Create The Old Masters Look With Modern Gear

Using the latest in software, techniques and hardware can provide you with imagery that will rival the masterpieces of nature photography
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old masters

The literal trailblazers of nature photography—Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Eliot Porter, Carleton Watkins, Edward Muybridge and others—carried heavy and sensitive equipment through miles of unpaved wilderness in order to bring back photographs of the world that they saw. These images have withstood the test of time to become the classic prints that we know of today as the work of photography’s Old Masters. Now, thanks to digital, we have gear that’s lighter, smaller and more capable, and accessing many of the remote locations these photographers explored is easier to do than ever before.

While digital photography offers photographic potential that far outweighs the limits of old orthochromatic films and finicky optics, many nature shooters have been stymied in their efforts to re-create the breathtaking vistas and sweeping drama of a Master’s print. So if digital offers so much more potential than the analog processes of old, how do we make photos that will be as good as the definitive examples of the past and someday become the classic prints of the future? Mastering the craft of photography takes time, practice and patience, but using the capabilities of modern gear, we can take full advantage of the image potential and build on the Masters to create new masterpieces of nature photography.

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Tiffen Polarizer

We feature the photography of David Muench in this article. One of today’s modern masters, Muench has bridged the era of photographers like Ansel Adams to the present digital revolution. His photography provides an excellent example of the old style, as well as how to use modern gear to create the same look with current equipment.

Take It Slow
Because of the technology that was prevalent in the era of Adams, Porter, Watkins and others—that is, cumbersome equipment and complicated, time-consuming development processes—the Masters worked with single exposures of large-format sheet film. The almost meditative process of taking a photograph with this gear forced these photographers to slow down and contemplate the scene they were trying to capture. While the fast-paced lifestyle of digital has brought with it countless advantages, it’s a side effect of modern photography that we no longer have to stop and smell the roses.

To take wonderful images of the scene before you, slow down and ask yourself what it is about the scene that attracts you and what it is that you want to share with others by taking the image. Taking your time and perfecting a careful composition is an integral part of capturing any scene successfully, and when photographers can experiment with hundreds of disposable exposures, we tend to forget that. While immediate review and large-capacity memory cards and hard drives are excellent tools, these advantages to digital have encouraged photographers to stop paying attention to one of the cardinal rules of nature photography: slow down.

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Use The LCD And Histogram
That said, the potential of the LCD preview (and Live View in some cameras) can’t be understated. It took the Masters years of shooting to be able to effectively previsualize what the image would look like on film. We can see that almost instantaneously. Proper exposures used to have to be determined by the Zone System pioneered by Ansel Adams, but now histogram modes allow you to tweak settings for perfect exposures immediately after capture.

By using your camera’s histogram, you can analyze the amount of dark tones (on the left), bright tones (on the right) and all of the midtones in between. By adjusting exposure to ensure there’s a good dynamic range, with tones spread evenly from blacks to brights, you’re able to get an image that isn’t blown out and still maintains details in shadow areas. For the Masters, a good dynamic range meant hours in the darkroom dodging and burning. For us, proper use of the histogram provides an optimum exposure on the spot.

OLD MASTERS old masters old masters
Photographer David Muench, whose work was used to showcase how a modern approach can provide classic imagery, often uses the chiaroscuro method of combining light and dark objects in an image as a way to define and frame each other. As seen in the images above, different approaches to depth of field and composition can provide profoundly diverse results. By placing emphasis on the foreground in the left and right image, for instance, and minimizing the backgrounds, Muench was able to add dimension to the scenes while providing unconventional scale. The middle image combines extended depth of field with a unique sunset to instill in the viewer a sense of time and place.

Using Composition
Compositionally, the Masters invented and improved upon the qualities of an image that eventually became the tried-and-true guidelines of nature photography. By using the contrast between light and dark objects in a frame, for instance, photographers can play with framing and depth to create images with defined foregrounds and backgrounds. This method, called chiaroscuro, says that a dark foreground will bring the eye to a brighter background, and darker or lighter objects can be used to frame objects on the opposite end of the tonal scale.

Perspective Control And Lens Choices

Playing with perspective provides excellent results, as well. Smaller objects in the foreground can create scale when positioned in a frame against large background subjects like mountains or dynamic skies. Conversely, using perspective to present smaller foreground objects like brightly colored flowers or textured fields as the principal subject in an image can be more interesting than trying to focus on an expansive landscape. Remember, too, that skies themselves often can be even more impressive than the terrestrial scenes beneath them, so be sure to involve them in your shots. As the Masters knew, the entire frame makes the image, so use it all.

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old masters

Choosing the proper focal length for composition is equally as important as a device for creating perspective. Telephotos flatten a scene while wide-angle lenses add depth. The Masters only had prime lenses so they could be somewhat limited in the choice of focal lengths. Today, zoom lenses give us much more control over framing, perspective and depth of field.

