Learning to Be RAW

So last weekend photographed Great Falls in the evening using the long exposure techniques shared by my fellow photographer Chrissy Donadi on The Visual Wilderness photography website. I used these same tips to capture the early morning shot of Blackwater Falls in Davis, West Virginia that I shared back in early July.

Now, both times I shot in both JPEG and RAW, but I didn’t use the RAW file to edit that Blackwater Falls photo. It turns out that I needed to make a series of updates to my Adobe Photoshop Elements software in order for it to let me access the RAW photos.

So with the necessary updates to allow me to open and edit RAW photos I decided to take the plunge and see what I could do with one of my earliest darker captures of Great Falls and this is what I came up with. I have other images I took later on that I think may be sharper, so once I choose which one to edit and accomplish that, I’ll share it. But I think for a first attempt at editing from RAW files, this isn’t so bad!

Now I just need to get Adobe Lightroom and make editing in RAW a consistent practice.

Great Falls in the Evening

Great Falls, VA


Remembering a Dark Time on a Dark Day

No extended time living in Europe is complete for most Americans without the requisite pilgrimage to the beaches in Normandy and an homage to the day the tide turned in the Allies’ favor during WWII. There is almost a biological need to honor the lives that were lost in pursuit of that goal.


The ride up from Giverny to our overnight stop was rainy and bleak (but not without some amazing sights – I am determined to find those castle ruins that rose up out of the cloudy mists in front of us and disappeared as quickly as my children’s interest and attention in such things, lol). We arrived in Arromanches-les-Bains shortly before dusk; just enough time to take a quick walk down to the beach to get our bearings.

This small, picturesque town was the site of an artificial harbor created by the British in the aftermath of the storming of the beaches as the deeper harbors were still under German control. Giant, floating, concrete blocks were towed just offshore to created a pier for off-loading all the gear and equipment needed to continue the fight against the Nazis. You can still see a great deal of the blocks floating in the bay and a few that are beached on shore.

Remnants of the port

Remnants of the port

The next morning, after making the mistake of not eating breakfast at the hotel (always take the hotel breakfast in small town France as there are few if any breakfast options on the local economy), we took a quick stroll through the town. The weather was equally as dismal as the day before, which given the theme of the day’s visits, seemed quite fitting.

First we headed to the German batteries at Longues-sur-Mer. Europe is riddled with old bunkers and reminders of various kinds of World Wars I & II. It is a constant reminder of what happened and what was almost lost. These concrete bunkers are still in amazing shape, showing just what our soldiers were up against in those days and the gravity of the situation comes through while exploring the area.

While taking in this particular site, you can’t help but contrast it with the beauty of the coast and the lush farmland, enveloping what was once hell bent on destroying the peaceful nature of this place.

What American hasn’t heard about the American Cemetery in Normandy? It’s an absolute must see while in the area. While we didn’t walk through the museum (one kid was sick, waiting in the car, and the hubby forgot he had a pocket knife on him), but just walking through the cemetery and seeing row upon row of graves, all from one conflict, weighs heavily upon the heart.

After our quick visit to the cemetery, we drove over to Omaha Beach. There on the sand is the Les Braves sculpture, commemorating the Allies that landed there. To me, it resembles a collection of odd swords pointed in different directions, maybe as a way to represent the danger and death that those poor soldiers were plowing into. These days the beach has reverted back to its beautiful nature, the scars from that conflict all but erased from view – at least the visible ones.

Les Braves

Les Braves, Omaha Beach, Normandy

Photographically, this day taught me that I still have a lot to learn about photographing on dark, cloudy, and misty days. I can’t say that I captured any mind blowing shots, but I also can’t say I regret our stops on that day. Each one hammered home the intensity of that time and taught a new generation of my family more about the darker side of humanity that we hope never surfaces again.

One interesting thing about having a high school student in Europe is getting to know her friends and realizing that the reminders and memories of the great wars are still very much in the forefront of the minds of these kids. Every conflict engenders a bit of anxiety and there is an awareness about how fragile peace and alliance can be. I just hope that while the world hasn’t forgotten the sacrifice of the soldiers, that they are exploring and remembering just what is was that led to the horrors of World War II with an even greater zeal. I’m not so sure any of us are.

P.S. There are tons of museums in the area and I’m sure that WWII and military buffs would have a great deal of fun wandering through them. But, as I’m sure you have guessed by this point, we aren’t really a museum family (that’s something I do when I don’t have to drag an entourage around with me). One museum we DID visit on a different visit however was La Coupole in Wizernes, France. Wow! It’s an eye opener on just how close we were to losing the war. The storming of the beaches of Normandy couldn’t have come at a more fortuitous time, prompting the Germans to shut down the rocket factory that would have changed history forever.



