One of my fellow WordPress bloggers, Shane Francescut over at The Weekly Minute came up with a good idea for me to blog about. The idea in a nutshell is basically to talk about the entire process in which I take from the planning, preparation, and processes in which I work through to take photos nearly every time I walk out the door with my camera in hand to a location. I would like to consider this my Landscape Photography Lifecycle as it tends to be the same things I go through every time I plan for one of these types of trips.
I wish I could just go out at any given time and hope that I find something to photograph, but just like a lot of other people, I have to plan it as I have other things that continue to keep myself quite busy. Between work, family, and other obligations, I find that I don’t get to get out as much as I would like to. Because of this I usually do a bit of planning when I go out to strictly do landscape photography. I don’t do extensive planning like you would when going on a vacation and I don’t walk out the door with high expectations. I try to fit the entire planning phase into a manageable amount of time.
Because I don’t have much time to get out a lot I tend to do a little research on the area that I’m going to. If I have control over the time that I’ll be there, I’ll usually aim to be in the area around sunrise or sunset as those tend to be the best times for lighting. I always find that Bing or Google maps are great tools to use on the fly to kind of get a look at the area in which you are heading. After that I will search for images on those locations to kind of see what other photographers or tourists have gotten to get an idea of the types of photos I might end up getting. Once I have all of this information I then look at what the weather is going to be like for the time frame that I’ll be in the area. Knowing if there will be clouds or if it will be sunny sometimes determine the type of photos I can hope to get at times and I will prepare myself to be ready for those situations. For clear sunny days I tend to have different goals in mind than if there are clouds for instance.
Preparation for me is two-fold. I say this because I only carry two things to the car to take with me, my camera bag and my tripod, but I don’t take it all with me when I hike. I rarely ever put my camera bag on my back so I have all of my gear with me. The reason for this? Because after going on many hikes I have determined that I never need every lens I have. Even though I only have 4 lenses, they each have their own purpose, and each one is not needed for every adventure. Based on my planning I can usually determine which gear I need which I place in a smaller bag when I get to the site. It is this smaller bag that I always take with me alone with my camera and tripod.
The most important pieces of equipment I have in the bag are my filters, eye-piece cap, stop-watch (for long exposures longer than 30 seconds), and shutter release remote. If I’m unsure what I’ll be photographing and just kind of going with the flow, I’ll pack two lenses in my bag. Most of the time I have somewhat of an idea in mind so I’ll have an ultra-wide lens on the camera and a macro in the bag. If I don’t want to take the bag, I’ll just throw my 24-120mm lens on the camera so I have a nice range. I’ll talk a little more about why each piece of equipment may be very important in the next section as they control the process in which I take my photos.
Other items that I have in the bigger bag that I only bring with me on certain occasions include some spikes I can slip over shoes or boots, finger-less gloves, hand warmers, and foot warmers. Some people may not need these if they don’t photograph in colder climates but I have found all of these to be very invaluable for many of my photography adventures during the winter months. I’m also always looking for the little things that will make my life a little easier when doing landscape photography.
Now that everything has been planned and prepared, I’m out on location ready to shoot. So what is it that I do when I’m out in the field just walking around? Well, it depends on different factors. How much time do I have? Have I been to this location before but just not when I wanted to? Am I going to be able to come back to it again? What kind of subjects am I able to find? What’s the lighting like? These are just a few of the things I don’t really think about but already have answers to as I’m walking around. Sometimes I already have the answers before I even head to the location.
Lately I’ve just been trying to find time at any point of the day to just go check out some local places. After deciding if there is anything worth photographing I’ll plan out a trip as time permits. During these I usually have limited time, or if I know I’ll be doing a bit of hiking, I’ll have plenty of time. When having limited time I usually limit myself to a few areas that I know will give me good results. I never really have any ideas in mind before going to shoot something as I’ve learned how to work on the fly based on the subject I’m trying to capture.
Once I’m on location I decide if it’s worth taking a hike and try to determine the direction to head off in. I usually start of with my wide angle lens on the camera. If I spot small subjects that need the macro lens, I make the switch. I used to carry my tripod around in the bag it came with but the constant taking it in and out was getting very annoying and I ended up missing a lot of shots I could have got because I was too lazy to do all of that work. I have now since purchased a tripod strap so all I need to do is just set up the legs and put my camera on the tripod and it’s ready to go. I’ve also been finding lately that I tend to like using the tripod more often than not. I feel like I get better results when I do so. I’m going to break up the processes I take based on the type of photos I take so it’ll be a little easier to follow.
Shooting Small Subjects
Most small subjects tend to be low or on the ground. While some people try to find a tripod to get as low as possible, I went a different route. I figured why spend the extra money on a tripod that is advertised as being able to get lower than another tripod? I got a tripod that I was able to remove the middle column and turn it upside down. Can’t get closer to the ground than with the camera almost touching or actually touching the ground. That’s the first step I usually take as it allows me to have more control that by laying on the ground and holding the camera.
