Tunnel View in Yosemite National Park is one of the most scenic overlooks on the entire planet. Because of its sheer beauty, it is difficult to walk away from it with a bad photograph. (I have always said that it is easier to make a beautiful photograph of something that is already beautiful than it is to make a beautiful photograph of something that is not beautiful.) And, almost every camera-armed tourist who drives out the end of the Wawona Tunnel on State Highway 41 comes away with a very similar photograph—similar to the one that Ansel Adams famously captured so many years ago. Because we have seen that photograph, and others, from the overlook, many of us have a photograph in mind before we leap with excitement out of our vehicles, camera in hand, to capture the scene before us.
Also because of this, the manner in which you approach photography at Tunnel View can provide lessons to all photographers on how to approach any landscape image, how to visualize it, and how to, hopefully, come across with not only the perfect "postcard" shot, but with images that are unique and speak to your own vision of the scene.
Note: I do not consider my photos of Tunnel View to be the best ever taken… they were merely the best photos I could get of the vista in the short time I visited Yosemite, in 2010.
When I traveled to Yosemite years ago, I knew what the view from Tunnel View looked like. Sometimes, as we photograph landscapes, we find ourselves arriving at or returning to a scenic spot; other times, we are out for a walk or a drive and we stumble across a vista new to our eyes.
Scenario 1: Previsualization through Photographs and Homework
If you are traveling to a location, like Tunnel View, with the goal of photographing it, by all means, scour the Internet and travel books to prepare for the photograph you want to capture. There are even "photo tips" books for popular destinations that go so far as to discuss what focal length lens you will want for a certain photograph and what time of day is best for a particular location. This isn't cheating—it is preparation.
Scenario 2: Everything Is New
You discover a beautiful landscape while out for a hike, when commuting to work, when riding a train, when heading out to run errands. Luckily you have your camera with you and the ability to capture the scene before you. As far as you know, you will be the first human to photograph what has unfolded before your eyes. Your only preparation was the fact that your trusty camera was by your side.
Regardless of which of the above scenarios brings you to a particular scene, there are some easy fundamental things you can do to maximize your image quality and help you make the best possible photographs.
- Tripod or Alternative Camera Support—A quality tripod is the one tool that can make anyone a better photographer instantly, regardless of what kind of camera they are using. When I was at Tunnel View, I was surrounded by photographers taking in the breathtaking view and capturing photographs. About one in 10 were using tripods. There was plenty of daylight to keep shutter speeds fast and ISO settings low, so the tripod wasn't really a necessity, but, if you want to make the best photo, I would say it is. (I also noticed that everyone wielding a tripod had an expensive camera and lens mounted on top of it!) Why is the tripod important? First of all, it steadies your camera. Even with a fast shutter speed, a camera can introduce a bit of movement into the image and reduce sharpness. Second, the process of using a tripod slows your workflow down and subtly forces you to think deeper about the photograph you are about to create. Yes, that photo might be identical to the one taken by the person standing next to you sans tripod, but your chances of a higher-quality image are greatly increased, and one should not underestimate the benefits of putting more thought into the process.
- The Level Earth—Earth is round, but the horizon is level. Always. My college students grow tired of hearing it (and might I grow tired of saying it?), but, unless you have some sort of artistic reason for tilting the horizon in your photograph, or if you are a war photographer literally dodging bullets and shrapnel while making a photo, then your horizon should be level. Period. The tripod will help with this, as will some modern cameras with built-in electronic levels. You can even use a traditional bubble level. And, if you tilt the horizon at capture, please, please fix the horizon when you post-process your image.
If you have the ability to return to a location, take the opportunity to do some reconnaissance with both your eyes and your camera.
- Wide Angle—Use your widest-angle lens to capture as much of the scene as you can and grab some telephoto shots of distant details. Study these images later to see if there is a "photo within the photo" of the vista. Sometimes, when scouting, I will photograph a scene at different focal lengths. If the time of day or weather (see the next bullets) isn't perfect, I can, at the least, figure out what lens(es) I will want to have when I return, and this can give me the opportunity to return with a lighter camera bag.
- Time of Day—Sometimes we know that a certain vista looks best at sunrise or sunset and we plan our arrival accordingly. But, often we arrive and have to deal with the cards we are dealt. If you can return at another time, pay attention to the time of day and think about what the scene will look like when the sun is setting in the west or rising in the east. Use a planning app like PhotoPills to gauge the angle of the sunlight and plan your return.
