Rime Time

“Most consequential choices involve shades of gray, and some fog is often useful in getting things done.”
    Timothy Geithner

In January, 2013, I wrote about temperature inversions, fog, and rime (hoar frost). That article explains the weather phenomenon, how barometric pressure, geography, and winter temperatures conspire to immerse the valleys of western Montana in fog that's sometimes very dense and can last for days.

The branch of a serviceberry bush with a days-long growth of rime

Serviceberry with a days-long spikes of rime.

I'll leave the explanation of our valley fog to the article mentioned above.

The fog coats and grows on everything; the faint dusting of rime early on can lengthen over time to dagger-like spikes that seem to defy gravity. One can make beautiful photos in those conditions, from close-up to show the details of the ice forms, to wide landscapes in which everything wears a gossamer coat. Even the air seems frosted white, making for the sort of photo one might see on a sappy Christmas card. Foggy light is quite flat, sometimes with near zero contrast. When the light improves it's because the weather is changing, bringing wind and possibly warmer temperatures and rain. When the sun appears the rime sparkles, but also disappears quickly.

Getting in close requires great care, as the lovely rime is fragile, collapsing in the slightest breeze or a photographer's careless touch. More than once I've set up, getting my tripod into sometimes tight spaces among rime-coated shrubbery or tall grasses, and while moving my lens close and getting sharp focus brushed the tender tendrils and ruined the shot. I've learned to approach carefully, paying attention to where I'm leaving tracks and watching closely as I position and set up my gear. It's not unheard of for a curious chickadee or nuthatch to land on my subject and spoil the rime. This is especially vexing when I've spent hours scouting for the perfect rime formation on the perfectly arched branch with the perfectly empty background, and just as I'm about to release the shutter the subject disappears in a flutter of wings. To make up for that, the offending bird never stays to be photographed up close and I end up with nuthin'. Well, not exactly nothing, since I got to spend time outdoors in winter, one of my favorite things, and I get to start over looking for a new perfect subject.

The Wider View

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Heavy fog-rime on the skeleton of a dead Douglas Fir surrounded by Ponderosa pine.
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Fog-rime on small Ponderosa pines with darker Douglas Fir as a backdrop.
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Rime on the 'bottle brush' top of a small Ponderosa pine.
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A detail section from a larger multi-frame photo of rime-coated trees on a foggy morning.
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Rime on local and distant trees with fog in the valley in between.

Some time ago friends asked me to make a photo to be applied to the sliding doors of a large cabinet. Having seen the room and the cabinet, I think the concept isn't as weird as it sounds. With the “right” photo printed on a suitable medium the result could be very nice. I wrote about the project in March, 2020, and since then I've been scouting for suitable scenes for the photo. The nasty summer of 2020, while not unproductive photographically, didn't yield anything I thought suitable for the project. My friends are looking for an uncomplicated subject, something that's not “busy. ” While they will choose the photo, I thought a winter scene with fog and rime softening the detail and limiting contrast would be ideal. I knew the onset of colder weather would bring inversional fog and (probably) the attendant rime. I'd scouted some locations for appropriate subjects; I'd be ready when the fog rolled in. I waited, and waited, all through November, normally a gloomy and foggy month. Finally in mid-December we had a week-plus period of very dense fog in motionless air, and the rime grew long.

I'd hoped for those magical conditions in which I'd have a short time to capture my subject in soft sunlight, which happens briefly on days when bands of fog roll in or out, and when there's no wind to disturb the rime that's built up over the previous several days. I didn't get that, instead having only dull, gray sky and very flat light. The fog and rime couldn't have been better (“better” perhaps not being the word so many here, who tire quickly of the gloom, would use). Over the course of several days I set up and photographed the subjects I'd previously scouted. Because the final print will be large, I captured a number of frames to be assembled later to make gigabyte-sized files suitable for large prints. This complicates things a little, but I've some experience working that way and, thanks to the windless days, had no trouble. With the first two scenes near home I had only to walk to easy spots to set up, and didn't feel rushed when composing and capturing the frames. The experience capturing a third scene required running across four lanes and the snowy median of a busy highway, but otherwise the setup and image capture offered no challenges.

With the image files on the computer I used Photoshop's PhotoMerge tool to assemble the frames. Photomerge does well with complex images, that is, pictures with lots of branches or other texture. And while these captures were made soft by the fog and flat light (remember, we want uncomplicated scenes!), there's still plenty of that kind of detail for the stitching software to latch onto. Each final photo, made from 12 - 15 frames, looked good, with few stitching errors to correct.

The Fog Giveth, The Wind Taketh Away

The day I made the run-across-the-highway picture marked the end of the fog and rime. A weather system moved through on the wings of high winds that brought warmer days. Since then December's been unseasonably warm. A cool-down is predicted, with some snow to cover the valleys (higher elevations have had good snow cover so far this year). I welcome the snow's cover of the grays and browns of the valley floor, and I hope the snow sticks around a while. I've some additional scenes I'd like to capture in fog, which is sure to return, and the pictures will be made better if the ground is covered. I do love winter photography!

December, 2020

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