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Because they flatten the scene, teles give the viewer a feeling of distance. This aesthetic was preferred by many of the Masters; they would regularly use lenses in excess of 200mm (150mm is approximately a “normal” lens on large-format cameras; upwards of 200mm is considered to be more telephoto).

Wide-angles are great for presenting scale. Getting up and close is sometimes the best way to give your subject the presence it deserves. However, wide-angles can distort objects and skew perspective. Large background objects like tall trees or gargantuan mountains can have a keystone perspective, like the way train tracks look when they converge in the distance (see the illustration below).

Illustration At Left:
1) Tilting the camera upward results in vertical perspective.
2) Keeping the camera level, without using perspective control, captures only the bottom portion of the trees.
3) Shifting the lens upward results in a picture of the entire subject.

From large-format film to modern digital sensors, photography has changed dramatically, but the principles remain the same. Crisp, sharp images with good depth of field combined with remarkable subjects will provide you with timeless photos that can rival the work of the Old Masters.

old masters

One of the most important devices at the Masters’ disposal was built into their large-format view cameras. Because the cameras, while looking low-tech, actually featured nearly infinite adjustability, early nature photographers could control the distortion in the frame down to the smallest detail. By adjusting the lens plane and the film plane, photographers could take advantage of the Scheimpflug Principle to get almost infinite depth of field (see the sidebar on page 7). Using view camera adjustments also enabled the Masters to emphasize or deemphasize elements in the foreground and background of the image.

Modern tilt-shift, or perspective-control, lenses, are popular these days, thanks to new releases from Canon and Nikon. They give D-SLR shooters many of the adjustments of the large-format cameras that the Masters employed. As the name implies, these lenses tilt and shift to take advantage of the Scheimpflug Principle and to control perspective in the frame.

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old masters

Sharpness And Depth Of Field
While the Masters used large-format cameras with 4x5-inch film planes (or bigger) for the most part, modern digital equipment can provide excellent results, thanks to highly specified lens construction, detailed sensor design and extra features too numerous to go into. Still, to fully maximize the possibilities of a D-SLR in the field, you need to follow certain criteria and practical choices.

The Masters stopped down to apertures like ƒ/32, ƒ/45 and even ƒ/64 to get the sharpness and depth of field they needed. Modern digital sensors have such sophisticated construction that many higher-end D-SLRs can provide amazing depth in an image. Stopping down to the minimum aperture available on your lens is the most important step. The good news? Shooting in the ƒ/16 to ƒ/32 range gives you excellent image sharpness, front to back. The bad news? The smaller the aperture (even though it looks like a bigger number), the more light you need, which means longer exposures. Expect blurring of motion when dealing with rapidly moving elements like streams or waterfalls.

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Quality Optics
Quality lens design is important to both depth of field and image sharpness. Digital imaging picks up every flaw, and lenses designed for digital have been meticulously constructed for the best results. This is one of the reasons why the small image sensors of most D-SLRs can provide excellent depth of field and sharpness that rivals the results of large-format cameras. Remember, the better the glass, the better the final image will be.

Don’t Forget About Filters

The Masters frequently used filters to enhance areas in the frame and to add or reduce contrast. While Photoshop and various plug-ins can mimic many filters in postprocessing, nothing can fully substitute for using a filter on the lens when you actually make the exposure in the field. Red-yellow and orange filters can boost contrast in a black-and-white scene by darkening dull skies to dramatic, deep grays and blacks. Polarizers cut glare and enhance colors that would otherwise be washed out. Split NDs enable you to control the contrast between foreground and sky. All of these filters were commonly used by the Masters, yet they have been largely discarded by famous digital shooters. Photoshop can do a lot, but nothing can completely make up for a filter on the lens at the time of exposure.

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old masters

Photoshop Vs. The Darkroom
For the Masters, the darkroom was where the final touches were applied to images. Now the digital darkroom is primarily the computer and the printer driver, where you can apply any number of optimization techniques (and you don’t have to worry about the chemicals!) In Photoshop, mastering Curves, Levels, Hue/Saturation and the Black and White mode are the keys to flawless prints, just as the Masters had to know developing, exposure, fixing and printing.

Curves and Levels provide you with techniques for pushing and pulling brights, mediums and darks to change tonality in an image. Selective application of these effects through local adjustment gets you the best possible results. The handy Lasso and Quick Selection/Magic Wand tools are best for this, and Layers and Masks provide you with ultimate control over each area of an image. Look at it as digital dodging and burning.

