Thursday, May 13, 2010

September 2009 - Coloradoan Xplore Column

I’d be hard pressed to think of a time of the year that better defines photographing the Colorado landscape than fall. Wildflower season might be a close second, but let’s face it our tourism billboards of grand mountain landscape often have gold highlights. While our fall palette may not be as diverse as in some parts of the country it’s a spectacular showing. Especially if you slow your pace and look down and around, there is plenty to work with beyond the big, sweeping vistas.

I learned an important lesson a few seasons ago when I was out working on fall landscapes. As usual, I found the light I preferred was on the edges, dawn and dusk. That left me with a big part of the day where the scenes around me were awesome, but the mid-day light was harsh and resulted in less than interesting photos. On a whim, I took off on foot with no real agenda for my camera. I began wandering into deep, hidden canyons and dark, thick forests. In these sheltered settings I found I could use the landscape itself to create the light I was looking for.

If seasons have personalities I’d have to say fall would be comfort, restfulness or repose. In autumn I enjoy shooting stream and cascades. The hurried energy of summer is gone and water levels now present an almost zen- like feeling. Sprinkle in the red, purple and orange hues from ground cover and you have some amazing scenes. In canyon or forested locations you can often shoot into late morning and early afternoon since light is filtered through the canopy of the forest or sheltered by the canyon walls.

I’ve also learned to think small. Walk off trail and look down. Lichen covered rocks are draped and sprinkled with golden leaves. If you look closer you’ll often see dew still clinging to flora. The canvas of the forest floor can keep you busy for hours. To find the light you’re looking for all you have to do is move your feet.

For me, landscape photography is about making composition choices. It’s about arranging subjects and elements of the image together into a photograph that tells your story. The first choice I make is what glass I want to shoot through. Your lens selection is making a decision on what you want to include and what you want to exclude from the scene. It’s about the perspective and relationship you want to create between the subjects in the image. Our eyes see the equivalent of a 50mm lens, but they also see 180 degrees. The first thing to accept is we can’t create the same image our eyes see in one shot. A focal length less than 50mm widens the angle of view, reduces the perspective of size and expands the perspective of space. A focal length greater than 50mm does the opposite. It narrows the angle of view, increases the perspective of size and compresses the perspective of space. Unless I’ve scouted a location, I typically study a scene and look at my composition options before I slap a lens on and start firing away.

Depth of field (DOF) is another important consideration. For wildlife it’s easy, you usually want your DOF to be narrow blurring everything around the subject to make it pop and stand out from the surroundings. For landscape it’s very different. Our choices are a big part in how we create visual depth in a two dimensional medium. Larger f stop numbers (f/16, f/22 etc) give us deeper DOF. Meaning as you look into the photo more of the image is in focus as you move from the foreground to the background. Most DSLRs today have a DOF preview button. It’s not perfect, but it does help. By pressing the DOF preview button your viewfinder shows you how much of your scene will be in focus when you press the shutter. Another technique for handling DOF is hyperfocal focusing. It sounds technical and it can be confusing. Google hyperfocal and you can find a long list of resources that do a great job of explaining the technique. By using a hyperfocal chart you can very quickly determine what setting on your camera is necessary to obtain maximum DOF. I have a laminated chart in my bag that I refer to frequently. This may all sound really complex, but it’s not with a little practice. And with digital there’s no cost to make mistakes.

So when you head out to start capturing our fall season think about a couple of things:
• Study a scene before taking a shot. Look for distracting elements. Our eyes are drawn to bright, high contrast areas. Unless you want these included in the image get rid of them. An example might be a bright or grey colored sky. Crop the image through the viewfinder.
• Work a scene. Take a broad, sweeping shot. Zoom in for a different perspective. Move your feet and change the point of view.
• Look for complimentary colors. Yellow aspen leaves against a blue sky really pops. The same is true with red ground cover in a green forested location.
• Look for opportunities to create depth in your photos. Think about DOF and placing objects front to back in the photo.

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