Modern Landscape Masters

Five top photographers describe how they took these inspiring scenic images

Landscape photography can be a lonely endeavor. Those of us who are driven to capture the landscape are on a quest for rarely seen vistas, unusual weather conditions and the sort of special light that happens near the edges of the day. We're up early to be on the trail in the dark, and we get home late, having waited for the entirety of the sunset to paint the scene in rich, glowing hues. Some landscape photographers make these treks with a friend or a spouse, but more often than not it's just us and the scenic splendor.

On the following pages, we look at some of today's modern masters of landscape photography. We've asked them to tell us about one of their photographs, how they came to take the shot and what equipment they used. In their own words, each tells a story, some brief, some less so, but all of these artists give a glimpse of how they see and capture the natural world through a camera and lens.

Granite Park, John Muir Wilderness, California

There's no place on this planet where I'd rather be than surrounded by the peaks and streams of the high Sierra. In the summer of 2010, Granite Park in the John Muir Wilderness was especially alluring. This area of the wilderness isn't easy to get to, and traveling there requires several miles of steep trail-hiking followed by several more miles of cross-country navigation to arrive in the basin. With some significant online research—including working with the Sunlight features in Google Earth—I discovered that the park was ideally suited for both morning and evening photography, and that the area was studded with numerous tarns, streams and tundra-like grasses to complement the massive granite spires that pierce the skyline. I was well aware of the typical August thunderstorm cycle that develops over the Sierras with almost predictable consistency, and decided that if we were to spend two or three days in the park, we would likely end up with some great morning or evening light.

The first two days in the park were perfectly blue-sky. On the third morning, however, we awoke to find storm clouds building overhead. By afternoon, the basin was dark with thundercloud shadows, and we returned early from our hike that day to prepare for the show. When the light finally broke through, it exploded like fireworks across the basin. The entire sunset lasted for almost 40 minutes, and that gaves me enough time to successfully capture three of my original compositions as I had envisioned.

I was shooting with my Canon EOS 5D Mark II and EF 17-40mm ƒ/4 L lens. I had the camera mounted on my homemade ultralight panoramic head and a tripod, and I used the Canon TC-80N3 remote control for the shutter release. I didn't use any filters. The image is a composite of three frames captured vertically, and each frame was bracketed for both dynamics and sharpness. Processing was done in ACR and Photoshop CS5, by hand, using luminosity-masking and focus-blending techniques. This image is part of a series of images I've taken over the last few years that incorporate multiple-image capture to produce final image qualities similar to those found in medium- and large-format film photography.
—Cory O'Neill

Bridalveil Fall, Mist and Trees, Yosemite National Park, California

I live only an hour's drive from Tunnel View, Yosemite's most iconic vista. I made this photograph on May 28, 2008. The night before it had rained hard, but then cleared, and I headed to the park early, hoping to find interesting clouds and mist. My first stop was Tunnel View. I had my Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II, EF 70-200mm ƒ/4L lens, a Gitzo tripod and an Arca-Swiss ballhead. The fog swirling around the valley floor looked gorgeous, so I got my 70-200mm lens out and zoomed in on the patterns of trees and mist. At one point, I noticed fingers of fog stretching toward Bridalveil Fall and zoomed out to 140mm—just enough to include the waterfall. The classic composition from Tunnel View, with El Capitan on the left, and Bridalveil Fall and Cathedral Rocks on the right, wouldn't have worked on this morning. The sun would have been in the frame, creating excessive contrast and unavoidable lens flare. Instead, I included only the most interesting and dynamic elements of the scene at that moment: the trees, mist and waterfall.
—Michael Frye

Mount Rainier and Cloud Formations, Washington State

I feel as if Mount Rainier were in my backyard. I go to the national park a few times every year to photograph the gorgeous Cascade landscape—the old-growth forests, summer wildflowers, waterfalls and, of course, the mountain, or rather volcano, itself. At over 14,000 feet, Rainier is by far the highest peak in the Cascade Range. Because of that, the cloud formations around it can be spectacular. I took this photo in 2009. It was during a warm July sunset, around 9 p.m., and the cirrus clouds were wispy, and they had a delicate blush. I used my Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III with my EF 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L II USM lens set at 24mm. The exposure was ƒ/14 for 2 seconds at ISO 100.
—Art Wolfe

Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile

We had been camping for almost 10 days in Torres del Paine. On this morning, a rainy dawn led to one of the most impressive light conditions I've ever photographed. A storm was drifting over the mighty Cuernos del Paine when the sun nailed the clouds and spotlit the peaks. A double rainbow appeared, hovering in the sky, balancing the golden light on the rocks. I ran, remembering a famous Galen Rowell photo, and stopped not far from where the two rainbows seemed to converge over the two islands in the foreground, still in the shadows. I was shooting with my Nikon D300 and AF-S 24-70mm ƒ/2.8G ED with a polarizer to strengthen the colors of the rainbow, giving me an exposure of 1⁄60 sec. at ƒ/9 and ISO 200. I set up the tripod low to reduce vibrations due to the strong wind. I was lucky, as the rainbows stayed for a while. This was one of those rare moments when subject, light, timing and vision mix in the right proportions to create a memorable photograph of a remarkable landscape.
—Rafael Rojas

Seljalandsfoss, Iceland

This image was made on the last evening of a nine-day photo tour I led in July 2012 to Iceland. We had been at this waterfall, Seljalandsfoss, in the afternoon under cloudy skies shooting for several hours. We got a reading on where the sun would be setting that evening and found that it would go down directly behind the falls. Although we were scheduled to spend the evening in Reykjavik, we decided it would be best to make the two-hour drive for sunset to take advantage of the weather and light. I positioned myself behind the falls and waited for the sun to drop low on the horizon. I set up my Nikon D800 and AF-S 14-24mm ƒ/2.8G ED AF lens with a circular polarizer. The rig was on a Gitzo tripod with an Arca-Swiss ballhead. The spray blowing into the grotto behind the falls was intense, and keeping my lens from getting soaked was nearly impossible. It took me almost 30+ shots to pull off a few frames free of water on the lens. It was worth every bit of effort.
—Joseph Rossbach


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