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B+W Redhancer
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Hoya Circular Polarizer

Extending Dynamic Range
Another great option for achieving the extended dynamic contrast of classic imagery is High Dynamic Range (HDR). Darkroom photographers would have several choices for getting great prints out of negatives with bright-brights and dark-darks—playing with different grades of paper and chemistry, dodging and burning selected areas from one negative, as mentioned above, or using multiple bracketed exposures of one scene on one print. HDR mimics the latter process, only it does so quickly and efficiently through postprocessing.

Photography is a young sport,” says photographer David Muench. “It’s still developing dramatically. There are so many possibilities with digital now, and I think Ansel would have really liked it because there are so many controls to work with.

To create a good HDR image, take three or more captures of one scene. (A tripod and a locked-down camera are absolute musts for this process to work effectively.) Bracket each image by half a stop or more between each exposure, with wider space in between stops for scenes with more dramatic contrast (like a very dark foreground with a very bright sky). There are a few options for good HDR compositing, including Photomatix Pro 3.0 from HDRsoft and Photoshop. (There’s also an available Photomatix plug-in for Photoshop.)

If you’ve shot your images in RAW, another similar option for getting good detail in both brights and darks is available by double-processing your RAW image. By processing the RAW image twice, first paying attention to the dark areas and then to the light areas, you can combine the two images into one optimal image through Photoshop. The results won’t be as good as HDR, but they’re certainly better than using a single image.

Today, we’re no longer limited by the choices we make in the field. We can alter an image in any number of ways, and you can bet that the Old Masters, who took advantage of every technical innovation that came their way, would be proud of the strides that photography has made.

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Noise, Grain And The Battle For Big Prints
Advanced noise processing is resulting in the greatest images ever, even at high light sensitivity (ISO). The Old Masters of nature photography shot primarily with large-format cameras. These cameras exposed a scene to a 4x5-inch or larger negative, and because the negative was so big, it didn’t have to be enlarged very much to make a large print. There would be grain in the negative, but it hardly would be noticeable because, for example, making a 16x20-inch print from a 4x5-inch negative is only a 16x enlargement.

Compare that to a 35mm film camera; 35mm film never caught on with the Old Masters in large part because of the much smaller negative. Certainly, these cameras were capable of capturing highly detailed images, but once the photo was blown up to be printed, the grain of the film—the size of the light-sensitive, silver-halide crystals that composed the emulsion—noticeably affected the image. The crystals were the same actual size in the film as they were with a sheet of 4x5, but the 35mm frame is enlarged some 230x to make the same 16x20-inch print as the example above.

This is where newer D-SLRs have a key advantage to 35mm film and why large-format’s biggest advantage—its beautiful detail in large prints—is eroding. Although even a full-frame D-SLR image (like those from the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EOS-1Ds Mark III, the Nikon D700, D3, D3X or the Sony A900) is still being enlarged some 230x to make a 16x20-inch print, the grain (or noise as its called in digital images) is so low that the enlargements look much more like a print from a 4x5 negative instead of a 35mm negative.

D-SLRs have a considerable advantage over film in that the smaller sensors of D-SLRs are capable of producing high-quality images in highly portable cameras, and they do so with minimal noise. In a D-SLR, an ISO rating is given as an equivalent to film speed to denote how sensitive the sensor is to light. With digital, simply changing a dial or pressing a button amplifies your sensor’s sensitivity and thus the ISO rating. There’s still a sacrifice, however, as amplified signals result in higher noise—the signal-to-noise ratio drops. As the signal-to-noise ratio drops, you see luminance noise, which looks a lot like film grain, and chrominance noise, which looks like pixel-level color distortion.

Nikon D700

In the beginning, noise was readily apparent in ISO ratings of more than 100 or 200, but now D-SLRs are capable of producing practically noise-free images at much higher ISO ratings. Many photographers shooting with current high-end D-SLRs have no problem with images shot well in excess of ISO 800, and cameras are currently providing ISOs all the way up to 25,600!

Toyo Field Camera

This number could go even higher because the science of noise reduction is constantly being improved. While high-ISO images look good, photographs shot at low ISO (100 and 200) are practically noise-free, and when combined with highly sophisticated noise-reduction programs like Nik Sharpener Pro 3.0 (, Noise Ninja ( and Photoshop (, the results are even more stunning.

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Nikon D700

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Toyo Field Camera

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The Scheimpflug Principle
old mastersAs view camera users, the Old Masters of nature photography were well aware of the Scheimpflug Principle. Today’s D-SLR users can use the principle through the use of a tilt-shift or perspective-control lens.

Scheimpflug describes how to achieve almost infinite depth of field. old mastersEssentially, you align the tilt movement such that the plane of the camera (the image sensor or film plane), the subject and the lens plane intersect at a common point. Depth of field will extend from the camera all the way to infinity.

Beyond sharp focus there’s an aesthetic benefit as well. By tilting the lens down, near objects in the foreground will become larger within the frame and have a sense of “looming.” The Old Masters used this aesthetic extensively, and you can give it a try as well.


