When Blue Sky Landscapes Work

I often don’t like shooting landscapes that have just a blue sky because they are kind of boring. Unless there is a lot going on in the composition, having a lot of blue sky just doesn’t make for much of an interesting composition. Why is that? Landscapes are often a multitude of colors and there needs to be a balance of those colors, so when one is more dominant, whether dark or bright, it sticks out. Bright blue sky can be like that. There are times when having nothing but a blue sky works.

One great example of when nothing but blue works is with steam. Steam tends to blend in when there is a cloudy background. Makes sense right, white and grey steam blending in with grey clouds. This is where that whole color pallet with landscapes comes back into play. Landscapes aren’t just about majestic areas and great light, a lot comes back to color.

Images Captured with Nikon D5, 70-200 VRII, on Lexar UDMA Digital Film

Where’s the Snow?!

December is often associated with winter, snow and of course Christmas. The one thing I’ve learned out of all my years living here in Montana is that winter can never be predicted. Even the weathermen a day beforehand can’t figure out what it’s going to do. So how as a photographer do you deal with that?

Lots of exploration. It really sucks when you’re out shooting in need of a good photograph and you just can’t find it. The days where you get skunked are all too real and can be very frustrating because you know what it should be but it’s not there. The answer is to be patient and to keep driving around until you find something. If you keep a journal of great places to shoot, which I encourage every photographer to do, then that can help with those lulls. Otherwise just keep your eyes open and see what comes your way.

Weird Weather Shooting

It’s impossible to predict what each season will bring and the more time you spend behind the camera the more you see those changes as the years pass by. It makes landscape photography more interesting that way because the same day, a year a part, can be complete opposites. The other reality is this happens everywhere. As a photographer how do you prep going into the field thinking it’s going to be one way and it’s something else? For example; here in Bozeman it’s the end of November and it looks like October without the fall color or the snow.

The biggest challenge is always figuring out what to bring and what to leave at home. Lets face it we all have to much gear, it comes with the job. The best solution is spending lots of time with that gear and knowing what works best as more all purpose. For example my two favorite lenses for landscape work are the 24-70 AF-S and 70-200 VRII because they are so versatile. This makes switching targets way easier. As for figuring out where to go to shoot, that comes down to watching the weather and just looking out the window. I spend lots of time doing both to see what areas are going to be best.

It Always Comes Back to Light

No matter what tool, what technique or what challenge you give yourself, it always comes back to light. That one simple thing that we can’t avoid and must always abide by. Shooting at f/1.8 was a lot of fun in part because you can really maximize light. So much more light is coming in that you start to see things a little differently. It can get to the point where the light itself becomes the subject and the rest just falls away to the background.

This was taken with the same setup, Nikon D5, 85 f/1.8 at 1.8. No finishing needed. Just a simple click to capture the moment.

Is it Better to Be Far Away or Close Up?

Continuing on with my theme for this week about depth of field, is it better to be physically close to your subject to maximize the impact of the shallow depth of field, the subject and the distance between your subject and the background or is it better to be far away? If you’ve spent any time on social media or the web you’ll see lots of photos just like the one below where the photographer is close to the subject and you have a blurred out background. There’s nothing wrong with this but it’s done a lot especially in small scale stuff. Let’s think beyond that.

My setup was the Nikon D5, 85 f/1.8 at 1.8. Right there at 85mm I have to be moving around a lot in order to compose. It’s a prime lens I can’t zoom in or out but the challenge was shooting at f/1.8 the whole time so I went back and forth between distances. What was the result? While it is great to have those detail shots they don’t convey the story that I want them to. For years I’ve been going to Nevada City and I have yet to capture the image that really sums up that place to me. The only way to get it is to show more of the town not less. By shooting at f/1.8 the whole time I noticed that everything looked and felt smaller in the photo while still capturing more. That’s what you can do when you shoot further away. Cities are a great place to play around with this because there are so many lines to work with, you can really play around with how sharp and how blurred out you can make them. In the end it all comes down to the story and every one of those background elements comes into play.

Shallow Depth of Field

Depth of field is a powerful tool that we must take full use of every time we step behind the camera. The relationship between the subject and the other elements in the photograph is key to telling the story and either maximizing or minimizing the amount of information we see by changing the depth of field is how we bring out that story to the fullest. But it’s not always easy to get used to changing your F-Stop and then to think about that relationship between the F-Stop and the story.

