Welcome back for another installment of my Behind the Camera Feature. It is in this monthly feature that I take the opportunity to talk about something that has come up during the month, or to just take the time and talk about something that has been on my mind. I was juggling around several ideas in my head and almost went with the idea of talking about my insecurities as a photographer. I decided against that though since I just did a rather melancholy entry wrapping up my first year as a professional photographer. I wanted to do something upbeat instead, so I reached out to social media for some ideas of what to talk about. I had some really good suggestions come in fairly quickly. The first one came from a friend and fellow photographer, Michael Surratt. He suggested that I talk about “posing” my images. Sure, it is easy to have a tree move over to the other side of the mountain and give me a longing look that goes along with the clouds that I hired to come in as a prop. Of course, that is not what he meant at all. What he was asking about was how to compose an image. Well, this is a very lengthy subject to talk about and is the topic of a large block of my Introduction to the Art of Photography course that I taught earlier this year. I also cover it in detail in all of my workshops. The thought of diving down the rabbit hole here was not something that I found fun and it would have gotten very long and boring for this format.
It was a comment a bit later on in the day that resonated with me as a great topic to talk about here because I didn’t need to get too technical with it, and it would shed a little more light about how I work and some of the effort that goes into my images. The suggestion actually came from Sandra who I had recently spent a couple of hours with on the Parkway for a One-on-One Instruction session. What she was wanting to know about was how to get the shot when time is limited. Basically she was wanting to know my workflow to aid in the efficiency of her own work. Hmm, this is interesting and is something that we rarely talk about as photographers. There are several on Youtube that will kind of talk about the process, but they are just hitting bits of it as it pertains to a specific image. I do the same thing here in the blogs as I am talking about the most recent trek. If there was a particularly dramatic moment in the setting up of an image I will talk about that as more of a story than as a tip for photographers. As I thought about her question, it really hit me just how important that information would be to get out. In fact, after talking with another one of my Workshop participants and friend a few days ago, this is something that I am going to start including in my workshops as a demonstration. What better way to get my mind wrapped around my own automatic workflow than to discuss it here.
To look at a photograph, the viewer will just see the finished image and will only know that bit of time in that perspective. What can never be known is what was happening behind the camera (that was on purpose ya’ll, and it was funny). If you see a peaceful scene you can just imagine a photographer coming up to it and pulling out a camera. In a second or two the shutter releases and the image is complete. Job done, and time to move onto the next subject. This is evident by the responses that I always see to my photos and those of others online. The comments of “nice snap,” “good shot,” or “pretty click” tells me that there is no real understanding of what goes into a photograph. Now, I have covered some of the back story like how I see the image, and how I keep coming back again and again to revisit a scene to get it right. I’ve even talked about my views on post processing an image as well as preparing for the shoot. None of these has covered the nuts and bolts of arrival to capture though and that is just what I want to dive into here.
Find something that interests you
I can’t stress this part enough. You don’t need a camera at all for this one either. You have to find a scene that appeals to you. You must be able to provide answers to the question of “what do you like about the scene?”, and ideally will have no answers to the follow up question of “what don’t I like about the scene?” More than likely there will be aspects that you don’t like, so you will then start to think about how to avoid those elements in your image, or minimize them. In the image above, you can see a recent scene that I came across. My first reaction was that I liked the barn. OK, got that question answered. I didn’t like the power pole, or the associated lines that went with it. I didn’t like how far away the barn was from where I could get (see the fence). I found other things that I did like while looking around which included the tree behind and to the left of the barn, the sky, and the shadow on the ground.
It was this step that helped me to form the composition in my mind. I just had to figure out how I needed to capture that scene in order to get the image that I wanted. This brings us to the second phase of the process which is deciding on the location to shoot from which is very closely related to what gear you are going to use.
Where to stand…or sit….or lay down
Once you know what the composition will include, you have to translate that to the camera and then organize it in a way that provides a pleasing balance of elements and colors. There are many rules of composition, but most of them can be boiled down to balance and flow. If it looks good and gives your eyes a path to follow, then it will most likely work as a composition. It is the placement of the camera that will dictate your composition and you can’t be restricted to eye level. You will often need to get lower, or get higher to get the view that you need to avoid things like those power lines in the image above. Camera placement is supremely important in a complex scene, so you need to figure that out early on. I love to use the following picture to illustrate this concept. I was trying to shoot the old tractor, but there was so much clutter in the background that I needed to simplify that camera placement became the biggest consideration of the whole process.
