Please note that these comments are my perspective only and others may well disagree.
I have been a photographer for over forty years. I’ve taken photographs in 35mm, 4×5 and digital formats. I’ve developed film and enlarged prints in 35mm black and white. Over this time I have learned many tricks to taking photos, primarily landscapes . In some ways my photography has been an excuse to get out into the world, natural and man made. Over forty years I have also developed my own way of doing things. Some things that work for me may not work as well for you. Keep this in mind as you read this tips and techniques page.
Location, Location, Location
Plan locations in advance. Many of my best shots were taken when I went back to a location. But often that is not practical, say on vacation. That doesn’t mean you can’t plan some shots in advance. I am pretty good with maps. I like to look at a topo map and figure out where there is a nice framing of one object, say a mountain, between two closer objects. Research can help a lot. Some Web sites even give advice for photographers. But you can also ask. In the Humboldt Redwoods State Park in California I wanted to take a series of photos that I could later stitch together to make a panorama. But I wanted the ground cover to be uniformly attractive and the trees to be old growth and about the same distance from my camera. So I asked a park ranger in the visitor center. He knew exactly the right spot. Sometimes the best “expert” works in a local coffee shop or even your motel. By finding a local person to help, you can virtually “return” to just the right spot.
Once you get to a photo opportunity there are more ways to find the right spot. While most people are standing next to the railing clicking away, your best shot might be found by climbing a little way up the hill behind them to find a few trees or rocks to frame the image. Make sure you don’t get any of the other photographers in your shot, of course. While everyone else is shooting with their camera at eye level the best shot may be gotten by putting your camera near the ground for a different perspective.
Time is of the Essence
I think mountains look better with at least some snow on them. So I don’t generally head up into the hills in August. Wildflowers are great in the Colorado Rockies in mid-July. The aspen are usually best in mid-September through mid-October, depending on how high and how far north you are going. New England’s fall colors are better later in October. If you want a full or crescent moon or fog or the “right” amount of water in the stream or waterfall you will need to plan accordingly. Not always is more water better. Sometimes a trickle is beautiful, with all the moss now growing where the water was a couple of months ago. The same holds true with weather. An old joke says that a photographers worst enemy is a sunny day. Clouds or fog or snow can make a shot more interesting. One of Ansel Adams most famous images is titled Clearing Winter Storm.
Time of day is just as important as time of year. Most of the best shots are taken near sunrise or sunset. This is for two reasons. First the “long light” is more interesting. The shadows are more pronounced. Second, the color of the light is different because the sunlight needs to pass through more of the earth’s atmosphere. Of course the rising or setting sun itself, with any nearby clouds, are a great subject too. These are the only two times of day when such a subject is close enough to the rest of the earthly objects to get them both into the same image. The night before the full moon is sometimes called the photographer’s moon. That is when the moon is close enough to full that a viewer can’t tell that it isn’t full and both the rising moon and the earth to the east are sunlit. The day after the full moon works as well at sunset to the west. A nice Website to help you plan the angle of the sun and moon in your shots is The Photographer’s Ephemeris. You can get tide tables online for just about everywhere. It can help you find the best time to get the waves right or to photograph the tidal creatures. It might even save your life by not getting you trapped against the rocks.
The Zone System Today
Ansel Adams, with the help of an instructor at The Art Center in Los Angeles named Fred Archer, invented a system of mapping the different levels of brightness in a scene to the eventual brightness levels in a photographic print of the scene. The need for this comes from the fact that a human eye can distinguish a far greater range of light than film. If you expose a shot for the middle level of brightness, what a simple averaging meter would do, all the brighter objects will likely end up pure white and the darker objects will end up black. Different films had different ranges of brightest to darkest. Also, if each image was developed by itself the range could be further manipulated. Ansel Adams shot on single sheets of film, generally 4×5 inches or 8×10 inches in size. He would mark the amount of development that each shot should get. He could further correct for localized extremes of too bright or too dark by holding back or adding extra exposure (light) locally to areas of a print during the print making process.
