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Landscape Photography with a Digital Cameara

By David Halpern
(Original posting date October 1, 1999)

(Click on photos with borders to see larger versions.)

When I began making images more than forty-five years ago, there was magic to photography that I never dreamed I'd see again. I remember hours spent in the darkroom watching images appear on film (Yes, those were the days of orthochromatic black and white films that you could process under a red safelight) and then watching the prints emerge on paper. There were many fascinating experiments as I learned to manipulate the images and produce the effects I most desired.
Today, however, we are living through what must be unquestionably the most exciting time in the history of photography, and it just keeps getting better with each new technological development. With a modestly priced digital camera, I can see the results of my efforts just seconds after the shutter is released. If the picture isn't what I expected it to be, I can simply erase the image from memory and start over again. I can record in any instant a picture that can be printed in full color or as an excellent black and white interpretation of the identical image. I can adjust the exposure knowing that when I transfer the digital file to my computer, I have more flexibility to manipulate the final image than I ever had in a darkroom with the most sophisticated chemical processes. I don't yet have the ability the produce a large print with the kind of resolution I expect from one of my 4" x 5" negatives or transparencies, but that will come in time. Some patience is in order. Meanwhile I can concentrate on improving my digital techniques.
Landscape photography has been my first love for most of my photographic career, though the necessity of making a living required me to spend much more of my time in the commercial studio and in my clients' facilities. For the past fifteen years, however, I've spent increasingly more time working as a National Parks artist-in-residence, teaching photography workshops and photographing some the most beautiful landscapes on the continent.
With autumn approaching as I write this article, let's concentrate on opportunities for capturing Fall color. For reference, I'll refer to my journals from October 1994, when I spent the month as artist-in-residence at Acadia National Park on Mt. Desert Island in Maine.
Mt. Desert Island, just south of Ellsworth, Maine (but better known for the Town of Bar Harbor which is on the island), is a truly exciting venue for Fall foliage photography and the area is very accessible. While most visitors go there during the rest of the year to enjoy the rocky seacoast, Fall brings a surge of "Leaf Peepers" who spend most of their time roaming the mountainous wooded terrain enjoying colors that range from the most brilliant reds and yellows through deep purple. A unique system of carriage roads featuring picturesque stone arch bridges, all built and donated by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., provides many miles of quiet forest access and trails lead to the tops of the mountains and from pond to pond.
You don't have to go "Down east" to find Fall color, but you are not likely to encounter richer hues anywhere. Moreover, the contrast between forest and seashore makes Acadia National Park all the more exciting for photography.

Digital Landscape photography vs. photography with film.

To begin with, there is little about digital landscape photography that you will find different from conventional landscape photography, except that if you use one of the latest model "prosumer" digital cameras, you're likely to find yourself carrying a lot less weight in your bag. In fact, you might not need more carrying capacity than large pockets in your jacket or vest. I do recommend a tripod, but you can get by with a lightweight one at that. The steadier you are with any camera, the sharper your images will be, and this is an even more critical with a digital camera, often operating at slower shutter speeds than you may be accustomed to using with a conventional film camera.
Cameras like the Olympus C-2000Z afford you the opportunity of using accessory lenses for close up, wide-angle and telephoto work. The only filter I'd recommend using is a polarizer (remember that auto focus lenses require a circular polarizer) to help eliminate glare from water, glass and even leaf surfaces as well as to darken skies. A lens shade is also a desirable accessory, but you can always shade the lens from sunlight with a hat, if you're prone to wear one. Do be sure to put some lens cleaning tissue in your pocket; dust is always a problem and a clean lens is always preferred.
Film isn't an issue since you will simply carry disks on which to store your images. You'll probably be traveling so light you'll wonder what you may have forgotten to pack. (Don't forget spare batteries.)
Laptop computers are not essential in the field
While some folks might consider carrying a laptop computer into the field so that they can immediately download their images, I prefer to carry extra memory cards and leave the computer at home. What I enjoy most about the latest generation of prosumer digital cameras is that they don't require a tether to a computer and they have higher memory capacity than earlier products. I always use the highest quality mode for recording images, although I will work in the JPEG mode as opposed to the uncompressed TIFF format in most instances.

