You Wish You Were Here

Brandon Riza’s spectacular mountain photographs transport the viewer into the place and the moment. They’re invitations to adventure.

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Brandon Riza personifies the spirit of adventure. A computer graphics professional by day, he takes advantage of life in California by spending his weekends exploring the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains and, whenever possible, he treks even farther afield. Mount Muir from Rail Camp at dusk, Mount Whitney Zone, Sierra Nevada, Calif.

Dawn at the base of the 99 Switchbacks, Mount Whitney Zone, Sierra Nevada, Calif.

If a 3D graphics programmer with a daredevil streak and years of digital imaging under his belt ventured into landscape photography, one might expect the resulting images to be a little overdone—perhaps tending toward the “hyperrealism” of HDR, brimming with candy colors and super-saturation. Brandon Riza fits the description, but his photographs don’t. In fact, his extensive visual-effects experience has had the opposite effect on his pictures. He uses digital capture and compositing to create photographs that are immensely real, intensely real and completely factual in tone. Maybe that’s the influence of his technical background.

“I wasn’t trained as a traditional photographer,” Riza says. “I had to use photographic theory as part of my job. And over time, I’ve gotten way more into photography than I am into 3D. The rendering systems we use attempt to mimic the properties of light and the functionality of how devices process that light. Understanding how light works and how it interacts with objects, materials, atmospherics, colors—it’s all just a small part of what I actually get paid to do. In that sense, I’ve been a photographer in training for 16 years.”

Not only has Riza spent years training for photography, but he has trained for adventure as well. During his adolescence in Texas—far from anything he wanted to climb—he dreamed of relocating someplace more conducive to his thrill-seeker tendencies.

Creek drainage from Fifth Lake looking southwest toward Mount Robinson, Big Pine Lakes Basin, Calif.

“I started thinking how geographically lucky some people were,” he says, “and I promised myself that if I ever moved somewhere worth exploring, I’d make the best of it. When I finally decided to move to L.A., I took myself up on the promise and started hiking just about every weekend. Being new to the place, I had no friends here, so I’d go alone with the dog and found that I actually enjoyed it that way.”

Even now Riza’s preferred approach is solo—plus Neutron, the dog, who makes occasional appearances in his portfolio. Alongside the beautiful landscapes, Riza also likes to showcase the fun he’s having, the spectacle, every part that makes up the adventure. So he photographs his canine companion, or his altimeter, or anything else that provides a sense of what the experience was really like. He wants it to look how being there, shoulder to shoulder with the photographer, would feel.

“I started taking pictures to send my friends back in Texas,” says Riza. “It began simply as a way to show them what I was experiencing, but as the next two years went by, I got more and more serious about the photography side of it. The hiking/photography thing addressed many voids in my life: the need for adventure and exercise, the disciplinary requirement necessary to safely hike and climb in the mountains alone. It just so happens that I’m a little crazy and like to do crazy things. And I love taking pictures while I do.”

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Riza’s panoramas are stunning. Looking at the images, you can’t help but want to be there at that exact moment to have witnessed the scene. Autumn birches looking southwest toward Mono Jim Peak and Mount Morrison, Mammoth Lakes, Calif.

The scent of adventure is so ever-present in Riza’s images, it begs the same question that might have been asked of a young Galen Rowell: Is he a photographer who likes to climb, or a climber who likes to photograph?

“That reminds me of the comparison people often make between Ed Viesturs and Jon Krakauer,” he posits. “One is a climber who writes well, the other, a writer who climbs well. I would say I go take pictures and I have to hike to do it—but the hikes require me to take pictures. I’m not sure if photography has taken center stage over mountaineering; for me, the two go hand in hand. I can’t do one without the other, and they complement each other unlike anything else. Mountaineering photography has definitely taken center stage in my life as a whole, though, to the detriment of my full-time job.”

Riza’s excitement is palpable. He creates big, beautiful landscapes of the awe-inspiring vistas he encounters as a sort of proof that he has been there. More than just a personal record, though, the photographs are intended to serve as inspiration to those who will get out and see what he has seen, as well as an invitation to those who won’t to live vicariously through him.

Snow squall over the high desert looking east from US 395 at sunset, Indian Wells Valley, Calif.

“I can’t be as presumptuous to assume that I’m motivating people,” says Riza, “but I think a lot of people are unable or unwilling to get out and see these places, even though they enjoy looking at them. And I think that some people wouldn’t take the time to ponder places like these unless they were shown images of them. I believe that life is far more enriching and honest if you know what’s around you. My motivation has remained the same: It’s basically, ‘Wow! You’ve got to see this!’ “I think what screams ‘adventure’ in my photos is the possibility of adventure for the viewer,” Riza continues. “I get tons of e-mail from people using words like ‘inspiring’ and ‘motivational.’ What they really mean is that they can see themselves in that picture, and it makes them want to try to get in it and to take a picture of it for themselves. I feel that way all the time. When I see a picture of, say, the south face of Aconcagua, I think to myself, ‘I have to have that!’ And I have a very hard time sleeping until I stand there and see it for myself and shoot a few good shots of it. That’s what I aim to accomplish by taking a shot: I want people to see it and want to be there.”

