A short time ago, I spent some time in the mountains of Colorado, in and around the Great Sand Dunes National Park. The Dunes are about a 45-minute drive from Crestone, where I stayed. During this adventure, I was reminded of several issues important to successful landscape photography. First, some background information:
The sky is a big part of the landscape in this kind of country. Crestone and the Dunes are nestled against the edge of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, on the perimeter of a vast plain. The Dunes are about 35 miles northeast of Alamosa. The mountain summits rise to 13,000 feet. The elevation at the base of the Dunes is approximately 8,200 feet.
This geography makes for spectacular landscapes and skyscapes. On a clear night, the sight of the Milky Way can make anyone stop in their tracks, hypnotized. And the days provide a constantly changing, beautiful mixture of light, clouds, and terrain.
Shooting landscapes in this environment is quite challenging. The weather changes remarkably fast, as weather systems roll in and away in quick time, and sunrise seems to flash by in a matter of minutes.
Planning and flexibility can drive your success. Some of the issues that can come up:
Dress for the weather. In The Dunes area, weather is not only seasonal, but changes hour by hour, almost minute by minute. In this area, temperatures ranged from low 30s F early morning, to 80s F at mid-day. Be prepared with hot-weather and cold-weather clothing. If you can become acclimated to altitude in advance, do so. If not, take it easy, hydrate, and take care of yourself.
Protect your gear. Be cautious about bringing cold camera gear indoors where temperatures and humidity will be higher. At best, condensation will be troublesome; at worst, it can ruin cameras and lenses. It’s best to keep your gear in its bag until the gear inside gradually comes up to room temperature.
Take extra batteries. Temperatures can affect camera equipment in unexpected ways. On cold mornings, the batteries in your camera will lose their ability to provide enough juice to power your gear. Keep several extra batteries in a warm inside pocket. You’ll wind up switching them out more than once.
Protect your lens. The sun is quite bright at high altitudes. Always use a lens shade to protect the front of the lens from stray light. Neglecting this step will, at minimum, reduce contrast in your images. Remember that bright light can bounce off the ground, or water, and do the same thing to your images. If necessary, use a piece of cardboard or a hat to further shade or protect the lens!
Be careful during lens changes. The wind blows on and off all day long. In low-humidity, high-altitude environments, it seems like dust is the consistency of powder. It gets into everything – lens contacts, digital sensors, camera mechanics, you name it. Take a changing bag.
Plan ahead! Know your route, destination, and set-up point. If you can, scout the day before. Get there early, as the changing skyscape can deliver incredible flashes and sweeps of color and luminance at unexpected times. The photo shown below was taken at sunrise at Lake St. Louise near the Dunes. The light and color came up much more quickly than I anticipated.
Bring a variety of lenses. In this kind of environment, the wide angle is indispensable, but so is the telephoto, which can be used for long shots that isolate a particular element in a scene. Long shots of incoming thunderstorms, antelope, and changing mountainscapes abound. Be ready to change lenses on a moment’s notice, or consider bringing an extra camera body.
Bring a good, steady tripod. Many of these shots will be in low light. Keep your ISO setting on the camera as low as available. Shoot RAW of course. Take more shots than you think you’ll need, and bracket exposures. Things happen so fast that you’re likely to get some pleasant surprises when reviewing the day’s take.
Use the light. Sidelighting or backlighting, for example, can dramatically change the look and feel of a scene. Time your shooting session to take advantage of the kind and direction of light you want – and be flexible in moving your position to fine-tune your work.
The beginning and end of the day seem to offer the most opportunities for great photos. During our shoot in early September, we were up and about by 4 am most mornings, shooting until mid-day. We did studio work and image editing at mid-day and were back at it starting around 3 or 4 pm until dark.
This type of landscape work is demanding, and also very rewarding. Fall colors are about to pop, so get ready, make plans and go!
I recently wrote a review of Photoshop Elements 8 that covers most of the new features in this program. The review had almost immediate feedback from a few people deploring the ability to modify photographs with the recompose tool, with one person saying it reminded them of the Soviet propaganda techniques and George Orwell of 1984 fame. To hear these people, you’d think that photography became invalid with the advent of digital imaging.
Evidently there is a large body of people who believe a photograph should contain the truth and nothing but the truth, with no room for artistic freedom or expression. While I agree that photojournalism needs to be held to this type of standard (anyone remember National Geographic moving the pyramids to suit the cover?), most people just want a good photo that has some meaning to them.
Those of you reading these blog posts here at the HP Pro site aren’t in the majority – your skills are probably beyond what 99% of the photo-taking population can claim, and being able to improve a snapshot into something that is worth printing and framing is a welcome option.
For those of us that are interested in fine art or expressive photography, reality isn’t always what interests us. Take the two different images shown below. The first, an old farm truck and barn in Eastern Oregon, is a rather plain and uncompelling image—if you saw the straight shot on a wall you most likely wouldn’t even pause. By doing some HDR tone mapping though, the image is much more eye catching. While I haven’t added anything to the image, it isn’t something you’d ever be likely to see with your eyes, so the reality-purists would decry this as a phony.
The second image is an ancient bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of California. I think this one can stand on its own as shot. It has good color, nice detail, and represents a true look at the scene. But, I prefer the black-and-white version below it. Once again, there’s nothing here that isn’t in the actual scene. But I’ve stripped the shot of color, making it something you’d never see in real life. Is this also a fake, manipulated image that is not to be trusted?
