Thursday, August 5, 2010

Part 2: Landscape Photography - Photography with Imre - Episode 27

Landscape photography is a significant topic as a whole, but even its parts are nothing short of substantial. Not only can specific topics be expanded to include more detail, but various types of landscapes lend themselves to be captured better in a certain way; techniques for shooting prairies may not work as well in mountainous areas.

That being said, we all have to start somewhere and I've almost always found that understanding the basics inside-out not only allows one to produce better imagery, but those basics after a little time will start transforming into more complex techniques being explored; think unusual angles, compositions that follow no rules but look fantastic, and use of various filters to enhance certain aspects of the scenery.

Now I covered quite a lot in the video, but there are a couple of details I didn't mention. Before doing so, here's a list of some of those basic rules and techniques:

Level Horizon: If you're new to this sport, try to keep your horizon as level as possible. Either use a tripod, simply be careful when holding the camera, or fix it up in post. Slightly angled landscape photos tend to look amateurish and could downgrade what might otherwise be a really nice picture.

Rule of Thirds / Golden Mean: To aid you with composing your shots, keep the rule of thirds and the golden mean in mind. Many great images adhere to them and indeed there's merit to their use, but just because you can't "fit" them to a certain scene doesn't mean that that shot won't make a great photo. Like I said in the video, these are rules and rules can be broken. (see Episode 4 for more on this topic)

Smaller Aperture: Although there are exceptions to this rule too, in most cases landscapes are shot with smaller apertures to increase the depth of field (DOF) in the image; in other words, to ensure that subjects closer to the lens as well as far away remain in focus. Other positive side effects to using the lens stopped down a bit is that vignetting can be reduced or even eliminated, and that most lenses will project a sharper image on the focal plane (i.e. sensor or film).

White Balance: If your camera is set to save images in JPEG format only, then be very careful with your white balance settings. Most digital SLRs are getting quite good at fairly accurately representing colors under various lighting conditions, but they are by no means perfect. In my seventh episode I showed off a photo of a moose, which looked a bit purple (and I assure you, to the best of my knowledge there are no naturally occurring purple moose in the wild). The reason for this is that the scene didn't contain anything pure white or neutral, which threw off the camera; that scene only had a brown moose, dark shadows, and lots of green foliage. A poorly white balanced photo, in a format other than RAW, is essentially unrecoverable as those pixels are basically "burned" into whatever color they are; yes you can edit away using Photoshop or your favorite image editor, but unless the changes that need to be made are within some threshold, you can only take it so far. So to combat this, you can manually set the WB on your camera (e.g. presets, custom WB, external tools like the ExpoDisc) or save your photos in RAW format (or RAW+JPEG). The RAW format of course, allows you to change the WB after the photo has been taken. (Episode 7 is on WB and Episodes 18 and 19 explore RAW vs. JPEG)

Landscape Orientation: For the most part, based on my readings and observations, landscape orientation is preferred for this type of photography. But there always those exceptions where an expanse of scenery can be better represented in portrait orientation such as waterfalls, streams and rivers from certain angles, tall trees, and rocky cliffs. In addition, using portrait orientation in this fashion helps to exaggerate qualities of the aforementioned subjects; makes trees look mightier, rivers stretch far into the distance, and cliffs look even more majestic. Ansel Adams has several such images, so I recommend examining some of his photos to get a feel for them.

Time of Day: The "Magic Hours", about an hour after sunrise and about an hour before sunset, are often common times of day to shoot landscapes. The warmer tones enveloping the scenery and dramatic shadows cast between the details can be very aesthetically pleasing. Nonetheless, some our lives are such that we may not have the luxury (or will power) to wake up early or stay up late enough to take advantage of this light. But that certainly doesn't mean that outstanding photographs cannot be taken. A high sun could make for some impressive contrast between the land and a cloudy or stormy sky. Without long shadows obscuring subjects, details become vivid and clear.

Framing, Foreground Objects, Lines: These techniques more or less spoke for themselves in the video and they are great for generating that extra bit of interest in a shot. Framing can help highlight scenery in certain parts of the photo (doesn't have to be in the center!), whereas foreground objects can help tell a different story, and lines can lead us on a visual journey.

