Landscape Magic—10 Points to Score

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Landscape photography is such a romantic pursuit! Though it is so close to many of our hearts, the romance of landscape photography gets pushed aside too often by its technical and procedural aspects. Yet, without that technical stuff, it’s really hard to bring out the romance. With that in mind, I created what I think are the top ten ideas for techniques that you can use easily, so you can focus in on the romance. These top tips can work anywhere, but with the current interest in my ancestral home of Bodie, I was asked to act as your photographic guide to this very Western ghost town.

The key to making any top-ten-ideas list work is to latch on to only those that fit your style of photography, and forget the rest. The next thing you want to do is think through these ideas with the camera gear you own. You might find that some suit the job perfectly, while others end up being the odd lens out. And more than likely, you’ll find you’ll need to acquire a new lens. That is all part of the process, and the more you explore it, the better your photography will become, the greater the romance will become, and the more enthralling will be your storytelling. Let’s get to the list.

Editor's Note: This is a guest blogpost by Moose Peterson.


1. Take One Step Closer!

If there is one common comment I make to landscape photographers, it’s to take a step closer. I’m being very literal here, take at least one step closer to you subject. It’s all part of what I call the dance, excluding elements we do not want in the frame, while including those that we do. By simply getting closer, we can vastly improve our photograph. Here’s an example of what I’m referring to.

The old Dodge in front of the Boone Store is a big-time favorite with photographers—as it should be. Part of what makes it so cool is that even though it was fully restored in the early 90’s, it shows its age—and does it well. When it’s a small part of the frame, it’s hard to see that. Even though you show place by being back so far, the character of our subject—the Dodge—doesn’t come out. By physically moving 15 feet closer, we now can speak about our subject and engage the viewer of the photograph. At the same time, the old pumps now take on a drama of their own, providing a natural border. And with the yellow, the deep blue of the Dodge, and the blue skies, you now have great color contrast working for you.

2. You Can Combine Filters

All too often, we landscape photographers are in the right place at the wrong time. Whether we’re on vacation, a business trip, or traveling with friends, often we make a stop in some cool place when the light is just not romantic. You could even say the light is terrible, and simply not complimentary to anything. But we’re there right then, and not coming back. What do we do? Well, this is often the case in Bodie, because it is not on the road to anywhere—you have to want to go there to be there. So what do you when high noon comes?

The Standard Mill there on the hillside is one big structure. With the park hours, being there to shoot it at sunset isn’t possible for most, so we have to work with nasty light. I recommend trying using two filters at once. My preference is to use the Nikon Slim Polarizer and the Schneider .9 soft split grad filter at once! The polarizer removes the blue reflection from all that metal, and at the same time—because of the direction of light—makes the sky bluer. The Schneider split grad is turned so that the dark part of the filter is affecting the bottom portion of the photograph. That darkens the foreground, providing some visual depth to the photograph. It’s a simple “trick” that works really well when the light just isn’t playing nice.

3. Making the Lots from Nothing

When photographers think landscapes, they tend to think wide angle lenses. This is only natural; landscapes are typically wide vistas, and to capture it all, wide angle works the best. Most of the images in this piece were taken with lenses wider than 35mm, which means that even I think that wide angles do a great job. But going to the other end of the spectrum can work as well.

This photo from Bodie has long been a favorite of mine, and it was taken with an 800mm lens. When you visit Bodie, you’re only seeing 15% of the town; the rest has been lost to two fires and time's decay. This is the view down Main Street which, in its day, was a mile long, with buildings packed in side by side. To bring that feeling to the photograph, the 800mm was used to visually compact the buildings, with the old Dodge as the anchor. When the ranger saw the print of this photo in an exhibit, he said he was going to give me a ticket for moving the buildings. Trying going long—you can make a lot from nothing in your landscape.

4. Look for Light Magic

Nothing, not one thing, can beat great light for bringing romance to a landscape. But you’ve got to look for it, and that means you’ve got to know what you’re looking for. Clouds are a landscape photographer’s best friend for so many reasons. One of them has to be the spotlight beam of light they can cast, lighting up a subject. You’ve got to know they can create this beam, and look for where it might be coming. Since clouds move with the wind, often you can predict where that beam will be, and if you’re in place for it, you will find that pot of gold.

That’s exactly what happened here. This home, which normally is just not photographically interesting, has always been on my hit list as I try to photograph Bodie entirely in dramatic light. It sits right out in the open, and from sunup to sundown, it always seems to be in nasty light. This afternoon, the spotlight beam of light was painting itself across the landscape and heading toward the house. I ran over to it, putting on the wide angle lens as I went, and as I got there, it was lit up for a few minutes. Often, when you look for that beam of light, you can find it and work it into your landscape photography.

5. Symmetry Works!

The mind’s eye loves patterns, and symmetry really absorbs the mind’s eye. The pattern is achieved when the elements of the right side of the “center line” in the frame are mirrored over to the left side. When we’re really accurate with that “center line” and we have a subject that supports it, symmetry is a great way to involve the viewer of your photograph with the subject (and the subject can be the symmetry itself). I personally find it hard to center objects in the viewfinder, so I use the AF sensor for help. I hit the Info Button, and looking at the LCD, I center the AF sensor. Then when I look through the viewfinder, I just put the AF sensor on the center, and I know everything is even.

The Methodist Church on Green Street is a great example of how symmetry can work so well. Here is an example of exterior and interior symmetry at work. The key—of course—is the light. With the pattern in the photograph, light is what moves the eye around the frame to connect the two patterns. The beauty of symmetry is that you can use almost any light, and it works. Here you can see contrasty light and soft light, both effective in moving the eye around.