By placing the camera down very low to the ground I was able to use the tractor to obscure the background while retaining a proper perspective on the scene. Obviously the white building behind the tractor was much larger than the tractor so it wasn’t quite as simple as camera placement, but it did allow me a good starting point. It was at this point that I brought the camera out and started to work on the mechanics of the scene through the viewfinder. Knowing the strengths of you lenses helps out tremendously here and I knew that I was going to benefit from a wide angle view which would increase the apparent size of the tractor, while shrinking the background. This was how I intended on making the building disappear. No need for Photoshop here, just good old fashion photographic technique. I added the 24-70mm lens which would allow for a very wide angle allowing me to get in very close to the subject as you can see above. It was not so wide as to grossly exaggerate the perspective of the tractor which is very easy to do with the wider angle shots. It is that closeness to the subject that creates to large size in relation to the background. On the other end of the spectrum, as in the opening subject, a long lens will compress a scene and make the scaling more even between the subjects which was what I needed in that situation. This tractor was different though.
At this point, I had the location of where I needed to be in order to get the relationship of all of the elements as I wanted them. I had the lens chosen to get the perspective and to support my camera placement. This is the part where you will get your composition established and is the most important part of the process because this is the part that is most difficult to change once you get shooting. You will fine tune things as you go, but the more time you spend figuring out where the camera goes, the less time you will be moving it around. Because of all of this thought behind where the camera needs to go to capture your image, it would stand to reason that you want to lock that camera into place so that you can really study the composition right? Absolutely, and that is why I strongly suggest that you use a tripod whenever you can. Unless I am doing portrait work, I am always using a tripod. It allows me to really get the composition correct as well as repeat the composition with different exposure settings or filters.
Fine tuning your vision
So, we now have the camera mounted to a tripod, with the lens that we need to use, and the composition set that we are interested in. This is the part where the tripod really comes in handy. You will turn the camera on finally and start to evaluate the scene that you have set up. Go into live view and look at the scene on the large LCD on the back of the camera rather than the viewfinder (or EVF) which you used for the rough composition to get started with. Now that you have a larger image to look at, you can check for small details like overlapping elements and things that are intersecting horizon lines. Check for separation of the elements and make sure that all of the areas of the frame are as you intend. You will be making small adjustments to your position at this point and that is good. It means you are looking critically at your composition. Never be afraid to move the camera and try to improve on things.
Movements of an inch or so will make a huge difference with a wide angle lens but not so much with a long telephoto lens (unless you are shooting something very close to the lens). Consider this as you improve your compositions as just a hair to the left will move things in the foreground to the right which might make for a more pleasing image overall. Recently, while at Doughton Park I had to work this very step out in half inch increments to get the relationships right between the foreground rocks and the background hill. It was a process, but one that only took a minute or less because I am very practiced with this stage of the game.
It is in this stage that you will need to do edge patrol and make sure that you don’t have foreign objects entering the frame anywhere that might distract the viewer. Also make sure that you have sufficient breathing room around your elements so that they aren’t crowded in the frame. This is usually the deciding factor in whether or not an image really works or not so zoom into that live view and check your edges and corners for any problems.
By the time you have settled on that all important composition, now it is time to work out the artistic representation of how you are wanting to capture it. This is where you start to worry about things like filters and exposure, and there is a little overlap between these steps and they work together while effecting each other. This is why it is so important to have your camera on a tripod. Remember, we have not yet made a single image, and have only recently turned the camera on. It is now time to have a lot of fun with things though and here we go!
Exposure and filters
I wish I could separate these two steps but they are so intertwined that it would be foolish to try. I will usually start with the basic filter choices when I am looking at the scene originally. I will determine most of the time whether or not I will be using a polarizer in these early stages because it serves a very distinct purpose. It removes glare from surfaces, so if I have any surfaces that have glare, I know that I will be adding that filter. Vegetation has glare because it is largely water based and the sky has glare because of the water vapor. You guessed it, most photographs will benefit from a polarizer, but the extent will vary depending on the angle to the sun, and how far up the sun is. You can read more on the use of a polarizer here if you are interested. You will usually read in my blogs when I am selecting the lens that I will also add the polarizer at that time. It is a filter that I usually use and therefore it is easier to go ahead and fit it before I get everything set up in place. The other filters are largely there to address issues that are very specific so I wait to see what I am working with before I pull any other filters out.