For your comfort
With your camera equipment selected, the next most important consideration is your personal comfort. A good pair of hiking boots or walking shoes is essential, while the rest of your clothing will depend on how sensitive you are to sunlight, rain, heat and cold.
I always begin my photo workshops by telling the participants that there's no need to be destination oriented when you're out for a day of landscape photography—unless, of course, a specific destination is your photographic objective. Your purpose is to make the most interesting pictures, so if you find something that excites your sensibilities at roadside, I recommend stopping right there and setting up the camera before the light or weather conditions change. After all, you don't really know that there's something better along a distant trail, and well, "A bird in the hand…"

 

 

 

What are the best times for making pictures?
With the likely exception of high noon on a clear sunny summer day, there isn't a wrong time to make landscape images. And, even though you've probably always been told that the best times are early morning an late afternoon when shadows are longer and more dramatic, I can think of many instances when conditions were perfectly delightful at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Every location presents its exceptions to rules.

 

 

 

Every change of weather brings opportunities. Clouds cast exciting shadows, sunlight sparkles through leaves directly overhead, fog and rain alternately obscure and reveal mysterious elements of an otherwise common scene. Furthermore, when the time isn't right for photographing a grand vista, it often is perfect for making images of intricate details and tiny flowers.

Personal perceptions

I once followed a student as he wandered along a stream during one of my workshops. After a while, when he had not yet set up his camera even once, I approached him and asked what was wrong.

"I don't have the right lens," he lamented.
"The right lens for what?" I questioned.
"For any of this. I just don't have the right lens"
"You have the right lens, alright,"
I responded, "You just have to change your perspective."

Too many of us are locked into conventional paradigms. Maybe we've studied too many pictures made by other photographers of subjects similar to those we see on our outings. What we have to do is see with our own eyes, ignore the limitations of our equipment, use the potential of our own imagination, and find a way to express personal visual sensitivity. None of us is likely to make a new personal statement on the strength of technology alone. We have many opportunities, however, to find the exceptional subject and capture it as it hasn't been presented before. You just have to keep your eyes open and be ready.
Capturing the image
The digital camera opens up all sorts of opportunities for "straight" landscape photography and for "creative interpretations" of the landscape. The process only begins in the camera—the instrument of capture—and is fulfilled through the wizardry of the software with which we manipulate our image files.
Your first objective is to record as much information on the memory card as you can. (Set your camera for the highest resolution available.) Make the best possible exposure of any subject or scene. If the data is there, you can work with it later on the computer, just as you could work with the information on your negative or transparency when you reached the darkroom. Many digital cameras have the capability to record a wider range of information than you could with film, but you have to know how to maximize that capability. You can always delete "information" from the image later, should you choose to do so—darkening shadows. But, as with film the important information must be there in memory when the image is recorded. Be careful not to let your specular highlights (sun spots or reflections of light sources on metal, glass or water) get too "hot" (devoid of detail. You may be able to darken these, but you will not be able to replace lost detail, unless you're also very competent when using illustration software.
Whenever possible, place your camera on a tripod. and if your digital camera does not permit the use of a cable release, use the camera's self timer to make "hands-off" exposures. If the camera is very steadily mounted and your touch is light, you can trip the shutter release with your finger. I'd do that, however, only if it is critical to time the exposure to an exact moment, possibly because of a moving element within the scene (a wave, a bird in flight or a flash of light from a lighthouse).

Before you print the image

I'm an Adobe Photoshop advocate. I use this software for "processing" all of my images and I consider myself a continuing Photoshop student, despite several years of experience with its evolving versions (I'm now using Photoshop 5.0). There are many excellent articles on the web and on this site about using the various software tools, so I won't go into all of that at this point, except to offer the following advice.
No image from a digital file is ever at its best as recorded by the camera. If you want to maximize print quality, you must learn to use the levels, curves and color balance adjustments (not the "brightness and contrast" controls) and you must learn how to sharpen an image properly using unsharp masking (not the "sharpen," "sharpen edges" and "sharpen more" tools).
The final print quality will be enhanced by using your image manipulating software, no matter what printer or resolution setting you use for the final reproduction.

 

Some of my favorite shooting conditions
Some of my favorite images are made before the sun rises in the morning and after the sun sinks beyond the horizon in the late afternoon. I like long exposures where water is softly painted by its movement against the static rock over which it flows. I like to capture forests without shadows after all direct sunlight is gone. The newer digital cameras allow me to do this with shutter speeds of 1/2 second or below. These are generally quiet times of the day when even aspen leaves are at rest

Strong shadows on rock always fascinate me, not only because of the texture they reveal but also because of the often vivid geometric negative shapes they create. If you are familiar with the landscapes of photographers like Brett Weston, you know what I mean.

