It’s been more than a decade since the Las Conchas Fire burned more than one hundred fifty six thousand acres (244 sq. miles) in the Jemez Mountains leaving a huge burn scar in its wake. Two years later the Thompson Ridge Fire took another fifteen thousand acres. While I mourn the loss of those large areas of forest, I recognize the photographic opportunities the burns produced.
The low clouds partially veil the burned trees in this photograph. There is an obvious contrast between the live trees in the middle ground and the seemingly endless ranks of burned, dead ones on the hills in the background.
Nikon D810, Nikkor 24-120mm f4, 1/640, f8, ISO 640
I used my 80-200 telephoto zoom to isolate these fir trees in the frame. They are losing their bark and what bark remains is burnt black; the result is an almost abstract image. I also made a landscape (horizontal) version of this image, but the strong vertical lines of the trees lend themselves better to the portrait orientation.
Nikon D700, Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8, 1/400, f8, ISO 400
I processed this photograph in a way that emphasizes its airy, dreamlike quality. It was snowing and the clouds were low, so I used a fast shutter speed to freeze the flakes in the frame. This is a relatively “high key” image for me, but I think it does a good job of expressing the mood of the experience.
Nikon D810, Nikkor 24-120mm f4, 1/1000, f11, ISO 640
These trees were coated with a filigree of hoarfrost on this cold morning. The delicate icy branches against the black trunks and the cloudy sky creates an interesting visual contrast. Again, I chose a vertical orientation to accentuate the strong vertical lines of the dark trunks.
Nikon D700, Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8, f8, 1/640, ISO 400
Here is the view looking west along highway 4 from Corral Canyon, a beautiful area just west of the Valle Grande. This image shows the indiscriminate path of the fire, leaving large swaths of forest incinerated and others unscathed. Again, I was drawn to make this image by the visual, as well as the conceptual contrast of the scene.
Nikon D810, Nikkor 24-120mm f4, F11, 1/200 ISO 1250
I noticed these horses grazing at the foot of a burned mountain. This is the area where the Las Conchas fire started. I wanted the horses to be dwarfed by their surroundings to lend a sense of scale to the image. Even so, I had to use a 200mm focal length to produce the framing I desired.
Nikon D700, Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8, 1/640, f11, ISO640
We have had two major wildfires here in the Jemez Mountains over the last four years. Each destroyed well over 100,000 acres leaving large tracts of forest scarred with the burned skeletons of once majestic conifer trees. After a while, you get used to the desolation. It can even have its own kind of harsh beauty.
Winter can be especially beautiful in a burn. The tonal contrast between the white snow and the black, charred trees is striking. The textural contrast between the trees on a burned ridge and a lowering storm cloud provide strong elements and tell a story of loss reconciled by time and weather. We can use such conditions to make more compelling images.
When conditions are right, the bones of the dead trees become coated with hoarfrost and are transformed into fragile, crystalline structures. You can almost hear the tinkling of their branches as they sag under the weight of the frost.
When the sun breaks through a low-hanging bank of clouds, the light is transformed; it becomes, in a way, magical. The shadows and the mist of the clouds create a kind of frame that surround and isolate the area which is lit, making it the focal point of the composition.
Otherwise unremarkable elements of the landscape become worthy of attention when they are enhanced by a coat of frost.
They come front and center when the rest of the scene is obscured by cloud cover. Such conditions reduce the clutter that would, under normal conditions, draw our attention away from them.
The last two images are successful only because of the low clouds which block the view of a conifer covered hillside. If we could see the entire scene, the trees in the foreground would become lost in the background of similar shapes and patterns. By using the softness and the simplicity of winter conditions, we can imbue otherwise unattractive or unworkable scenes with qualities that make them stand out, and render them more recognizable and appealing to the eye of a viewer.