PHOTOGRAPHY TUTORIAL 04

LEARN LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY

Digital landscape photography requires a totally new approach. The traditional role of analogue cameras, was to capture the final photograph ‘in-camera’. This role has now transferred to Photoshop post processing to create the final photograph.

The act of landscape photography now, is capturing the assets you require for Photoshop in order to create the photograph you previsualized at the camera. This opens up new creative and quality opportunities we never had previously. This should be embraced.

This tutorial sets out the clear, logical and methodical, technical process for landscape photography that ensures capturing the best quality assets for Photoshop. Assets divided into three exposure types that are then composited together.

Photography Tutorial Learn Landscape Photography. Photograph of Lofoten Islands, Norway. David Osborn Photography
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The Critical Tripod

Align Exposures

Aligning multiple exposures in Photoshop is central to my whole landscape photography technique. Every frame must align pixel perfect in Photoshop, a tripod is critical. The most common use for tripods, is keeping the camera still during long exposures. The ability to align multiple exposures opens a whole new world of possibility. Straight away you have removed the traditional requirement and limitation, of getting the photograph in a single frame. The reliance on everything being perfect in every area of the image, which it never is. With a tripod we can shoot exposures when the light is perfect in various areas of the image, then combine them together to create our final image in Photoshop.

More Contemplative

The use of a tripod also has other benefits apart from the technical. A tripod slows you down mentally and physically. The tripod transforms you from rushing around not very sure what you shot, to being in a calm state; allowing you to be more thoughtful about the photograph and what you are doing. Making good landscape photography is primarily about thinking and waiting, not about speed and shooting. The tripod transforms you from snapping many images to creating one image. One image created with thought and purpose is worth a thousand without. The tripod forces you to question your decisions, that means you can make better decisions resulting in better quality images.

Composition Perfection

We do not want to waste our image data by cropping the image in Photoshop. We want to use all the image full frame as shot. Only by using a tripod can we get our composition so perfectly balanced. The tripod allows us to scan the image in critical detail. Searching the image border for cut objects. Keep them in or keep them out, don’t cut them in half. The tripod allows us to study the spatial relationship of how objects align with each other in the landscape. We can physically move our tripod and camera for a better, cleaner more harmonious alignment. Without a tripod we do not have the ability to look in such detail and critically at the outline of every object because the image changes as the camera moves.

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Tutorial Learn Landscape Photography. Photo of Tuscany, Italy. David Osborn Photography
Val d’Orcia, Tuscany, Italy

The Camera Response Curve

Tonal Changes

The camera records the tones you see, but changes them dramatically. You never capture the same tonal relationships your eye sees. Understanding how the camera changes the tones is essential for two reasons. You can use the changes that help your photograph, to your benefit and then find a solution that counteracts the effects that degrade the photograph. Without knowing what changes are made, means you are not in control of the outcome. Changes are seen in three areas; contrast, highlights and shadow areas. Overall or global contrast is dramatically increased. This can help us provided we are aware of it, like on flat lit days, subtle skies and clouds suddenly look rich and beautiful, dramatic.

Highlights

First rule about highlights. If the camera ‘blinkies’ show no highlight detail, there are none and highlights can never be rescued later. There is no secret raw reserve hiding somewhere. Highlight detail dictates the first part of the camera exposure process, with total disregard to what happens to the tones in the rest of the image. Second rule is that from pure white to about mid grey, contrast is greatly added, the camera curve is steeper and straight. We double the tonal separation in relation to what our eye sees. This is the benefit we can use to our advantage. Textures are richer, grey skies become beautiful subtle tones with cloud form you did not notice. You record more subtle tones in camera.

Shadows

Shadows are where you will pay the price big time, the camera curve does everything possible to work against you having good tonal separation in the dark tones, shadows. Simply, you could not design a better tonal curve to destroy the shadows. The camera curve turns from a steep line in the mid-tones to a flat horizontal line in the darkest tones. There is minute tonal separation, all the tones blocked together as a single dark mass. THIS is where photographers biggest mistake happens; we are taught to brighten the shadows in the software later. To a degree you can, but you will NEVER have rich tones, because you never recorded rich tones. How can software give you something you never captured in the camera?

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Photography Tutorial, Learn Landscape Photography. Photo of Sorano, Italy. David Osborn Photography
Sorano, Tuscany, Italy

The Histogram is God

Fantastic Shadow Tone

We separate the camera exposure into two problems. Highlights we covered, for the shadows we treat the camera histogram as our God. The bracketed exposures are then composited in Photoshop to give us an image with beautiful shadow and highlight detail together. The very first priority, is the capture of the information with maximum quality. RULE. Breaking tones apart in Photoshop, degrades image quality, compressing tones does not degrade the quality. Brightening shadows in software, breaks all the tones apart because we are making a limited tonal range cover more than they were designed to do, BUT, if we capture the full tonal range, then we do not need to brighten them in Photoshop, retaining quality.

Histogram Falls Over First

As we expose the shadows brighter, we move them up the camera curve and away from the noisy, flat, compressed part, towards the straight part that gives more tonal separation. REALLY, REALLY IMPORTANT. As the tones gain more separation, this allows more room then, for additional tones to be recorded, the subtle tones. Tones that will never exist in the raw file unless you record them in the camera. The brighter you expose the shadows, the more tone you record. This gives you beautiful, rich shadow detail you will never achieve through software alone. Watch the histogram as you brighten the image. The bottom left corner is pinned to the graph, but the curve falls over becoming less angular and smoother.

