The Digital Landscape

Russ Bishop photographs nature’s most extreme beauty using today’s most advanced image-capture tools. He’s among the cadre of photographers leading the way technologically and aesthetically.

Sunset over Canyon de Chelly, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona.

Russ Bishop was raised on landscape photography. His father was a large-format photographer who specialized in black-and-white landscapes.

"Every available weekend, we'd head off to some remote location with his 4x5 in tow," Bishop says. "I spent a lot of time watching him patiently compose a scene, meter the light and change film holders—which definitely had a profound effect on developing my vision and my patience. I was too young to realize at the time that this would be my life's destiny, but I knew I wanted to spend as much time as possible outdoors."

In fulfilling his destiny, Bishop shied away from the large-format tools of his father. Instead, he embraced the convenience and mobility of SLRs, even in the film era—much like one of his idols, Galen Rowell.

"I subscribed to his view of 'light and fast' in the field," Bishop says, "and the manual Nikon FM2 and 24mm lens became my favorite combination on the trail. You can't deny the amazing quality and resolution of 4x5, but you also can't argue with the portability and ease of use with 35mm. For landscape work, I treat that DSLR as if it was a 4x5 view camera. I'm using a rock-solid tripod, a small aperture, and I'm at the scene as long as it takes to make the image."

Evening light on the Palisades in Dusy Basin, Kings Canyon National Park, California.

Blending his father's methodology with Rowell's equipment, Bishop is now especially fortunate. Working with a Nikon D800E and its 36-megapixel image files, he's able to maintain the ease and portability of small cameras while creating big, bold images that easily outperform 35mm film. He's venturing into what he calls "the realm of 4x5 quality."

"I certainly feel that the images I'm seeing from the D800E far surpass 35mm," he says. "They're firmly on par with medium format. Of course, high-end optics and solid shooting technique will always play a significant role in the quality of the final image, but the tonal range and presence in the files from this camera are truly stunning."

Image quality aside, perhaps the most important thing Bishop took from the experiences of his youth was patience. He learned that fine photographs take time, diligent effort and a willingness to wait for everything to come together.

"Patience is a virtue," he says, "and I know it has certainly been an asset in my landscape photography. For someone with a lot of energy who's constantly on the go, my early experience watching my father work taught me that patience can provide big payoffs. This is especially true when waiting for a sunset when it seems like the clouds have trumped the day, or working the wildflowers when the wind just won't stop. I can recall countless times when other photographers left the scene only to miss the best light of the day."

Winter sunrise on Thor's Hammer, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah. Below: Hikers on the Mist Trail below Vernal Fall, Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California.

In one instance, Bishop considered leaving early, but in the end he persevered and, eventually, so did the light.

"One stormy day at Picture Lake in the North Cascades," he says, "there was a fairly strong wind and no hope for sun. Several photographers joined me off and on. Throughout the hours, I stood at this location, all of us eyeing the vibrant fireweed on the shore, but none with the faith that conditions would improve. I have to admit that I began feeling like it might be a wasted effort as well, but I knew it would be well worth my time if the clouds parted even for a moment. They say luck favors the prepared, and I was ready when that moment arrived. Late in the day, the sky opened up without warning, and the wind dropped just enough for me to make two images of the still flowers that were so critical to the composition. Then, after only a minute or two, the sun vanished and it rained the rest of the day.

"Patience is definitely an important part of my workflow," he continues. "With nature, it's always hard to know just when that special light will reward us, and no two days are ever the same. But from a light and weather standpoint, I've often found that setting up a strong composition, then simply remaining at a scene through the entire event—whether that's a sunrise, sunset or passing storm—has provided me with finer images than if I had been moving quickly from one location to another. I always try to scout an area during the less photogenic mid-day hours and work out my framing if possible, so that when the quality light is changing fast, my setup in simple. In a sense, I let the light come to me rather than chasing it. I'd rather make one or two great images than end up with a whole series of okay shots. This is the 4x5 experience kicking in."

