We have recently found ourselves doing quite a bit of night photography. During a recent trip to Death Valley, we seemed to concentrate on shooting stars, wagons and dunes at night. Last night, we were out with a photography club “light painting”. It must be getting warmer. Corinne really enjoys photographing at night. I enjoy shooting as long as I am not cold.
As an exercise, shooting at night forces you to become very familiar with your camera setting. More importantly, you become pretty familiar with what those setting actually do! Experimenting with F-stop, ISO and shutter speed give direct feedback in low-light shooting. Adding “long exposure noise reduction” also has a significant impact on the process of taking photographs at night. It gets especially fun when your eyes no longer predict what the camera sees.
There are a number of YouTube videos and blogs that will tell you the keys to night photography. From a photographic perspective, we take a lot of test shots before we actually try to make our “keeper” shot.
However, we think the most important consideration for night photography is dressing for the conditions. Even in very warm environments, like the desert, it can get cold at night. Having warm cloths, gloves, a hat can really make a difference in your comfort. We also like to pack small chairs with us on our night photography trips. You will be taking long exposures sometimes these are hours in length. Having a comfortable place to relax can really improve the experience. Snacks and drinks also contribute to a nice evening.
Landscape photography is most interesting at sunrise and sunset. Photographers talk about the golden hour, the 30 to 40 minutes before the sun dawns over the horizon and again just as the sun is setting and for the next 30 to 40 minutes. When the sun is low, there is wonderful light. At this time of day, the red rocks of the southwest seem to glow from within. Landscapes seem to come alive. However, the rocks and trees and bodies of water are usually only a part of the picture. The sky is also an important component of image. After a beautiful sunny day, you would expect that photographers would find ideal conditions for some early evening photography. However, clear skies do not necessarily produce the most pleasing images. Instead, photographers hope for some clouds, but not so many that they cloak the horizon. A clear horizon and a scattered set of clouds can be extremely beneficial. The clouds provide a surface that can reflect the first or last rays of light. Under the right conditions, the sky can seem to light on fire. The color in the sky can bring beautiful drama to photographs.
After a mostly clear day spent walking the dunes at Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in Utah, we set up for some sunset pictures of the dunes. In the late afternoon, a fairly thick layer of clouds developed. We set up to photograph some dunes in the east, hoping there would be a break in the clouds and the last rays of sunlight would generate a beautiful glow to the hills of sand. The time of the sunset came and we didn’t get the effect that we were expected, but turning around and surveying the hills to the west, we discovered that the clouds had lifted a little from the horizon and we were going to be treated to a little evening color.
The picture above was captured with a Canon 5D Mark III, with a Canon EF 24 – 105 lens at a focal length of 40 mm with a 2 sec exposure and the aperture set at f/16.
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.
I hate to say it, but I have become a “shiny pebble” photographer. It is a curse! My 2016 resolution is to stamp out “shiny pebbles” in my photography! So what is a “shiny pebble” photographer? It is a photographer that spends the time, effort and planning to be in the right spot at the right time to get the spectacular picture but gets so mesmerized by the other possibilities that he/she ends up taking a bunch of mediocre pictures and most likely misses the “wow” image that we all try to obtain!
A few weeks ago, Corinne and I took a hike from our neighborhood toward some distant hills to the southwest. We realized that the best time to take photographs of the area would be at sunrise. However, it would be a hike of an hour or more to the best location. Getting to the place that might offer the best composition during a pre-dawn hike would be too challenging if we didn’t have it scoped out first. So, the initial hike was to find the “right” spot. We started the hike in the late morning and we checked out several viewpoints before we settled on the one that seemed to be the best. I took a few photographs with my smartphone so that I would have a good sense of the composition that I wanted to set up when we came out with our camera gear. Corinne had used the “Map My Hike” application on her smartphone so that we could find the selected viewpoint again.
On December 30, we got up at 4:30 am and headed out in the dark for the previously discovered out location. We arrived before dawn and had several minutes to set up our cameras for the planned composition. Next, we had to have patience. It was cold. Corinne paced around to keep the blood circulating. As the sun began to rise, a nice rosy glow slowly developed on the hills. I had to keep to my original plan and not get distracted. “Remain focused”, I told myself. “Stick to the plan and don’t get distracted by shiny pebbles”. That morning, I got the shot I planned. It was nice, not excellent, but I was happy that I had the discipline to not stray because any other photos that morning would not have let me capture my best potential shot for the morning.
So, my 2016 pledge is to do the planning and make the effort to get to the right place at the right time and focus on creating the composition that I have in my mind. I believe that the result will be more images with the “wow” factor!
