Wednesday, May 16, 2012

4 L's To Make or Break Your Landscape Photography

Yosemite National Park probably conjures up images of rushing, gushing waterfalls, towering granite cliffs, delicate wildflowers in alpine meadows, and giant sequoias stretching to the skies. There's no place on earth like it, and photographers like Ansel Adams popularized it as the perfect place for photographers that it is. Over the past week, as I go through my memory cards of photos from my trip to this place of pure landscape magic, work on them, and share them online, there are a few things that make some photos stand out as keepers. Other photos, of course, will inevitably collect digital dust on some hard drive or in the cloud. From start to finish through my whole digital workflow, here are 4 critical factors that were common to the keepers, 4 "L's" that will make or break your landscape photography.


Location

During the course of the weekend we hit a lot of the usual spots in Yosemite Valley, and some that were less known as well. But we went to every location because of the view, panorama, angle, or some other standout feature (like wildflowers, river, Half Dome, waterfall, etc). This, of course, is at the core of what ShutterGuides is all about: sharing great photography spots (locations). Search for great spots in your city, the national park you're planning to visit, the country you're planning to visit for your upcoming vacation, etc. And don't forget to share the spots you find with others!

Lighting

Chasing the light will yield immeasurably better results. Taking photos during the "golden hours", sunrise and sunset, will likely leave you with more interesting images of the same exact subject than a shot of it at high noon. With ShutterGuides you can find the day's sunrise and sunset times for each spot, as well as the weather conditions to help you get the best possible light for your photography.

Lens

There are two sides to the lens conversation. One camp of people will say that you should get all the latest and greatest gear - upgrade, update, buy. The other camp says gear doesn't matter, just go out and shoot with what you've got. I fall a bit in the middle on this issue. I say, gear does make a difference, and in particular you should invest in the best lenses you can, but this will not take the place of knowing the basic technique of photography and practicing it as much as possible. But do make sure you have the right lens for the job. If you know you're going to be shooting mostly the granite cliffs, sweeping waterfalls, and broad valleys of Yosemite, make sure you have a wide enough lens (I say this with a certain bit of personal regret - I uttered the phrase "I wish I had a wider lens" far too many times while in Yosemite). If you're setting out to shoot wildflowers, consider a macro lens or something with a wide aperture to achieve the depth of field you're envisioning. Renting a lens can be a good option for trying out lenses before you buy.

With ShutterGuides, every spot will show you the lens that was used for the example photo (if the lens information is available). Do your homework ahead of time to make sure you have the right lens for the job.

Lightroom (or Aperture or whatever you use)

Ok, so it's not necessarily always an "L" word, but the post production software you use, whether it's Lightroom, Aperture, Photoshop, or something else, can take a photo from pretty good to jaw-dropping great (and don't be fooled, all those jaw-dropping photos have gone through some kind of processing). Post-processing software can help you adjust white balance (you are shooting in RAW format right?), tweak exposure, straighten crooked horizons, remove dust spots, and much more. I fall in the middle again on this heated topic: I say these tools are invaluable to your photography and will definitely improve your photos, but of course it can only work with what you give it. Neglect the other 3 L's and this "L" won't be of much use. But remember, Ansel Adams used a darkroom, too. Nowadays, if you're shooting digital photos, Lightroom (and Aperture, and...oh you get the idea) is the new darkroom.





I came back from the trip with a number of photos that I am really pleased with, and I can say without a doubt that every one of them was taken in a unique and stunning location, at a time of day with interesting lighting, with a high quality lens, and successfully post-processed and tweaked in Lightroom. The rest...well, better luck (maybe that's the fifth "L"?) next time.

What are your thoughts about these 4 L's? Any other biggies you think I missed?

Download my photo guide to Yosemite National Park