Tag Archives: photographing landscapes

Backcountry Photography Tips


My Faithful Marmot Tent












Hello, I am writing from the confines of my tent and listening to the sharp staccato of raindrops pelting the fabric just inches from my ears. It has been raining for the last three days, with only brief and intermittent breaks in the precipitation. I have been camping on the North Fork of the Sacramento River for over three weeks now (the same place I camped for five weeks last Summer), and I am wanting to photograph this special area that has been my home for several weeks. Backcountry photography requires the right gear, and experience using that gear. Equally important is the willingness and mental preparedness to endure Mother Nature’s sometimes lengthy inclement bouts, for they almost always provide outstanding photographic opportunities, but patience and a sense of humor is key.

Staying safe, warm, and dry is primary. Your comfort will dictate how productive your photo efforts will be. Shelter for most people means a tent. Choose a small, quality, lightweight model—large enough to accommodate you, your pack, and your camera gear, yet light enough that you’ll actually carry it. Condensation on the tent’s interior is a natural occurrence and poses a challenge to staying dry, even when it isn’t raining. The ability to vent the space can help to alleviate this problem. Keep clothing and sleeping bags away from tent sides, and avoid bumping the fabric as much as possible. Dress in layers—and absolutely NO cotton! Cotton retains moisture and has no insulating value. Be prepared for any kind of weather regardless of the season. Don’t rely on forecasts. Mount Shasta has seen snow on the Fourth of July.


North Fork, Sacramento River, Northern California

With today’s sophisticated electronics, camera’s are far more vulnerable to the elements than the manual film cameras of old. Even with a weatherized pro-level camera system, precautions need to be taken. Weather-resistant carrying cases add a level of insurance. I have a Lowepro Toploader Zoom 50 AW II for my Canon EOS body and moderate zoom lens. I also have small protective soft cases for each of my lenses.

I am a minimalist in everything I do. I rely on experience more than gear, particularly when camping in the backcountry. Unless I absolutely need it, I don’t carry it. I have the same attitude regarding camera gear. I bring only what I need to do the job. That means a camera body and two lenses—a 10-18 mm ultra-wide zoom and an 18-55 mm zoom. This covers the majority of shooting situations and keeps weight and space requirements to a minimum. I also carry a fully-charged spare battery and second memory card. Occasionally I use a circular polarizer or neutral density filter, but I find with digital photography that I am less prone to using filters.

Maidenhair Fern, Northern California

Maidenhair Fern, Northern California

A tripod is an essential piece of equipment. Some of the most compelling image-making happens after sunset. Many fine, lightweight tripods are available. I recently purchased a Davis and Sanford Traverse with a BHQ8 Ball Head. Turn off any image-stabilization when using a tripod. Use a remote shutter release or self-timer to avoid camera-shake. Use a lens hood to protect the front lens element from precipitation, as well as the occasional bump.

Sometimes it’s the little things that mean the difference between an enjoyable outing and a disastrous one. I always carry a large, heavy-duty trash bag in my pack. They’re light and offer excellent rain-protection in the event of a sudden downpour while hiking on the trail. That has kept my pack, clothing, and camera gear dry on numerous occasions. Also, pack a couple of one-gallon zip-lock storage bags for water-proof security. They serve as a rain-guard in drizzly conditions. Plastic film canisters are one of the greatest storage containers ever conceived. They are water-tight and pack easily. Keep memory cards, lens tissue, and/or your Bic Mini safe and dry.

Accidents do happen! When I recently purchased a new Canon system, I enrolled in the SquareTrade 2 Year Drops and Spills Protection Plan. At $92 for the two years, it’s cheap insurance. Canon will repair or replace damaged equipment, as long as the item isn’t lost or stolen.

Please contact me with any comments, questions, or suggestions. Until next time, happy image-making!


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Photo Tip #6: Photographing Fall Color

Photographing Fall Color

Fall is a truly magical season–a time of great movement and change. Days grow shorter and shadows grow longer. Animals migrate to their wintering grounds and the Autumn displays of color offer their final farewell to the abundance of Summer. Fall is rich with photographic opportunity–and Autumn color and slant light of the season can provide for striking imagery.

This Photo Tip is an addendum to Photographing Landscapes. While certain locations are well-known for their vivid displays, most areas of the country experience some kind of Fall color. Aspen, ash, birch, maple, oak, and numerous other deciduous trees turn ablaze with the season’s arrival of colder temperatures and waning sunlight. The first thing I recommend when photographing Fall color is to assess the scene. A few minutes spent here can make for a more efficient and productive photo session. View the big picture. What immediately attracts your attention? Does that small, isolated stand of aspens provide the bright splash of color to make your landscape pop? Or is the stand of trees an interesting and worthy subject in itself? When is the best time of day for optimal light? Consider all the possible vantage points. The best photographs are often hard-won. A little extra effort may mean the difference between an average photograph and one that really stands out. A polarizing filter can increase color saturation and contrast, but I suggest going easy on the amount of polarization you use. Too much polarization takes on an unnatural appearance and can reduce subtle detail, particularly in shadow areas. When using a zoom lens, check your composition at a variety of focal lengths. If multiple compositions appeal to you, photograph them all. If you are a professional photographer offering stock images for licensing, having several options increases your chances of selling the image. You can never foresee what might appeal to a particular client.


