Next Generation Landscapes

Digital innovation has allowed Marc Adamus to deliver a more refined vision than ever before. It’s the new look of landscape photography.

In his heavily manipulated landscape images, Marc Adamus works to overcome the limitations of his equipment and better serve the reality of the subject. Above: “Boom,” Torres del Paine, Chile.

When Marc Adamus was a kid, he loved spending time studying maps of exotic locations. He could imagine being there, exploring faraway places and seeing the sights firsthand. To this day, whenever he plans a trip, he uses a topographic map to envision what things will look like from a given place and time—previsualizing his photographs from thousands of miles away, with nothing more than the squiggles on a topographic map.

“Water Current,” California coast.

Love of maps may be the only traditional thing about him. Adamus is at the fore of a new generation of landscape photographers who haven’t just embraced digital tools, but embraced their impact on aesthetics, as well. Multiple exposures, focus stacking and exposure blending are all part of his workflow. He uses these techniques not to construct surreal image, but rather to overcome the technical limitations that kept film from delivering the details the human eye can see.

“I think tonal-range control,” Adamus says, “that’s really the big leap forward. If you look at the types of light that people are shooting in and how they’re controlling it, I think it’s just such a broader range than ever before. One thing you don’t see is just straight blacks in landscape photography because you have such control over the high end and the low end. It has just completely changed everything from the ground up. It’s the single biggest limitation in traditional photography that’s being removed, not just through postprocessing, but also the dynamic range that you can capture in a single image with today’s technology.

“The lack of the ability to shoot in whatever lighting conditions,” he says, “that was always the biggest limitation in film photography, period. I was teaching a workshop in the Columbia River Gorge not too long ago, and I was telling my students my favorite type of light to shoot in the gorge—which, of course, is canyons and waterfalls and rainforests. For years, it was on cloudy days because it’s just so predictable and so easy to control light on cloudy days. But I told them now, just within the last couple of years, the thing that has really changed is that my favorite type of light to shoot in the rainforest is direct light. I like the sun to come right down into the forest. I like to use a lot of backlight, a lot of blending techniques, manual HDR techniques, to kind of pick up on the excitement of the light and how it changes through the forest. And I just never would have envisioned that years ago.”

“So Long For This Moment,” Boundary Range, Alaska.

An image of wildflowers at sunset that Adamus calls “So Long for This Moment” is a perfect example of an image that would have been impossible to capture before digital. The image doesn’t look like film, but that’s not to say it doesn’t accurately represent reality. It just looks different than reality used to look on film.

“I think that image represents a lot of the main new techniques that are changing the look and feel of photography,” Adamus says. “It showcases depth-of-field blending, exposure blending for dynamic range control—because I’m shooting right into the sun. There were a lot of different images that went together to create that final result. The light was changing, so I took three shots for depth of field in the foreground as fast as I possibly could. I had to use part of a different image that didn’t have the sun quite as brightly in the center of the frame to go in and paint out the flare that was caused by putting the sun in the center of the frame. I didn’t want a big red flare bubble on the right side of my image. Then I had to take another exposure for the sky and the sun to get that under control, too. I think if you had tried to shoot that with film, you’d have to just put a four-stop soft or a three-stop hard grad down there and move it around a little bit and lengthen the exposure to be able to do that. But the main thing is that the foreground shadows would have just been way, way too deep. You would have had just a couple of points of flowers sticking out that were getting direct sunlight, and that would have been it.”

“Paradise Forest,” Olympic rainforest, Washington.

Just like landscape photographers have long done, Adamus starts with previsualization. He then shoots to that image in his head, capturing the elements he’ll need to fulfill the vision in post. Seeing the image is only the first step. Equally important is the ability to identify the challenges that stand in the way of achieving one’s vision.

“It’s almost like if you can identify in the field what technical limitation you’re having,” Adamus explains, “you can find a way to capture or blend an image that’s going to fix that problem. Depth of field, for instance. We, as photographers, are really trained from day one to see within the limitations of depth of field. Now, when you start looking outside that box and start saying this doesn’t have to be out of focus—I can shoot with a 200mm lens and get something 15 feet away in focus and I can get something a mile away in focus in the same image, or I can use a wide-angle lens and make a foreground at six inches across look like a lake—then I’ve got a whole lot more opportunities at my disposal. Learning to recognize which situations are going to work best, and opening up your mind to be able to do that, it’s really opened up a whole new world for me. I would say at least one out of every four or five images that I take is depth of field blended to some extent.”

The biggest challenge isn’t always a photographic one. It can be difficult to ensure that viewers understand that while his photographs may be edited in Photoshop, or assembled from multiple frames, that this is done not to trump nature. Rather, it’s done to better serve the subject with a photograph that more accurately renders reality.

“Next time you’re at an art show,” Adamus says, “go tell somebody you manipulated the heck out of this image to make it look more natural. Watch their head turn around a couple of turns.

“A Moment Together,” Ruby Mountains, Nevada.

“I think people misunderstand what we’re doing in Photoshop,” he says, “or even what we’re doing in RAW. Usually, I find that they want to be assured that if they go to that place you photographed that they’re going to see the flowers, the trees, the rivers, the mountains, everything, in the way that it was portrayed in your image. It’s just a product of why people enjoy photography. Because they can imagine themselves being right there, and maybe they actually will go right there on account of seeing your images.”