Falls on the Fourth

This year the idea of staying in DC for all of the Fourth of July craziness, the heat, and the crowds held little appeal to me and my husband. So my husband – the king of finding off the radar destinations that appeal to our simple and odd tastes – got online and found us an overnight getaway in Davis, West Virginia.


We have always like waterfalls, so the main focus of this outing was to travel to Davis to visit Blackwater Falls State Park. And as I am currently reading up and practicing long exposure landscape photography, this was a perfect destination for me to put my new knowledge and equipment to good use!



We arrived in Davis, shortly before noon. So we checked in to our B&B, had some lunch and then headed out on the first day’s mission – scouting out the falls to see what we were dealing with.



There were plenty of people at Blackwater Falls on the 4th, but it wasn’t overly crowded. Everyone was courteous and good at sharing the views. And the falls themselves were spectacular. After spending about an hour at the falls, we drove around, taking in the natural beauty of the state parks in the area and scoping out possible activities for the next visit to Davis.


We drove out to a smaller, more remote waterfall near Davis’ sister city of Thomas. It would be an understatement to say that the gravel road was in bad shape. But we made it out to the end of the road with the car intact and set out on foot in search of Douglas Falls. Douglas Falls is not as visitor friendly as Blackwater Falls – a knotted rope helps you not tumble down the steep path to the bottom (as compared with the well maintained wooden staircases and platforms of Blackwater) and the vantage points for those of us not terribly sure footed enough to travel a little downstream were rather limited. So after a few shots with the phone’s camera, we headed back to home base.

The real show for me was the next morning. After reading a couple of tutorials and buying a neutral density filter and a remote release trigger, I was ready to try my hand at long exposure photography. We left the B&B bright and early and headed back to Blackwater Falls. The storms from the previous afternoon had swollen the rivers and the amount of water flowing over the falls increased dramatically. Gone were the rocks jutting out of the falls that you could see the day before. And the spray kept us from going all the way down to the main viewing platform.

Blackwater After the Rain

Blackwater Falls after the previous day’s rain. Notice you can’t see any of the rocks visible in the first photos.


Instead we headed up to the other viewing site just off the road to the lodge and set up for the shot I was looking for there. I set up the tripod, put the neutral density filter on my lens, and attached the remote release trigger to the camera. Luckily we had the platform to ourselves and I had the freedom to play and experiment with the settings until I was relatively sure I got the shot I came for.

Blackwater Falls in the Morning

Blackwater Falls – shot using long exposure, a neutral density filter, and a remote trigger release.

Our little adventure was a perfect, short getaway for us. Davis and Thomas are both great little towns to stay in, giving you access to state parks, a national forest, a ski resort, bike trails, river activities, and even artistic ventures. Our bed and breakfast, the Brightmorning Inn, was SUPER dog friendly and the food was excellent (I didn’t expect the European quality pastries!). I can’t wait to go back to explore more of the towns, with their historical buildings, unique shops, art galleries, and delicious restaurants!


Davis, West Virginia








Reflecting with Monet


Monet's House

Monet’s House

One of the biggest impediments to my photography practice has always been my emotions. I’m not talking about the self doubt – though that has stopped many a creative process throughout my life. I often find myself taken by intense emotions when witnessing the beauty, majesty, and soul of a place. And then when I snap that picture, the images seem to fall short of what I experience in that moment. Often I don’t see it until I get home and download the images. Wait, what? No, that does not do that moment justice! And then there are the times that I (being a chronic overshooter) am so overwhelmed by the sheer amount of images I took that I just can’t choose which images best match the experiences I want to share or the emotions that those experiences engender! The process is exhausting and I find it may take me days, weeks, months, and even years before I’m ready to finally wade through the folders and to share the beauty of what I have encountered.

Japanese Bridge

My family trip through Normandy (with a sidestep into Brittany) in May of 2016 was one such emotional ride for me. Finally getting to share that part of the world with my husband and my girls, while also discovering new gems I never dreamed would tickle my fancy was just magical. The sheer amount of photos and the attached emotional responses were overwhelming and while life was taking it’s customary chaotic turns for this gypsy Foreign Service Family, I never got the chance to just sit, edit, process the emotions, and share what it was about those places that touched my soul.

So here I am – 3 years later – finally ready to devote the time and confront the emotions that come with remembering, editing and sharing. My girls are now grown and that brings up new emotions while I edit, knowing that those times of us all together are going to be fewer going forward, making the process all that much more bittersweet.


My kids are used to me dragging them to places they are underwhelmed by – shopping malls, ancient gothic churches, caves, museums, national parks –  you know, pretty much anything when it comes to teenagers traveling with their parents. So I planned our trip to northern France knowing that I would probably be more excited about it than they would be.