 

 

When it comes to photographing Fall color in places like Acadia National Park, I look for several opportunities in the changing light. Under overcast skies, color appears to intensify as highlights (reflections off leaves) are subdued. Backlight creates an altogether different effect, much like it does with stained glass, and small details become more apparent in close-up photographs. Contrast between the brightest red and orange leaves and a strong blue sky creates drama and often enhances the graphic quality of an image. Fog creates a diffusion "filter" that softens a scene and sometimes produces what some artists like to call a "painterly light."

The Acadia experience—influencing philosophy and perception
In October of 1994, I walked the woods of Acadia in rain, mist, sunlight, and under overcast skies.
I photographed all of Mr. Rockefeller's bridges along the carriage roads. The harsh contrast between sunlight and shadow was often troublesome when shooting on conventional film, but the digital camera can handle that with great facility. Just expose for the highlight details and change the image levels and curves in Photoshop (a subject for another article).

Acadia afforded great photographic opportunities as well as solitude for contemplating of the kind of thoughts that affect the way I see the world I photograph. All this is part of a continuing growth process that we all can use to become better image makers.

On Friday, October 7, I wrote the following passage in my journal:

Yesterday I had a wonderful and thought provoking experience. I spent the morning hiking in the woods of Acadia while photographing three of the carriage road bridges—Hemlock, Waterfall and Hadlock Brook. It was my second venture into these woods. My first…had been in an area that is very popular with visitors and there was little solitude. Yesterday, I was alone.
There is poetry in these forests of Acadia and the silence provokes philosophical thought. I was inspired and enjoyed my work.

I thought about what it means to see as an artist, or as a sensitive being for that matter. I thought how important it is to recognize things not merely for what they are, but for what they are not and for what they seem.

In fact everything that is, exists in many forms…there is formal identification—what is generally accepted as reality. There is perception, which can exist even without language, as when a speechless child observes something for the first time. There are associative identifications that all of us make, such as the identification we might make of a tree that looks like a birch when it actually is an aspen.

Then there is the identification we make of a thing by calling to mind what it is not. A tree, for example, is not a lamppost, though in fact it could become one. (Oh, there's another kind of identification—recognition of what a thing can become.)…

Then I thought about the space things occupy and the negative spaces that surround them and which are so important to artistic composition. That led me to a realization that there is something terribly inappropriate about our concept of "nothing." What is nothing if it is not the absence of something, but…

 


Sometimes, the experiences I had in Acadia were inspiring in simpler ways and still had a profound effect on my perceptions.
On Thursday, October 13, I wrote in my journal:

"I saw a red fox in the woods today. I was walking alone along the Aunt Betty's Pond Road, where it heads south to Hadlock. Something prompted me to turn and look over my shoulder and there it was watching me. We studied each other for a while and then it moved slowly into the woods and beyond my view.
Last night, as I was leaving Hunter's beach, I saw two white tailed deer in the forest by a creek. I was beginning to think I would not see anything larger than a squirrel in Acadia.


These journal entries, to me, are reminders that photography—thoughtfully practiced—is about more than recording images of people, places and things. Photography is a medium of communication, and in order for our pictures to effectively communicate we need to be conscious of the ways in which our subjects affect us. We need to be conscious of how we identify things and how we want others to see them.
On your next outing, take a little time to make yourself think about how you are reacting to your subjects. Talk to yourself out loud (if no one's around to give you strange looks) and tell yourself about the things you're seeing. Have some fun playing with different perceptions of objects ("That tree, that rock, that cloud…it looks like a…)

 

 

 

Look at the negative spaces as well as the positive ones. The positive ones are the spaces where objects are while the negative spaces are the places where they are not--like shadows and sky and water.

You may not feel like you're in a rut, but all of us have familiar perceptions and patterns of behavior. Try to break away from these; it could help you discover your own special way of seeing.
Enjoy your fall photography, and if this is your first digital landscape experience, let me have some feedback so that we can deal with your questions and observations in future articles. My years of teaching workshops have assured me that I'll never be able to anticipate all the questions in one writing. Send your comments to David@halpern.com and please visit me on the web at http://davidhalpern.com.

 

David Halpern is a photographer, writer, consultant and photography workshop instructor living in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He has photographed the American landscape for more than four decades and his large format images have been exhibited in museums and galleries across the nation. In 1997, he began producing digital images and now includes that technology in his landscape photography workshops. For more information, visit David on the web at http://davidhalpern.com

 

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