Timing Is Everything
Being at the right place at the right moment is very important, and serendipity plays a significant part in all of this. Then, again, we make a lot of our own luck. Scouting a location so you know where good vantage points are and under what conditions they will work is a start. When I'm traveling or working a new area, I keep my eyes alert during each day to find places that might look good later in the day, later in the week, or in different weather that might have potential.
The fact is that we often have to wait for all the things that make a successful landscape image to come together. The season, the time of day, the atmospheric conditions, even the equipment you brought along will play a part in whether you get that winning photo.
The image here is from the Namib Desert in Namibia, Africa. It was taken at early light from a location scouted in advance and with the right focal length to cover the scene in three images, and then combined later.
Give Yourself Time
This goes along with the previous suggestions. If you don't give yourself time for everything to come together, your chances are diminished. Stay in an area long enough to see the patterns of light and to find the vantage points that will give the best photographic possibilities.
Know ahead of time where some of these vantage points from which you want to photograph are located. Are the roads open to the place you want to be? Does the place have potential for fall colors? Can you camp nearby so the trip for sunrise is easier? I had plans of photographing sunrise up in the bristlecone pines of the White Mountains of California. With a little research, I found out that the location at Patriarch Grove doesn't allow overnight camping and the nearest campground was quite a few miles away. It changed my plans and the equipment I took on the trip.
A rich source of information on locations is Robert Hitchman's "Photograph America" newsletter. He's been at it for more than 14 years and gives excellent information on many places. Hopefully, the site can handle the traffic. Go to www.photographamerica.com or call (415) 898-3736.
A lot of info is available over the Internet, and I've scouted a number of areas by doing a Google search. The amount and quality of info will depend on how well you do your search.
Filters, Filters, Filters
The filter I use most often is a polarizer, which is useful for both film and digital capture, and goes a long way in adding drama to the sky or removing sheen from vegetation. In the end, you'll find that the color saturation is greatly improved. I have a regular polarizer that fits into a Cokin holder to use with focal lengths through 28mm wide-angle lenses, and can be used in conjunction with other P-series filters. I also carry a wide-angle polarizer that works through 16mm because it's very thin and doesn't have a rotating ring. It's rotated simply by threading it in and out on the filter threads (available from Singh-Ray at www.singh-ray.com).
My second most used filter is a neutral-density filter, which is completely neutral gray and only serves the purpose of slowing the exposure. The beautiful effects in landscape images, where streams have a milky flow or waves along the ocean that record as a fog, are all done with the help of a neutral-density filter. I now use one filter that covers from two to 10 stops by simply turning the ring of the filter—the new Vari-X filter from Singh-Ray. Single-strength filters are viable for a lower cost. If I could carry only one ND filter, it would be a three-stop.
A graduated neutral-density filter is the third most important filter and helps control the density difference between a bright sky and a dark foreground. By holding back the exposure on the sky with the dark part of the filter, the foreground gets more exposure. The usual difference between the two areas is three ƒ-stops.
Tripods, Tripods, Tripods
I can't emphasize enough the gain in quality a landscape photographer achieves by religiously using a quality tripod with a good head. First, you need a solid set of legs that are incredibly stiff and easily extend to a desired height. Then, just as important, you need a tripod head that will position your camera quickly and firmly. A few years ago, there might have been only two or three choices of ballheads, but now there are many. The price varies from a hundred or so dollars for one that will handle up to a light 300mm lens to those over $400 that are designed to smoothly handle the largest of telephotos. Get the best you can afford, and while you're at it, I'd suggest one with a quick-release system.
Which Lens To Use?
This a loaded question because I use everything from a fish-eye to 1000mm for my landscapes. Every scene dictates which lens should be used, and often it's several lenses as you bracket the composition. I try to see many possibilities every time I stop and consider an image situation. You may be drawn to an overview with dramatic clouds and light conditions. After taking that first image, look for details in the scene that can be extracted with the use of a longer-focal-length lens. I love telephoto zoom lenses like the 100-400mm because they allow me to fine-tune the composition and find more than one composition in the "grandscape."
Wide-angle lenses are probably the most difficult lenses to use for successful landscapes. The result often is a diluted composition with too much sky and too much foreground. The secret for success is to have a strong foreground that will lead you to an interesting middle ground and maybe even a dramatic distance. Think of it as having something at your feet that gains your attention and shows you what's at that location. Then you look up and see what's there and how much of it is before you. In the end, the distance tells you where you are and maybe gives the impression that it goes on forever. That's a whole lot of information to have in one picture, so manage it wisely.
Certain lenses, like fish-eyes and tilt and shifts, can add drama to a photograph and solve depth-of-field problems that can't be solved in any other way. I always carry the 90mm and 24mm tilt-and-shift lenses with me in the field in case I run into either a windy field of flowers or a situation where I need to have a close-up object sharp as well as the distant landscape. By tilting the front elements, the depth of field is tilted, and a larger aperture will allow a faster shutter speed to stop any movement. By getting down close, tilting and using a very small aperture, the depth of field is used to its optimum and everything from a few inches to infinity can be rendered sharp.
The editor of this magazine claims my middle initial is "P" for panoramas. I do believe that panoramas can be a wonderful way to extend your photographic abilities, and I go to great lengths to demonstrate that. At any time, you can switch from the single-frame capture mindset to finding a series of images that can be later composited into a longer or taller single image that more accurately captures the scene before the camera.
Work from a tripod if possible. The more precisely you line up the images, the easier the panorama will come together and the better the quality of the finished image. Level the base (using the tripod legs) first, and then level the camera to the horizon with the head. Use a double-spirit level that fits in the camera's hot-shoe. You can point down or up a little, but not drastically.
Make sure you have one exposure setting for the series of shots so that the exposure doesn't fluctuate from frame to frame. Overlap each image by 20 percent if you're using a normal to telephoto focal-length lens, and overlap by 50 percent if a wide-angle lens is used. Use stitching software to easily put the images together, or use the merge capability of Photoshop CS and Photoshop Elements. My favorite way is to use Photoshop (5 through CS) and its powerful layer-masking capabilities. With this method, I make the choices as to where the invisible image seams will be. My favorite automatic stitching software is ArcSoft Panorama Maker 3, available from www.arcsoft.com, for $39.99.
For more information about upcoming seminars and digital-imaging workshops, visit www.leppphoto.com or call (805) 528-7385. If you have any tips or questions, address them to: OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHER, Dept TT, George Lepp, 12121 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1200, Los Angeles, CA90025-1175 or on the Internet at www.leppphoto.com.