In this issue of Outdoor Photographer, we celebrate the landscape—the classic expression of photography in the field. Perhaps in no other genre of photography has the advancement of technology so greatly improved our technical and creative options. The variables of light and weather are often the very factors that make a landscape worth capturing, but at the same time they challenge the limitations of the photographic process. The good news is that some of the most vexing problems inherent in field photography have been solved; the bad news is, we no longer have excuses for burned-out highlights, murky shadows, noise, or lack of resolution or sharpness. Wait! That's good news, too. Here are some of the more important technological advances that have revolutionized landscape photography in the digital age.
Improved Dynamic Range
One of the most frustrating problems for landscape photographers is controlling the range of light to dark tones within the scene. Imagine, for example, a lake in the foreground, dark mountains in the distance and a bright sky with white, fluffy clouds, all reflected in the lake. With transparency film, most photographers would expose for the bright areas and let the dark areas fall where they may. What you got from the camera was the final product.
With the advent of digital photography and post-capture processing, photographers gained control over dynamic range, either by capturing a single image that's later improved in the computer or by taking multiple images of the same scene at different exposures and compositing them into a single image with a greatly expanded tonal range. These processes, called single- or multiple-image HDR (high dynamic range) now can be at least partially accomplished automatically, within the camera.
The latest generation of digital SLRs is capable of capturing a greatly expanded range of tones between the highlights and shadows of a scene, often rendering multi-image HDR unnecessary. This is especially helpful if there's movement within the frame (add a sailboat to the lake in our earlier example), which makes a multiple-image HDR composite difficult.
Landscape photographers once were able to eat dinner and breakfast and sleep at night because there really was no way to accomplish sharp, colorful images in low light. But with today's ever-improving ISO capabilities, there's no time for sleeping. We can start earlier and shoot later, or even round-the-clock.
Higher camera ISO settings increase the sensitivity of the sensor. This not only allows quality captures in low-light situations, but also makes possible faster shutter speeds in landscapes that contain moving subjects. Even better, higher ISO settings increase your creative options by enabling increased depth of field with smaller apertures.
Night landscapes featuring the Milky Way are limited to 30-second exposures due to the movement of Earth. Films couldn't gather enough light to capture a dramatic night sky in 30 seconds, but now we can render such a scene in magnificent, sharp detail, thanks to expanded ISO and fast lenses.
Extended Depth Of Field
I love it when new technology re-defines the rules of photography, and in my book, multiple-image stacking for an unlimited range of sharpness changes everything we thought we knew about depth of field. The limitations of depth of field (that is, the distance within an image between the nearest and farthest objects that appear acceptably sharp) are most apparent in macro photography because at higher magnifications the zone of sharpness is miniscule. But imagine that you could focus that zone of sharpness again and again, moving through the subject in slices, and then composite all those sharp images into one, completely in-focus photograph.
This process, called stacking, is a technique that can be applied with excellent results in landscape photography. The standard example, and a common landscape situation, is when you have an important foreground, such as wildflowers; your center of interest, such as a cactus, is in the mid-range; and the snowcapped mountain range in the background is important to the location. Yes, it's classic David Muench. He accomplished this beautifully with a large-format camera technique that controls the plane of focus. In the digital age, we can achieve a similar result with a DSLR coupled with an expensive tilt/shift lens, or we can take a series of captures focused at overlapping planes throughout the scene, from foreground to background. Composited in post-capture software that discards all out-of-focus elements and retains only sharp details, the result is an image of nearly unlimited depth of field and sharpness. No additional equipment is needed to do this, but compositing software is necessary. I've used Adobe Photoshop (www.photoshop.com), Helicon Focus (www.heliconsoft.com) and Zerene Stacker (www.zerenesystems.com) with excellent results.
There's nothing new about the concept of panorama images; we experience one every time we scan the horizon. But we've come a long way from the time when a panorama was composed of several prints taped together, or when a swing-lens camera swept across the scene with its film moving in the opposite direction. If you're old enough, you'll remember all those class photos from elementary school.
Now there are lots of ways to capture multiple images and compile them into one high-resolution panorama. We still have to move the camera to capture the landscape, but mechanical advancements have given us some very precise tools with which to accomplish this. On the one hand, we can simply sweep some cameras, those with a built-in sweep panorama feature, across the scene and let the "camera" do the stitching on the fly. For the more technically inclined, Really Right Stuff (reallyrightstuff.com) offers a variety of specialty clamps, rails and heads to facilitate manual capture of panoramas in multiple rows and columns.
GigaPan Systems (www.gigapan.com), Kolor (www.kolor.com) and Clauss (www.dr-clauss.de/en/) manufacture automated systems that accommodate digital cameras from advanced compact cameras to professional DSLRs with big telephotos attached. The units can be programmed to self-calculate the number and distribution of images necessary to cover your subject, depending upon the focal length of your lens. You even can achieve high-resolution HDR panoramas by setting the system to capture several images at varying exposures in each position and then compositing each segment of the panorama before assembly.
Be forewarned: These techniques produce extremely large image files, but they also can be printed to gigantic proportions with no loss of detail. The largest of these to date is a 360º capture of London created by panorama specialists 360 Cities (www.btlondon2012.co.uk/pano.html), comprised of more than 48,000 individual frames that, printed at normal resolution, would measure 321x78 feet. Take a look at this ultimate panorama!
Digital Ground Glass
Photographers using large format can check their work on the ground glass, which displays the image to be taken by the camera before the film holder is inserted. The LCD on the back of a DSLR, in Live View mode, is a similar tool, but considerably smaller. Both methods are restricted by their size, resolution and unfortunate attachment to the camera. Cue technology! Now we can use a smartphone (not much bigger than the camera LCD) or, better, a tablet such as the iPad (6x8 inches) to remotely engage Live View and control capture settings on the camera.
The system I use a lot these days is the CamRanger (www.camranger.com). Using an ad hoc WiFi signal, it allows me to monitor Live View, change focus, enlarge portions of the previewed image to set critical focus and adjust any of the other major camera settings, such as ISO, ƒ-stop, shutter speed, time-lapse or control stacking, all on my iPad, from a distance of up to 150 feet. Why would I do that? First, that big, beautiful, high-res "viewfinder" helps me to compose and focus my image more precisely. But I'm finding this rig works really well when photographing in harsh or dangerous conditions, such as in a lightning storm, or through the night in a wild location, when the camera can stay outside, but I'm safer and warmer in my vehicle.
Follow George Lepp's exploits, see his latest photographs and be part of the discussion on his Facebook page: www.facebook.com/georgelepp. And Lepp is now a part of the OP Blog on our website, www.outdoorphotographer.com/blog/author/glepp.