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A Diffuse Light

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Published on: May. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 5, 2010

Conservationist photographer Jim Rathert remembers the morning he hurried to find the perfect place to photograph fast-moving storm clouds above stark, treeless hills at Bilby Ranch Conservation Area.

And Mark Pelton, a Conservation Department resource forester whose photos are featured in the Natural Events Calendar, recalls arriving at Greer Spring just before a summer dawn to photograph the stream cloaked in magical fog.

On a winter canoe trip on the Current River, Jim Grace awoke to a spectacular sight. "Frost on the trees, fog over the river, icicles hanging from limestone bluffs. It was beautiful photography," he said.

Grace, a Conservation Department resource technician whose photos have appeared in the Conservationist and the calendar, says, "It wasn't a case of having a fancy camera; it was being outdoors at the right time and being prepared to record what was happening."

Missouri is full of places that cast a lure and reel us in, so to speak. They challenge landscape photographers and all of us who carry both a camera and the hope we'll bring home exact images of sights that stopped us in our tracks.

Well, it isn't that easy, as you well know if you've ever tried to snap a breathtaking view. Often as not, your photo will show a blank sky above hills that resemble dark, fuzzy bedroom slippers.

If you are yearning to improve your landscape photography, you can learn a great deal from professionals like Rathert, Pelton and Grace. To get more tips, I also interviewed St. Louis photographer David Burt; Charles Gurche, who grew up near Kansas City and now lives in Spokane, Wash.; my photographer-husband, Jim Mueller; and Frank Oberle of St. Charles.

All were generous with ideas about equipment, technique and philosophy, and they agreed on most points, including the importance of understanding how your equipment works and of being persistent. Capturing beautiful landscapes on film is seldom an accident, they say, and they offered the following tips for those who would like to improve their outdoor photography.

Camera as Cyclops:

What you see may not be exactly what your camera gets. Two-eyed humans perceive more depth than a one-eyed camera can record. Also, your eyes keep adjusting to see detail in light and dark areas, but in a camera, all parts of a scene are exposed through a set aperture for the same amount of time. If the camera exposes for detail in shadow, detail in the brightest areas may be lost, and vice versa.

"It's a challenge to funnel down the natural landscape and run it through a piece of machinery--a camera--and come up with an image that actually shows what you saw with your eye," says Jim Grace.

Don't leave home without a tripod:

If you hand-hold the camera, you'll sacrifice sharpness. For greatest depth of field (sharp focus in near and far objects), you'll likely use a small shutter aperture--f16 or smaller. (The f-stop numbers rise as the aperture size decreases). The small opening requires longer exposure--time the shutter is open--for enough light to reach the film. A sturdy tripod plus a cable shutter release--or a built-in, self-timer--will allow you to get sharp pictures with slow shutter speeds.

Toting a tripod also has the advantage of slowing you down. Instead of dashing around in a snapping frenzy, you'll be more contemplative and explore possibilities for each shot.

Placing the focus:

Including foreground rocks or vegetation in sharp focus gives a viewer a connection to a landscape photo. For maximum depth of field--close up to far away--focus one-third to halfway into the scene. The area of sharpness will extend twice as far beyond your point of focus as it does in front of it. This will give you more depth of field than the "infinity" focus setting.

If your camera has auto-focus, select your point of focus holding the shutter release partway down. Continue holding as you recompose the image, then shoot.

Looking for the light:

Just before sunup and after sundown, light has a special quality. It's diffuse, wraparound light without an identifiable source. "After sunset," says Charles Gurche, "you can see some layers of color in the sky. Water works well with that kind of light, sky light reflecting in water."

A diffusional effect also occurs when the harsh contrasts of strong sunlight are softened by overcast conditions. Photographers love it. Frank Oberle says, "I get excited on overcast, cloudy days. Colors glow, and the even illumination allows your camera to record detail uniformly."

"You have to learn to get up before the sun," says Grace. "The good light is usually early in the morning and late in the evening. Most of us don't have trouble staying up late." Early rising takes resolve, but the reward is maximum time in soft, low light.

The trade-off with overcast, says Rathert, is a "milky" sky, so try concentrating on land and including less sky.

Stormy weather:

Rathert likes "a brooding sort of setting," like those thunderclouds over Bilby Ranch. At first the sky was clear, but when he saw ominous clouds rolling in, he headed his car for a vantage point. An unstable weather pattern and the quality of light can make the photograph, he says, "but you have to have your antennae up for those conditions."

Composition and light:

Excitement about a particular place doesn't guarantee a fabulous photo. "If you're excited about the subject itself, be kind of wary," says Gurche. "If you're excited about the composition and light, those are much more valuable factors in getting a good picture."

The adjustable horizon:

A landscape is often a combination of an earthscape and a skyscape. "Where you place the horizon in framing your shot has more to do with what you're trying to convey than any rule," says Jim Mueller. Right across the center may communicate boredom--or tranquility. More sky than earth can express openness or spirituality, but if the idea of the photo is the pattern of Ozark hills, not much sky is needed.

He suggests photographing the same scene three times, placing the horizon low in the photograph, high in the photograph and then centered. Looking at the finished photos, you'll get a different feeling from each. On your next shoot, a mood or sense of place may tell you where to position the horizon line.

