Big Landscapes & Intimate Details

The towering peaks and abstract close-ups of Colorado photographer Tad Bowman

Colorado photographer Tad Bowman says he finds his state to be fascinating as a photographic subject for many reasons, including its expansive aspen forests, towering mountain peaks and famous seasonal changes in foliage. Above: "Sand Dunes Sunrise".

Originally from the Smoky Mountains area of Tennessee, Colorado photographer Tad Bowman thanks many long "adventures" as a boy hiking through the neighboring wilderness for fostering a love of nature, but it was a family trip to colorful Colorado that first inspired the landscape photographer's true passion: the towering and plentiful peaks of Colorado's mountainous terrain.

"It's the peaks, I mean, hands down!" the photographer laughs when asked what it is that attracts him so much to his home base. "I grew up in the South; I'm not used to seeing these majestic peaks. I came out here a few times with my family on summer vacations and seeing that was very impressionable. You just sit there and say, 'Wow! Those things are so tall and there are so many of them!'"

Final Resting Stop

Bowman finds such variation in the mountain peaks that he says he "still has yet to find monotony," and it's true. Despite being shot largely in Colorado and the American Southwest, his portfolio is an incredibly diverse collection of colorful landscapes and tightly composed detail shots of the surroundings. His work with the graphic elements of composition adds a whole other level to his imagery. He's exceptionally skilled at discovering the natural lines and patterns in nature, which helps not only to engage the eye of his viewer, but also to tie together his landscapes with compositional elements leading from the foreground, all the way back to the foreground. Shapes are often repeated, as well, and Bowman also will use contrasting natural elements and colors to nicely define the separation between foreground subject and background.

A shot titled "Sandstone Magic," for example, follows incredibly colorful rock striations as they weave through a variety of geometric shapes in both the background and foreground. The lines bring the different elements of the composition together while also leading the viewer's eye through the image.

"You see a shot in a magazine that you really like and you ask yourself, 'How did they do that?'" the self-taught photographer explains, pointing out that he matured the most as a photographer simply by going out and shooting and learning from the results. He says that, at this point, it's largely intuitive, but he admits that there was plenty of academic research in magazines and books when he was starting. He thanks his discovery of hyperfocal charts for cementing the concept of sharpness and diffraction for him, which is so important for gaining landscape shots that are sharp from foreground to background.

"What I try to do is convey a message," he says, "evoke an emotional response, and a lot of times you do that with various techniques. Do you create layers? Do you create lines? Do you create patterns? How do you capture someone's eye so that they start at one corner or the bottom of a photograph and weave it around to the very end? I think landscapes, in general, are fun to shoot, but sometimes you have to overcome the sensory appeal to get to the statement.


"When I look at someone else's photographs, obviously the biggest thing is, 'What of it appeals to you?' Do I find myself distracted when I look at the photograph? Or, do I find myself wandering around in the photograph because I find it interesting? Do I find a bold color statement there that really pops off the page? Because a lot of times, once you stare at a photograph for a while and you overcome the color, then you start looking at the finer details to see what's behind all that."

Bowman's process as a photographer is simply to backpack through both familiar and unfamiliar areas until he finds a location that calls to him. There, he'll generally wait out the changing lighting conditions for the best color or atmospherics, often finding that he gets his best shots during the magic hours of sunset or sunrise. If he feels he wasn't successful with an image, he keeps a mental catalogue of areas and shots that he would like to add to his portfolio or improve upon, and he'll often return later to shoot in different conditions. He explains that in Utah, for example, he learned to plan for working with shadowy slot canyons while there was an intense midday glow. The same direct sunlight gives him far too much contrast for working successfully with exterior landscapes, so after he has finished with the canyons and light conditions have changed, he'll move back to shooting landscapes.

Being Different

He characterizes his work as "light followed by patterns," which is then "followed by lines" and finally "bold colors." "That's just how I visualize a shot for myself," he explains. "When I look at colors, I look at it through atmospheric conditions. So, in the morning, obviously, it's the best time if I want some color on the peaks or to get nice clouds, which in Colorado is very difficult because on most days you have no clouds. Outside of that, if I'm looking at concentrating on colors of the forest or intimate shots, then to me, I'm praying for one condition. And that's overcast conditions so that I can diffuse the light. That allows me to draw out a lot of the details that might be cut in harsh sun in midday, and this allows some nuances in that regard."

Bowman processes his images in Photoshop, mostly adding a bit of contrast, saturation and sharpening while addressing hot spots. But he says that he tries very hard not to push it to the edge so his results remain a natural representation of the scene. "I don't consider myself a 100% purist, probably not too far off. I like to enhance the photo a bit for sensory appeal without taking it to any extremes so that image still looks close to how it was viewed."

