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Author Topic: Photographing scenic vistas  (Read 12696 times)
shutterpup
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« on: June 28, 2009, 01:37:54 PM »
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So I have a problem. I'm driving through absolutely beautiful country, full of the valleys replete with all the trees. I drive into a scenic pullout, complete with a platform to take you into the scenery. But what do I photograph and how? If I take a shot that encompasses the vista, it becomes just a bunch of trees in a valley. If I close in on the valley, it still looks like it's just a bunch of trees in a valley. How do I photograph the scene that will reflect the sense of beauty and awe I felt when I was looking at it, in situ?
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Tim Gray
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« Reply #1 on: June 28, 2009, 03:48:39 PM »
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Think about a couple of things: what is it that attracts you?  light, color, lines/geometry/shapes?  Think about that.  Then think about what you don't want in the shot, and why.  Imagine the final image - is it the same aspect ratio of your capture?  If not think about where you'll crop (part of thinking about what you don't want in the image).  What are the layers of the image from foreground to background?  Is there a foreground? Is there a mid ground?  What's the background?  How important are these layers to one another?

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dalethorn
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« Reply #2 on: June 28, 2009, 04:33:27 PM »
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Go back at different times, so the light strikes the trees at different angles.
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shutterpup
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« Reply #3 on: June 28, 2009, 07:01:15 PM »
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Quote from: dalethorn
Go back at different times, so the light strikes the trees at different angles.

Dale,
I think your suggestion makes sense, but what about if it's not a "Sunday drive" situation, close to the house and always available to be done yet again; this time let's go before sunrise instead of whatever was done the last time? I'm out on vacation and the map says scenic route with turnouts. I'm passing by at whatever time it happens to be, and it's unlikely that I'll be back this way any time soon. This is the situation I'm faced with. I'm pretty much housebound unless I go somewhere special on vacation. I'm left with a compelling vista; you know the one. The one where everyone in the car remarks "Oh my goodness; look at that!" And I take a picture and it falls flat. How do I handle these huge vistas so that my emotions are reflected in my photo of it? It always feels like it's just so many pretty trees. How do I get around that?
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shutterpup
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« Reply #4 on: June 28, 2009, 07:06:12 PM »
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Quote from: Tim Gray
Think about a couple of things: what is it that attracts you?  light, color, lines/geometry/shapes?  Think about that.  Then think about what you don't want in the shot, and why.  Imagine the final image - is it the same aspect ratio of your capture?  If not think about where you'll crop (part of thinking about what you don't want in the image).  What are the layers of the image from foreground to background?  Is there a foreground? Is there a mid ground?  What's the background?  How important are these layers to one another?

Tim,
Good advice. What happens though if it is the sheer enormity of the scene that attracts me? I've tried panorama shooting, stitching them together. It falls flat every time.

I'm not trying to be difficult here. I'm just trying to get a handle on this before I go on vacation because I know the area we're going to is going to be full of wide screen vistas.
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jdemott
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« Reply #5 on: June 28, 2009, 08:12:16 PM »
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A few thoughts:

1. Taking a great photo of a wide vista from a highway scenic overlook in the middle of a clear sunny day is something that simply may not be possible at many locations.  The light and color will be flat and the details may be lost in the wide angle view.  So don't despair if your photos don't have a lot of dramatic impact.  You have to be lucky (or patient) to be there when the conditions are right (warm light at sunset or storm light or great clouds, etc.).

2.  You mentioned taking stitched panos.  That may be one of your best possibilities for a really big vista, but you will have to print it very large to make an impact.

3.  After you take a wide angle shot, put a telephoto lens on the camera and explore some of the details in the scene.  Maybe you will capture a little piece of the scene that speaks to you.

4.  Try taking some of your midday scenic shots that look flat and uninteresting and convert them to black and white.  Once you have them in black and white you can often boost the contrast and manipulate tonality to a degree that would look absurd in color but in black and white may be quite dramatic.

5.  The difference between a great photo and an average photo taken at the same time and location isn't due to any one thing--it is a myriad of small choices that can only be learned through experience.  Take lots of photos, practice manipulating them in post-processing, look at lots of photos from great photographers, repeat over and over, and enjoy the ride.
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John DeMott
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« Reply #6 on: June 28, 2009, 08:17:12 PM »
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One key that I didn't see anyone mention is to include a strong foreground element in your photo. This helps provide a sense of depth and scale. Trees, rocks, that sort of thing. Not always available, of course, but it helps to look for this sort of thing.
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BernardLanguillier
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« Reply #7 on: June 28, 2009, 11:00:47 PM »
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Are there other photogrpahic subjects that you feel you capture in a satisfactory way?

