Charles Cramer’s magnificent landscape photographs reflect his musical training in the use of form, balance, dynamic range and a sense of scale

Young Pine, Upper Young Lake, Yosemite National Park, California.

Ansel Adams described printmaking in musical terms: The negative is the score, and the print the performance. Few photographers understand this analogy better than classically trained pianist turned photographer Charles Cramer. Cramer studied piano at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, founded by George Eastman of Eastman Kodak. While in Rochester, a budding interest in photography was nurtured by visits to the public library that, because of Eastman, had an excellent photography section. When Cramer wasn’t at the piano, he was studying the books of Ansel Adams and other photography greats.

Focusing more and more on photography, Cramer eventually studied with Adams at a 1977 workshop in Yosemite. A decade later, he was teaching a class on dye-transfer printing for the esteemed workshop. When digital printing came of age, Cramer embraced it. In 1997, his image “Snow-covered Trees, El Capitan” was the first digital print sold at The Ansel Adams Gallery.

Regardless of the medium on which he’s printing or the source being a piece of film or a digital file, Cramer’s images bridge the gap between grand and intimate landscapes. He has a knack for pulling elements out of a big scene and displaying them with just enough context to tell a visual story.

Aspen Trees In Autumn, June Lake, California.

OP: What do you look for in a landscape?

Charles Cramer: When I started photographing, I would often find compositions and scenes based on my left brain—my intellect. But I discovered that this usually resulted in banal and ho-hum images. I’ve learned instead to pay attention to my feelings and now ask myself “Does this scene excite me?” If it doesn’t on an emotional level, I don’t take it.

Don Worth, one of Ansel Adams’ early assistants, told me that when he looks at a scene, he asks himself “What can I do differently?” When I’m photographing, I look for something that’s maybe a little bit “off,” like a small tree that’s bent or two trees together that do something interesting. I’ll look for that first point of interest and make the image around that. Then it becomes a question of the background working with the foreground and finding a good composition. I always use a framer card—an 8×10-inch matboard with a 4×5-inch opening in the middle—to explore the scene. Closing one eye to see in 2D is also very important. Many scenes are wonderful in 3D, but become utter chaos in 2D as would be seen in a print.

After several years of photographing, I also realized that I grew tired of the “grand vista.” Instead, I concentrate more on the details in a landscape. Someone described my style as “the grand detail.” My images would be terrible for stock work, as it’s not very obvious where these details were made!

Coyote Natural Bridge, Coyote Canyon, Utah.

OP: Water plays a big part in many of your grand details. Why? Are you working with polarizers or neutral-density filters to achieve these images?

Cramer: Water, especially at longish exposure times, offers a sense of unreality that I love. Landscapes can be so “real” that it’s a great change of pace to get more fantasy in the images. I don’t use polarizers very often, but have enjoyed playing with my Singh-Ray variable neutral-density filter. This offers great control in getting just the right exposure time. Many times, longer exposures—five seconds or more—just blur out all detail in water, whereas shorter times—one second or shorter—retain some detail, but still give a nice blur. It all depends on how close the water is and how fast it’s moving.

I’m also very fascinated by colorful reflections in water. Water in shade will reflect wonderful blues from the sky, along with the green from sunlit bushes or, in the Southwest, reds from canyon walls. These colored reflections are in the shade with the ripples moving fairly quickly. To capture them with some definition, you need a relatively fast shutter speed—1⁄15 up to 1⁄60 sec., or so. To get the ripples sharp, you also need a lot of depth of field, necessitating stopping the aperture down. Being able to use a high ISO makes this fairly simple. With my 4×5 loaded with film, I was able to tilt the lens to achieve overall focus. Now with digital and the immediate feedback it gives, it’s much easier to get good results.

OP: What are you shooting with these days?

Late Afternoon Light At Cape Royal, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.

Cramer: In 2006, I made the big switch from 4×5 to digital capture. I felt the Phase One 39-megapixel back offered enough resolution to make 30×40-inch prints that were almost as sharp as those from 4×5. I recently upgraded to the IQ180 back, with a whopping 80 megapixels. The Phase One IQ back also lets me see if something is really sharp by quickly zooming in at 100% view. If it looks just slightly off, I can refocus or try different shutter speeds or hang my camera backpack on the tripod.