Now that I have the camera on the tripod, with the lens needed (and possibly the polarizer which has been adjusted to give the effect that I want), the placement and composition set and locked, I am ready to start getting my base exposure set. This is the part where so many photographers get confused and slow down. I have a very simple way of going through the exposure triangle which works very well for manual mode, and even aperture priority mode. Shutter priority mode is a little different and really isn’t designed for this type of photography so I will leave that out. I’m also not going to talk about auto mode as those who are using that mode are rarely going to be going through the trouble that we have up to this point not to mention there are really no exposure adjustments to be made in auto mode.
The first step is to set the ISO. Except in very specific situations, I will already have my ISO locked in at the base 100 value for the cleanest image possible. I don’t change this at this point in the game, so I have already eliminated one corner of the exposure triangle. My next corner to deal with is the aperture. This can either be set in manual mode or in aperture priority. I default to f/11 as that is the sharpest aperture for my lenses with the best depth of field. However, I don’t just leave it there. I will look at the scene and determine what I am going to need in focus or apparent focus.
This is the depth of field and for the most part I am wanting to capture as much as possible in sharp focus. Focusing is another one of those topics that takes a full segment of my introduction to the art of photography class and I just can’t get into it in enough detail here. I’ll try to simplify it by saying that based on the distances involved, I’ll pick the area that will provide the best overall focus to the image and then I will coordinate the aperture along with that. If f/11 will give me sufficient depth of field, then I will leave it there. If I need a bit more based on my checking with the depth of field preview button, I will dial in a smaller aperture. If I just want a limited depth of field, I will open the lens up until I get the blur that I am after. The above picture is an example of shooting at f/5.6 which softened the background and allowed the tree to pop in the frame. Once I get my aperture set to allow the correct depth of field in the image, I am left with just one other exposure corner to be concerned with.
For a landscape photographer, the shutter speed can really be the last concern and for a still scene, is barely a concern at all. If nothing is moving, it doesn’t matter if you are shooting at 1/200 of a second, or 200 seconds. Your image will be equally sharp providing you are on a stable tripod. So, for aperture priority mode, the camera will select the shutter speed that will give you a “correct” exposure based on the light meter in the camera. If you are shooting in manual mode, you will need to adjust the shutter by rolling the wheel. I don’t rely on the light meter any more as it will lead you astray more often than not. I choose to go by the histogram on the back of the camera to determine my exposure. I will roll the shutter until I get a histogram that is reasonably distributed. What I am looking for is nothing stacked up on the right edge which indicates blown out highlights. Unless I am wanting those specular highlights in the image like for the sun or reflections in chrome blown out highlights are usually a bad thing. The human eye is used to seeing bright detail except in those circumstances and you need to incorporate that into your photography. I am also making sure that I don’t have too many pixels in the left edge which are blocked up shadows and without any detail. It is better to have total black in an image than total white though, so I will allow a certain amount of dark pixels to stack up. For those shooting in Aperture Priority, you can also make adjustments here to the shutter speed through your Exposure Compensation (EV+/-) which will leave the aperture and ISO where they are and will adjust the exposure by a 1/3 of a stop up or down as you need which is essentially changing the shutter speed…just like in manual mode.
Here you can see a histogram on the back of my 5D Mk3. This is an image review, but is a good representation of a fantastic spread of tones. There is nothing stacked either to the left or to the right and the midtones represent the majority of the image. I’ll be honest here and say that this doesn’t happen often at all with a perfect bell curve like this. Usually there is a dip in the middle and two clusters of pixels at either end of the histogram. As long as you don’t have anything blown out on the right, and an acceptable amount to the left, you are ready to make your first shot. However, if you have too much distance between your tonal values, you will need to look at other filters.
If you need to bring the two pixel mountains closer together on the histogram you will likely need to look at adding an ND Grad filter. You can read more about how these work here, but for the sake of this entry, I’ll just say that they are great for bringing the exposure of the sky under control in an image. In fact, I had used one in the image that is on the back of the camera to darken the sky and make it possible to have this awesome histogram.