6. Move Your Feet!

If there is one mistake almost all landscape photographers make, it is planting themselves in one spot! Wherever they first put down their tripod, that’s where they shoot from until it’s time to go home. Working the subject is a common phrase, which basically means, "move your feet!" The goal: to find the best angle, direction, and point of view in the process of excluding unwanted elements while including those you want. And at the same time, find the subject’s best side for the opportunity at hand. Often, where you first stopped is the best spot to shoot from, and that’s OK. The goal, though, is to know it’s the best spot by checking them all.

The Union Hotel is a classic example of this basic concept. You can see here that three totally different points of view, with three different lenses and three different lighting patterns, all of the same subject, are all vastly different, successful photographs. The goal is for you to find for that moment in time, the shot of the subject that tells the story you want to tell about it. By working the subject, you will find that approach bringing out romance with little effort.

7. Peopleno problem!

Not too long ago, if you had people in your photograph, you had no picture. no picture. There are times when they can be of great benefit—like providing scale. But there are certainly more times when no people in the photograph are a huge blessing. Since photographing people is frowned upon, we need to find a better way to remove them from our frame.

The first and easiest way is simply to wait. Studies show that at most public attractions, folks stand around and “look” for only five minutes. It has also been shown that there is a flow to tourists walking through, with pulses. I recommend that you set up your photograph, take some test shots to check exposure/highlight warnings, so you are all set to shoot. So if you simply wait out Joe Tourist, with your photograph all set up and pre-planned in your head, your problem is solved. Just wait a bit. There are times, though, when you don’t have those five minutes to wait. What do you do then?

It’s called Photoshop—and it’s your best friend.

Do everything we just mentioned, and then, when you have the fewest number of people in your frame, make the click. Then using Healing Brush, Clone Tool, or both, remove them in post. With Content Aware Fill technology, you don’t have to stress over people, because this one tool makes everyone an expert at removing Joe Tourist from your photograph.

8. B&W When You Think Light is Hard

You’re itching to shoot, but the light is hard. What do you do? This is a natural time to think about black-and-white. Why? In black-and-white photography, an easy way to get a good looking photo is a dark sky. In B&W, dark skies come easier when they are dark, and that comes from contrast. In hard light, then, a little underexposure—and you have dark skies making a powerful B&W image.

The Cain House in Bodie is an imposing home. It was once the residence of the man who pretty much owned the town. It sits on a corner, with character, with its old wood and all those windows. All the buildings in Bodie were painted at one time, most of them in white. On the Cain House, some of that white still remains. You add all this up: nasty light, wood, glass, white paint, and on this day add in puffy clouds—and black-and-white is a slam dunk. What if you took the photo in color? It would work, but it would look like a vacation photograph more than a romantic work of art. It’s your photograph, your call.

9. Tell a Story

Often we need to take our landscape photographs beyond an “I was here" photo, and tell more of a story behind the scene. Rocks, trees, clouds and the like can be spectacular and romantic, and that is what we want. But there are times when even with this opportunity available to us, we need to move past it to tell the story of what we’re experiencing.

Bodie was once the technological center for the entire world! It was the Silicon Valley, with many firsts in technology which we take for granted today. It did this while being literally out in the middle of nowhere, a place where life was very hard, and lives were lost daily. We get caught up in the old west, the antiques, and the size of it all, but once it was a thriving town. W M Bodey, whom the town is named after, never saw the town, probably never even came down into the valley, dying up on the bluff that bears his name.

The Bodie Cemetery, though a shadow of what it once was, tells the story of the town just with the markers that remain. It has its Boot Hill, its “society” section, and a few others. And amongst them all are lots of markers for the children that lived for a short time in Bodie. Every location we visit has a story that is unique to that location. Find out what that is and make a shot of it. It will finish your experience and tell a story you will always treasure!

10. Be Darn Curious!

Never settle—you should always be looking for what’s around the corner! All the great landscape photographers have ventured around the corner, wondering if a better photograph can be found there. That curiosity doesn’t always pay off, but it just takes once—and you’ll always be curious. It might be as simple as getting out of the car and walking down the road a hundred yards, or taking that trail for a mile. Some refer to it—correctly so—as chasing the light. I like to think about it as just being curious about our natural heritage, with a camera in hand.

Bodie is a great place to be curious. Having once been a technological center, the beginnings of many things can be found here, like electricity transmission. You can also find out more about your subject, which makes the photographic process more productive. Looking into the windows of Bodie can tell you a lot, and can often result in cool photographs. The pool table in the Union Hotel, the child's coffin in the “morgue,” or the exercise bag in the hotel are all examples of what you can find by being curious. Be curious! You’ll end up with fascinating photography!

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of B&H Photo, Video, Pro Audio

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I really enjoyed this.  Thanks.

  Moose :  Great stuff  as always . Walt

Another first class lesson from Moose! I will likely bookmark this and read it many, many *****!

Thanks Moose!!!

Moose, you make it look and sound so easy.  It isn't of course, but by communicating with us so straight forward and direct, you inspire us to keep trying for improvement.

Thanks, RLJ

thanks for sharing your thoughts... need to add Bodie to my photo "bucket list" and then make the plans to get there...

The landscape pictures are really awful in this article. Bad colors, bad commposition, sharp edges what makes them look like a composed photo with badly done selections. Too much saturation and too much contrast. But your story is o.k.

Great article by Moose!  The advice on using long lenses to compress distance in landscape work is especially useful, as most people immediately think wide.  What's interesting, as well, is that extreme wide angle lenses are used for many shots - distortion as an added draw toward the architectural subject.

Gene  (http://www.LAphotographer.org)

Lots of good things to think about, and great subject matter. Bodie is one of my favorite ghost towns.

Well done, loved the subject and the advice.

Bodie Bailey