If yes, what do you think is the difference between those and the grand vista you have problems with?

Cheers,
Bernard
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dalethorn
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« Reply #8 on: June 28, 2009, 11:12:58 PM »
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Quote from: shutterpup
Dale,
I think your suggestion makes sense, but what about if it's not a "Sunday drive" situation, close to the house and always available to be done yet again; this time let's go before sunrise instead of whatever was done the last time? I'm out on vacation and the map says scenic route with turnouts. I'm passing by at whatever time it happens to be, and it's unlikely that I'll be back this way any time soon. This is the situation I'm faced with. I'm pretty much housebound unless I go somewhere special on vacation. I'm left with a compelling vista; you know the one. The one where everyone in the car remarks "Oh my goodness; look at that!" And I take a picture and it falls flat. How do I handle these huge vistas so that my emotions are reflected in my photo of it? It always feels like it's just so many pretty trees. How do I get around that?

Good questions, and further down, another person had some really good suggestions.  I wouldn't contradict any of those, I'd just add that if you can really plan your routes so the most interesting views occur early and late, or if you can find a way to double back to some of those for an early/late re-shoot, you might benefit from those ideas.  I hate to go back to re-shoot anything myself, so if the route is rather straight, that might not be possible.  Sometimes the route isn't straight though, or you have an overnight stay near where you can get some shots the evening before and morning after.  If you can plan to have the overnights occur near the most likely shooting areas, that could help.  I tend to have very detailed plans when shooting on the West coast, not so much on the East, since the Eastern scenes tend to be problematic anyway - too much green and haze, for one.
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DarkPenguin
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« Reply #9 on: June 29, 2009, 12:05:36 AM »
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Go buy some photo books.  See what others with the same problem did.
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Sheldon N
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« Reply #10 on: June 29, 2009, 12:16:54 AM »
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A good photographer friend once used a phrase that's stuck with me. We were passing a scenic turnout like the one you describe, and glanced over debating whether to stop and shoot.  

He says, "Nah... That's eye pretty, but not photo pretty."

A lot of breathtaking overlooks just don't translate into good photographs.
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BernardLanguillier
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« Reply #11 on: June 29, 2009, 01:12:45 AM »
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Quote from: Sheldon N
He says, "Nah... That's eye pretty, but not photo pretty."

I used to think that way, but I am not so sure anymore.

I believe that there is a way to picture any scene in an interesting fashion, what might happen is a gap between that fashion and what we think is our style.

Cheers,
Bernard
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rvanr
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« Reply #12 on: June 29, 2009, 02:39:39 AM »
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Quote from: BernardLanguillier
I believe that there is a way to picture any scene in an interesting fashion

You might be right, but the 'interesting fashion' caveat means that the resulting image may not reflect what your eye saw. We have to be realistic and accept that photography (or any visual art form) can never duplicate reality, even if you thought that was a good idea.
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BernardLanguillier
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« Reply #13 on: June 29, 2009, 09:18:16 AM »
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Quote from: rvanr
You might be right, but the 'interesting fashion' caveat means that the resulting image may not reflect what your eye saw. We have to be realistic and accept that photography (or any visual art form) can never duplicate reality, even if you thought that was a good idea.

Sure, but the initial question was in fact not about replicating reality because what our eyes see is not reality in the first place.

Cheers,
Bernard
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Geoff Wittig
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« Reply #14 on: June 29, 2009, 12:10:07 PM »
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Quote from: shutterpup
So I have a problem. I'm driving through absolutely beautiful country, full of the valleys replete with all the trees. I drive into a scenic pullout, complete with a platform to take you into the scenery. But what do I photograph and how? If I take a shot that encompasses the vista, it becomes just a bunch of trees in a valley. If I close in on the valley, it still looks like it's just a bunch of trees in a valley. How do I photograph the scene that will reflect the sense of beauty and awe I felt when I was looking at it, in situ?

When you're trying to distill the sensory overload of standing at a spectacular vista down to a two-dimensional print, it helps to recognize what the camera can & cannot do. It will record (more or less) what's contained within the frame as a flat, two-dimensional projection onto the sensor or film. To really convey the experience, you need to provide some depth cues to the viewer who will be looking at your print after the fact. This is why that golden, late day light just before sunset is so magical; it casts everything into relief and provides all sorts of depth cues through shadows and modeling.