Once we have the grad filter on and the exposure is now in line with what we want we might be ready to take the image, but there is still another consideration, and that is the artistic end of the shot. You have to decide how you want this to look, so here we go…
The art of the exposure
As I mentioned, if nothing is moving in the frame, then you are ready to go. However, if there are limbs blowing in the breeze you will need to address whether or not you want to have that as a part of your image. Maybe there is moving water that you want to capture a certain way. Whether there is motion you want to show, or hide, you will need to figure that out during this stage. You have what I refer to as the base exposure for the image at this point. You have a good histogram, and the exposure range is good. Now you need to address the shutter speed once again. You might need to speed it up, or slow it down. In order to do this you need to know the one click method which simply states that one click equals one click. For every click you change the shutter, you need to change either the ISO or the aperture by an equal number of clicks. You can split the total number up between the ISO and aperture if needed as long as your total clicks equal. If you are needing to speed up the shutter to remove limb movement, then you might want to speed it up by three clicks, or a full stop. You can then either add light to the exposure by boosting the ISO by three clicks, or opening the aperture by three clicks. You could also open the aperture by one click to not give up too much depth of field, and boost the ISO by two clicks which will still equal three additional clicks of light coming into the camera. This will keep the same exposure that you had set.
Maybe you are wanting to slow the shutter to show movement as a blur as with this image. The opposite will apply, but you are already at your base ISO, so you aren’t going to drop it any more. You can then close the aperture of the lens making sure that you don’t introduce diffraction (it happens when you near the limit of the lens optics a the tightest aperture). If you still can’t get the shutter speed that you want, you will need to look at adding a neutral density filter which will not effect anything but the amount of light that is coming into the camera like wearing sun glasses essentially. You will decide the strength of the filter based on what shutter speed you are looking for. You can read about how these work here. This can be anything from waterfall photography which will typically be a shutter speed of a second to three seconds, or a daytime long exposure of three minutes or more. It is your call as the artist and you are limited only by your imagination and your available tools.
It is this step of the process where the creative end of things really shines. You are making the choices and not the camera, so it pays to really pay attention to this part of the process. I know that it seems that it takes hours and hours to get to this point, but with practice and experience, you will get to where you can reach this point in a matter of a few minutes from seeing the scene. You will usually hear that I grabbed my camera and fitted the lens that I was wanting along with the polarizer right as I got to a location. I would also mount the whole rig to the tripod and then get it roughly sat where I intended to shoot. This is because I have trained my eyes to read a scene really quick and to see the composition. Of course, there are times when I do have to really hunt out the composition and that slows the process down greatly, but it still can happen in a matter of a few minutes which is good because the light is ever changing and if you take too long, you have lost the scene that caught your eye in the first place.
You are now ready to make the exposure
So by this point, you have spotted the scene, asked yourself what you like and don’t like about it. You have formed a composition that focuses on the aspects that you like, and have chosen a focal length that fits that vision. You have added filters and found your base exposure for a solid image, followed by making creative choices with your exposure to pull it all together. Your camera is locked down on the tripod so nothing has changed from your original composition, you have your focus point set to ensure your depth of field, and you are ready to press the button. WAIT!!! don’t press that button!!!
You have spent all this time to get that perfect image, the last thing you want to do is to introduce camera shake. Here are some things to consider. When you press the shutter button on a camera, you are jostling the camera body which will result in camera movement and a softening of the image. I always recommend for the DSLR users to use a mirror lock up feature which swings the mirror out of the way as that is part of the vibration that will be introduced. This feature requires that you press the shutter button twice in order to make the exposure as the first press locks the mirror out of the way, the second activates the shutter. Mirrorless cameras don’t have this concern. The pressing of the shutter button should actually be done with a remote shutter release so that no vibrations are added from touching the button on the actual camera body. With the mirror out of the way, you will have a rock solid shooting platform with that remote release. There is another option though, and it is much easier to deal with than using a remote release. It is using the 2 second timer, or possibly a 10 second one for longer focal lengths that are more susceptible to camera shake. By use the timer with your optical viewfinder, the mirror will flip up when the button is pressed. The timer will then count down before releasing the shutter. This allows for any vibrations to dissipate whether you are using the viewfinder. If you are using the Live View, your mirror is already out of the way and you can press the shutter release on the body starting that countdown. You will have time to remove your hand and allow the camera to stop any movement before the exposure is made.
