Special Techniques For Landscapes

Excerpted from Rob Sheppard’s new book, The Magic of Digital Landscape Photography
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Joshua Tree National Park, Calif. Most DSLRs give you the ability to shoot in black-and-white, which gives you a chance to see the results on the LCD in the field.

In Outdoor Photographer, you’ve learned core techniques to use while photographing the landscape: exposure, depth of field, use of lenses, composition and more. There are also some special techniques that can make for most interesting landscape photographs, including black-and-white, panoramics, HDR and infrared.

All but HDR were available for film shooters, but they were difficult to use. Digital changes all of this and makes them easier and better used by any photographer. These techniques have become very important to photographers interested in landscape work, so I’m going to give an overview of all of them, so hold on tight!

Eastern Sierra Nevada, Calif. This image was converted to black-and-white from an original color photo, which gave Sheppard maximum control over the tonality.

Black-and-white is definitely a whole different world than color. Sometimes you have to forget what you know about photographing in color. Plus, color photos can look great in weather conditions that are bad for black-and-white, but also, black-and-white photos can be made quite nicely in conditions that are bad for color.

Here are some ideas to help:
1 Look for tones and their differences, not color. This is really key to black-and-white. Colors aren’t going to help. Look for distinct differences in brightness of tones.
2 Base your composition on tonal differences. Contrasts between tones can help define and structure your composition.
3 Work with dramatic light. Photographers are often disappointed in muddy black-and-white images that can come from dull light. While dramatic light isn’t a necessity for black-and-white, it can help.
4 Pay no attention to color except as it translates to shades of gray.
5 Try squinting. Believe it or not, if you squint, you’ll see less detail of a scene and more of the distinct tones that will become blacks, whites and grays.

Getting To Black-And-White
Today, you have two excellent ways of going black-and-white when you have a digital camera. Many cameras allow you to shoot black-and-white directly.

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Joshua Tree National Park, Calif. With the right subject, black-and-white yields a dramatic image.

Here’s why you might do that:
1 You see what you get. There’s an art to recognizing and capturing black-and-white tonalities in a scene. If you haven’t shot a lot of black-and-white, there are big advantages to shooting in-camera because you can review and revise what you shot based on what’s in the LCD.
2 The experience is more direct. When you shoot black-and-white for black-and-white, you begin to work in a creative space that’s not the same as shooting in color. You see things differently and work the scene in new ways.
3 You can adjust filtration effects to fit the scene while you’re there. By using the camera’s built-in filtration effects or by using filters made for black-and-white shooting, you can immediately see how black-and-white tonalities can be changed and adjusted for a scene.
4 The image is close to finished. When you shoot black-and-white, you don’t have to do any conversion from color.
5 RAW with JPEG black-and-white gives you flexibility. When the camera is set to shoot black-and-white, you’re locking in the JPEG files to black-and-white. RAW files aren’t converted to black-and-white. In fact, if you process the photo in any RAW converter other than the camera manufacturer’s program, you won’t see the black-and-white image at all. A way to then shoot black-and-white is to shoot RAW + JPEG in your camera so you get the best of both formats.

On the other hand, you gain some unique advantages by shooting in color, then converting to black-and-white.

Here’s why you might do that:
1 You’re not locked into one black-and-white image. A big disadvantage of shooting black-and-white directly is that it can’t be changed to color or any other black-and-white tonal interpretation of the scene. You’re locked into that one file.
2 Filtration after the fact. You can always filter the color image in the computer, after shooting, to translate the scene into preferred black-and-white tones.
3 Interactive filtration. Suppose you’re a newcomer to black-and-white photography and don’t completely understand filters and all of their various effects. With today’s digital darkroom, you can try different filter effects on the same scene and instantly see how they change it.
4 Totally variable filtration. In the computer, you can fine-tune the filter colors to very subtly adjust grays in the black-and-white image.
5 Multiple, yet separate filtration. In the computer, you can apply filters selectively to the photo so that you’re not locked into one way color changes to black-and-white across the whole image.

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Sheppard employed HDR software to combine the three images below and create a photo that showed the scene as he saw it.

Working With HDR
With HDR, or high-dynamic range, photography, you take multiple exposures of a scene, varying the exposure from dark to light, then combine those images in special software that builds a photo that shows a much greater tonal range than the camera can handle with a single photo. You can actually create a photo closer to what you saw rather than be limited by the arbitrary limitations of camera technology.

In some ways, I feel HDR brings me back to the traditional techniques of Ansel Adams. Adams held detail throughout his scenes because of the way he applied technology (exposure and chemistry) specifically to the conditions of the scene (he generally overexposed high-contrast shots and underdeveloped them, plus did added work when he made the print).

By doing exactly what Adams did, changing exposure (in the case of HDR, making several different exposures) and processing uniquely (using HDR software), we can now capture scenes that simply weren’t possible in color before.