- Weather—Does your vista need a clear sky? Or, would a sky with broken clouds help give the view some depth and drama? Rain? Snow? Fog? There can be photographic magic in all weather conditions, and if you are lucky enough to be able to return at different times, or seasons, then awesome!
Basic Compositional Techniques
When you decide what to include in the image and what to leave outside of the frame of the photograph, you are creating your composition. Check out my Introduction to Photographic Composition, if you wish, or enjoy the quick tips below.
- Rule of Thirds—You have likely heard of this "rule" before, but, if your scene has a central area of focus, there are times when it is advantageous to place that subject on the right or left "thirds line" of the frame. You can also try the top and bottom thirds line, as well—or a combination of the vertical and horizontal lines. Yes, you can also put the subject smack dab in the center of the photograph.
- Elevation of the (Level) Horizon—Where you put the horizon in the photo is another choice of the photographer. Sometimes, the center of the frame is perfect for the scene. But, if you have a great sky, you could lower the horizon and include more clouds, stars, or whatever. And, conversely, if the sky is blank, or if you have an interesting foreground, you could move the horizon up in the frame. You also have the option of not including the horizon in your landscape photo. Try different looks (digital is "free") and see what you can get.
Remember my anecdote from Tunnel View where I mentioned that one in 10 photographers were using tripods? Well, of those nine photographers, all nine of them were taking photos from the height of their eyes while standing erect. In fact, 98% of all photographs are taken from the height of eye of the photographer (and 68.4% of statistics are made up on the spot).
So, you can use the Rule of Thirds, you can vary the elevation of the horizon in the frame, you can show up at the perfect time of day with the perfect number of clouds in the sky, and you can shoot a perfect photo from the top of your steady tripod, but, guess what? The person standing next to you just took the same photograph.
How can you make your photograph different?
You can change your viewpoint.
How do you do that?
You can change not only where you stand, but how high from the ground the camera sits. You can hold the camera low, or even place it on the ground. You can hold the camera over your head. Depending on the scene before you, even a small change in the height of the camera can alter the foreground and background of the image. Try it out. Kneel. Lie down. Stand on a bench. Take a photo from a different height than everyone else and you will get a different photograph—sometimes better and sometimes just different.
And, not only can you change the height of the camera, but there is nothing that says you need to stand where everyone else does. Take a walk to the right or left and look for new vantage points. This isn't always possible, but sometimes you can "get off the beaten path" and find your own view.
Focal Length or "Zoom with Your Feet"
Another way to make your images unique is to use different focal length lenses to capture wider-angle views of a scene or zoom into the telephoto range to get tighter images that show just part of the landscape.
One of my most fun ways to tackle a landscape is by shooting a panoramic image. With a little practice and the right steps, you can capture a wide swath of landscape with exquisite detail—and get a unique image. You don't have to have a wide-angle lens to get a wide-angle field of view.
In the same mold as changing viewpoint by changing position and elevation, you can "zoom with your feet" by walking forward or backward to capture more or less of a landscape. Don't be afraid not to stand where everyone else does!
Another way to shake things up, visually, is to roll your camera to portrait orientation and get a vertical shot. Just because you are photographing a landscape doesn't mean the camera has to be in "landscape" orientation.
How do I approach a landscape scene like Tunnel View?
First of all, if there is a "postcard shot" to be captured, I do not shy away from capturing that shot. There is a reason a certain composition is on postcards and in books and on walls around the globe—because it is likely a great photo. So, by all means, get the postcard shot.
After I get the postcard, I work on "seeing" the photographs within the scene. Once you are familiar with the focal lengths of your lenses, you should try to see the photographs within the photograph before you. This usually requires using longer focal lengths to isolate areas of the landscape, but it could mean using an even wider lens to get more of the sky or the scene around you.
This exercise in seeing also means that I might, if it is possible, move around a bit. I will walk to the right or left and see how the scene changes. I might try to change the height of the camera—higher or lower—to see how that affects the feel of the image.
Last, but most importantly, as a photographer, you should step back and soak up the scene before you. How often do we grab a beautiful photograph and then pack up our gear and walk away to find the next image instead of just standing or sitting still for a few minutes and seeing the scene with our own eyes? I am as guilty of this as anyone, but I always try to remember the scene with my vision—not just remember it with a photograph I took.
How do you approach landscape photography? Do you have questions about my approach? Please let me know in the Comments section, below!