If you're forced to shoot one of these spectacular vistas in drab light, you can at least do your best to provide some sort of depth cues to convey some of the impact of being there. You can use atmospheric perspective (foreground is sharp, distant hills recede into haze), framing with nearby trees, or a prominent & interesting foreground subject to add depth. You can crop out a bland sky and use overlapping ridges or trees. Leading lines or s-curves are old favorites because they work to pull the viewer's eye into the frame. And there are all sorts of things you can do in Photoshop to rescue less than stellar files. It's amazing what a gentle s-curve on a curves adjustment layer can do to punch up a drab image.

Of course, sometimes you're just screwed. It's hard to make anything worthwhile out of vista with a dead white sky and flat, featureless lighting. Ansel Adams had it easy; he lived in Yosemite valley for years, so he could go out day after day to the same spectacular vistas until the light was pitch-perfect. That's why you'll probably shoot your best landscapes close to home.
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Tim Gray
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« Reply #15 on: June 29, 2009, 06:47:19 PM »
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Quote from: shutterpup
Tim,
Good advice. What happens though if it is the sheer enormity of the scene that attracts me? I've tried panorama shooting, stitching them together. It falls flat every time.

I'm not trying to be difficult here. I'm just trying to get a handle on this before I go on vacation because I know the area we're going to is going to be full of wide screen vistas.


So maybe the issue isn't the composition, but rather how the final image is presented.  If the spirit of the image is truly a "grand vista" then it's not likely that the sense is going to come across in anything other than a "grand print"  A web image or even 8x10 or 13x19 just may not do justice to the sense you're trying to convey.  I vaguely recollect an article here on LL  (maybe by Alain Briot) discussing the fact that some compositions cry out for a small presentation, and some for grand presentation.
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Plekto
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« Reply #16 on: June 29, 2009, 08:03:30 PM »
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IMO, it's a problem with HDR.   More specifically, your eyes are absorbing a good 3-4 stops more information that a typical camera.  No, not all at once, but your eyes don't stay on a single point when they scan or look at a vista/scenery.  So you need a couple stops of extra dynamic range to capture the same thing as your eyes see.(which also don't see everything possible, of course)

The solution here is to bracket and blend 3 shots about a step apart.  Suddenly it has the same punch as you remember in your minds' eye.
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shutterpup
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« Reply #17 on: June 30, 2009, 10:18:03 AM »
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Quote from: Geoff Wittig
When you're trying to distill the sensory overload of standing at a spectacular vista down to a two-dimensional print, it helps to recognize what the camera can & cannot do. It will record (more or less) what's contained within the frame as a flat, two-dimensional projection onto the sensor or film. To really convey the experience, you need to provide some depth cues to the viewer who will be looking at your print after the fact. This is why that golden, late day light just before sunset is so magical; it casts everything into relief and provides all sorts of depth cues through shadows and modeling.

If you're forced to shoot one of these spectacular vistas in drab light, you can at least do your best to provide some sort of depth cues to convey some of the impact of being there. You can use atmospheric perspective (foreground is sharp, distant hills recede into haze), framing with nearby trees, or a prominent & interesting foreground subject to add depth. You can crop out a bland sky and use overlapping ridges or trees. Leading lines or s-curves are old favorites because they work to pull the viewer's eye into the frame. And there are all sorts of things you can do in Photoshop to rescue less than stellar files. It's amazing what a gentle s-curve on a curves adjustment layer can do to punch up a drab image.

Of course, sometimes you're just screwed. It's hard to make anything worthwhile out of vista with a dead white sky and flat, featureless lighting. Ansel Adams had it easy; he lived in Yosemite valley for years, so he could go out day after day to the same spectacular vistas until the light was pitch-perfect. That's why you'll probably shoot your best landscapes close to home.

I find this particularly helpful. Thank you.
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shutterpup
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« Reply #18 on: June 30, 2009, 10:19:01 AM »
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Quote from: Plekto
IMO, it's a problem with HDR.   More specifically, your eyes are absorbing a good 3-4 stops more information that a typical camera.  No, not all at once, but your eyes don't stay on a single point when they scan or look at a vista/scenery.  So you need a couple stops of extra dynamic range to capture the same thing as your eyes see.(which also don't see everything possible, of course)

The solution here is to bracket and blend 3 shots about a step apart.  Suddenly it has the same punch as you remember in your minds' eye.

And I find this helpful as well. Thank you.
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shutterpup
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« Reply #19 on: June 30, 2009, 10:20:18 AM »
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Thank you to everyone who responded. I have printed out this thread for reference as I get ready for vacation in the early fall. This information will go in my camera bag.
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