Intimate Landscapes

When we arrive at National or State Park in the United States or Canada, we are struck by and often overwhelmed by the shear majesty of the vistas.  Our desire to capture this majesty is our first thought.  How should we compose a photograph that will help bring our followers to this wonderful location and help them have a connection to the landscape?

However, after watching a couple of YouTube videos from Ben Horne and Thomas Heaton, I was reminded that these same locations provide an opportunity bring the viewer into a smaller, more intimate relationship with the environment.

Switching from a big vista mentality to small intimate landscapes takes some work.  More importantly, it requires looking at the environment in a new way.  The subject becomes a much more significant part of the image.  We often talk about the subject as if we were referring to a model.  The subject is the glue that holds the image together.

Selecting a subject that works is often more tricky than it appears.  It has to have enough interest to attract the eye of the viewer.  In order to create the visual interest we strive to accomplish several goals.  First and most important, the subject has to be interesting.  It really doesn’t matter if it is a bush, a tree, or a rock.  It has to be unique enough to anchor the photograph.

Next you have to create a composition that distinguishes the subject from its environment.  This can be done many ways, but the goal is to give voice to the subject – “Here I am”!  We end up discarding many really interesting subjects because we can’t create the separation giving voice to the subject.

Getting the subject to stand out from its environment requires using various techniques or camera angles.  A green tree on a green background may not give you enough contrast to allow the subject to sing.  Perhaps capturing the photograph with a beam of sunlight on the subject may be enough to separate the subject from the background.  However, light alone may not be enough.

Many of us who shoot vistas try to get as much sharpness in the photograph from the front to the back.  However, when shooting intimate landscapes, we can use depth of field to create separation between the subject and the background.  Portrait photographers who work outdoors frequently use this technique.  A background that is out of focus can help your viewer’s eye zero in on the primary subject of the photograph.

Simplicity is your friend.  Look hard at your composition for distractions.  A dead branch lying on the ground can draw the eye away from your subject and kill an otherwise strong composition.  I am often guilty of missing really bright rock that my eye “edits” from the composition but the camera captures.  This is one of the few times, where I may potentially “edit” the composition in real time to remove distractions from the image, by moving a dead branch just outside the frame of my composition.

The light is always important for landscapes.  It is no different for shooting intimate landscapes.  However, in these situations we are often looking for reflected light or diffuse light.  Zion National Park is a wonderful example of a place where you can work with reflected light from the steep canyon walls.  The diffuse light on an overcast day can also work well.   It is still possible to create interesting intimate landscapes in more intense light, but then the light may become more of a subject matter in the way it is seen as light-beams or based on the play of light areas and deep shadows.  In high contrast situations with more intense light, consider trying some black and white images.

Using your camera’s “Live View” mode or working with a loupe on your image playback screen can be very helpful.  This can really help with looking critically at the image   while you are set up and then making adjustments if necessary.  In some cases, by stepping away from the image for a few minutes and then taking a fresh look, you will find you can look more critically at the whole image.  We are lucky because we often have each other to look at our photographs critically in the field.  While reviewing your image, ask yourself “Is the subject separated from the background; is it singing out its presence?”  Are there distractions competing with your subject?  Has the camera captured your vision?  Be critical while you still have the chance to make changes.

Practice your skills with intimate landscapes.  Like so many things in photography, this a technique that may take some time to perfect.  Because these images are not reliant on big beautiful vista, interesting intimate landscapes can be found almost anywhere.  Practice anywhere close to home and use this skill when you get out to a favorite National or State park.

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Efficient Workflow=Better Photographs

Professional photographers talk about getting photographs efficiently.  They want to capture the commercial images as efficiently as possible, with little fuss.  If they can capture the image in one shot, why would they want waste time taking more?  Instead, they should be off to do another job or get the images ready for the client.  A particularly important aspect of capturing images efficiently is working with the tools of the trade without expending time and energy thinking about where to find gear and accessories, messing around in a complicated set of bags or boxes, fussing around to assemble the equipment, or trying to remember how to adjust camera settings.  For landscape photography, this means being able to get tools out of the bag and ready to shoot quickly and efficiently.  When the light conditions are ideal, you need to be able to start capturing the images quickly because the best environmental conditions may be fleeting.  It is also important to be able to break your kit down, move to a new location, and get set up again quickly, efficiently and correctly.  This process is your in-field workflow.