Bishop's preparation involves simple homework. He considers this part and parcel with another classic photographic technique: previsualization.

"For me," he says, "previsualization refers to researching an area in advance to understand the topography, referencing sun angles or moon positions, if relevant, and making an image in my mind's eye of what I hope to accomplish at the scene. Sometimes this is very specific, including lens type and shooting angles, and other times it's only a general idea. To really understand a place, I'll study the special qualities of the landscape using Google Maps and guidebooks, and reference what other photographers have done. Then, once I leave the office, I bury that information subliminally so that I can arrive at a scene with a fresh perspective—as if seeing it through a child's eyes. It really is a duality of being confident in your craft and preparation so that you can let go of the technical side and remain open to all the artistic possibilities."

As much as preparation is crucial, Bishop is careful not to be creatively closed to new possibilities as nature presents them, because nature always presents them.

"I always allow for the unexpected and remain open to new visual possibilities," he says. "This requires a completely different mind-set, but the rewards are equally gratifying. The image of sunset at Canyon de Chelly was a classic example of expecting the unexpected. The day had been overcast and drab, not what I was hoping for, but perfect for a cool hike down to White House Ruin. I had planned to photograph the last light of the day from the rim at Spider Rock, but as I climbed the final switchbacks and reached the car, it looked as though sunset was going to be a no-show. Still, I reminded myself that luck favors the prepared and that dinner could wait. Shortly before sunset, as I stood at the Spider Rock overlook with two other couples and no photographers, a small opening in the clouds to the west began to glow. And for the next five minutes, we were rewarded with one of the most magnificent sunsets I've ever seen."

That image is a beautiful representation of Bishop's ability to make high-impact landscapes while realistically depicting the extremes of natural beauty. He does as much work in-camera as possible, while never losing sight of his foremost goal of forging an emotional bond with the viewer via his pictures.

"The greatest reward is when viewers connect with my images emotionally," he says. "I'm trying to present the natural world in a way that makes people say, 'I want to be there.' I'm also a big proponent of waiting for the ideal light and using filters to shape and control that light in-camera. The sunset at Canyon de Chelly had an intense amount of contrast, but the colors in the sky were equally intense. Although I could have used exposure blending or HDR, a three-stop graduated neutral-density filter gave me a more natural look and nicely balanced the sky with the canyon floor. I still had to pull out more detail in the shadows with Lightroom in post, but the end result is very true to what we saw that evening. I would have considered exposure blending or HDR, in that order, if the filter hadn't worked so well, but again, I always prefer to get it right in-camera whenever possible.

"One of the biggest factors affecting how many people perceive an image today involves how our eyes react to light," Bishop continues. "The difference between what our eye sees and what film was capable of recording is huge. The latitude of film was very limiting, and we learned to accept that in photography. When you consider the dynamic range that's possible today with a RAW file, it's no wonder many people question the validity of photographs in the digital age. In actuality, we're capable of creating images now that are a much better representation of what we saw at the scene than we ever could with film. This has caused a paradigm shift as we adjust to this new way of seeing. We viewed the world through the 'look' of Kodachrome that was a very narrow scope that we grew accustomed to, but now the sky's the limit on how we can process our images—and that's visually challenging for some to interpret.

"I know image manipulation is a hot topic these days," he says. "I love to reference the fact that Ansel Adams spent years manipulating some of his most famous images with the tools he had available. Everyone knows his work and he's highly respected, yet many don't realize that his prints are very different from what he saw through the lens. I have no doubt he would have employed all of the digital tools of today if they helped to achieve his vision. Photography is an art form first and foremost, and an expression of the human spirit. Unless you're documenting something of a scientific nature where there's no room for interpretation, I think each photographer has the right to present his or her subjects as they see fit. Personally, I don't care for some of the extreme use of HDR that's popular today, but as with any artistic style through the ages, it's up to the viewer to be educated and decide what works best for them.

