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The Art of Photography

Why Landscape Photography?

There are as many styles of photography as there are photographers.  We each pursue the fulfillment that our art offers by interpreting the world in different ways.   For many years, working as a professional photographer, I produced commercial work of various types but found fulfillment (and for a time, income) as a photojournalist.

After a lengthy absence from photography — ending in about 1994, I found that I needed a new outlet — a new source of inspiration and expression.  I found it in landscape photography.  I love nature and the outdoor world and whereas as a younger man I would wander the streets of major cities photographing the urban condition I now find that hiking in the mountains at sunrise is what satisfies my soul.

In the months ahead I will elaborate on this theme and also hope that readers contribute their thoughts and feelings to this section.  Let me hear from you.

About Light

Many photographers look at the work of experienced landscape photographers and ask themselves, "Why can't my work look like that? Why are my photographs flat-looking and uninteresting?" I know the feeling, because I've been there — and done that!

The secret is the quality of the light. Browse around the rest of the site, including the work of our guest photographers. You will see that in the vast majority of cases the images were created within 2 hours of sunrise or sunset, or in fog, mist or rain. Why?

The answer is that the character of the light is as critical a component of a strong image as is the subject matter itself. Let's take as an example the "signature" image of this web site that you saw on the titles page.

Photographer on The Dunes, 1997

This photograph was taken about an hour before sunset. The low sun created strong shadows on the foreground and the accumulated heat of the day had created a haziness to the air that softened the distant mountains and makes them featureless — a perfect backdrop for the photographer who is silhouetted against them.

If you click here, or on the picture above, you can read more about this shot, or click here to see an enlarged version. (Afterward, use your browser's BACK button to return here.) An additional point worth making was that for the 5 or 6 hours prior to taking this photograph I drove around to various locations in Death Valley, but didn't take a single shot.  I was scouting where I would shoot later in the day or the following morning. The reason my cameras stayed in the trunk was that I knew that with the exception of a very few special subjects, mid-day light is hash and uninteresting.

What this means is that you have to be prepared to rise very early in the morning to arrive at your preferred location and then be ready to end your shooting within a couple of hours after sunrise.  Good light begins again a couple of hours before sunset. 

Do I follow my own advice?  Usually.  But, occasionally I'll shoot well into the late morning because I'm enjoying the location.  Truth is, almost always these transparencies end up in the circular file.

Here's an example though of a photograph that breaks the above rule.

Yellow Stripe Hwy, Outside Monument Valley, 1999

As you can read more about here, this photograph (shown here enlarged) was taken during late morning while driving between locations.  It breaks the rule against mid-day shooting because the subject matter itself is so arresting.  (So will you be if you lie down in the middle of the highway, the way I did.)

As it is I had to enhance the image digitally somewhat by making the yellow stripe a bit brighter than it otherwise appeared.  Still, this photograph would have been even stronger if the buttes of Monument Valley in the distance were illuminated by the rising or setting sun, or if the clouds in the distance had a bit more definition as a result of stronger side-lighting. 

Early morning is in many ways more preferable for shooting than is sunset.  In the Southwest it is always a lot cooler then, and as well the air is frequently cleaner and clearer.  In many locations early morning is also a time of ground mists.  Even when the day is overcast these conditions can create a moody effect that enhances an otherwise mundane scene.

 

 

 

 

 

Road Into the Mist, Ontario, 1996

 

In this image an overcast early-morning in rural Ontario produced an enchanting photograph because of ground-mist.  Fifteen minutes after this picture was taken the sun burned off the mist and the scene because harsh and uninteresting.

What then are the critical components of the best natural light for photography?

The sun low in the east or west — usually within less than 2 hours of sunset or sunrise.
Fog, mist, rain or atmospheric haze.
An overcast sky with strong foreground subject-matter.

Are there others?  Of course. But when you start to look at the light as well as the subject you will be on the way toward better landscape photographs.

Zen and The Art of Landscape Photography

Striped Dunes - Death Valley, 1999

Contemplation - Not

Most people think of landscape photography as a quiet and contemplative art. Maybe for some, but for me it's more akin to the rush of a big game hunt. Because this type of photography is about the ever-changing nature of light as much as it is about location, in the rush to capture the fleeting moment of best-light I frequently find myself shooting in a sort of "mindless" state — where I am simply focusing on being technically correct but not totally aware of what I'm photographing. Somehow, my emotional state creates the composition and it isn't until afterwards on the light-box that I'm really aware of what I've shot. These are frequently my best images.

Conversely, there are times that I have worked slowly and contemplatively, and when the results are reviewed I'm disappointed. Usually it's because there's no emotional context — good technique but no involvement.

There's not much that can be done about the latter. It seems that whenever I try and force the issue, taking a photographs because I'm "there" and it took an effort of some sort to arrive, the results aren't worth the film used to record them. Only when the rush of the moment says, "There's a shot... get it," that I switch into some sort of automatic mode and my best work results. 

The lesson to be learned from this, I suppose, is — trust your instincts, and have your equipment and technique down pat. Only when you and your equipment are in sync, and you can take a photograph without even thinking about your gear, are you free to let your "mindless" state take over and produce the best images that it can.