When you have developed the process for unpacking and assembling your gear with a workflow that works for you, it is critical to practice; do it over and over again until it is absolutely ingrained in your hands.  You will notice I said hands not head.  Getting ready to shoot should come from muscle memory.  A landscape photographer should be able to get their gear out of the bag, get it set up and be ready to shoot in the dark.  We attended a Master Photography Class from Randall J. Hodges last spring.  One of the exercises was getting the gear out and ready to shoot images in less than 2 minutes.  Furthermore, this timing should be the goal for all environmental conditions, including when it is raining, snowing, and blowing.  Frankly, weather often contributes to the most dramatic and unforgettable images.   So if you are serious about capturing impressive pictures, you need to be able to put your gear together efficiently under inclement conditions.

There are many ways to develop your in-field workflow.  It will depend on the type of gear you have, where you are shooting and you may need to alter it for different weather conditions.  Here is an example based on a recent shoot in Death Valley.

  1. Before leaving home or camp: 
    1. Check camera is working.
    2. Put camera back to “Standard” settings.
      1. Aperture Priority
      2. ISO 100
      3. Landscape Mode
      4. Aperture at f/22
      5. Spot metering
      6. Exposure compensation at 0
      7. White balance at 6000k
      8. Autofocus – off
      9. Stabilization – off
      10. Long Exposure Noise Adjustment – off
    3. Take a minute to ensure that the camera bag has no holes.
    4. Confirm all the batteries are charged and at least one spare is packed.
    5. Check for the memory card and confirm there is at least one spare.
    6. Check that the necessary lenses are clean and packed.
    7. Confirm the shutter release cable is packed.
    8. If appropriate, check that the suitable filters, filter holder, and appropriate adapter rings are in the bag.  At a minimum, there should be a polarizer in the bag.
    9. Check that tripod is in good working order.
    10. Pack appropriate snack and drinks.
    11. Check that all appropriate clothing is ready when needed (e.g., warm gloves, etc.).
    12. If hiking, make sure hiking poles are ready and in good working order.
    13. Confirm you have maps, and/or GPS, and a small medical kit.
  2. Packing the bag: 
    1. We pack our bags the same way every single time.  We can find any piece of gear in the bag by feel.  This accomplishes two functions.  We know where every piece of gear is located.  We are much more likely to notice the absence of gear.
    2. Check and double check the time to arrive at the shooting location and confirm time required to travel from camp to the location (by vehicle if necessary and for any planned walking).  Ensure everyone knows the departure time.
  3. Departure:
    1. We plan to arrive at the location about 30 to 40 minutes before the anticipated optimal light conditions. Since, the light and clouds can be difficult to predict, we often want to allow enough time to evaluate several compositions at a location.  If necessary, we can adapt our position quickly in case the light develops better in a slightly different direction (e.g., northwest versus west).
  4. In the field camera setup (Shawn’s method): 
    1. Remove tripod from backpack, fully extend the legs, and place on level ground.
    2. Remove camera and attach it to tripod.   Make sure the camera is secure before starting any other step.  A dropped camera could end your photography trip!
    3. Attach the shutter release cable to the camera.
    4. Attach polarizer (if necessary), or attach filter ring and holder (if necessary) and place filter bag on hip.
    5. Check camera settings (see 1b).
    6. Check lens for dust and clean if necessary.
  5. Taking the photograph: 
    1. Adjust the tripod placement and height for the anticipated composition.
    2. Compose the shot in the camera
    3. Level the tripod/camera
    4. Turn on Live View (I use live view to compose, focus and evaluate image)
    5. If using a telephoto lens, adjust the focal length
    6. Focus (use 10X magnification button to confirm accurate focus)
    7. Evaluate the composition and make necessary height and angle adjustments
    8. Adjust picture style setting if necessary (e.g., landscape, standard, monochrome)
    9. Modify aperture and ISO, if necessary
    10. Modify white balance, if necessary
    11. Modify exposure compensation, if necessary
    12. Check composition again
    13. Refocus
    14. Take a deep breath
    15. Take the shot
    16. Evaluate the shot on the LCD screen with a loupe and using the magnification button.  I may make one or more minor adjustments (e.g., exposure compensation) and then take an additional shot.   Then I will determine if there any changes required to the composition.  For any change to the camera height, angle, or focal length, I will then go through these “b” steps again.  Generally, I delete my test shots once I have one I want to keep.
  6. Putting the gear away:
    1. Finished for the day/night on a lovely morning/evening
      1. Take filters off, clean, and put them away
      2. Remove shutter release and put it away
      3. Change camera back to standard settings
      4. Remove camera from tripod, put on lens cap, and put away
      5. Take down tripod and attach to camera bag
      6. Take out head lamp (if necessary)
      7. Adjust camera bag and walk back to camp or vehicle
    2. Finished in poor weather conditions
      1. Take filters off and put away; clean back at camp
      2. Remove shutter release and put it away
      3. Leave camera settings to modify back at camp
      4. Remove camera from tripod, wipe lens, put on lens cap, wipe down camera if wet, and put away.
      5. Take down tripod and attach to camera bag
      6. Take out head lamp (if necessary)
      7. Adjust camera bag and walk back to camp or vehicle.