Photographing Fall Color















Think outside the box. While sharp depth-of-field and crisp detail are usually desirable when photographing trees and foliage, you can also apply the same principles you use to create the effect of soft, flowing water. Long exposures (1/8 second or longer) allow blowing leaves to paint abstract blurs of color across the photograph. As a counterpoint, consider anchoring all that motion with a sharply focused branch or tree trunk. Try using a flash at dusk to photograph the leaves as they rain down in a windstorm. Experiment–and most of all, have fun. It’s a wonderful time to be outside embracing nature’s beauty and diversity.

Please contact me with any questions or comments, or to book a photo tour.

Until next time, happy image-making…


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Photo Tip #5: Photographing Landscapes

Photographing Landscapes

Landscapes account for more photographs, historically, than any other genre, with the likely exception of portraiture. We are all immersed in some kind of landscape. Even the city dweller resides in an urban landscape. While this particular article focuses on the natural world, everything I present here can be applied to cityscapes, as well.

Photography is all about light. Take note of those landscape photographs that really catch your eye. Almost certainly, the scene is awash in beautiful light. Light is the foundation upon which all photographs are created, and the more beautiful the light, the more visually impactful the photograph. Photographers are constantly referring to the golden hour— that one hour beginning just before sunrise and the one hour ending just after sunset. Colors grow rich and shadows long. Textures become accented. It is a rare occasion that great photos just happen. They are usually the product of hard work and committed effort–of knowing the subject, its characteristics, the best vantage point, and also the best time of day and optimal season. If you have the luxury, make repeated visits to a site. Learn it. When you get to know a particular location intimately, that begins to reflect in your photographs. Galen Rowell is an outstanding landscape photographer and high on my list of favorites. Galen’s photos of the Eastern Sierra Nevada are stunning. He has climbed, skied, and photographed on all seven continents and chose to live in the Eastern Sierra because of its unique quality of light, which he felt to be the most beautiful he had experienced anywhere on the planet. When metering for landscapes, take readings from middle tones in the landscape itself. Or, take a gray card reading, providing you are positioned in the same light as your subject (See Determining Exposure).


Photographin Landscapes

Composition is critical in good landscape photography. Apply the rule of thirds. I prefer to call it a principle rather than a rule. Use it as a guideline (See Composition For A Stronger Photograph). Many factors combine to influence a photograph’s composition. Determine your center of interest, whether it’s a human figure, a towering mountain peak, incredible light, or a splash of bright color. Look for interesting color contrasts, but also be aware of competing colors that draw the eye away from your intended point of interest. Be conscious in the placement of your horizon line. One-third up from the bottom emphasizes an expansive sky. One-third from the top directs attention to the landscape itself. Pay attention that oceans and lakes don’t flow down hill. Don’t restrict yourself to a horizontal camera orientation. Maybe the soaring conifers require a vertical orientation. Get in the habit of viewing the scene in both directions. If you are a professional photographer providing stock images to clients, they may request a vertical orientation, specifically. If the image is intended for a calendar, the client may require a horizontal format. If a scene works both vertically and horizontally, photograph it in both directions. It ups your chance of selling the image.

When photographing sunsets, meter the middle tones in the sky at about a 45-degree angle from the Sun. Silhouetted objects in the foreground can add visual interest and drama to a scene.You can use a flash to light up foreground detail. When properly applied, this can provide striking results. Determine the proper f-stop for your flash-to-subject distance and set the shutter speed to your flash’s sync speed (usually 1/125 sec) or slower. I will cover the use of flash in an upcoming Photo Tips.

When shooting backlighted landscapes, use your hand, or a hat, or your gray card to shade the front of the lens to eliminate lens flare. On occasion, I find lens flare adds an interesting visual component. And there are going to be those times when it is unavoidable. Note: Never look directly at the Sun through your viewfinder. You can severely and permanently damage your eyes!

Filters can help to render more pleasing results, but I recommend using them sparingly. A polarizing filter is great for reducing reflections on bright surfaces, such as water, snow, and glass. It also increases color contrast and deepens the blue sky. A rotating ring and lens adjusts the amount of polarization. It works best when the camera is pointed at a 90-degree angle from the Sun. I suggest not getting too heavy-handed with the polarizer. Skies can become unrealistically saturated. Try different degrees of polarization and see which offers you the most optimal results, but less is usually better. A note on polarizers. They have a tendency to muddy up green foliage, particularly conifers–especially when they are bathed in warm light. A second filter I recommend is a graduated neutral density filter. This filter is indispensable in balancing a bright sky and a less reflective landscape. The glass element is divided in half, one half being denser than the other. This reduces the amount of light entering through that half of the filter without affecting overall color balance. Graduated neutral density filters are available in 1-, 2-, and 3-stop differences, on up to 8- and 10-stop filters. Keep all filters and lenses clean and free of dust–particularly when shooting in the direction of the Sun. Removing filters entirely reduces the amount of reflection and helps to eliminate that washed out quality in backlighted scenes.

I suggest using a tripod and cable release whenever possible. The more stable your camera, the sharper the image. A tripod is a must if you want to create the effect of soft, flowing water that can be so appealing. Try using long shutter speeds–a second or more. When hand-holding your camera, use fast shutter speeds. The rule of thumb is: if you are shooting with a 50 mm lens, use a shutter speed of 1/60 second or faster. If you’re shooting with a 200 mm telephoto, set the shutter speed at 1/250 second or faster.

I hope this article has been helpful. Please contact me with any comments, questions, or suggestions. If you have a particular topic you would like to see covered, let me know. I will try to oblige you.

Until next time, happy image-making…


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