Speaking of camera shake, many of you will have lenses that have some form of image stabilization, or possibly in body image stabilization (IBIS). This needs to be turned off for tripod shooting as it will actually introduce camera shake while looking to correct the camera shake if it isn’t there. Now that we have the camera rock steady and the mirror out of the way, the remote release, or self timer set, we can finally get that tack sharp image that we deserve from all of this fuss that we have been through.
As you look at the image above, remember how far away I was from the barn. Recall what I liked about the scene, and what I didn’t. What you see here is a carefully crafted composition that takes all of that into account. I used the telephoto lens because it was the one that provided this particular crop from the distance that I had to be at in order to capture this subject. The tin roof was a source of glare from the sunlight, so I used a polarizer to control that and to add contrast to the sky. I got an exposure set, but realized that I needed a faster shutter speed because of the breeze which was causing the branches to blur. I couldn’t open up the aperture any more because I would lose my depth of field which I needed to keep everything in the frame tack sharp. That left me with the only alternative of using a higher ISO which was boosted to 200 which gave me a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the motion in the limbs. The camera was in live view with the mirror out of the way, and I used a 2 second timer which allowed the vibrations from me pressing the button to subside before the shutter was released.
Here is the part that so many photographers either forget, or just don’t care to do. After you have spent all of this time and effort on a photograph, are you convinced that it is the best possible capture for the time and conditions you are out there? Probably not. It is time to look at the image review on the LCD and check out the histogram. What does it look like? is the exposure what you expected? Look at the image and see if there are any highlight clipping warnings, called blinkies indicating that you have clipped some small areas of highlights that didn’t show in the histogram. If so, you need to alter the exposure, usually by the shutter speed. Once you get that sorted out and repeat the exposure once again, you can thank me for suggesting that you use a tripod because your composition will be the same, just your exposure will be different. While in this step, zoom in with the image review and check points near, far, and in the middle to make sure that you nailed your focus and depth of field. If you need to made adjustments now is the time to do it.
The next step is one that I have only recently started doing and that is blowing the image up on the LCD to fill the screen and then stepping back from it. It looks and feels odd to be looking at the image from a distance when it is so small, but you can really get a good feeling for the composition like this. Without seeing details, you are forced to see things in terms of elements and lighting. Does this look pleasing and balanced? How would it look when you walk into a room hanging on the wall? If something isn’t quite right about the composition, you will find that out now. Then you can recompose the image and fine tune the exposure which will likely be very similar as the lighting should be rather consistent for minor composition changes.
Once you are happy with the exposure, and the composition, do a final check of the edges of the image. Look for anything that might be intruding into the frame from the edge that would be a distraction. You should have gotten this taken care of during the composition phase, but there is always that one little bush or something that you missed that you are now seeing. You might need to tighten up the composition a little more to eliminate an element, or widen it to bring more of that element in the frame. It might be something that you will just need to clone out in post, but you need to make that decision while you can reshoot the scene. It is much easier to fix issues with a composition while you are still onsite and can reshoot it.
Look past the camera to the scene in front of you and evaluate if anything has changed that might change what you like and don’t like about the scene. There have been several times when light changes have prompted the need for a different composition at this point, and while you are still set up with the original composition, a change is not that problematic because most of the camera settings and filters will remain the same, only the composition should be changing at this point.
You might be totally happy by this point that you have the composition in the bag, and that is great. Look around to see what else is available and then you might find a completely different view that is even better than the first now that you have become intimately familiar with the scene. This happens all the time that once I get the obvious composition in the bag, I start to find others in the area which I end up liking better than the original.
To really get into the crux of Sandra’s question how does all of this work when time is of the essence? Well, as a landscape photographer, you have to be able to act very fast in order to wait patiently. When that isn’t the case, you have to work slowly so that you can move with the speed of a gazelle at that perfect moment. Landscape photography is not about rhythm or finding your groove. It is all about reaction to the elements, to the lighting, and to the very subject you are shooting. The ability to work quickly comes with time and it comes with repetition of the steps that I have outlined. If you do this each and every time you set up, it will become second nature to you, and when it is time to react quickly, you will only be thinking about the image and not the fundamentals that go into making it. A great example of this is this image from Price Lake. I had just finished shooting roughly the same direction with a completely different composition, but had shifted my attention to a view behind me. I’m always looking around when I am shooting landscape because the light changes quickly as happened here. I saw the last bit of color coming back into the sky behind me and decided that I needed to try and capture that.