Since my camera is upside down at this point, it’s usually nearly impossible or impossible altogether to look through the viewfinder. This is where the live view comes in handy. I used to think that live view was a waste on a DSLR until I started doing this. It makes it so much easier. The first step I take at this point is basically the same as if I’m looking through the view finder, I’ll compose my shot. Once everything is framed the way I like it, then it’s time to focus. There are downsides though when auto-focusing. The sensors used to auto-focus during live view are different than the ones when using the view finder. The live view ones are only more accurate if there is a drastic change in contrast at the focus point. I have also found that when trying to do macro photography with live view that auto-focus very rarely gives me a sharp photo.
So how do I focus when in live view? I do what I call fine focusing. What this means to me is picking a small point and making sure that it is the sharpest it can possibly get. I achieve this by moving the focus point in live view to the subject and then zooming in. If you’ve ever used live view on a DSLR you’ll know that there’s a point when zooming it that it starts to look a bit choppy. If I hit this point I’ll usually step back one click as it’s easier to focus when it’s not so choppy. Once I’m there I’ll then manually focus until I feel it’s as sharp as I can get it.
After I got my macro shot of the subject I tend to look around at the background of the subject to determine if I could get more of a wide-angle macro shot. If I feel that I can pull that off, then I’ll switch to a wide angle lens. Since my ultra-wide-angle lens has roughly the same close focusing distance as my macro lens I usually don’t need to move the tripod. This makes it a little easier for composing. Once the lenses have been swapped, I then go through the same steps again to get my shot. Another thing to mention is that I tend to view the photo on the screen after each shot just to make sure I don’t get anything in the frame I don’t want and I also take a quick look at the histogram to make sure the exposure is correct. If there’s a problem with either, I’ll make the proper adjustments and shoot again until I get desired results.
For these shots the settings I tend to use will be a fairly large aperture that is usually at f/16 or lower with the macro lens (my macro goes all the way to f/51 at the closest focusing distance) and f/5 or lower with the wide angle lens. Since I’m using a tripod, if motion is not a factor, I’ll set the ISO at 100 and change the shutter speed based on the exposure. If motion is a factor I set the shutter speed so that it will capture the subject and adjust the ISO. Because I’m always focused on getting a specific DOF, I always try to keep the aperture constant.
Shooting More Scenic Landscapes
Along with shooting the small things, most of you notice that I shoot a lot more of the more scenic shots with more ‘landscape’ in the photo. I haven’t been doing this as much lately but it’s where I started and what I’ve worked on the most. I’ve also changed my approach to this quite a bit since I started and am continuing to come up with more creative approaches. For these shots I tend to shoot handheld more than on a tripod. If the shutter speed is good for handheld at the aperture I want, then I don’t see the point to take the extra time to throw it on the tripod.
If the lighting is bad or if I’m looking for more of the long exposure shots though, then a tripod is a must. For these shots I tend to keep the camera upright on the tripod vs. hanging it upside down. Unless I want to get a low shot which I’ll follow most of the same steps as the small subject photos except I won’t focus as close or have as much of a shallow DOF.
For these shots the settings I tend to use smaller apertures to get more of the landscape in focus than when shooting smaller subjects. I usually shot with f/12 ore higher to achieve this. If there is a light source involved I’ll try at different apertures to see how the shot looks with more or less of a star like effect. I also keep the same rules in place for the other settings. I keep the aperture constant and just change the shutter speed if motion is not an issue or the ISO if it is. When shooting long exposure I tend to try to get as long a shutter speed as I can get.
What to Shoot?
Now on to one of the most important factor when going out to shoot, what to shoot. Since I have a limited amount of time to shoot in most cases, I usually have an idea of what I’m wanting to shoot. My mood at the time also plays a factor in this as well but I’m usually prepared to photograph any type of subject when I’m out hiking. When I’m going to a location with waterfalls I know that I’m going to be shooting with a wide angle lens doing long exposure shots and some freeze action shots. Some people may think long exposure when shooting water falls but I have found that by freezing the water vs. letting it flow, you can sometimes get some great results. I also find that the waterfalls aren’t usually the only interesting part of the river to shoot either. You can sometimes find an area with a lot of rocks or an interesting tree limb that might make a great shot. During my last shoot of falls I used my macro lens and did some different types of shots than I’ve done before utilizing the more shallow DOF.
While out hiking on a trail I usually look off the path to see if anything catches my eye. Unless it’s an off-limits area that I know I can’t get away with photographing it, then I usually try to get a shot. Something to keep in mind is to always keep looking around. I will look up, down, and sometimes even stop and look back to see if I notice something from the other way than what I was walking. Sometimes a trail can take on a different look when viewing it from the other direction. Things I usually try to catch are things that are not very common in an area. If a subject is rare it usually makes for an interesting photo as it breaks the general theme of the area up a bit.
I’ve also been on a lot of trails where the roots of trees are sticking out of the ground. If you get low enough you can usually create a unique photo by capturing a unique set of roots along the ground. A good way to do this might be to create a sense of depth as you make the roots appear to be larger than the items in the background.
I know this post is a bit longer than I normally do and it has taken me quite a bit longer than I thought, but I hope it has some information that helps. I hope you enjoy some of the new photos as well that I haven’t posted yet. I have also put all the photos in this post into a gallery for you to enjoy as well.