Learn to capture what moves you in the landscape with the insights of veteran scenic masters
Inspired by the vast vistas of the West and the intimate settings of the East, photographers from across the Americas and beyond have given us remarkable photographs that capture the natural world in its seemingly endless variations. Landscape photography is the bedrock of Outdoor Photographer. We've asked some of those photographers whose work has stood apart from the crowd to share with us the techniques that have helped them distill the complexities of the wild outdoors into the iconic images that have graced our pages these last 20 years. With these tips and a stroke of luck, perhaps it will be your images and insights that we share with readers in the years to come.
1. Beware The Exposure Danger Zone Perfect reflections are appealing subjects, but beware: exposing reflections perfectly is tricky. The amount of light reflected from the water depends dramatically on the angle at which the light strikes the water. If the light from the subject strikes the water at a shallow angle, most of it's reflected, and the difference in exposure between the subject and its reflection may be only a half-stop. But if the light from the subject is plunging steeply into the water, most of it's absorbed, and the difference in exposure between the subject and its reflection can be four stops or more. Film and consumer-grade digital sensors can only record a range of light intensities of about five stops from near-black to near-white. They can only record about three stops with good color and detail.
To record pleasing detail in all parts of the frame, use your built-in spot meter to measure the difference in stops between your subject and its reflection. Then choose a graduated neutral-density filter with a strength equal to or slightly less than the metered difference. No time to spot-meter? Use these rules of thumb: With a 50mm lens or longer, use a one-stop filter or none at all; with a 28mm or 35mm lens, use a two-stop filter; with a 24mm lens or wider, use a three-stop filter.
2. Balanced Exposures I do a lot of nautically related work, scenics with mountains, bays and harbor from deck level and higher. One of the most important filters to use for this type of work is the graduated neutral-density filter. I use a 25% density, screw-mount B+W filter. The effect this filter has on a sky with any cloud in it at all is magical and subtle, but it enhances the clouds quite beautifully. The widest lens I use it on is a 16-35mm, and with the thinner version of this filter, vignetting is almost negligible. It’s a filter I leave on my 24-28mm and 16-35mm lenses 95% of the time.
—Onne van der Wal
3. Shoot Differently We often see the same shots taken over and over at famous locations. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that there’s a lack of genuine creativity in photography today, but we can change that! Skip the popular, cliched locations, or if you must visit them, take the shot that everyone else is taking and then move on and really explore the place. Seek out alternative perspectives on familiar subjects, or better yet, discover new locations all your own. This will help you cultivate your own personal vision, and your photography will be better for it.
4. Check Your Histogram Using a digital camera, you have the ability to check your exposures on the spot. Always check the histogram on your camera after each shot. If you find an image has been over- or underexposed, you can make a subsequent exposure immediately to get it right.
If you see a histogram hit the wall to the left, you've underexposed and are missing shadow detail. If you see a histogram hit the wall to the right, you've overexposed and are missing highlight detail. If you see a histogram that hits the wall to both the left and right, you've run into a scene that exceeds the dynamic range of your camera. Rather than making a sacrifice at one end of the tonal scale or the other, you can make two exposures, one with good shadow detail and one with good highlight detail, and combine them into a single image with excellent detail at both ends of the tonal scale. The Zone System mantra is "Expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights." Because the medium of photography continues to evolve, this needs updating: "Expose for the shadows and expose for the highlights."
—John Paul Caponigro
5. Silver Lining Revealed! A day graced with light cloud cover is undoubtedly my favorite time for photographing the pastel colors of an Appalachian spring. The gray clouds serve as a giant diffuser, creating an even dispersion to the light. Little or no contrast is evident and the subtle hues of spring become more saturated. My camera is always attached to a tripod, and to accentuate the colors and reduce reflections, I use a polarizer on my telephoto zoom. (My tendency is to go for optical extractions instead of always using a wide-angle focal length.) I instinctively do both vertical and horizontal compositions, and I avoid including too much of the sky in the picture.
6. Wink It I close one eye on every view before I even take out a camera. Closing one eye takes away our sense of depth, which comes from seeing an object with two eyes, and offers us a perspective on what apparent depth will show up on film.
—Carl Heilman II
7. Find The Best Alternative We can't control the conditions that affect our photo opportunities. When the quality of light, weather or sky isn't right for the shot you hoped to capture, concentrate on the subtler details of your surroundings—things like rock patterns, plant life or other microcosms of the landscape. Keep an eye out for unexpected wildlife or any other detail that you might otherwise overlook when focused on the "big picture." Sometimes, the little details make for more exciting images than those we sought initially. Open yourself up to the alternatives rather than calling it quits, and you might be pleasantly surprised.
8. Right Tool For The Job I choose a film based on my needs. I use Fujichrome Provia 100 for night shots, for example, and Kodak Ektachrome 100VS for day work. The Provia has good characteristics for nighttime work because it has very little reciprocity failure and very little color shift during long exposures. If I'm recording star trails, I might have the shutter open for an hour or even longer. The extra punch of Ektachrome 100VS enhances my daylight work by saturating colors that might be washed out under the bright sun.
9. Make A Personal Connection You don't need to have a spectacular subject to make a spectacular photograph. No amount of hiking, driving, climbing or otherwise will make your picture better. Great pictures happen because of careful observation, and more often than not, an intimate knowledge of the subject. Anything, even the most ordinary backyard event, will produce an image of significance if the observation is truly insightful and captures a sense of the moment. Really understanding and using the available light is critical to this process as well. The use of the light is essential to the color and power of the image.
—Robert Glenn Ketchum
10. Tune In When arriving at your location, especially if it's an unfamiliar place, leave your camera aside for half an hour or so. Take a short walk, sit down and rest or otherwise contemplate the landscape around you. Carry a notebook with you and write down words that describe how you feel in that place or words that describe the location. Let all your senses work for you. Examples might include peaceful, magical, energized, awesome or nostalgic. Then consider how you might photograph the landscape before you so that it reflects your mood or the mood of the landscape. Now pick up your camera and venture forth! Practice tuning in and I think you'll start making more creative and personal images.