Use A Tripod!
old mastersFor a really crisp image, your camera needs to be firmly secured. The smallest movements can cause vibration in an image—even just depressing the shutter can have a drastic effect on sharpness. A cable release, a wireless remote, the shutter-release mode that’s often found on D-SLRs, and image stabilization in lenses or cameras all can compensate for this, and for the absolute sharpest results, you can bet that the Old Masters would have used a combination of these methods.

For the ultimate in sharpness, a good tripod with a versatile and well-constructed head is an absolute must. Modern materials have made tripods light and durable, and vibration-dampening construction has made tripods the most stable ever. Ballheads are ideal tripod heads for landscapes, with rotational positioning and spirit levels for best framing of the scene. A tripod may be extra weight on a long trek, but the results are always worth it.


    Suggesting that digital users shoot at apertures in the f/16-f/32 range is generally bad advice (for landscapes, anyway). Not only do you typically not need such a small aperture, but diffraction will rob the image of sharpness and resolution. Large-format shooters needed those tiny apertures because of the much longer focal lengths needed for a given field of view.

    I am going to puke when another Digital Whore (who is pushing digital for some company) put down Film. I still use film and will continue to do so. I have several digital cameras and only use them when someone needs a photo in a hurry. I have a D3 and D700 Nikon and there is no comparsion to my Nikon F4. With film cameras you have to use your brain (I have formal training) with digital you point and shoot.

    “Bill” sounds like a sour faced old fool who rants on about how his opinion’s concerning film vs digital is pure fact and everyone else is wrong. Isn’t photography supposed to be fun? Regardless of what type of camera you chose to shoot with? I may not have “formal training” but I do know why i take pictures, because its fun.


    If I hear someone state that shooting at F/16 or smaller aperture is bad, I’ll puke. I’ve seen “plenty” of great, sharp photographs taken with these small aperture settings. I think we read what “experts” say then we take it as the truth without trying it ourselves. Although diffraction and lower contrast does occur it’s not to the degree most people bemoan it to be. I challenge anyone to actual go and photograph at various apertures. You’ll find the hype is not commensurate with the actual results.

    Bottom Line: Take what you read as a guide but not as the gospel!

    Lastly, the guy ridiculing digital because it’s not film should realize. They’re two different mechanisms used to achieve a result. All that matters is the result. People decrying digital need to get over it. I’m sure he’s not using a wood-burning stove to heat his home. Advancements in technology are inevitable. If you don’t like them, don’t use them but don’t “hate” on others who do!

    To Roy

    You don’t know me nor how old I am. It is true that the use of a digital camera is much easier than a film camera! If they didn’t have digital cameras. A lot of you wouldn’t call yourself a Pro. Photographer! Film will always be around and many True pros. are reusing film. You sound threaten Dawg! Live with it!

    Over the years I have come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter what instrument [of photography] you use. It’s the eye behind it and the brain, I hope.

    Eve Arnold

    Over the years I have come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter what instrument [of photography] you use. It’s the eye behind it and the brain, I hope.

    Eve Arnold

    Over the years I have come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter what instrument [of photography] you use. It’s the eye behind it and the brain, I hope.

    Eve Arnold

    Hi, Look at the latest issue of SilverShotz fine art photography magazine, it give a good technical explanation of how digital capture and printer prints have a long way to go when it comes to resolution befoe they can begin to compare with film and that includes H3D-50 size sensors

    If I travel from my home town, 500 miles to St. Louis, Mo. I can walk, ride a train drive a car or fly a plane. Either way I get there. If my friends are happy to see me what does it matter how I get there? Same with a piece of art, what does it matter how you get there as long and the viewer is pleased with the result?

    I think that everyone who made a comment is right in his own way whatever makes us feel fulfilled is the one we use. I am using a digital have used film in the past but prefer digital.

    There are also tilt shift lenses available for the Sony Alpha mount from Schnieder Optics and I think also at least another Zeiss approved company but forgot the name. ARCA Swiss has the M Line (makes your DSLR into a view camera).

    Another option, for any camera, is software that does the same thing.

    I wonder, is the writer not versed in photography, or is it in many parts, intentionally misleading?

    I currently use mostly digital, but have used view camera (4×5 & 8×10) various medium formats, etc. The vast majority of my images are now done with DSLR’s.

    A couple examples:

    DSLR’s cannot rival the IQ of large format. A landscape print from a 120 format can be seen to have higher IQ in a print even of 8x10ish size.The histogram is not analogous in use to “the zone system”. The histogram is normally used to avoid blow-outs. The zone system is used to place the values where you want them, creatively.

    I have never posted a comment re a consumer photo mag article before. I understand that your advertising base is now digital. But does all attempt at accuracy have to be abandoned?

    I have been a reader since the 1980’s. No more.

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