A really good way to challenge yourself is to pick a good area where there is lots to work with, grab one camera body and one lens and one F-Stop. Practice. Watch the relationship between the subject, the background and the light and what the differences are with that one F-Stop. I just did this because I needed to practice so I grabbed the Nikon D5, 85 f/1.8 and shot at 1.8 the whole time I was out walking around. That’s how you get better. You do these little challenges and learn from the results.

So here is a real basic but important truth to using that shallow depth of field. First off it vignettes which can be good or bad depending on what you are trying to say but I tend to like vignettes because it sucks the viewers eye into the photo. The real lesson here is the focal plane. Everything on the same focal plane will be sharp so if you’re shooting at 1.8 but everything is on the same focal plane then you aren’t really going to make use of that shallow depth of field. This is why you need to stay at a slight angle. I put up these two images to show just that since they were taken with the exact same setup.

Longer Lenses For Landscapes

I really like using longer lenses even mid range lenses when it comes to landscapes. I often find that there are avenues in landscape photography that make for a stronger composition then if you were to use a wider lens and capture more info. A big part of landscape photography is finding those areas where the light is making a statement about the land. Too much negative or positive space can lead to a boring image. Kinda like here, having a wider lens really wouldn’t add anymore to the story.

Winter landscapes and black and white photography really remind me of poetry. I don’t know why but that’s just where my mind goes. When the afternoon goes from gorgeous god beams to so flat a grey that you could use it as a color checker it makes one wonder what kind of poem is being written. Low clouds, steam from the rivers and folks burning ground clutter can make for some interesting backgrounds. Combined with Cottonwoods and snow the valley can become rather surreal, much like a poem.

Images Captured with Nikon D5, 70-200 VRII, on Lexar UDMA Digital Film

A Break From the Storm

Well it’s starting to feel like winter already which is kind of amazing considering how short fall was. With this last big storm that swept across Montana, a blanket of snow was dropped and it was a pretty good size blanket. We got a good foot here in the valley which is actually typical for November as we always seem to get at least one big storm before Thanksgiving.

When big storms come through I watch the weather carefully never knowing when the whole will come in the clouds letting in just enough light to really make that fresh powder shine. Sunday we had a few hours before the next storm cell would bring in more snow I went out looking at all that great powder. Sadly I returned with nothing. That’s how it goes sometimes. You get all ready to find that image only to return empty handed. Then looking out the window in a brief moment there was the image. This is why it’s important to have a camera on your desk for you never know when it’s going to be needed. This was a simple click with the D5 and 70-200 VRII out my window towards the neighbors horse ranch. A little bit of finishing in ACR and there ya go.

Fall Color and Snow

Whenever someone says fall color the mind instantly goes to leaves. Mine doesn’t. I think about the geothermal’s that exist in Yellowstone because in the Fall there is more visible activity coming from the geothermal then there is Summer. The colder temps make for more dramatic compositions and the colors can be just as striking as the fall color. For instance the vents at upper Mammoth Hot Springs.

The bacteria that grows in the geothermal’s create a range of different colors and the fallen debris inside the geothermal’s creates some unusal textures. Leaves, branches, even animals all break down in the boiling water and the results are well, interesting. It’s a lot like looking at another planet. Photographically there are many ways to work with this type of subject from a macro to a wide angle, being so bright and colorful the viewers eye will go to it no matter what. The downside is you can’t really use a tripod in Yellowstone because the boardwalks have to remain passable. It’s a little easier in winter time when you go out on a private tour when the park’s roads are closed but thats another post.

Spot Lighting Works on Rapids

It’s great when everything comes together and you get that perfect amount of light coming through the clouds right on the spot you want it to. It never seems to happen when you want it to but every now and then the heavens smile on us. Well this was one of those moments where everything just kinda clicked, maybe it was just right place at the right time or maybe it was a reward for climbing up a cliff face. Who knows.

Rapids are a lot of fun to work with because you photograph them many different ways. You can use a fast shutter or a slow shutter, you can go tight and show just the water or really wide and show everything. You can go high and look down or get low and level with the river. Each way show another perspective which makes it fun. The two big things I look for is good light and a good anchor point. Now I don’t like using the word anchor because it gets used way to much with landscapes and often times those anchors suck but with fast moving water you need some sort of spot for the viewers eye to relax against because all that movement in the water makes it hard to look at the image for too long. Light is the obvious one since every good image needs good light but it’s always good to remember that element. Keep in mind also that everyone does long exposure moving water shots so try and be creative with yours.

Images Captured with Nikon D750, 24-70 AF-S, on Lexar UDMA Digital Film

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