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.
Corinne and I wanted to capture some seasonal lights and were on the prowl for a place that had a small town feel. We thought Lake Las Vegas and the Montelago Village might provide the scenery we were seeking. We were wrong but our natural tendency to “shoot what we find” kicked in and we ended up making several very nice urban images (see http://gallery.zfrontierphoto.com and select our “NEW!” gallery to see some of those images).
The landscape image with the waning light on the hills and fall colors reflected in the lake was a completely unexpected scene. The sun was setting but it was providing very harsh reflected light off of the buildings. Corinne was working hard to try to use the reflected light to capture a shot of a pedestrian causeway across the water.
Uninspired by my initial shots, I looked around for something else to do. I noticed that the sun was lighting up a small hill across the lake. Unfortunately, the sky wasn’t all that interesting; no clouds to break up a great expanse of blue. However, the last of some fall colors in a group of trees across the lake were being warmed by the setting sun and the breeze had become very calm allowing the trees to reflect in the lake.
I tried a number of locations along the bank. I wanted to crop out as much of the urban structures to leave only the landscape. I also wanted to get the effect of the sun warming the top of the hills without the hill or sky overwhelming the photograph. Finally, the key element was to get a nice reflection of the trees in the water. I worked on a number of different versions trying to get the tree more or less crisply reflected. In the end, I decided that the slight fuzzy reflected trees appealed to me the most and most accurately represented what I was seeing.
If I were to print this image, I would probably crop out a little more of the sky out of the picture because it is just not adding much. However, I would want to keep the water in the foreground balanced.
Technical details: The picture was taken just before sunset on December 15, 2015. The camera was on a tripod and a shutter release was used. The camera was a Canon 5D Mark III with a Canon 24-105mm f/4 L IS lens. The focal length was 80mm at f/22. The ISO was set at 100. The shutter speed was 1.3s with a 0.33 exposure compensation and the white balance was set on Cloudy. We shoot to capture both JPEG and RAW image formats. So, the “picture style” associated with the JPEG image (version shown above) was set to Landscape, slightly modified to increase color saturation.
We have increasingly had questions about how we captured some of our landscape, boating and urban images. To that end, we thought we would share some pictures and provide descriptions of the settings we used.
Corinne and I predominantly shoot with Canon 5D Mark III digital cameras. Our workhorse lens is a Canon EF 24-105 mm f/4 L IS lens. We do use other lenses and we will identify these when we make a change. We also shoot with a Canon EOS 60D digital camera. This is a crop sensor camera. Our earlier images are captured with this camera.
Being landscape photographers, we are almost always shooting in conditions of low and reflected light with longer exposures. To avoid camera shake, our cameras are almost always on tripods (Benro carbon fiber tripods with B2 heads) and we use shutter release cables. We also use a number of filters, including Singh-Ray circular warming polarizers and an array of Lee neutral density filters.
We are very much from the camp that says get the very best image you can from the camera. Therefore, we do very little post-production editing. Our editing might include some adjustments to exposure or adding a little more contrast to the sky. We are more akin to photojournalists. We believe that our photographs should show what others could see if they visited the same place (assuming they want to get up at 4:00 AM, hike in the dark and deal with any kind of weather). Occasionally, we will edit out a sign or wire that we just couldn’t shoot around.
Although we often try to get shots at dawn and sunset (the golden hours), the reality is that sometimes we are faced with shooting in the middle of the morning. This means that we need to be flexible. Trying to create an image of a beautiful vista in the harsh midday light of the desert won’t generate a satisfying result. Therefore, we will often shift our thinking to capture images that will be attractive based on the light and the available subject matter.
To get the most out of the camera, it also means that we have to be very familiar with the settings. We shoot in Aperture Priority mode most of the time. When we are in the Pacific Northwest and trying to capture shots of wildlife, we will switch to Shutter Priority mode. In low light conditions, we may use full manual or bulb mode.
We try to capture images with strong compositions. Since I am completely color blind, a beautiful vista of fall color just doesn’t have the impact on me that it does for others. So, if the composition is not pleasing, I am just not that interested. Although we are familiar with many of the rules of composition, (e.g., use of leading lines, rules of thirds, etc.), we continue to work to incorporate these rules in ways that we hope will improve the quality of our images.
We take a lot of pictures, but show less than 1% of the images we take. Because we like to experiment, we find a lot of ways to “not” shoot an image. So, in the posts that follow, we may include some images that are not as strong as others that we really like. There are sometimes good stories about the image that we tried to get.