Technology changes photography as much as photography changes technology. Early landscape photographers were stymied by orthochromatic films, which rendered skies stark white. Advancements in film technology led to more evenly toned emulsions and that led to photos with dramatic billowing clouds and skies being darkened via filters. Today, we can see how advancements in low-light capability (high ISOs in DSLRs) are allowing photographers to shoot deeper into the edges of the day while capturing color and subtle textures in the scene. Many of the winning images in this year’s American Landscape contest reflect these advancements. Technology continues to evolve, and so does the vision of the best photographers. We’d like to thank everyone who entered the 2014 American Landscape contest, and special thanks to our sponsors, Tamron, BookBaby and Roberts Camera.
First Place | Horsetail Fall
Photographer: Cameron Teller
Location: El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, California
Date Of Photograph: February 10, 2014
I traveled to Yosemite National Park in February 2014, specifically to photograph the annual phenomenon at Horsetail Fall, where, for just a few days, the evening light narrows down to a vertical strip highlighting the fall briefly before disappearing. It turned out I was a little early in the month for the event because there weren’t nearly as many photographers as I had expected. With my small group of traveling companions, I anxiously set up my gear in the valley floor in the afternoon, with my lens pointed up to the wispy waterfall plunging down the face of El Capitan, that iconic monolith so loved by Ansel Adams and fearless rock climbers worldwide.
The presence of low clouds and fog worried me, and I fretted that they would prevent the illumination of the rock at the crucial moment. But the field of light on the granite persisted, and as it narrowed, my heart began to race because I realized the roiling clouds were imparting a thrilling, romantic drama to the scene! All conditions were coming together perfectly. Just before sunset, a puff of mist drifted out of the waterfall, catching a golden hue from the twilight, and in that second, the magic happened.
I adjusted the Vibrance in Lightroom to make sure the trees at the very top of the peak had the look I experienced in the field. While not a large portion of the photograph, I think those trees say a lot about the scale of the scene, and I wanted to make sure they were just right.
I’m a geologist—rocks are my thing—and the enormous rock formation called El Capitan represents for me one of the most visually impressive geological formations in the nation. It has taken my breath away since I was a little boy visiting with my family. To this day, perhaps no other single rock embodies more the tantalizing paradise of the American West. Photographers from Charles Leander Weed and Carleton Watkins in the 1800s to Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell in the 20th century presented images of Yosemite’s landmarks to viewers as art, but also as invitations to experience our Western frontier. They certainly have that effect on me. I see El Capitan, with its sheer cliff and snowy cap, as a 100-million-cubic-yard symbol of American ruggedness, adventure and natural beauty. In this photograph, I think the clouds heighten a sense of nature as a dangerous, brooding force, guarding unimaginable treasure.
Second Place | Big Sur Moonlight
Photographer: Bill Shupp
Location: Northern end of Big Sur, California, by Bixby Bridge (which is to the left of the frame)
Date Of Photograph: May 20, 2013, 2:21 a.m.
I drove down to Bixby Bridge for some night sky photography, which is only a couple of hours from where I live. While waiting for the moon to set, which was at about 72% illumination, I decided to grab some shots of well-lit coast while I waited for fully dark skies. What surprised me was how such a bright moon at only a few degrees above the horizon allowed for the Milky Way to be captured; this was 20 minutes before moonset. I expected it to be more washed out. The juxtaposition of the moonlit coastline with the Milky Way rising above it makes this my personal favorite of my images.
I followed some standard night sky rules. Shoot at the highest ISO your camera can manage (usually 6400 for my 6D), use the fastest lens you have (I stopped down to ƒ/2 for sharpness), and follow the “500 Rule.” The “500 Rule” means take your focal length and divide it into 500 to get the approximate time in seconds you can leave the shutter open before the stars begin to show any real motion. Also, focusing at night isn’t easy. The best way is to use Live View and zoom in on a bright star or distant light source to manually focus.
I think the California coastline is some of the most beautiful in the world, and the series of bridges in and around Big Sur and Carmel, built in the 1930s, are beautiful in their own right. The added bonus is that this part of the coast doesn’t have too much light pollution, particularly facing south, so it’s a great spot for photography, day or night.
Third Place | Gators Goodnight
Photographer: Benji Studt
Location: Pine Glades Natural Area, Palm Beach County, Florida
Date Of Photograph: July 2013
I shoot Palm Beach County’s natural areas all the time, and this was a typical South Florida evening, with large inland thunderstorms that had converged to create a completely overcast sky. Without high hopes for anything materializing, I waited patiently until a few minutes after sunset. Just before calling it a night, some color started to appear in a “window” of the overcast sky. The color reached its dramatic peak for only about a minute, but I was able to quickly position myself to center the colorful “window” in the frame with the spikerush and cypress trees, two iconic features in the swamps of South Florida. The sun illuminated the bottom of the overcast sky in a pale orange and backlit the smaller thunderheads along the horizon in a light blue, both colors made more dramatic by the reflection on the still water of the swamp.
The camera was stabilized by an Oben 3-section aluminum tripod, and the shot was captured in Live View to minimize vibration from mirror “slap.” The spikerush and cypress were slightly dodged in Lightroom to bring out a little more detail.