OP: The French have a poetic way of saying backlit: contre-jour. You seem to take advantage of this directional light. Is this approach a bit out of the ordinary for landscapes?

Cramer: I’m glad you’re asking me about light, as I feel that’s the most important thing in landscape photography. I search for that special kind of light that can literally transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. My favorite light is actually shade or overcast. Many people find this light too dull or flat, but I love it, as I can photograph almost anything in this light. In printing, I will then “orchestrate” the light—lightening and darkening areas based on where I want the viewer to look. I try to do this with some subtlety so it’s not obvious. Shade is found most often early or late in the day, although overcast works nicely, too. I sometimes feel like a vampire—dreading direct sunlight.

My second favorite light is backlighting. I find it irresistible, and what’s surprising is that the contrast is usually very manageable. Getting up at dawn, I can work in complete shade for a period and then, when the sun gets higher, start working with backlight.

El Capitan Meadow In Autumn, Yosemite National Park, California.

OP: Throughout your life there has been a connection between music and photography. What are the connections for you between these two art forms?

Cramer: I started off as a musician and spent my college years as a piano major. I also spent two more years doing graduate work at the Eastman School of Music in New York. But a week or two before my first trip to Eastman, I visited Yosemite National Park for the first time. That was quite an eye-opening experience for me. I had never really been anywhere, actually, and to suddenly see Yosemite—it made a big impression on me. At Eastman, I was cooped up in these little practice rooms for six to eight hours a day, and I realized I wanted out. When I returned to Yosemite the next summer, I brought an old Speed Graphic 4×5 press camera. Since I didn’t know what I was doing, I used no tripod, no camera bag—I carried the camera in one hand, and in my pants pockets I fit a couple of film holders and a small Weston light meter. The results were unbelievably bad, actually, but it was lots of fun and I loved doing it, so it was a beginning.

I think music gives you quite a sense of discipline. If you have a recital coming up, you’ll spend five-plus hours a day practicing—you just continue to practice and refine, refine, refine. It’s the same with printing. Refine, refine, refine.

OP: What’s your workflow?

Cramer: I use Lightroom to catalog and rate my digital captures. I’m excited about the changes in the Lightroom 4 Develop module—I think Adobe has a real breakthrough here. Once I’ve selected an image for printing, I’ll usually try alternate RAW converters like Capture One from Phase One or RAW Developer from Iridient Digital just to see if one does a better job, although I most times like what Lightroom gives me. I then bring the file into Photoshop. Most of the fine-tuning I do to images involves moving the light around, which means lots of selections, and Photoshop gives me much finer control over these selections and their masks. I also use the Curves adjustment layer for practically everything. Lightroom only offers one curve, and that curve only makes adjustments to the whole image.

Gunnison River, Black Canyon Of The Gunnison National Park, Colorado.

After working up a Photoshop file for 20 to 30 minutes, I’ll then make a proof print, usually around 11×14 inches, on a sheet of 13×19 paper. I still feel there are big differences in seeing an image on a monitor versus seeing a print. Even with a finely adjusted monitor, the deep shadows always look lighter on the monitor. The human brain processes glowing light from a monitor differently than reflected light from prints. So I have a rule that I make a print sooner rather than later. Then my critical evaluation is directed at the print. I take my time in evaluating this print. In fact, I normally work on groups of three or four images at a time. After printing a few different proof images, I’ll come back to this first one and feel I have a fresh grasp on what could be done to make the print even better. Some images require many proofs, and some only take three or four.

The end goal of my photography has always been to make beautiful prints. I’ve spent a large part of the last 30 years refining my skills, not just photographing the natural scene, but also learning how to make the best possible prints from these images. This led me to take up dye transfer, an impossibly complex and time-consuming method to make color prints. I made dye transfers for 15 years. When Kodak stopped making the materials in 1994, I stockpiled supplies, which fortunately lasted until digital printing became viable with the LightJet. Inkjet printers are now even better than LightJets—they’re sharper, have more color gamut and double the expected permanence. I feel the current state of digital printing has now eclipsed dye transfer, and I’m enjoying the incredible control over almost every variable in a print. It’s a great time to be a photographer.

You can see more of Charles Cramer‘s photography by visiting his website at