"Image-making today is on a new plane that's both exciting and limitless," Bishop says. "The tools we have are unprecedented in providing new ways of expression, and that's always a tempting scenario. For me, the most important factor in my photography will always be to elicit an emotional response from my audience. Is it exactly what I saw? Maybe. Does it express how I felt when I made the photograph? Definitely. The future undoubtedly will provide us with more megapixels, larger monitors and digital tools we can't yet imagine, but the common denominator is that our images must have heart. Know your craft, then follow your passions, and where the two converge lies the source of great photography."

See more of Russ Bishop's photography at


Making High-Impact Landscapes

Being raised on landscape photography gave Russ Bishop an advantage, as does his diligent preparation. But it's really his affinity for quality tools and tried-and-true techniques that allows him to continually create beautifully bold landscape photographs."Many of my landscape images are shot with a wide-angle lens in the 17mm to 24mm range," Bishop explains, "and I always try to incorporate a strong foreground subject to anchor the frame. I'll use a wide-angle lens with its great depth of field to get in close when I want the viewer to feel like they're part of the action. The wide view also works well to present a small figure interacting with a very large environment. This can be a powerful technique for visual storytelling or to convey a sense of place in the natural world.

"My favorite lens is the Nikkor 17-35mm ƒ/2.8," he adds, "with the sweet spot being about 24mm. This lens has great depth of field, which allows me to pull the viewer into the frame. And it's incredibly sharp. I'll usually approach a scene first with a wide-angle lens and plenty of depth of field to get the big picture, but then I'll move in with the telephoto to isolate important elements within the frame. The 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 VRII is another mainstay in my bag. I may even use a Lensbaby, or try unusual angles or slow shutter speeds to add a bit of spice to the visual story. I'm always trying to grow as a photographer, and I think it does help to think outside the box."

Bishop also relies on a variety of filters—from graduated neutral densities to polarizers—to help reveal natural beauty.

"The image of the dogwood over the Merced River in Yosemite was made with the 70-200mm," Bishop says, "and it's a good example of using a polarizing filter to increase contrast and color saturation. The challenge was waiting for the minimal amount of movement in the flowers from the flowing water below in order to capture a sharp image at the slower shutter speed required in the fading light. A Singh-Ray LB Color Combo polarizer was a big help in providing an extra stop or two of light, but patience was also an integral factor in the success of this image.

"In the image of fall color at North Lake near Bishop, Calif.," he says, "my intent was to separate the tree trunks from the intense aspen leaves in a three-dimensional way. Again, the polarizer increased the contrast, which enabled me to achieve that goal. This was one of the best displays the locals had seen in years, and although it's easy to assume I pumped up the color in Photoshop, this was just the right combination of soft, even light from the overcast sky combined with increased contrast from the polarizer that really ignited the colors.

"First and foremost, I consider myself an artist," Bishop says, "and within that context, I don't feel I'm bound to the hard rules of, say, a documentary photographer. But having said that, it's important to me to represent the natural world accurately. The difference between what I 'saw' versus what I 'experienced' is a slippery slope that's always open to interpretation—especially with some of the drama nature can provide. I do try to finalize each image as much as possible at the time of capture, but I won't hesitate to use postprocessing tools when necessary to achieve my vision.

"I primarily use Lightroom to adjust contrast and color balance," he continues. "Another favorite tool is selective color in Photoshop, which allows me to make very subtle changes to any particular color. This works quite well when I don't want to change overall saturation, just slightly darken the sky or bring more presence to a foreground subject. My goal is always to create a final image that closely represents what I experienced at the time of capture. I use HDR only when necessary in cases of extreme contrast that are beyond the tools within Lightroom, but that's rare. A more natural technique is exposure blending, where I'll make two or more exposures of a scene, then blend them together using layer masks in Photoshop. I always prefer to control the light as much as possible in-camera. Like most photographers, I'd much rather be out making images than sitting in front of the computer."

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