Given his excitement, it’s a little surprising that Riza’s photographs remain so sublimely simple and unaffected. Rather than boost saturation, contrast and drama, the photographer lets the natural drama of the place speak for itself. His pictures are highly detailed and devoid of any kind of visual gimmickry.

Images that are so scientific, down to the navigation coordinates that caption them, should be clinical and sterile, and yet for all of that plainspoken straightforwardness, the photographs are anything but dull. There’s something else at play here. Riza’s photography fills a viewer with a desire to be in that place at that time.

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Looking west toward Banner Peak and the Ritter Range above Thousand Island Lake, northern Sierra Nevada, Calif.

“My primary goal when capturing an image is to convey what my eye was seeing as accurately as possible with no artistic interpretation,” Riza says. “This is just my personal philosophy and opinion, but I think that when photographs of landscapes are interpreted artistically, it does a tremendous disservice to the universe. When I say ‘interpreted artistically,’ I’m referring to the highly over-saturated looks that I often see in photos— the rainbow inserted after the fact, the full moon Photoshopped over the ridge, the photos where the viewer knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that the reality of the scene has been manipulated to conform to the aesthetic opinion of the manipulator— the very definition of artistic interpretation. I don’t think that nature needs such manipulations. I’d rather show people what they would see if they were standing there. I think reality is far more inspirational than art, and I’ve found that capturing that reality accurately is way more difficult than faking it.”

Fresh off the summit of Argentina’s Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Americas, Riza contradicts the serenity and beauty of his many tranquil photographs as he discusses the real-life drama and danger that often accompanies them. It’s then that the perilous reality of climbing, especially those occasions when he’s going it alone, juxtaposes with the beautiful images he creates.

From the summit of Aconcagua in Argentina, 22,800 feet up in the thin air. Riza is quick to credit Alpine Ascents ( with enabling him to make the successful expedition to Aconcagua.

“The more foreboding, hostile or potentially life-threatening the environment,” he says, “the more inspirational I find it. I have to admit that I’m driven by the whole ‘man’s perseverance against nature in the face of imminent death’ thing. When I capture an image of a mountain under a perfect sky in perfect conditions, I feel like I got away with something—the intuitive leap being that many times, most times, the mountain is cold and brutal, inhospitable and unwelcoming. Of course, when I capture a mountain under those conditions, it’s even more inspiring.”

Adds Riza, “I think it bears mentioning that sometimes when a shot looks calm, what the viewer isn’t getting is the cold, the wind, the hypoxia, the nausea, the headache, the thirst... I wish a camera could capture all of that.”

Working to make a photograph under those unbearable conditions is difficult enough for a photographer snapping mementos. Riza, though, prefers panoramas. He’s not content to snap away with a wide lens though. Instead, he stitches exposures together to maintain perspective and minimize distortion—again, maximizing the “factual” feel of a scene.

Riza’s Equipment
Canon EOS 5D Mark II and these lenses (currently): Canon EF 14mm ƒ/2.8L USM,
Canon EF 24mm ƒ/1.4L USM, Canon EF 50mm ƒ/1.4 USM, Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/4L IS USM
Sigma 8mm ƒ/3.5,Sigma 15mm ƒ/2.8 EX DG

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/4L IS USM

Canon EF 14mm ƒ/2.8L USM

Sigma 8mm ƒ/3.5

“I make heavy use of stitching software,” he explains. “I’ve been experimenting with image stitching for about 10 years now, before it was considered cool and before it was even more shunned than it is now among ‘pros.’ I’ve never really understood the aversion of the photography establishment to photo stitching. I’ve been disqualified from photo competitions and have been given the cold shoulder from galleries because my photos are stitched. I think some guys still complain about digital and how it looks ‘too good.’ I embrace new technology and try to expand upon it rather than clutching to the old school with the attitude that the new one is a fad and not worth serious consideration. I think that’s utter foolishness. I think I’ve come at photography from a non-traditional angle from day one. I’ve just kind of done things the way I’ve wanted to do them, operating in a vacuum of sorts and developing my own methods for my own needs.”

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Riza also bucks another photographic convention, preferring to underexpose slightly to ensure he retains detail and doesn’t blow out highlights. “I shoot underexposed,” he explains, “because it allows me the dynamic bandwidth to pull up areas in post from the RAW data that are too dark without introducing grain. If you overexpose, it’s very hard to recover your details. It can be done, but I find that underexposing does it better. If you expose for the terrain and your cloud or snow highlights get blown out, there’s only so much recovery you can perform, and sometimes you can’t recover anything at all. If you expose for your sky and let the terrain fall—underexpose—you can pull up the terrain and leave the whites where they are.”