Black and White: There have been a few occasions where I've shot an image and although I was really happy with it, something was missing. Then (usually by accident) I'd convert the image to black and white and I could finally get some rest. Almost all digital cameras have a black and white mode, but I'd recommend always shooting in color because if you shoot in black and white, you're stuck with black and white. Having the color version gives you an option and most software provides you with more flexible controls for black and white conversion anyway, so you have an advantage there as well.

Triangles, Shapes, Patterns: Although I wouldn't consider myself a portrait photographer, I have read and flipped through some books on the topic. Many of them have discussed the triangle shape and how it can be used to help place people, but triangles can also be wonderful shapes to look for in landscapes. I have to admit that the examples in my video were a bit extreme, but hopefully you understand what I was going for. In addition, other shapes exist in nature that may be very pleasing to the eye. For example, think of an odd angle and zoomed in shot of waves on a lake, tangles of branches like that of fractal imagery, or the patterns of leaves on the ground and sediments in rock. Often times too, shots like this won't fit neatly into the rule of thirds or the golden mean, but they still make beautiful photos.

Filters and HDRI: I'll be the first to admit that I'm biased towards the use of polarizing filters for landscape and nature photography. I just love how scattered light becomes more organized, thus enhancing colors, reducing unwanted reflections, and even adding punch to what would be a lackluster sky. Indeed, a polarizing filter should not be used for all shots, but at the least I do hope you give them a try (remember, use a circular polarizing filter if you have a digital SLR as linear ones can cause the autofocus and metering system to malfunction). I also mentioned the graduated neutral density filter, as they can help balance the exposure of a scene (e.g. can help dim a bright sky and bring it more in line with a darker landscape). But as you probably already know, there are tons upon tons of different filter types out there. Color polarizing filters, for example, can force a mood on an image and a star filter could add that dreamy quality to a shot of a shimmering lake. And although HDRI has nothing to do with filters really, it is a way of recreating what our eyes see with their substantially larger dynamic range than what a sensor can capture. Some people love it, some not so much, but I've seen some pretty impressive results if executed carefully. (see Episode 9 and 9a on polarizing filters and Episodes 25, 25a, and 26 are on HDRI)

And here are some new thoughts I had, which were not in the video:
Placement of the Horizon: I could probably get into quite the argument with some photographers in regard to this subject about where the horizon should be situate in a photo. Some would say that placing it in the center of the shot is the work of an amateur, but then again there are some scenes that lend themselves to such composition (e.g. a perfectly still reflection of the land in a pond). My suggestion is to try various shots if you find yourself in such a position and see which one ends up looking the best. Usually, if I endeavor to keep the horizon from cutting right across the center, I aim to place it around a third from the bottom or top of an image. Lowing your shooting angle or zooming in or out of your scene might help you accomplish this.

Telephoto: Who said all landscapes had to be shot with a wide angle lens? Zooming in, waaaaay in, can reveal details all but lost in wide angle shots. There may be some interesting rock formations or even Bighorn Sheep crowding on a steep cliff, so try switching lenses once in a while and explore.

Feedback: Although this isn't really a shooting tactic, it is a way to improve your shots the next time you're out. There are some great forums on the Web dedicated to landscape and nature (or outdoor) photography, and by posting some of your photos under topics dedicated to such critiques, you might just get some useful knowledge passed onto you or suggestions on things you may not have noticed. Keep in mind though, take criticism with a grain of salt, as they say, because you may also be getting "bad" feedback, and I'm not just talking about trolls either. Like you'll see me write in the next section, a photo to one may be a winner, but to another may be nothing but average. But in general, my experiences in such forums have generally been good, with some very useful feedback which has helped me take better shots.

Lastly and something I briefly mentioned in the episode, looking at the work of other photographers can not only teach a thing or two, but also be inspiring. I could mention dozens of names of famous landscape photographers, but in this case I'll urge you to do a quick Google search. The work of one photographer to me may be impressive, but to you? Well, that's for you to decide. Ansel Adams is quite well known and I do find his work unique, especially since most of it is in black and white and to me looks fantastic; also, I haven't quite been able to take good control of such images... usually they happen by accident. But that's what practice is for and I hope you have a lot of fun doing it.

Hey I just realized this is my 100th post! Woot! And lots of great photo episodes to come, so do stay tuned! L8r!

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