When my oldest daughter arrived home from college I told her about the trip and asked if there was anything in Normandy besides Omaha Beach that she wanted to see. I was shocked when she came back to me and said, “Monet’s gardens look cool. Let’s go there.” Giverny is technically in Normandy. It’s just way south of the route we were planning to take from Brussels on the edge of the province! But given that this was a one of those few times she actually showed any interest in something even remotely related to French artists, I jumped at the opportunity and rearranged our itinerary.

Now, even I was not on the bandwagon for this particular destination before this. I mean, how many times have you visited the home of some historical figure and been completely underwhelmed? And while I love Monet’s paintings, I just couldn’t see how visiting his home was going to add any more to that appreciation, especially given the crowds, the weather, the possibility that we missed peak blooming season, etc. I could not have been more wrong!

Since I tucked this stop into our first day of travel, we arrived at a less than ideal time – well past opening. It had been raining on and off all day. We did find the group entrance ( I read on Trip Advisor that they would supposedly honor pre-purchased tickets and help you skip the line at the main gate) and were let in without a fuss – right in front of a huge school age group. Oh boy. This could get unruly…

But coming into this part of the garden first, going to the right and experiencing the water lily pond was just what was needed to start this little adventure off on the right foot. The gardens were gorgeous even though we were a little past peak bloom for many of the spring flowers. The paths are set up so that even with lots of people, you still get a good feel for the beauty of the pond, and can see for yourself the inspiration that Monet must have experienced himself. Sure there are some people in my shots; but I found that they often added a certain “je ne sais quoi.” And everyone was so well behaved. No pushing. No lingering too terribly long at each vantage point (I may have been the offender here). And I never felt too hurried, even by my own family!

The thing about the gardens is what do you focus on? The overall picture? The particular design of each garden? Individual flowers? The reflections in the lily pond? Oh I could spend hours playing with light, textures, and points of view! I get especially lost in the reflections and capturing that classic Monet feel.

Mindful that my daughters’ attention spans could only endure so much of my photographic fervor, I limited myself and we moved on to the house and gardens. They also did not disappoint! So many flowers! So many opportunities for the romantically nostalgic to get lost in dreams!

The house, however charming, is, well, a house. You’ve seen many a house preserved as it was (or might have been) from the historical time period it came from. But there are aspects about it that do have you imaging Monet and his family living there. For me those moments came when looking out of windows and doors into the gardens. And then there was his collection of Japanese engravings. It’s always interesting to see what another artist collects in terms of art and those items they choose to put on their walls that they did not create.

At the end of the visit, we all agreed that the experience was well worth the stop. Even my youngest, an artist herself with little interest in French impressionists (imagine my horror when she admitted that to me!), came away from the experience with more appreciation for Monet’s work. And so, a little bit soggy, we all happily piled into the car and headed to our next destination on my (almost) ultimate French road trip.

My family knows that when it comes to old ruins and abandoned places, I become a tiny bit unhinged. I love exploring old spaces and crumbling buildings, looking for signs of the original inhabitants and speculating on the cause of their absence. Sometimes the ruins are mind-bogglingly old, like Petra in Jordan, or the abbey outside of Villers-a-Ville near Brussels and you gape in awe that the structures are still standing in any state. Others are more recently abandoned spaces like Doel, Belgium, located not far from Antwerp and waiting until its current hold-out residents move out, leaving the town to its scheduled fate (check out Doel here!).

Others suffer irreparable or costly damage from natural and man-made disasters, making rebuilding impossible. St. Stanislaus Kostka Church is one such ruin. Located on along the northern bank of the Patapsco River in the Patapsco State Park in Maryland, the church was struck by lightning in the early 1900’s and left to decay ever since.

After discovering this little gem on Facebook, we loaded up the dog, noted the coordinates of the ruins, and hopped in the car, hoping to combine two of our favorite activities – nature walks and exploring/photographing ruins.

We just about didn’t find the old church. It was located just off the main trail and up a hill. The vegetation is rather dense and, ahem, creepy, so it was easy to miss the old, vine-covered masonry. Once there, the dog was not pleased that we wanted to actually go into the ruins. He was equally unhappy with our decision to explore the overgrown cemetery adjacent to the crumbing building. Are the old residents still hanging about? I dunno, but I bet this place makes a great Halloween haunt for teens in the area!

Adding to the atmosphere of the ruins are the many old cars located there. Crashed? Abandoned? Stolen? Washed in by the many floods? No one may ever know why these cars in various states of decay were left behind.

St. Stanislaus was once part of a small town that shared the same bank of the nearby river. But as the jobs dried up when the main factory shut down many of the residents left for more profitable living conditions. The remaining residents endured several catastrophic floods and eventually the town was abandoned once and for all. There are stone foundations and a couple of other buildings that give evidence that this place was once inhabited. But exploration of those would have to wait until another day.