On the prairie:

Mark Pelton shares a strategy for photographing Missouri's prairies. "It's tricky," he says. "You just about need to know what was done to the land the previous year." A prairie that was mowed will encourage paintbrush and certain other wildflowers. Burning stimulates a different group of plants; even the burn date has varying influence. If the prairie wasn't mowed or burned, the wildflower display won't be as extensive. Check with prairie managers to learn what to expect.

Oberle says, "Prairies are like a 10-act play. Every two weeks they go through a different visual scene, color, complexion and texture." So be persistent and flexible, ready to photograph the unexpected. It's worth the effort. "The prairies around Lamar are the best in the whole 13 states of tallgrass prairie biome," he says.

Do your homework:

Scouting and researching locations gives you a head start. "Few great landscape photographs are made serendipitously," says Grace. "Usually the photographer has scouted out the scene in advance and knows when the light will be good or a particular species of plant will be in bloom."

Gurche keeps notebooks on Missouri places and studies topographic maps to predict how terrain will admit or block light. He sketches ideas for shots but says, "It's kind of a balance you have to strike between ideas and having an eye to what is out there."

Oberle recommends taking advantage of a wealth of information at conservation nature centers or contacting the Conservation Department's natural history section with inquiries. "The Conservation Department is blessed with knowledgeable people," he says.

Be there:

Over and over, these professional photographers said, "Be there." That means photograph often, return, stay awhile, concentrate. Occasionally jumping out of a car to snap a fantastic sunset doesn't improve your skills or your eye.

"Be there, be open to what's going on," says Burt. "In a beautiful landscape, that's easy to do, especially if I'm by myself. It becomes somewhat of a meditation. At the same time I want to come out of that place with some images that are meaningful to me. That motivates me to keep thinking about technical things."

Oberle says, "The harder you work, the luckier you get."

In pursuit of landscapes

If you study the work of outdoor photographers, you'll find they don't all prefer the untouched wilds. The definition of a landscape depends on personal choice and sensitivity. You can find wonderful landscape subjects in parks, farm fields, urban settings with downtown buildings, suburban neighborhoods or your own backyard.

Maybe you're drawn to open areas, lonely trees or road signs alongside country roads. Maybe you feel like including the edge of a house or laundry on a clothesline in a landscape photo. Go with what's accessible to you and seek what you enjoy.

Even in natural environments, scenes are sometimes punctuated by power lines and cellular and microwave towers. Try working around--or with--whatever turns up in the viewfinder.

For kids who want to photograph, select a nearby place with lots of possibilities. "Get them to win at something first to inspire them," says Frank Oberle. "One of my favorite spots is the Missouri Arboretum in Gray Summit, 45 minutes from St. Louis. It's accessible and has prairies, woodlands and wetlands."

For information about more places to go, pick up a free "Discover Outdoor Missouri" map or purchase the 264-page "Missouri's Conservation Atlas" for $15, plus $5.93 tax and shipping from the Nature Shop, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102-0180. You can save $5 postage by visiting a conservation nature center or Conservation Department office to make your purchase.

Cameras:

With point-and-shoot cameras, a wide angle to slight telephoto zoom lens with a close-up option is most versatile. Learn how the camera determines exposure. If the sky is brighter than the land, for example, the land may photograph too darkly. In this case, point the camera more toward the land, hold the shutter release button partway to set focus and exposure, reframe the view you want, then shoot.

Several of our consulting photographers rely on 35mm cameras with interchangeable lenses, and some use medium and large format cameras. "I'm not too big on razzle-dazzle equipment," says Frank Oberle. He shot most of the photos for the book "Tallgrass Prairie" with a 35 mm camera he bought used 20 years before, plus three lenses. He would rather carry more water than equipment, so he can wander a prairie for hours.

If you're shopping for a 35mm, choose one that allows you to close down the aperture and preview depth of field before shooting. If your camera has auto-exposure override, learn to use it to take control in unusual lighting situations.

Tripod:

Essential for the inevitable slow exposures. A cable release or built-in self-timer also keeps your hand off the camera.

Lenses:

Oberle carries two wide angles, 20mm and 28mm, plus a 100mm macro for closeups. Wide angle lenses provide broad views and good depth of field.

A telephoto lens (200mm or longer) compresses the distance for a poster effect. It's also good for shooting down into creek valleys.

Another choice for 35mm cameras is one or two zoom lenses that range from wide angle to telephoto.

For sharpness, buy good quality lenses. Sticking with one brand assures consistent color rendition.

Filters:

Most useful are the polarizing filter, which enhances color saturation and eliminates reflections on water, and the ultraviolet filter, which cuts haze. The 81 filter series warms bluish light.

Film:

The finest grain film, which gives the best definition, is also the slowest, requiring longer exposure. For publication, the standard is high quality, slow speed transparency film.

Simplicity:

Keep equipment simple, landscape photographers advise. Jim Grace says, "If you're there and in position when something nice comes together with the weather and the clouds and the landscape, you can make a photograph with any kind of camera. It's being there that makes the difference."

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