Photographing Landscapes

March 18, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

I find landscape photography particularly challenging. First, there's the problem of photographing "grand" landscapes, an area well-ploughed by other photographers that one might just as well buy a set of postcards and call the subject finished. While I can't help but take the obvious photograph when visiting places like The Maroon Bells, these are not the images I seek. The photographer is then challenged to find other, less well-known landscapes to explore or perhaps even to seek places overlooked by those seeking the "grandeur of nature". 

The problem then shifts to finding the unusual within the frame, or better yet, bringing distinctive elements of the landscape into the frame. The placement of several points of interest in the foreground, middle ground, distant and far-distant planes to create structure within the landscape thus becomes the quest in creating interest as well as giving the viewer the distinctive "sense of place".

Lately, I have the luxury of living within an hours drive of Joshua Tree National Park and have challenged myself to create one compelling image within this vast and overwhelming desert scape. Joshua Tree is particularly problematic because much of the park seems to be vast scrub and rock with mountains in the distance. Additionally, the almost perpetual clear weather often provides no interest in the bald sky. However, the rock formations, Joshua trees, and cactus, as well as many other man-made features such as abandoned mines and shacks lend interest when the weather cannot be counted upon to bring drama.

So far, I've only made two images that I'm close to satisfied with. The first one is a panorama, stitched from 24 full-frame vertical shots (three rows of eight images):

Joshua Tree National ParkJoshua Tree National Park

I like the panoramic approach in photographing vast scapes because I can bring in lots of foreground interest while subordinating larger objects in the middle ground. Compare the single image below, taken from the same position at the same focal length to the panorama above:


While I could have used a wider lens, it still would not have allowed the inclusion of as many elements and would require hiking with more gear. Additionally, Lightroom allows quick stitching without having to export a ton of files and is so quick that I can preview the panorama, rejecting the failures without having to commit a lot of time or data. 

For those of you who are not in the habit of taking panoramas, I encourage you to try. A couple of quick tips will help:

1) Use a small aperture setting such as f/20

2) Take a test image in landscape orientation focusing on an object in the middle distance to check your settings. Then rotate the camera to vertical and starting at the far edge of the frame, take a series of six to eight overlapping images through the center of the landscape without changing the settings. Be sure to overlap each image by at least half as you scan across the landscape.

3) Then tip the camera up very slightly and take another set of images that include the upper portions of the landscape taken with the first pass, overlapping as before.

4) Finally, tip the camera down slightly and photograph as before, including the lower portions of the landscape taken with the first pass.

5) Be sure to allow time for the camera to process all the images, then put your hand in front of the lens and take a quick picture. This image will mark the end of the series and remind you later when looking at a huge set of really dull images that this is actually a panoramic series.

6) To stitch in Lightroom, I usually apply an identical preset to the entire series then select only the images intended for the center section of the panorama, then select Photo > Photo Merge > Panorama to initiate the merge. Lightroom takes a few minutes to process then shows a preview of the panorama or fails because you didn't shoot carefully enough. 

7) If the center section works, make two more panoramas, one of the top section and another of the bottom section, then stitch the three sections together. 



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