Then Pulls Away Like Chewing Gum

The more we brighten the exposure for the shadows, the more the histogram curve falls over towards the right, but still pinned on the left at the black point. Imagine the shape of the curve, equated to taking off in an aircraft. Steep curve, brutal take off. Smooth curve, enjoyable take off. Same with tone; smooth curve means smooth tone and importantly, a mass of rich and subtle shadow tone. The question is, how bright do we make the shadows? Watch the histogram, there will be a point where the histogram curve stretches towards the right, then can stretch no more; the curve pulls away at the black point on the left. Like pulling chewing gum off a wall, you achieve no more tone by making it any brighter.

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Photography Tutorial. Learn Landscape Photography. Photo of Lofoten Islands, Norway. David Osborn Photography
Lofoten Islands, Norway

The Perfect Lighting

Side and Back Lighting

The best light for good landscape photography is side lighting, with the sun light a little behind or in front of our main subject depending on the picture. Our final image is an optical illusion containing light, form, depth and mood. Side lighting creates object form and spatial depth, two critical qualities. If the sun is behind us, the photograph becomes flat, dead and lifeless. Nothing can rescue the feel in Photoshop. If we shoot directly into the sun, the contrast is incredibly harsh, but it can make great pictures. Often, we want our brightest highlight to be on our main hero, so our attention goes straight to it. The best overall light for the landscape is therefore dictated by what the best light for our main hero is.

Light the Main Hero

Now we have the ability to capture and reproduce images with full tonal ranges, from the very brightest highlight to the darkest shadow with rich tonality, we no longer need to be scared about what contrast we photograph. Our only decision is what makes a good landscape photograph. Looking back to the old master painters like Rembrandt, the overall dark picture with the hero in full light, has been a formula for hundreds of years. We can use the same formula in our landscape photography. Waiting for a roving beam of sunlight to hit our main hero subject, then keeping the overall image dark. The overall darkness enhances the sense of light and brightness, making the image luminous.

Grey Days; Look Harder

Diffused light is our best friend in landscape photography. No sunlight produces a lifeless quality. Too harsh, we lose the subtle tones. Diffused light creates rich, subtle tones we can exploit. The reason why the late afternoon and early morning are traditional times to photograph. However, by understanding how the camera will change the tones we perceive and the Photoshop process, we actually only need a very minimal level of highlights and shadows created, to give us enough material to make an image full of light, life and drama. Very commonly, scenes are rejected as being too flat, when in fact they are containing incredibly rich tones that can be exploited to make great landscape photography.

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Photography Tutorial. Learn Landscape Photography. Photo of Konstanz, Germany. David Osborn Photography
Konstanz, Germany

Just Photograph Assets

Base Image

The final landscape photograph now being the product of Photoshop and not the camera, means the digital camera is now a mere recording tool. Gathering up all the separate picture components, assets required for Photoshop; like buying the ingredients to cook a meal. There are three types of Photoshop assets we need to capture for our final landscape image. The first is called the ‘base image’. This is our best attempt to get the landscape photograph shot in a single frame, in-camera. This base image will become the final landscape photograph in Photoshop once it has the next additional assets added. Technical assets for print quality and artistic assets for creativity.

Technical Assets

Technical assets are principally bracketed exposure images for retaining the highlight details lost in the base image, or improve the shadow details lost in the base image. We need to study the scene through the camera, together with the camera histogram, searching for all the subject areas we know will have tonal problems later if we relied only on the base image to create our final photograph. Knowing how the camera changes the tones, we counteract the darkening action of the camera response curve on the shadows areas, by shooting brighter exposures. This puts back the lost tonal richness we know the camera is losing; the camera making these areas even darker than our eye sees.

Artistic Assets

As the light and mood changes, I look for additional artistic assets. These are areas of the photograph where something unique is happening with the light and is only happening in one area not previously captured; but would improve the final landscape photograph if they were included. If the light falls on the surrounding hills or the secondary heroes for example, I would photograph it. This then gives me maximum creative choice later in the Photoshop post processing stage. At the same time, I need to make sure that the artistic assets also have good rich tonal values and detail, so additional technical exposures may be taken for these artistic assets if required.

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Tutorial. Learn Landscape Photography. Photo of Castle, Germany. David Osborn Photography
Sigmaringen Castle, Germany

Mentally Build the Picture

The Picture You Want

Good landscape photography is a mind game, and a waiting game. We begin the process by being inspired by the scene, then visualize what it could become after Photoshop. We like the idea, but that’s all it is, an idea. We need to turn what we see ‘it could become’ into reality. During the whole process of photographing the assets, we need to keep in mind, what we are aiming to achieve; our previsualized image. Often, we need to adapt our plan according to the situation and the opportunities we are given. Few times do things go to plan, but by having a clear previsualized idea for the picture and constantly updating it, it is amazing how close we can get if we are prepared to be patient and wait.

Assets Done. Assets to Get

When we leave the location, we can only make our final landscape photograph with the assets that we have taken, except for skies as they are not location specific. During the process of photographing the assets, we need to keep two mental lists. The assets we have and the assets we need to get. The benefit is two-fold. First, we do not leave the scene until we have all the assets we require for Photoshop editing. Secondly, we can transfer our time and effort away from what we already have shot, to what we need to shoot. The more effort and attention we put into getting the detail of the photographs content right, the more chance we will have to achieve it. It also keeps a clarity about what remains to be done.

When Do You Leave?

Answer: Generally, when you are cold, wet, bored, depressed, having a tantrum and talking to the sheep because you’re so lonely. Especially if you hear the sheep answer you back! When God looks down and sees a landscape photographer, he rubs his hands, has a big grin and says ” I’m going to have some fun today”. He is going to play with you! Just after you leave, the sun comes out like a Rembrandt painting and stops just as you finish running back to try and capture it! When do you leave? Who knows! Well, when you have worked through your shopping list of assets and decide you have enough to create your previsualized photograph in Photoshop. There is nothing more to be gained by waiting.

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