Hanging Out in Harpers Ferry

     After breakfast at Lynette & Jerri’s itty bitty diner the next morning, we left Winchester, Virginia (check out Wandering in Winchester if you haven’t yet!) and headed for Harpers Ferry. Located at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, you can imagine the importance of Harpers Ferry, even if you can’t quite remember from your high school history class why that place sounds familiar.

     I won’t bore you with a history lesson (though you really should read up on the town, it has quite a past!). I will say come to town and be prepared to learn a little. Most of Harpers Ferry is a National Park and there are plenty of museums, exhibits and historical sights. You might even see someone in historical dress giving a talk or a demonstration on some long forgotten tradition.

     There are several B&Bs, cute little restaurants and adorable boutique shops. I had the best cinnamon roll I’ve eaten in years at one coffee shop and I’m actually quite glad I don’t live nearer, or I’d be eating them all the time. Definitely be sure to visit the old timey candy shop too! No wonder I don’t lose weight…

     Aside from the gorgeous little town, Harpers Ferry is also a perfect place for outdoor recreation, from strolls along the river and canals, to hikes across the old railroad bridge to Maryland Heights and the cliffs overlooking the town from that side of the river. The Appalachian Trail goes right through town and while it’s not exactly the midpoint on that journey, many see it as such. Biking, fishing, rafting, and other outdoor sports are popular activities in the area as well. And you can already see that it’s a great place for history nerds with a photography problem!

     Even though it was the first day that the weather REALLY decided to think about changing to its winter act (I was not prepared, lol), I had a great time and can’t wait to go back. I’d love to brave that climb on the other side and get a bird’s eye view of Harpers Ferry from up there. The town is so tiny, but reminds me a little of my adopted home town of Eureka Springs, AR. Lots of history, but also lots of heart and pride from the residents who choose to call Harpers Ferry home. Fingers crossed next time I will get to stay at a B&B in town!

PS: The 48th Annual Harpers Ferry Olde Tyme Christmas and Winterfest gets going on November 30th and continues on into December. Check out the details at Historic Harpers Ferry’s website!


Into Black Friday Discounts?!


Of course you are!

From now until the end of the year get 40% off of my artists’ markup on everything from fine art prints and canvas wall décor, to mugs and beach towels. Support a small business and give the gift of art this holiday season!*

Go to www.pixels.com/artists/brandy+herren to choose your favorite artwork and enter code GXVLJL at checkout to get your discount.

Happy Holidays and Thank you for your business!

*If you don’t see your favorite photo for sale at Pixels, email me at arklahomamuse@gmail.com to let me know and I will make it available for you to purchase right away!


Wandering in Winchester

     Back in October, just before the leaves made their grand change ( literally – like 3 days before), my dear husband whisked me out of town for a spontaneous weekend away from the DC metro area. Note to self: spontaneous weekends to the Shenandoah in the fall are nigh impossible to book last minute without large sums of cash and at least 2 nights/3 days to work with. But with some readjusting of our expectations we secured a hotel room in Winchester, VA and planned to spend the next day in Harpers Ferry, WV.

     I became a little fascinated with Winchester back in September. I was on my way to my first training center to learn the ins and outs of preschool photography and while driving through the gorgeous, historic downtown area, had to fight down the urge to ditch the preschool portraiture for a photography stroll through Winchester’s quaint streets.

     The first structure that really caught my eye was the ornately domed, Beaux-Arts style  Handley Library. It was a building worthy of any old world European city and I had to check it out. The library was funded by Judge John Handley from Scranton Pennsylvania, who, in his will,  left the city of Winchester $250,000 to build it. It was built to resemble and open book, with the dome representing its spine, and two wings stretching out to either side resembling the pages.

     The view of the dome from inside was equally impressive and I was not the only visitor that gasped a little at the unexpected view. Tours are given regularly, but if you happen to miss it, the librarians are friendly and welcoming and will invite you to wander the halls to admire the prized building.

     Our next stop was Winchester’s historic downtown. A three block section of Loudoun Street is now closed to vehicle traffic and makes up Winchester’s pedestrian mall, lined with restaurants, historical sites, and lots of interesting little shops selling various things. If you like to buy from small, local businesses, this is a great place to go.

     We did not by any means exhaust all the interesting and beautiful sites of Winchester, Virginia. More things are calling out to me to explore further, but they will have to wait for another weekend adventure – preferably during their annual Apple Blossom Festival in the Spring!

     The next morning, after having breakfast at what could possibly be the tiniest, popular diner in Winchester, we hit the road and headed for Harpers Ferry. More on that next!

Harpers Ferry