The Photography Landscape

May 14, 2010 at 5:36 am (Landscape Photography, Mahalo Writing, Photography, Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , )

Since writing this blog I have had all of my content removed from Mahalo, per my attorney, and will make my articles available here as time permits.  In the meantime, check out this blog post for some good, quick information.
Panoramic Format of Dramatic Skies and Grasslands in Grizzly, Oregon

Panoramic Format of Dramatic Skies and Grasslands in Grizzly, Oregon

Use of lines (leading lines) to draw and direct the viewer's eye.

Use of lines (leading lines) to draw and direct the viewer's eye.

Lots of people pick up a camera originally because they want to record the memories of a travel vacation or to capture a pretty scene.  Most of the time they are disappointed with the landscape pictures they ended up with because the images they snapped don’t resemble the scene they recorded in their memory.

Successful landscape photography, like success in any other genre of photography, requires a certain amount of planning ahead, a good thorough knowledge of your camera equipment and basic understanding of a few photographic techniques.  Simply recording a scene likely won’t produce images that you  or anyone else would be happy to hang on the wall.

I will briefly outline some techniques to help you out when creating beautiful landscape photos, but you can find more in depth information on How to Photograph Landscapes on the page I wrote for Mahalo.

Landscape photos can be in the portrait or vertical format.  Change things up!

Landscape photos can be in the portrait or vertical format. Change things up!

Landscape Photography Tips:

1.Keep your horizons straight.  This seems like such a basic thing, but one of the most common rookie mistakes I see are tilted horizons.  Now, I am not speaking about the problems caused by lens distortion in wide angle shots.  I am talking about the problems caused when you tilt the camera when you snap the picture.  There are a couple ways to deal with this problem.  You can buy (inexpensively) a nifty little device that you slide on to your camera’s hot shoe to tell you if your camera is level both side to side and front to back.  It is basically a bubble level, or spirit level and it takes all the guess work out of setting up your camera.  This will work best of course when your camera is mounted on a tripod, which is my next tip.  If you can’t or won’t use a tripod and or spirit level, you can straighten your horizons in photo editing software, so there really is no excuse for tilted horizons.

2.  Use a tripod.  Really.  It may seem like an inconvenience to lug the thing around but it makes a world of difference in the outcome of your photos.  Want to make the leap from blah pictures to fine art photography?  This is your first step.  Some people think that artists must suffer for their art.  If you subscribe to this line of thinking, consider lugging a heavy tripod on your artistic photography treks your cross to bear. 

Tripods force you to slow your roll.  If you slow down you will likely take time to consider the composition, double check your focus and exposure, and help to mitigate camera shake, which allows you to make more creative choices with shutter speed and aperture selection.  You can also set up shots which you can later stitch together to create panoramas or high dynamic range photographic art when post-processing your images.

Use of tripod here only mitigates camera shake. The movement of the falling snowflakes softened the image.

Use of tripod here only mitigates camera shake. The movement of the falling snowflakes softened the image.

3. Understand how depth of field and hyperfocal distance works.  Oh, I know, this may seem intimidating.  With the advent of cameras that boast processors more powerful than my first desktop computer, people allow the camera to make all the decisions.  Well, as smart as these cameras are, they aren’t great at making creative choices.  Understanding (in a nutshell) that depth of field will allow you to keep certain parts of the image in sharp focus while allowing other parts to blur, you can direct the viewer’s eye all over the image, which creates an interesting, dynamic picture.  Very, very briefly, the greater depth of field (area where more of the image is in acceptably sharp focus) will be determined by the aperture selection.  Large apertures (small f-stop numbers) will give you a shallow depth of field, while small apertures (large f-stop numbers) will give you a greater depth of field.  More on this in a later blog.

Many of my landscapes feature man-made structures.

Many of my landscapes feature man-made structures.

4.  Visualize.  No, I am not advocating any “New Age” philosphies here.  Rather, this is one of the most important and least discussed techniques in photography.  You must have a vision for how the final outcome of the image will appear.