Depending on lens selection, Riza makes several exposures per setup. The wider the lens, the smaller the finished composite will be because he needs considerably more overlap to minimize distortion. With telephotos, though, he has gone upwards of 200 individual exposures to create an immense and detailed final image. Still, time-consuming as the process may be, it remains fairly straightforward.

“I used to do it by hand in Photoshop,” Riza says. “It would take me days to get one done. Now I use Kolor’s Autopano Giga to stitch images—the best software I’ve found for the purpose. I tweak various parameters—horizon leveling, projection mapping type—and then render the pano to a 16-bit image format. From there, I continue developing in Photoshop if need be. Crop. Save. Done.”

Adds Riza, “Any camera can be a pano camera if the user knows what he’s doing. Being able to carry a camera as essentially small and light as the Canon EOS 5D Mark II into the mountains and coming back with all the data you need to stitch up 35,000-pixel-wide panos is, for me, infinitely more sensible than carrying an older camera built for wide vistas before the technology advanced to a point that rendered it unnecessary.”

Ultimately, no matter how he makes them, Riza wants his photographs to remain true to life—especially the shots of Neutron, his altimeter or his self-portraits because they also serve a very real personal purpose.

“I like to refer to those as maintenance photos,” says Riza, “as in ‘memory maintenance.’ I see them and I remember. The pics of my altimeter and GPS just offer proof-positive that I stood X. I like to document key points in my life. Standing on top of Aconcagua was a key point. I can look at the shots of myself bundled up at the summit and think, ‘Man, I’m glad I did that. Man, I’m glad I’m back.’”

Brandon Riza’s Technique From Exposure To Stitched Image

Given Brandon Riza’s extensive experience with digital imaging and 3D graphics—he worked on Star Wars game cinematics for Lucasfilm—it’s somewhat surprising how natural and unaffected his landscapes are. The “why” is because he wants viewers to see what he saw, experience the mountains as he did during a climb. He couldn’t provide that if his pictures looked like paintings. The “how” is also fairly straightforward.

Riza’s approach to panoramas is no different than most: make multiple overlapping exposures to be stitched together in post. The most unreal aspect of his landscapes is the fact that they aren’t made from a single exposure. Though Riza says photography and 3D VFX go hand in hand, he approaches each quite differently. “I sort of view my photography as revenge against 3D,” he says.

“My process is as follows,” explains Riza. “First, proper lens selection; I’m a sucker for sharpness. I don’t shoot with any filters; I shoot underexposed and only in RAW. I shoot multiple shots per image, depending on what lens I’m using, how much overlap I need for the stitch and how large I want the final to be. In essence, the wider the lens, the smaller the final will be as compared to the same shot captured with a tele. I’ve done telephoto stitches comprised of 200 20-megapixel images. Makes for a huge final.

“I process images, if need be,” he continues, “leveling tones, gamma correcting, etc., and I output all of the constituent frames as 16-bit-per-channel files, usually TIFFs.”

Then it’s time for the stitch. What used to be the most time-consuming and mind-numbing part of the process (when he was doing it by hand in Photoshop) is now much more efficient and effective, thanks to what Riza calls “the best software I’ve ever found for stitching.” Kolor’s Autopano Giga software allows the photographer to create panoramas automatically while still providing the control to make subtle tweaks for perfect alignment.

In the end, Riza may create gigapixel-sized panoramas, but his primary concern isn’t the technique or even the photograph itself. Ultimately, what he wants to create is a document that helps share his climbing adventures with an audience. The most straightforward images offer the best means to that end.

To see more of Brandon Riza’s photography, go to


    I’m the proud mother of this talented photographer–a true artist. My favorite picture is the Thousand Island Lake reflection. Wow! I have a wonderful son.

    As an off and on hiker and traveler across the US with the Sierras as a favorite destination past and future, Brandon gets it and gets it right for us. Thanks for the records and the incentive to go again soon to the High Sierras.

    Once Brandon Riza and I were mountain biking in Colorado just north of Durango. We were riding the Molas Pass trail which runs right over a saddle west of Engineers Peak. Getting to Engineers Peak is a LONG ride mostly uphill, then past the saddle it is a 1 hour downhill adventure. So, Brandon and I finally get to the peak of the saddle and start heading downhill. YAY! I look back after while and realize Brandon is no longer behind me. I rode for a good 10 minutes before discovering this. I think… If something happened to him there is no telling how far back he is. I wait and wait. I decide to start heading back for my buddy, uphill towards the saddle. I ride for about 5 minutes and here comes Brandon. I ask “Dude? What Happened? You wreck?” His reply. “I was set up for this shot and this stupid cloud wouldn’t move. Threw my light off.”

    The guy is meticulous.

    I always saw your talent and knew you would go on to do great things. I think this is just the beginning of something really cool. And if not, you are still an extremely rare human being, and an even rarer friend.

    Cheers, brother. YOU are an inspiration, not just your photos.

    I look forward to many great adventures, and a few photos of my own. Everest, here we come.

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