He shoots with Canon, recently upgrading his EOS-1DS Mark II to an EOS 5D Mark III. He has been unsurprisingly overwhelmed at what eight years in advancing technology can bring to a camera system, and he's especially keen on the extra resolution and sharpness that the new camera brings to his landscapes. He says that Live View, a new feature to him, has been very helpful with his landscape photography, especially as you can zoom in.

"Being able to zoom in 10 times and actually focus the lens down to a micro level is just fantastic!" he says. "It's pretty amazing, and I'll say the camera is a lot lighter. That last one was a tank, and especially when you have about 50 pounds on your back and your backpacking around, it's super-nice to cut down on the load."

Bowman is exceptionally talented with his use of color, finding repeating patterns in the geology of his landscapes and detail shots, as well as in the color scheme of the natural world. He employs color not only as part of the subject matter, but also as a way to help him segment and divide his composition with graphical lines that help to keep the eye of his viewer within the frame. Above: "Sopris Sunrise".

Most of his work is done on Canon L series lenses, primarily the EF 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L II, EF 24-70mm ƒ/2.8L II and EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L II IS zoom. "I try whenever I can to shoot atƒ/8, you know, to hit the sweet spot," he says.

Bowman lives in Colorado, and for the most part, his work is centered there, but he also has experimented quite successfully with a couple of biannual trips to the "alien" environment of the American Southwest. It's the variety of abstract landscapes that have hooked him, although he admits he hadn't thought he would be so happy to be exploring the desert.

"I'd say in the past four to five years, when I go out there, and I see in one hour, all these abstract shapes and patterns, and then I go south maybe another 30 minutes, and see something completely different, maybe white sandstone in all these other abstract shapes—it's like being in a candy store!

"Your brain is working full time trying to figure out how to capture it in such a way to where I can create some order from all of it; it's sort of like sensory overload. That's the true-blue Southwest—all the abstracts, all the possibilities, all the varieties for the composition. On top of that, you're out there near Moab, and for me, I love mountains. So, that's the best of both worlds. Sometimes maybe I'll even find some compositions with that nice red rock in the foreground and complement it with a nice mountain backdrop."

Bowman has played around photographically in Idaho and Wyoming, and he's looking forward to turning his eye to the Tetons there, although he also admits that a phobia of grizzly bears probably will prevent him from fully exploring the areas he would like to capture. It's surprising to see absolutely no wildlife in his portfolio, but he quickly laughs, saying, "Most of the time, I'd rather view it than to actually pursue it. People ask me for portraits, too. It's just not my gig." Bowman has a special connection with landscapes. "It's just as pure and simple as that," he says.

"Obviously, with everything that goes on in life, things can move pretty quickly, and you know once I'm out and about, things slow down," adds Bowman. "And I find that once your mind slows down, you're able to connect, and when you're able to connect, there's a message that's being delivered to you. That's what it is for me. There's a huge amount of peace just being there; you understand a little bit about your place in the order of things."

But the whole point of the photographic process for Bowman is to be able to share all of the experiences he has had with nature and what he has seen there on his sojourns. He considers his work and his landscapes to be very personal, and after he has finished a project or print, he most often finds himself admiring the captured "memory" more often than the technical accomplishments of the composition.

"I'm not looking at it to say, 'Wow, I'm really happy with how I captured that image,' as much as I was there and that's just what I was thinking at that time and this is what that experience meant to me," concludes Bowman. "Those are the memories to me that I hold, that these images provide me...those sentimental moments."

You can see more of Tad Bowman's photography by visiting his website at

Diffraction Limits
Why it's so difficult to produce a sharp landscape from foreground through background

When working with landscapes, it can be very hard to maintain sharpness from the foreground through to the background, especially as diffraction, which further reduces sharpness, will come into play when using closed-down apertures like ƒ/16 or ƒ/22 to achieve the most depth of field. The hyperfocal distance is the maximum amount of achievable depth of field. It starts prior to the point of focus in an image and extends toward infinity, which means that anything in the background will be out of focus if you place the point of focus too close to the foreground.

To avoid the effects of diffraction at smaller apertures (large numbers), stick to the "sweet spot" apertures from ƒ/8 to ƒ/11, or two to three stops down from wide open, depending on the lens. But, remember, diffraction effects are minimal when compared to other blur-inducing handicaps like slow shutter speeds or handheld shooting, and even vibrations from the shutter. For these reasons, tripods and cable releases or timed shutters can be just as important as quality optics.

Hyperfocal distance varies by lens focal length, aperture and the circle of confusion, which depends on sensor size. (This is why you can achieve shallower depth of field with a larger sensor like full frame over smaller ones like APS-C.) For those unfamiliar with hyperfocal distance, the loose rule is that you should focus at a point roughly a third of the distance into the composition, as sharpness will extend from that point to the background. This is by no means correct for every image, though. It's best to learn and practice hyperfocal charts or to use depth of field calculators for achieving the best sharpness.

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