Now, I did already have the camera set up with the 24-70mm lens, a polarizer and a 2stop hard grad for the image I had already shot and the one that I was currently working on. When I saw the scene developing to the rear, I could already tell that these were the filters that I would need in this situation as well so I was happy to leave them on. I read the scene quickly as I brought the camera around towards the color and decided that based on the shape of the shore, and the size of the colorful cloud bank that I was going to need to shoot this vertically. I flipped the camera and then crafted a composition through the viewfinder so that I had no other distractions for my eyes. Once I got the basic composition set, I switched to Live View and fine tuned it. I then set the polarizer and the grad filter before getting my base exposure. While working on the exposure I found my focus point and set my aperture for greatest depth of field. There was no movement, so my base exposure worked just fine for the image and that was what I shot with a 2 second self timer from Live View.
So how long did this take? Best that I can recall, I spent right at about two minutes from seeing the scene to finishing the exposure. See, this can be done very quickly which is a good thing because right after that exposure the light faded and was gone. This was a rushed image, and it does have a problem that happens in a rush. I missed the focus point slightly. I should have focused a bit further away as my foreground is tack sharp, but the background mountains are a bit soft. I could have used a little tighter aperture along with a different focus point. These are things that I would have picked up on in the image review but since the conditions faded so quickly, I didn’t take that kind of time to review it in the field as I wasn’t going to be able to reshoot it anyway. As it turned out, the slight softness happened in the background which I was ok with in the overall scheme of things. That is a much better concession than having the foreground go soft so I ended up keeping the image because overall it was just a very strong composition and the lighting was perfect.
Some things that you can do as a photographer that will help you work faster in the field is to have everything organized in your camera bag the same every time you go out. The organization in my bag hasn’t changed in probably three years and I can tell you exactly where everything in the bag is and I can find it by touch in most cases. This allows me to keep my focus and attention on the scene as it is developing as I am selecting the right combination of tools to capture it. Make sure that your equipment is easy to operate and simple to understand. Unfortunately, this is where you start getting into money many times. The smoothest operating equipment usually fetches a premium price tag which restricts the choices that the photographer has. Something that was once told to me, and I have proved it to myself over and over is that you might as well spend the money up front because it will be cheaper in the long run. I’ve replaced countless cheap pieces of equipment with other cheap pieces to eventually buy what I should have bought to begin with. In the end I have spent more than twice what it would have cost me to just get the expensive product first.
While we are on that subject, the three things that I would consider the most important to spend money on would be (in order) Lenses, tripod assembly, and then filters. Notice that the actual camera is not mentioned in the top three things and that is because camera bodies are disposable and they become outdated very quickly. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on the body because it is the glass in front of the sensor that makes the image. The camera body is just the carrier of the sensor and the buttons that operate the functions of the camera.
I do hope that you have enjoyed this installment of Behind the Camera and I would like to thank Michael, Sandra, and Joe for the ideas that brought me to this end. I hope that I didn’t lose anyone along the way and apologize that I did get a little technical in places. That was not my intention as I just wanted to shed a little light on what went into a “nice click,” “great shot,” and my personal favorite…”nice snap.” The process is involved, but really no different than getting in and starting up a car. If you do it enough, it will become second nature. Your camera will become an extension of your heart, mind, and hands to allow you to create the images that you see before you even see them. What I have described here is a process that anyone can do, and it is the process that I try to teach in my workshops. I will actually start including a real time demonstration to kick off the day and start some meaningful discussions with the group. There are no secrets here, and I don’t for a moment believe that I am the only one that works this way. I do know it works for me, and has allowed me to capture the images that I have over the years.
If there is a topic that you would like for me to discuss in the future, please let me know. I do enjoy talking about things that folks are wanting to hear about. It is an added bonus if I can make photography more enjoyable to somebody learning the craft, or prompt somebody to have a deeper understanding of the art behind the photograph when they look at a picture. Thanks for joining me this month, and I will be back here again soon!
Until next time…