The fear of landscapes

Posted: June 9, 2011 in Shoots in short

Until recently, I had this thing about landscapes. Yes, I could see a nice picture, yes, I could set it up, but damn if I could capture the clarity, the nuances of light that made the scene so special. It was just too frustrating. To be honest, I was a little afraid of shooting these commercially. For that reason, I rarely took on landscape commissions.

Shooting with a Nikon D300 and D200 didn’t help either – the clarity, in my opinion, was just not enough. I turned instead to trying HDR photography, and tried retaining some of the highlight detail and opening up shadow detail that way, but this was equally frustrating. The software was just not good enough for a subtle result.

Early morning at Langebaan Country Estate. These are special moments, usually windless and quiet, yet you hardly notice since that magic light’s effect only lasts literally a few minutes during which you scramble frantically to get into your “ambush” shooting position.

Then three things happened that changed the game. First, I realised how much potential was locked up in my existing cameras’ raw files if I used specialised local contrast enhancers. Secondly, I invested in a wireless remote trigger to ensure absolutely no camera shake during the typically long exposures, and finally, I bought the D700 – a total game-changer.

The D700 purchase came about after testing the Nikon D3X, which should have been yards better than the D700 but was not, in my opinion. It certainly was not R50k better. The D700 sensor is special. It retains clarity, it has a huge dynamic range, allowing detail in shady areas without becoming too noisy, which allows one to expose for the highlights, and in Capture NX2, pull back the shadows seamlessly using the U-point technology to define and limit areas of change without affecting the rest of the image.

The result: confidence that I could get the shot, and with it, a new-found sense of creativity and rediscovered joy in shooting landscapes.

A moment before, a catabatic wind was ruffling the lake’s surface. Seconds after the shot, the wind changed direction and killed the mirror-like surface.

So there I was this week, dodging Cape winter storms, scanning forecasts and looking for the perfect opportunity to shoot a series of landscapes at De Zalze estate outside Stellenbosch. I had a very short window of opportunity – the weather clearing after a spitting cold front one morning, which left me with a relatively clear afternoon and dusk period, and a clear day the next morning before the next front hit by midday.

As soon as my contacts on site reported sunshine, I rushed through and got set up. The biggest issue was where to position myself. The site is huge, and the opportunities for great shots endless. But it’s all about positioning – where to place yourself at what time of day. And this, I realise more and more, is what landscape photography seems to be about – ambushing the light.

Late afternoon at De Zalze. The golfers walking into the shot were unplanned but lent a very necessary element to the shot.

In the afternoons, it’s easier, since you can see the lowering sun starting to shape the landscape as deepening shadows define the undulations of the scene. Mostly, I shoot backlit scenes for their depth of contrasts and shape-defining shadows created towards the camera side of obstacles. And mostly, this is relatively easy to shoot, since you can see things shaping up as the source of light sinks lower in the sky. All you do is find an element in the foreground to lead your eye into the shot, expose for the highlights (a spot meter in the camera is handy here), and make sure you don’t bump the camera.

Straight after sunrise at De Zalze. These are the kinds of moments you cannot plan for unless you know the area extremely well. It’s dark, then it gets light, then you see the shot, then you scramble to get it.

At dawn, however, things are a lot harder. I start before sunrise, and in the dark, try to guess where the sun will hit first, where it will create shadows, and where I should position myself to make the most of it. Literally, you ambush the light. And every morning, I fail miserably.

Where I guestimate the shot will shape nicely is usually nowhere correct, leading to a mad scramble as you see a shot developing 30 degrees left or right of your position. But that’s par for the course. I have come to realise that any given scene will offer a number of treatments at various times of the year as the sun moves through its winter-to-summer arc, lighting the same scene from infinitely variable directions.

That’s why one of the best bits of advice for shooting landscapes is to set up a few days for a particular shoot – to go out at least one morning and one evening, and getting a feel for the way the landscape responds to the morning and evening light. Shoot what you can, but don’t stress. Learn about the particular landscape, note where the sun comes up and goes down, and start planning around that, so that the next time you’re on site, you can position yourself in a perfect ambush position. Well, as perfect as any ambush can be.

My Ansel Adams moment. I was taking a breakfast break from shooting, saw this spot and as a joke set up a wireless transmitter on my D300 to take the shot from a distance.

One of the things I struggle with still is to relax while on site, and allowing the landscape to change, to go to full colour as the light sinks down, without panicking about not getting the shot. Invariably, the best shots come a minute before the sun sinks down or seconds after it appears, and are often hastily-adjusted, framed and exposed shots, not carefully planned and executed.  That’s the nature of the beast.

Using a 300mm lens rather than a wide angle changes the way you look at landscapes and allows isolation of interesting elements in the scenery.

Another trick I learnt was to leave my extreme wide angle in the bag. It makes you lazy, and it hides detail. My 14-24 rarely gets used. Instead, I shoot most everything on a 24-70mm, and increasingly, the 70-200mm. Used on the D300 with its crop sensor, the 200 becomes a 300mm, with even greater compression of the perspective, a factor that I have come to love in landscapes. It helps me combine elements in a shot that otherwise would have been too distant from each other to be significant. Like the lone tree on the blind rise, the detail of the mountain behind, and the vineyards in the foreground.

Seen through a wide angle lens, you are acutely aware that the three elements are literally 10km apart. Yet on this photo, they seem to be on a single focal distance. Great for landscapes! The longer lens also allows me to isolate certain elements, or rather to eliminate other, unwanted clutter, and so doing to reduce the image to only the elements you need to help tell your story.

Traditionally, landscapes are shot at f16 or thereabouts for maximum field depth, but I find myself increasingly shooting shallow focus shots these days, aided by the already short depth of field on the D300 with the 200mm lens. I’d focus on an element, like a leaf off a tree in front of a house, for instance and by defocusing the home behind, just hint at habitation instead of cluttering my image. I guess this is a result of years of shooting stock, where isolation of the relevant element is crucial.  Limiting depth of field is therefore a huge help in isolating the elements that tell the story.

Pano of 6 images, taken hand-held, in a rush.

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