Not many are likely to follow Adamus to the edge of the earth, in the heart of winter and the middle of the night. But scenarios like that are totally in his wheelhouse, partly because low-light imagery has always spoken to him and partly because they’re now more doable than ever.

“I’ve always trended toward the darker side of things,” he says. “I find that darkness is a great way to showcase light. Darkness is an element of simplification. It’s something where you can hide whatever doesn’t fit perfectly within your compositional plan for the image to create the visual flow that draws the eye from point to point. If the image is bright throughout, there’s a higher likelihood that it’s going to reveal some sort of distraction. Whereas I think you can simplify—which, of course, is so critical in photography—and draw the eye through multiple different elements of interest, with darkness. My images are very complex in that there might be four or five interesting things that I’m trying to showcase all at the same time, and in the process of doing so, especially with wide angles, you might introduce more in the way of distractions. So I’ve kind of learned to look for ways to lead the eye through the light, so to speak.”

Adamus’ photograph of icicles and aurora in the Yukon, called “Under the Lights,” represents the lengths to which he’ll go to juxtapose darkness with light.

“See Forever,” White Mountains, California.

“That image, in particular, broke new ground for me,” Adamus says. “It was an example of how you can use a lot of different techniques, like high ISO, to capture the aurora without it moving too much, and depth of field blending. I was shooting at about 30mm, and I was probably 12 inches from the closest icicle. I was shooting the background at ƒ/2.8 and the foreground at ƒ/5.6, and I merged together at least seven or eight images to get all those icicles in focus. And, thank goodness, the aurora didn’t change too much, or at least the prevalence of that green light source, because I’ve lost a lot of good images that way. If you’re trying to depth of field blend with the aurora, and if you’ve got a reflective surface like that ice, you have to accept that half the time you’re going to get nothing. Because the light source is going to change, and the reflected light is going to change, and when that changes, you’re not going to piece it together very believably.”

While Adamus is content to use every tool at his disposal, not all of his photographs require postprocessing. Some come out of the camera complete.

“Sometimes, you can spend five minutes,” Adamus says, “and it completely and totally alters the way the image looked in-camera. Other times, you spend 20 hours doing it and it still looks pretty similar. An image that I’ve processed practically none—it’s pretty much just a straight RAW file, maybe 30 seconds of little touch-ups—is one of my most popular images, ‘Crater Lake in Winter.’ That was an image made in the days when I first moved to digital. I wasn’t yet familiar with exposure blending, so I used a two-stop hard graduated filter over the top and the sky, and you can see the resulting darkness toward the top of the snow as a result. But the image required pretty much no attention in Photoshop to achieve the final product.

“One of my favorite little intimate scenes,” he says, “is called ‘A Moment Together.’ It’s just corn lilies surrounding mountain bluebells. Because it’s just a small-scale intimate capture of a scene within very soft, easy-to-control lighting, and it didn’t require any depth-of-field blending and it already had great color, it required very little processing—just a little dodging of the highlights on the leaves—but I would describe it as very little, and it’s one of my absolute favorites.”

See more of Marc Adamus‘ work at

Action In The Landscape
Whether he’s close to home in Olympic National Park or far away in Patagonia, Marc Adamus always strives for action in his images. “Action and landscape aren’t two things that are very often combined,” Adamus notes, “but it’s something that I really look for in my work. It might be water drops flying through the air or wind motion or water motion or cloud motion, or whatever is going on.

“I think one of the most exciting experiences I had in the last year,” he says, “was being down in Patagonia at a time when there were some big storms coming through. Winter was moving in—the winds, obviously, are legendary down there—and I was able to go out into a couple of gusts that I would estimate at close to 100 mph. We’re talking winds that you couldn’t stand up in. They would absolutely knock you down. Water was just ripping out of the lakes, flying half a mile away. You could see just white walls of water getting carried by the wind over the landscape. When I’m in conditions like that, I really feel the power that nature has over me. It just fills me with joy to be able to go out and shoot in those conditions, as best I can. No matter how much damage the camera suffers, or I suffer, I just really enjoy the opportunity to at least try to capture something of those moments, to capture the action in the landscape.

“I went down to the shoreline of some of the larger lakes there in Torres del Paine,” he continues, “and I stood right out on the headlands getting absolutely soaked, getting pummeled by wave after wave, just trying to shield the camera with my body as best I possibly could, to take hundreds of shots, using my tripod as a brace to even stand up in the wind. You know, I must have had 10 or 12 different dry cloths on me, and I was just cycling them through my GORE-TEX® pockets. Even still, about five out of every six shots were lost to water spots and moisture or camera motion. But I was able to get just enough, just a couple of shots that I felt were sharp enough, and I was able to postprocess to the point where I captured something that I felt was representative of that experience. Those are definitely some of my absolute favorites, and ones that were really groundbreaking for me over the last year.”

Adds Adamus, “It’s just one step further to bring the experience to the viewer. If there’s something going on—wind, water, whatever kind of motion—if you can find a way to capture that, it just heightens the experience that much more.”