When you first look at the scene you are about to photograph, decide what you want to achieve.  Say for example that you are looking at a mountain scene with a meadow of wildflowers blanketing the foreground and a bright blue sky in the background.  What do you want to emphasize in that scene?  Do you want the wildflowers to dominate as a splash of color drawing the viewer’s eye first, allowing the eye to wander up to the mountain peak?  Do you want to emphasize the majesty of the towering peak with a hint of the pastels in the meadow?  Do you want to feature the deep blue sky contrasted against a snowy mountain peak? 

Once you make your decision, you will have to decide how to technically achieve the result.  If you are featuring the wildflowers, you will need to select a wide angle lens, lower the camera’s perspective so that the flowers are right up in your face, decide on what part of the image you want in sharp focus and select your aperture accordingly, decide if the dynamic range of the scene is too great for your camera to record (which will probably end up blowing out the skies to pale blue or white) and compensate with a polarizing filter or graduated neutral density filter to darken the skies.  If your exposure choices dictate that you require a long shutter speed (smaller aperture selections mean longer shutter speeds), you will need to support your camera in some way (tripod, etc) and you may need to either use a remote release or set your camera’s timer so that you can take the shot without touching and therefore moving the camera, in order to achieve the sharpest shot possible.  Wow.  Lots of things to think about, right?  The thought that goes into the shot is what will improve your photography.

Sometimes you must compromise.  The light is not ideal here, but I wanted to feature the clouds sweeping and swirling across the mountains.  If I waited for the light, the clouds would be gone.

Sometimes you must compromise. The light is not ideal here, but I wanted to feature the clouds sweeping and swirling across the mountains. If I waited for the light, the clouds would be gone.

An example of manipulating an image to increase the dynamic range of the image.

An example of manipulating an image to increase the dynamic range of the image.

5.  Use the light.  Great light will make your landscape photos stand out from the rest.  Most people shoot when it is convenient for them, not necessarily when it will make the best image.  High noon bright sunlight is a killer in landscape photography.  Shooting when the sun is at a lower angle in the sky will change the color and quality of the light.  This translates to longer shutter speeds, and we are right back to the importance of a tripod again.

Dramatic light can be captured in the middle of the day, if you have stormy or very cloudy skies.  Don’t make the mistake that you need bright, cloudless skies.  Some really dramatic images are created during stormy weather.

6.  Manipulate the image.  Does it seem like this is cheating?  Well, if it is, it’s a cheat that Ansel Adams if not created, at least made famous.  He was a master of darkroom manipulation to finish the image to match what he visualized for the photo.  He understood, as most people today don’t, that the camera cannot capture and film cannot reproduce the range of light and color that our eyes can.  In fact, we are somewhat more limited today with digital cameras than he was early in the 20th century with the equipment of the day.  Digital camera’s have a dynamic range more comparable to analog slide film, which if you ever shot slide film you know you had to be spot on exposure wise to realize any manner of success with that medium.

Old Ansel knew that the best he could do was to set the shot up as ideally as he could for his vision on the phyical limitations of the scene, his camera and recording medium, and make up for the deficiencies in the darkroom.  He was a master manipulator, if you will, dodging the shadows and burning the highlights. 

Lucky for us, our image manipulation is so much easier than what it was back in the good old days.  And if you think that manipulating the image in Photoshop to achieve the desired end result is cheating, think about the master of landscape fine art photography and ask yourself if he cheated when he “created” some of the most iconic American images in the landscape genre.  Don’t just “take” photos; “make” photos.

Obviously, there is lots more to this subject as entire volumes have been written on photographing landscapes.  If you want more information, check out the Mahalo page, How to Photograph Landscapes.

Use lines to draw and direct the viewer's eye.

Use lines to draw and direct the viewer's eye.

Select a focal point and emphasize it.  This one was easy.  The tree is unique to this lanscape of lava and stands out by virtue of it's color, texture, shape, subject matter, etc.  It is well lit and evokes a feeling of lonliness, determination, independance, or other qualities dependant upon the audience's viewpoint or experiences.

Select a focal point and emphasize it. This one was easy. The tree is unique to this lanscape of lava and stands out by virtue of it's color, texture, shape, subject matter, etc. It is well lit and evokes a feeling of lonliness, determination, independance, or other qualities dependant upon the audience's viewpoint or experiences.

Here I go again, shooting old, abandoned homesteads. Straight horizon, interesting skies, buildings and windmill featured.

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