When we are shooting for several days, I like to have my camera bag ready to go for the next outing as soon as possible.  So, I once back at camp, I’ll change to a fresh battery and swap the memory card immediately.  This is especially true if we are going to be getting up early to shoot a sunrise.

A good exercise is to write out your own in-field workflow.  If you have trouble, it is probably because you don’t have one.  This is easy to correct.  In the comfort of your living room practice putting your gear together.  See what works and what doesn’t.  Once you have a system that works for you, practice it over and over until it feels completely natural.  Once you have a comfortable workflow, you will have less stress in the field, you will take better photographs, and most importantly, you will have the time to enjoy the wonderful experience of being out in beautiful, natural surroundings.

Adaptation to New Conditions

It is getting extremely busy and challenging to create photographs in the iconic spots, like Antelope Valley. We have taken the approach that these challenges are unlikely to change and started to look for ways to deal with the situation. To a significant extent we have started focus on less popular and harder areas to access. We also decided to up our skill level. We took a Masters Photography course last spring. The most important thing we got out of the class was being ready to get the “shot”.   One of the goals of the training was preparation to shoot in Antelope Valley.  Before we joined the photo-tour of Antelope Valley, we went to one of the less popular slot canyons (on Wire Pass Trail) and spent the day practicing with the settings we would need use in during the Antelope Canyon tour. We even did some count-down shooting (getting a shot under strict time constraints). It was great training and made the difficult conditions during the photo tour much more manageable. We also found that since we were really prepared, the Tour Guide was much more willing to work with us.  We have worked the training into our work flow and had the chance to use it several times since last spring.   Adapting to crowds is going to be the new normal and being prepared is at least part of the solution.

 

 

Landscape Photography at a Grueling Pace

Bandon Beach Color Sunset-00350

 

We just completed a 10-day photography trip. We covered about 2,500 miles between Las Vegas, Nevada and La Conner, Washington; we shot 15 locations, hit all but 3 sunrises and 1 sunset and covered over 10,000 feet of elevation. We shot mountains, beaches, forests and bridges and lighthouses. In short, we had a blast and completely exhausted ourselves.

