Chasing Light & The Dynamic Landscape

Landscape photography is difficult. Landscape photographs are also often underappreciated by the viewer. It takes a lot of planning and work and the marriage of artistic insight with technical ability to accurately capture the scene in front of the camera. It also takes a bit of luck. Viewers don't see this in the image. They see the grand scene, the finished product. Unfortunately our content saturated lives have also made us desensitized. The constant bombardment of vibrant images and the heavy use of instant filters has made us assume that many amazing landscape images on the internet are fabricated. How are we supposed to tell which is real and which is over-processed? This undervalues the hard won images of those of us who strive to capture the natural world as we see it. Still, we press on, keeping in mind that it is the celebration of, and personal connection with, the natural world that we seek, not simply recognition or wealth.

Sunrise and Fog over the Blue Ridge Mountains, North Carolina (35mm, f/8, 1/250 sec, ISO 200, no filters)

Sunrise and Fog over the Blue Ridge Mountains, North Carolina (35mm, f/8, 1/250 sec, ISO 200, no filters)

Chasing Light

The images in this post were made at sunrise yesterday morning. They were actually not the product of much planning, which is unusual in the world of landscape photography. I had to drop my wife off at work extra early, so I tossed my gear in the car in case the mood struck me to make a picture or two. It was a dark and foggy morning in low valleys, but after dropping Alison off, I noticed that it seemed clear on the high peaks. This is a rare occurrence in the Appalachians. I had just enough time to drive over to the Blue Ridge Parkway before sunrise.

Once there, I had several miles to go before I would reach the spot I wanted to shoot from - a pull-off overlooking the mountains about a thousand feet below. Through the forest I could see dense fog covering the valleys. The sky was clear except for a few puffy clouds. I knew that when the sun rose, there would be some amazing color on the horizon, and that those few clouds would be rimmed with bright colorful light. I also knew the low lying fog would capture some of that light and help to define the features of the mountains.

I arrived just in time. There were two other photographers in the same spot already, but there was plenty of room for a third. I hopped out of the car to survey the scene before I made any equipment choices. Then, I grabbed my small travel tripod and both cameras (one mounted on a wide zoom lens and the other on a 70-200mm telephoto) and selected my spot. Not even one minute after I set up my camera and telephoto lens did the light come. It bathed the mountains below in beautiful pink light. This never lasts more than a few minutes. I made a couple exposures with the telephoto; then, decided to take in the grander scene. I grabbed my other camera with the 18-35mm lens but didn't bother fiddling with the tripod this time. I didn't want to lose the light. I also didn't have time to fuss around with filters to even out the high contrast scene. I set my camera to manual and selected shutter speeds that allowed me get sharp shots while hand holding. I increased my ISO only slightly to accomplish this and kept my aperture set at either f/8 or f/11. I bracketed several exposures of several slightly different compositions. For each composition, I checked my histogram to make sure I was in the safe zone. Today's digital camera sensors have excellent dynamic range compared to ten years ago; this allowed me to keep detail in the darker foreground while exposing for the bright sky.

Pink Sunrise and Fog, Blue Ridge Mountains, North Carolina (105mm, f/11, 1/500 sec, ISO 200, no filters)

Pink Sunrise and Fog, Blue Ridge Mountains, North Carolina (105mm, f/11, 1/500 sec, ISO 200, no filters)

Once the sun rose just above the horizon, having provided me with only a few minutes of shooting time, the intense color faded. It was gone as quickly as it came. The other two photographers were still firing off dozens of photos, milking every last second of warm morning light, but I chose to move on. I had what I wanted in just a few frames. When I arrived home and began editing the images in Lightroom, I only had to make slight exposure adjustments. I find that if I pay a lot of attention to detail and exposure in the field, then I have less work to do in post to bring an image to life the way I remember it. I lightened the foreground of the top image a bit and adjusted the white balance. Only a couple slight adjustments were needed other than that. The second image in this post required a bit more work to bring the color through, but very little beyond a contrast and slight saturation boost.

The Dynamic Landscape

I just finished reading Mountain Light: In Search of the Dynamic Landscape, written by famous mountaineering photographer Galen Rowell. Even if you don't recognize his name you know his work. He needs no introduction here. I found that book inspirational. Not only were the images breathtaking, but Rowell's philosophy and techniques spoke to me. While I was taking the photographs in this post, things from the book kept popping into my mind. As I mentioned earlier, I didn't want to waste precious seconds by fiddling around with a tripod. Rowell didn't always use a tripod for even his most famous landscapes. To save weight, he often braced his camera on rocks or even ski poles. I employed one of his techniques in the making of the first and third image in this post. I read in Mountain Light that Rowell would squat and place his elbows on his knees in order to get sharp shots at slow shutter speeds. When I knelt down to include the goldenrods in the foreground of a vertical composition, I found myself balancing precariously on a steep slope that descended into the valley below through brambles and thorny bushes. I couldn't seem to stop wiggling and swaying about. If I backed up onto more level ground, the composition just didn't work. In order to balance myself in a stable manner (as ridiculous as it may have looked to the other photographers) to get a good sharp image, I squatted with my toes pointed down the hill, placed my elbows on my knees, and made a few sharp images after each exhale. It worked like a charm. I was shooting at the 35mm end of my lens, so all I needed was a shutter speed of 1/30th or higher to get a sharp image at f/8. I had plenty of light and was able to shoot at 1/250th of a second. Had I been on stable ground, it would have been no problem. Sometimes, however, the best composition isn't found at eye-level while standing.

Just before the good light vanished, I made the image below. I've known for years that "sun stars" can be made by closing down your aperture to f/22, but I had never really employed that technique in my images. In Mountain Light, Rowell used sun stars to create extra visual interest in his images. The sun was just about to fully rise over the trees in the left of the scene, so I stopped down to f/22 to make as many points on the star as possible. Because the sun was shining through an opening in the trees, the affect was further enhanced. Sun stars are caused by diffraction of light through a narrow opening. The narrower the opening (in this case f/22 instead of f/8), the more spread out the light rays become, creating more points of the star. I'm glad I made the last minute decision to use this technique. It's not something I would usually do. In fact, I don't typically photograph sweeping or grand landscapes, but more often shoot the details that compose those landscapes. I guess Galen Rowell must have influenced me to get out of my comfort zone and try something new. Landscape photography isn't always easy, but the pay off is equal to the effort.

Sun Star and Pink Fog over the Blue Ridge Mountains, North Carolina (28mm, f/22, 1/200 sec, ISO 320, no filters)

Sun Star and Pink Fog over the Blue Ridge Mountains, North Carolina (28mm, f/22, 1/200 sec, ISO 320, no filters)

"You only get one sunrise and one sunset a day, and you only get so many days on the planet. A good photographer does the math and doesn't waste either."

- Galen Rowell (1940-2002)