity of light, moods, textures and drama of the Adirondack landscape. While some locations are physically more dramatic than others, they all have a wild, rugged beauty, and I enjoy every place I've been.

The charm of the Adirondacks comes from its spectacular combination of lakes, mountains and waterways. The drama comes from the interplay of the four seasons, mixed with weather conditions that arrive from places as diverse as the Arctic, the Great Lakes, the continental U.S., and the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean. This mix of weather conditions throughout the year offers unique photographic opportunities.

The entrances to couple log houses
Rustic architecture at Great Camp

To really absorb the Adirondack mystique, you should paddle a wild lake on a moonlit night with loons calling to one another under the amazing canopy of stars. Or view the spectacle of an Adirondack fall-hillsides glowing red, crimson and gold in "magic hour" light when the sun is low in the sky and near the horizon. Experience the solitude of winter on a remote snowcapped peak, or relax in the spray of a backcountry waterfall, rainbows dancing in the mist. It won't take long for you to succumb to the magic elixir of the area.

So it's no small wonder that photographing the Adirondacks is my passion. Today I take almost exclusively digital images, and generally work with only four basic features on my camera: aperture priority mode, shutter priority mode, ISO setting, and exposure compensation. The first two are used for specific creative options, while the last two help adjust the exposure. Making use of the camera's automatic metering settings allow for greater personal creativity. It allows you to put more thought into composition rather than the camera settings and mechanics.

Fallen and living cedar trees by the side of a river with a waterfall in the background
Cedars and bluets at the base of
Buttermilk Falls on the Raquette River.

Composing a shot is an art, and every person sees each scene in his or her own way. However, it does help if there is an effective tonal balance to the details that help draw the eye throughout the photograph. You need a dynamic balance of contrasts and colors to keep the eye moving across an image. If a picture doesn't seem to be working, change the perspective or look for another shot. Walking a little farther down the trail, going to the next bend in the road, or waiting for the light to change will open up many new possibilities.

a bare-branched tree in the foreground with a Dutch-style barn in the background
Lines and tonal contrasts lead the eye
from one subject to another in an image.

I carry a range of lenses with me (ultrawide to telephoto, and a fish-eye and macro) as well as a sturdy, adjustable tripod. If I'm heading into the back country, I carry a comfortable backpack to hold all my camera equipment, as well as hiking gear, food, water, first aid kit and emergency gear. Being mindful of the weather is essential, and I make sure to dress in layers so I can easily adjust to any changing weather conditions.

Weather in the Adirondacks can range from clear and vibrant skies where you can view distant mountain tops, to thick pea soup fog where you can hardly see a few feet ahead of you. But no matter the day, all lighting is good for photography-it's just a matter of deciding which subjects and type of imagery work best in the light at hand. Every type of light enhances a subject differently.

View across a lake to a snow-covered mountain with forest around it
Mount Colden from Henderson Lake

All four seasons in the Adirondacks have their own charm. Spring is a subtle season as foliage emerges and leaves transition from gentle to more vibrant shades. Summer has blue waters and deep-green forested mountains, and summer storms bring fog, mist and rainbows. Fall is visually spectacular with brilliant colors and frosty mornings with occasional snowfalls that decorate the colorful leaves and mountain peaks with a delicate white icing. Winter comes early and stays late in the Adirondacks. It covers the dramatic landscape in a beautiful blanket of white that provides the photographer with stark contrasts.

All in all, New York's Adirondack Park offers some of the most striking and dramatic natural features to be found anywhere in North America. And no matter how long you are here, there is always a new place to explore and the photo possibilities are endless.

Carl Heilman II is an award-winning outdoor photographer who specializes in New York State and Adirondack landscapes. To see more of his incredible photos, and to learn how to attend one of his nature photography workshops check out his website.