Landscape photography is unlike any other endeavor. It requires knowledge of photography, hiking, survival and planning skills. It is not unusual to find us out hiking in the pre-dawn darkness to do a sunrise shoot and hiking back in the dark after a sunset shoot. It requires good reliable equipment and through understanding of how to use that equipment so you can find the buttons to adjust the settings. That is before you even consider the knowledge associated with the camera menus and the features and uses of lenses and filters.  It also requires a certain flexibility about signage at parks and waysides. Just what does “open dusk to dawn”really mean? You need to know when to park outside the gates of public places, and which gates will be left open.

Perhaps the most important skill/attribute is stamina. We shot almost every morning. This meant we were out of bed, dressed and heading to the location around 4:30 AM and waiting for the sun around 5:30 AM. It also meant that we didn’t hit the sack until around 11:00 PM after returning from a sunset on a beach and having to clean all the salt spray off the camera gear. We drove around 200 to 300 miles most days. A lot of that driving was on mountain highways. When we arrived at a desired location we hiked in during daylight hours to scope out shoot locations for both sunset and sunrise.

I can’t think of any other activity that has so much activity built into a single day. Although it was exhausting, it really is living to the max!

If you would like to see more of the images from our trip, please visit http://www.zfrontierphoto.com and click on the Gallery button, then look in the collection of “NEW” images.

 

 

Getting Motivated

This winter, we have been making a more concerted effort to get out for some photography day-trips.  We realized that we needed a project to focus our efforts.  To that end, we assigned ourselves a project to create a photo book about hiking the Spring Mountains, with particular focus on Red Rock Canyon National Recreation Area, which is a 30 minute drive from Las Vegas.  I don’t know if the book will ever come to fruition, but it has been a good motivator to get us out hiking.

Finding the motivation to get out for some photography on the weekends can be a little difficult.  We have always enjoyed hiking on the weekends.  It helps clear our brains and the fresh air and exercise feel great.  However, the extra challenge of planning some photography and getting out early for sunrise (or staying out late for sunset) can be a bit of a psychological and logistical hurdle.  By the time we finish a five day work week at our “paying” jobs, we often find it difficult to scrape up the energy and brain-power to concentrate on our creative hobby.  Weekends can also mean accomplishing a few of the chores that don’t get done during the week.  A big part of the challenge is thinking up new places to hike that have attractive photo opportunities.  Selecting a long-term project, like the Red Rock Book, creates focus for our hiking and photography, so it takes a lot less mental energy to get us out there with the cameras.

We recently changed the knapsacks that we use to carry our photography gear.  We switched to Mindshift Rotational-180 Horizon backpacks.  Most of the gear that we need for a day trip is all packed in the bags.  We can literally grab our packs and a couple of bottles of water and go.  Of course it still requires that we charge the batteries and make sure that we have memory cards ready and in the cameras.   However, we make a habit of doing that after we return from each day of photography.

Having a specific set of photographic goals and photo kit that is ready to grab-and-go helps us to overcoming the psychological and logistical hurdles.  We have found that we have a better attitude about getting out to capture great images.

 

Winter Wonderland

Moon Rise over Bryce Canyon 2
Each December between Christmas and New Years Day, we try to get away for a camping trip to enjoy two of our passions, hiking and photography.  This year, our original trip to southeast Arizona had to be modified at the last minute due to time restrictions.  Rather than abandoning our trip entirely, we made last minute plans for a much shorter 5-day trip to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks in southwest Utah.  It was a cold trip and while we were visiting Bryce Canyon there were a couple of days of heavy clouds and snow flurries.  Despite the weather, we did enjoy some hikes and managed to capture a few photographs.  To display our images, we created a slideshow which we posted on YouTube.com. The link to the video is provided below. We hope you enjoy this selection of some of our favorite photos.

Bryce/Zion Video

 

Valley of Fire State Park Excursion

ValleyOfFire CS 073

The first thing you need to know about camping at Valley of Fire State Park during the Thanksgiving holiday is that it is busy.  The campsites in the park fill up quickly.  We arrived on Wednesday around 10:00 am.  The park staff at the west entrance gate told us that there were only a few primitive camping spots left at the Arch Rock campground.  However, we boldly decided to take a chance and drive through the Atlatl campground where there were some sites with electrical and water hookups.  To our surprise, we found an open campsite with hookups.  The campsite had a pretty significant grade; regardless, it became our home for the weekend.