Here’s how to compose an HDR landscape shot:
1 Lock your camera down on a sturdy tripod.
2 Set your camera to AEB (auto-exposure bracketing) along with continuous shooting and try 3 to 5 exposures of at least one whole ƒ-stop difference (though 1.5 to 2 stops is usually better). AEB allows you to automatically change exposure by just pressing the shutter release.
3 Check exposures. You want exposures that range from dark enough to hold good detail in the brightest areas of the image all the way down to exposures that are bright enough to reveal color and tonality in the dark parts of the picture.

With experience, you’ll better be able to gauge what kind of exposure you need on specific conditions and unique landscapes. Now you bring your pictures back to the computer. You have several choices as to how to bring these exposures together. The new version of HDR in Photoshop CS5 isn’t bad, though I’m not a big fan of it. I find that Photomatix makes images too easily go to the bizarre side. HDR Darkroom is a low-priced program that gives very natural results. My favorite is Nik Software’s new HDR Efex Pro—I find I feel like I’m in the traditional darkroom when using it.

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HDR images don’t have to be garish; here, the effect is subtle.

Black-And-White Infrared Photography
Infrared has always held a fascination with photographers because it lets you see something unseen with the human eye—how infrared light (a light beyond our vision) affects the landscape. IR, as it’s often called, used to be a real pain to use with film. Digital has changed this considerably. Sensors do see infrared; however, most DSLRs have special filters in front of the sensor to remove or at least limit the infrared (this allows for higher-quality normal images).

You can check your camera’s sensitivity to infrared (or IR) very easily by pointing a remote at your camera and pushing a button on the remote. Assuming your infrared remote doesn’t include a visible light to reassure the user, you’ll be able to see a light coming from the remote in your LCD or photograph that you couldn’t see with your unaided eyes.

If you get quite serious about using infrared, you can have many digital SLRs and some compact digital cameras modified for IR by having the IR cutoff filter removed (www.irdigital.net is one resource). This can offer stunning results without doing anything except taking the picture and doing some black-and-white work in the computer.

If you’re using an unmodified camera, you need an infrared filter to go over the lens (the Hoya R72 is a good one). The actual infrared image in color generally doesn’t look that great. Convert it to black-and-white in the computer. You’ll have to deal with long exposures through this filter (which is why many photographers go to modified cameras that don’t need that filter). You have to shoot on a tripod.

You’ll generally get lots of drama and impact from the infrared. Bright foliage and dark skies are typical effects of IR. You can photograph with IR in light that can be totally wrong for normal photography—a frontal light toward midday—yet that’s exactly the right light for IR. It needs infrared light being strongly reflected to the camera. This makes IR an ideal way of getting great shots from an area in ugly midday light!

Panoramic Photos
Most photographers today are building panoramics from images shot with a standard digital camera. This has become very easy to do, and while sophisticated tripod heads can make the process work smoother, they’re not a necessity.

To do this, you shoot a series of overlapping photos from one side of the scene to the other and put them together in the computer. One advantage to this is that you can use the equipment you already have.

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Tejon Pass, Calif. Infrared photography is distinctive, and using a retrofitted DSLR, you can have a dedicated camera to shoot striking images like this.

Here are some tips:
1 Plan out the panoramic. Figure out what the composition will include from left to right (or top to bottom if you’re shooting a tall panoramic image; that can be an interesting variation on the technique). A panoramic needs to have interesting things happening from one side to another, with no dead space, to keep your viewer’s attention.
2 Level your tripod and your camera. As you move across the scene taking photos, the camera needs to move in a horizontal plane or the resulting images will be hard to line up. Do the leveling in two steps: tripod first, then camera.
3 Shoot a series of photographs across the scene. Take a series of photographs from the left to the right side of the panoramic area, moving the camera slightly as you go across.
4 Overlap the images by 30% to 50%. More overlap can make it easier to line up the photos in the computer, especially with automated programs. Look for strong visual elements that are in the overlap areas—they will help in the alignment of the images.
5 Shoot on manual. Your exposure needs to be optimized and limited to one setting through the entire sequence of images or the final pieces of the pan will have tonal variations that will be hard to match up. Also, set your white balance to one setting or you may get color variations, too.

Stitching the image together:
Unless you’re a hardcore Photoshop user, you’ll find that a stitching program is the best way to go as it does the combining of images work for you. Stitching programs such as ArcSoft’s Panorama Maker or the Photomerge option in both Photoshop and Photoshop Elements are very easy, but need distinct objects in the overlapped areas in order to work best. In addition, they should have a healthy overlap (30% to 50%) to do their best in stitching of images.

With a stitching program, the steps are pretty straightforward. First, check all of your photos to be sure they’re consistent in tonality and color. Any big changes in brightness, for example, will show up as unevenness in the final image. This is a big advantage of using a program like Lightroom for basic adjustments; you can easily match multiple images.

Rob Sheppard is the former editor of OP and the current editor-at-large. He blogs regularly at the OP blog at www.outdoorphotographer.com and at www.natureandphotography.com.

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