The usual Mecca for landscape shooters are the grand landscapes of the American West, but the constantly changing weather of Florida—South Florida, especially—as well as the huge expanses of swamps and wetlands provide for dramatic cloudscapes that are often reflected in the still, eerie waters of the swamp. I love shooting the swamps and wetlands of South Florida, not only because that’s where my wife and I call home, but because I can share the beauty of a large part of the American landscape often overlooked as hot, mosquito-infested wasteland. These wetlands, as well as America’s largest remaining wetlands system, the Everglades, filter the rainwater before releasing it to the coast rivers, Florida Bay and the Florida Keys. Without the filtration and water storage these systems provide, Florida’s estuaries and coral reefs would slowly begin to die. Highlighting the beauty of the wetlands communities of South Florida always brings me joy, especially when it opens viewers’ eyes to the daily beauty and drama these landscapes provide.
1) Wild Flower Season
Photographer: Yu Sheng
Location: Columbia Hills State Park, Washington State
Date Of Photograph: April 20, 2013
Columbia Hills State Park is famous for its wildflowers in spring. I went there on a windy afternoon, and the wind was so strong that I had to use a high ISO to get a shutter speed to freeze the flowers.
I’ll never forget how I felt the first time I drove onto the backroads of Columbia Hills State Park and saw the wildflowers. Waves of flowers scattered on the slopes rendered the earth a palette of all kinds of vivid colors. I was shocked. In my mind, such beauty could only exist in a remote area without any human disruption, but it’s Columbia Hills State Park, right outside a busy town! This is a great example of the harmony between human and nature, and I would like more people to appreciate that.
2) Winter Sentinels
Photographer: Henry Wu Liu
Location: Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
Date Of Photograph: December 28, 2013
It was the longest and coldest night for me since I’ve been into landscape photography. Due to almost 10 days of a continuous winter storm, the park was covered in nearly 10 feet of snow. Obviously, the road to the Rim Village was closed, so we snowshoed in and took sunset/moonrise photos along the Rim Drive road. As we weren’t carrying camping equipment, we snowshoed back to the parking lot at the park office, arrived around 11 p.m., cooked and ate our dinner, drank some hot water and took a short nap. Then we started snowshoeing back onto the Rim Drive road at 1:30 a.m. The temperature was around 0º F. It was a full moon night, but the sky was mostly covered with clouds. We shot some moonlight photos along the way. I decided to go further so the crater island could align with morning light and we could shoot against the sunrise direction. For the past 10 hours, we had been walking in deep snow most of the time; we were exhausted. My buddy was talking about giving up, but I insisted on going further. We made it to our shooting location right in time, as the sky had already started turning red.
The red twilight soon became so fierce, it was casting a red shade all over the snow, on the ground and on the trees. It was a cold, quiet morning. Pine trees stood along the lake cliff, wrapped in thick snow, contrasting against the deep blue lake water, like soldiers standing on the frontline. “Winter sentinels!” I almost shouted. I composed my frame, with the trees as my main subject.
I was shooting with an ultrawide-angle lens, and my main subject was those trees standing straight, like soldiers. They had to be straight up in my final photo. I didn’t want to do lens correction in postprocessing, as I composed precisely to have two bigger trees on each side as anchor points.
While I was shooting this picture, I turned back to my buddy who, just a while ago, almost gave up and wanted to turn back. “How do you like this scene?” I asked. He used a Chinese aphorism to describe his feeling: “The boundless vista is at the perilous peak.” Persistence is rewarded—that’s the spirit of outdoor photography.
3) The Light Show
Photographer: Michael Ryan
Location: Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, California
Date Of Photograph: August 31, 2013
To put it simply, I was extremely fortunate to be in the right place at the right time with camera in hand. Scenes like this are often very fleeting, and one has to act quickly to have any chance at taking away any keepers. I composed as many images as I could, often bracketing several shots as I went along. This image was one of the last I took before having to leave the park. I could have stayed for hours.
4) Daylight Fireworks
Photographer: Gerald W. Shonkwiler
Location: Borrego Springs, California
Date Of Photograph: November 6, 2011
When it rains in San Diego, California, the storms usually break up as they come over the mountains at the western edge of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. On this particular day, the strength of the oncoming storm contained enough energy and moisture to survive the trip over the mountains onto the desert floor. As the bright desert sun moved across the sky behind me to the south and to the west, at my left, this untypical desert storm provided enough rain and prismatic opportunities to create a stunning partial rainbow emanating from the ominous remaining clouds from the passing storm. Those dramatic cloud layers with their falling rain and the openings within them provided an intense color band framed by rays of sunlight to the right, highlighted mountains to the left and the illuminated desert floor at the bottom of the image. I used the circular polarizer to intensify the rainbow’s colors.
I loved the composition of the natural scene from the position of the rainbow, sun rays, clouds, highlighted mountains and sunny desert at the bottom. It allowed me to capture the expansiveness, textures and layers and just a few of several different beauties of nature in a place that can be both environmentally hostile, yet visually humbling.
5) White Veil
Photographer: Jason Bohl
Location: Deer Island, Lake Granby, Colorado
Date Of Photograph: October 13, 2013, 7:42 a.m.
We were on our way to the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park. It was early October, and we were hoping to get in a morning hike before an early winter snowstorm. As we looked out over the glistening waters and watched the fog slowly rise, we were struck by the drama of the snowstorm rolling over the mountains quicker than we expected. We decided to delay our hike so we could watch the storm roll in over the lake. As the storm approached, the fog rising up from the lake and the clouds and snow rolling over the mountains created a “White Veil” cloaking the mountains behind isolated Deer Island.
The image of the isolated island rising from the calm lake with the tumult of the fog, clouds and snow in the background represents the serenity and wildness of the American landscape. Lake Granby is at the head of the great Colorado River. The snow and rain that fall here make their way south through the Rocky Mountains, canyonlands and deserts as they cut the gorge that’s the Grand Canyon. The ethereal clouds of fog and snow transition into the forceful river that has carved this beautiful land.