Our goal for the weekend was to capture some pictures for our photographic portfolio.  We had a loose plan to capture some landscapes photos in the morning and at sunset and maybe try for some moon, light painting and star photos after dark.

We were traveling with our elderly dog Prince, so our photography had to accommodate his schedule.  There was a time when Prince would have been up for long hikes into the desert and been happy to have been up from sunrise to sunset.  Now, at 14 years old, he finds our hiking schedule too aggressive.  So, getting up early in the morning for a dog walk before we head out with cameras makes it difficult to plan any photo sessions at dawn.  After Prince’s walk, we can leave him in our RV for his morning nap and we set off for our planned hikes.  We returned each day at noon and spent time with Prince for another dog walk and sitting out outside at our campsite.  Then after dinner, we could get out for another photography session.

On our first evening at Valley of Fire, we went a short distance from our campsite to Arch Rock.  We had done a little research and reviewed the location in the early afternoon.  The full moon was going to rise shortly after dark on an angle that might allow us to shoot it using the Arch as a frame.   Although we had nailed the planning, our equipment was not quite up to the task of getting the photo we wanted.   The moon was full and bright, but our flashlights were not sufficient for lighting up the foreground of The Arch.  We did capture a couple of nice pictures with the moon backlighting The Arch.  After of couple of hours of working the scene, we were both cold and it was time to retreat to the trailer for a hot drink.

ValleyOfFire CS 046

On Thanksgiving morning, we hiked the Prospect Trail.  This is a wonderful trail that can be followed to a junction with the White Dome Trail.  We planned a shorter 2 mile walk up into the pass where there are a series of interesting rock formations.  We had planned to spend about an hour among the rocks, but in the end we spent the entire morning working around the rocks.  The light was pretty good for mid-morning and finding great compositions was challenging and fun.

Friday morning we had planned to do two hikes, one on the Duck Rock Trail and one on the White Dome Trail to shoot the slot canyon once the sun was a little higher in the sky.   It was a short hike out to Duck Rock.  Unfortunately, at the time we arrived, the angle of the sun and thick cloud layer made shooting very difficult.  We tried to capture a decent image from a bunch of different angles. We walked to the far side of Duck Rock (it doesn’t look like a duck from that side) and we even hiked up an adjacent hill but nothing we did resulted in a composition that we liked.

Before we returned back to the car, Corinne suggested we continue down the wash to see if there might be something of interest a little further along the trail.  We scored!  Being open to walking a little farther can be the biggest factor in finding wonderful landscape subjects.  Less than a quarter mile down the trail, we ran into a series of natural tanks.  These are depressions that hold water.  Tanks are rare and important to the desert habit.  They provide water for local wildlife.  From the rock ledges above the tanks, the entire valley opened up providing a very interesting vista. 

ValleyOfFire SS 091

The geology in the area is very colorful.  We spent hours moving around the rocks, trying different compositions.  We spent so much time at Duck Rock Trail that we never made it over to White Dome Trail.  It was getting on to early afternoon and it was time to return and spend time with Prince.

Friday night found us out doing some light painting of the rocks near the campground.  Shawn gets a kick out of creating unexpected scenes on the rocks.  Corinne was more interested in getting a photo of star trails.  Unfortunately, right after we decided to switch from light painting to star photos, a cold wind started to blow.  Even with heavy cameras and excellent tripods the camera shake was very obvious.  Furthermore, the temperature dropped from being merely cold to uncomfortable!  It was time to retreat to the RV for a hot drink.

ValleyOfFire SS 132

On Saturday, we returned home to Las Vegas.  It was a short but fun trip.  Now it is time to see if we can make the most of the photographs we captured.