It's a Winner

How many times have you set out to do some serious photography only to return empty handed. Oh sure, you have a number of exposed roles of film, but not too many if any winners. This is the way things are. Only when I'm in some of the most extraordinary locations and the light and my mood are all cooperating do I get more than one or two really worthwhile images in a day; a long day. Most of the time I don't even do that well. Sure, I make a few prints, but nothing that's worth exhibiting or sharing with others.

There's only one solution. Get out there and do some more shooting.

But it Looked Great When I was There

The shots that you think at the time are going to be the best, rarely are. I've found that if I'm very excited about an image at the time I shoot it, it frequently will miss the mark. But, a shot taken at another time in an almost off-hand manner can often become one of the winners. Don't second guess yourself. If it appeals to you at the time, shoot it. Film is cheap and you'll be surprised at how many interesting images pop out at you on the light-box. Let your subconscious work for you, not against you.

About Focal Lengths

I was asked recently about how to choose which focal lengths to buy and use. In 35mm usage where zooms are now most prevalent this is not such a big concern. A couple or three lenses and you're covered from ultra-wide to ultra-long. But, in medium format or if you're choosing primes for 35mm work this can be a tough decision. Too closely spaced and you end up carrying too much gear and spending too much money. Too far apart in focal length and you wish you had some in-between lenses.

Here's a trick that I learned a long while back but which I haven't seen mentioned in print in a long time. Space your focal lengths using F stop increments or multiples thereof. This gives a logarithmic spacing which works well. For example, in my Rollei medium format system I have 40 / 90 / 180 and 300mm lenses. This is close to a "2 stop" spacing between lenses. If they were exactly 2 stops apart the focal lengths would be 40mm (f/4), 80mm (f/8), 160mm (f/16) and 320mm (f/32), but manufacturers choose other focal lengths based on convention and other considerations. In any event, the spacing is close enough to ideal.

In the days before zooms my working 35mm system consisted of 20mm, 28mm, 35mm, 55mm, 85mm, 135mm, 180mm and 300mm lenses. In other words, each was logarithmically spaced about 1 Stop apart. When planning your next lens purchase see how it fits into a one or two stop spacing.

Focal Length Comparison

Photographers considering a new lens purchase often have a hard time visualizing what differences the various focal lengths produce. On this page I show five different focal lengths and an example of their coverage.

The Cost of a Photographic Adventure

A number of correspondents have asked about the cost of a major photographic trip, figuring that it must take thousands of dollars and a week off work to do one.  Not so. Here's a simple budget for a trip that I've done several times.

Firstly, a great deal of photography can be done in 3 days. Sometimes more than that can be exhausting. If you plan to go on a holiday weekend by taking just one or two extra days (depending if you're traveling from the east or the west coast), you need hardly take any time off work.

My favourite destination is Las Vegas. (I said favourite destination, not favourite place). One can fly to Las Vegas from almost anywhere in North America for around $300 or less, if you book ahead on a special fare ticket. Motels for 4 nights will cost under $350 and figure another $300 for a 4WD rental with unlimited mileage.  If you do this trip with a friend the room and car expenses can be split, significantly reducing the overall cost.

That's less than $1,000 for a great long weekend that can take you to Zion National Park, Death Valley, the Eastern Sierra, and dozens of other great locales. Of course you'll also need to eat, but there's little gourmet dining in this part of the world and $25 a day is more than enough. Of course you'll have to purchase film and pay for processing, but that's part of the entry price for this crazy hobby/art-form.

If you want any advise on planning a trip like this let me know. There no better way to improve your photography than to head out either alone or with a photographic colleague for a few days of pre-dawn to after-dusk shooting, particularly in the red-rock country of the Southwest. Go for it!

 June, 2001 ‹ An article on the perils and joys of shooting alone in remote locations can now be found here.

Workshops

If the idea of planning a trip like this is a bit intimidating, think about joining a workshop. There are a great many available to choose from. I usually conduct at least two workshops a year. One in the spring and one in the fall. If you're interested have a look at my current Workshops page. If the current workshop is sold out (they usually are within 24 hours of announcement) ‹ fill in the application form anyhow and you'll automatically be added to the waiting list for the next one ‹ with no obligation of any sort.

You might also want to look at having a private photographic tour organized for you. Have a look at such a service being offered by Steve Kossack.

On Photography

It often isn't clear, even to ourselves, why we pursue our art and craft with such passion. This issue explores one recent occasion when I learned something about my motivations, and myself.

Filed Under:  
Essays   

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Concepts: Photography, Focal length, Light, Depth of field, Telephoto lens, F-number, Angle of view, Photographic lens

Entities: Las Vegas, North America, Zion National Park, Monument Valley, Steve Kossack, Southwest, West Coast, Ontario

Tags: focal lengths, photograph, images, photography, subject matter, yellow stripe, late morning, landscape photography, Death Valley, trip, Monument Valley, medium format, lens purchase, Las Vegas, early morning, favourite destination, current workshop, best images, 35mm, workshop, locations, different focal lengths, Yellow Stripe Hwy, experienced landscape photographers, strong foreground subject-matter, various focal lengths, best natural light, uninteresting, Outside Monument Valley, big game hunt, private photographic tour, Zion National Park, sunrise, Rollei medium format, mist, overcast, major photographic trip, special fare ticket, current workshops page, best work results