Photography has always been an expressive form for many people. As the person capturing the image, you should be able to control the final product just as an artist with paint and brushes can, or the sculptor with his chisel and marble.
Yes, photojournalism needs to have an accurate representation of what it is reporting on, but does a landscape, or fine art image need this? In my mind, the person that says yes is the one living in the Orwellian world.
I’d love to hear your take on this. Am I living in my own fantasy world?
In my first post on shooting landscape photography last month, I shared a few tips for increasing your odds of going home with tack-sharp images. In this post, I’ll dig deeper into the details of making the most of your landscape photo opportunities. This list is based in many ways on the minor, and sometimes not so minor, hiccups I’ve had in my own work.
1. Before you leave your home or studio, make a checklist of the things you’ll need. I’ve learned the hard way to carry extra batteries, camera cards, and a spare card reader. Take the camera manual with you. An extra battery charger can be a life-saver. Most of us carry only one, and if it is damaged by a faulty wall outlet, or other problem, it can become a “game over” situation. It happened to me while I was in Israel; you won’t believe what it cost to have one sent by FedEx from New York.
2. Test your camera and each lens you plan to take before you set off on your trip. If you use zoom lenses, test the lens at the short and long end of its range. Check the lens for autofocus function, too.
3. Once you’ve chosen a spot from which to shoot (or even better, before that), ask yourself these questions:
Do I need to format or change camera cards?
Is the ISO setting correct? (Generally, landscape photographers should use the lowest available ISO setting – usually 50, 100, or 200 ISO.)
Is the white balance set to the conditions (daylight, cloudy, etc)? (Please don’t use AUTO white balance; this makes batch processing difficult, if not impossible.)
Is the camera set to record in Adobe 98 RGB (if available)?
Can the camera shoot in RAW? (If so, this is your best option.
4. Make sure you’ve chosen a safe place. If you think light will be low, take a flashlight and look around carefully. You’ll sometimes find a surprise (nice skunk!) And, if you are shooting near the ocean, never, ever turn your back on the water. It’s possible to lose a camera, or yourself, to an unexpected wave. On windy days, stay close to your camera and tripod, for obvious reasons. I’ve seen them go down more than once
5. Choose the right lenses. In 35mm format, a 14mm prime will do the job (Canon and Nikon both make very good ones). Some of the lenses in the 21-24mm range are good, but check the reviews before you rent or buy. There’s quite a bit of variation in performance among this group. The perspective control lenses (marked PC) made by both Nikon and Canon are very good, because you can expand the width of your frame to near-panorama proportions. You may also wish to consider a medium telephoto, such as a 200mm or 300mm lens. These give you the opportunity to isolate parts of a landscape, making for some interesting shots such as the image below.
6. Think about how you will see the screen on top of the camera that shows camera adjustment settings. If you are working on a tall tripod, you might have to bring something to stand on to see the panel, or change the camera position to bring it into view. I carry a small plastic dental mirror in my camera bag, and use it to see the top of the camera without moving it. This saves a lot of time, and sometimes prevents a missed shot.
7. Take extra care when using slower shutter speeds. If the wind is blowing, try to wait until for a quiet (or quieter) moment to take your shot. Try to remember not to rest a hand on the tripod or camera when shooting. Keep those fingers where they belong when you are shooting – away from the camera.
8. Set your in-camera exposure meter for center-weighted exposure, or spot exposure. Generally, my Nikon and Hasselblad cameras seem to do best with center weighted exposure. Full-frame metering usually results in an underexposed image in landscape work.
9. Make sure that your meter is accurate, and compare your meter to another one. Generally, incident-light exposure metering is more accurate than reflected-light, in-camera metering. You don’t have to spend a fortune on a handheld meter. For example, the Sekonic 358 handheld meter is a very good, rugged meter. Its cost is moderate, and used ones can be found with a bit of digging. Mine seems indestructible.
10. If you are shooting with HDR developing in mind, remember that the camera must stay exactly in place while you are capturing multiple frames. If the frames don’t match up (register) it will be difficult, perhaps impossible, to make the image work back in the studio. If you bump your tripod, just start that sequence over again.
11. Check the weather and the sunset/sunrise and moonset/moonrise times every day if possible. This is particularly important in mountainous areas, where the weather is very changeable. Here in California, I’ve been snowed in during June! Keep a sheet of flexible plastic in your bag, or even a small trash bag, to use as an improvised cover in bad weather.
12. Take a small notebook. Jot down the place, time of day, conditions, camera settings, the serial numbers of your first and last frames, and your personal thoughts. You’ll find these to be a real treasure when you come back to an image at a later date. Consider a GPS gadget for tagging your image files.
I took this surrealistic-looking image of the Colorado State Capitol Building from the rooftop of the Colorado History Museum. The Capitol was reflected in multiple windows on the side of a building across the street. The image was captured around 4 pm, using a tripod-mounted Hasselblad H-series camera, digital back, 100mm lens, ISO 50, f/5 @ 1/90 sec. There was a mix of clouds and sun that day, so I had to wait until the Capitol was well-lit to bring up the contrast in the shot. I did some Photoshop editing for contrast and perspective correction.