The first key to using the Zone System is to not use a meter that measures only the average brightness of a scene. The best kind of meter is a spot-meter with the spot area as small an area of the scene as reasonably possible. When shooting a scene you need to find the brightest area that you don’t want to be pure white. In a sunrise or sunset the sun may end up being pure white no matter what and this may be fine in the final print. The same can be said for some foreground trees or rocks ending up black. It is the non-white or black areas that need to be metered. The second thing you need is a knowledge of what your camera can do. How many “stops” are there between the brightest and darkest areas that your camera can capture? This will likely be different depending on the ISO speed you select. Once you know this from experience and have measured the brightest non-white and darkest non-black area in a scene you can decide if the photograph will come out the way you want. If the range is too great you have two simple choices and one complex choice open to you. One simple answer is to not take the picture at all. Find an image that doesn’t have as much range and take that shot instead. The other simple answer is to accept some areas as being pure white or black that aren’t like that in the actual scene. In one of my favorite prints, of elk on the ridge in Rocky Mountain National Park (Elk Line in my RMNP gallery), the elk and the whole ridge below them are pure black. This is also the image on the top of my home page. The only range in the image beside black is the cloudy sky in the top half of the image. Not only would it have been very difficult for me to capture the gradation in the lower ridge area, I think it would have made for a distraction from the main object of the photograph, the elk and sky. Before I discuss the complex answer to solve this brightness range issue I choose to digress.
The Zone System was invented for the sheet film, black and white world. Individual sheets of film could be processed just right and each print could be adjusted just as appropriately. But two things messed this up. First was the introduction of roll film. 35mm film would generally have 24 or 36 shots of different scenes. Therefore adjustments during development of the film was not practical. The other problem was that messing with the development changed the colors in color film. Adjusting local areas of a print was also much more difficult with color printing. I started out as a 35mm photographer. I did a lot of my own black and white printing. But with color I stuck to letting a lab do the work. By the time I moved to the 4×5 format I found I had moved almost exclusively to color and did no more darkroom work myself. Of course part of the problem was the fact that my print enlarger could not handle the larger 4×5 negatives I was taking. But when I moved to digital photography I found something interesting. I now had a lot of the same power that I once had in the darkroom and it mostly worked with color as well.
The complex answer to the brightness range problem may be solved using digital photography. If the range of a scene is beyond the range that your camera can handle you can take a series of shots at preset intervals of exposure: over-exposed, normal-exposed and under-exposed. Later, in your computer, you can combine them in a very controlled way to produce an image that has far greater range. This image will not likely be able to be viewed or printed though. A computer screen of printer doesn’t have a very large range either. But once a high range image has been created in the computer, a second very controlled process can map the image into a range that a screen or printer can handle. This two step process is a good example of how the digital photography world helps empower today’s photographers.
Top Ten Tips (not in any priority)
- Plan your photo opportunities in advance. See “Location, Location, Location” and “Time is of the Essence” sections above.
- Learn your camera. Experiment with it. Learn what it does well and what it doesn’t do well. Use it often enough to know instinctively how to use it when the right shot presents itself.
- Take the time to get the right shot. When I used to go out on a day of shooting with my 4×5 camera I would often take eight or ten sheets of film. That means I couldn’t take more than eight or ten photos. I often spent over an hour finding the best perspective. I once spent well over an hour for the sun to break through the clouds and hit the scene just right.
- When in doubt use a tripod. Or rest the camera on a wall or rock. Or brace yourself against a wall and hold real still. Many cameras today have anti-motion features and these can help a lot. One trick for taking photos of high ceilings in places like cathedrals or say the U.S. Capital building is to turn on your self timer and put the camera on the floor. Push the shutter and keep the tourists away from the field of view.
- Decide if the foreground or background should be out of focus. Everything in focus will not always make for the best photograph, especially if it distracts from the main subject.
- Sometimes taking the time to get the right shot means taking lots of shots. Many cameras today have a rapid shot ability. This can mean taking more than one shot per second over an extended period of time. Getting the ocean wave or the bird in flight just right is a lot easier this way. Digital pictures are usually cheap and you can delete all but the best ones to make room for more. I used this to get a print of a wave exploding against a rock with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.
- Sometimes you need to get in close to get the best shot. Know what your camera can do in a macro mode. It is often difficult to keep everything in focus when shooting up close, or anything in focus, for that matter. Any movement can mess up the focus so use a tripod if possible. And close down the lens aperture to get more depth of field. You can compensate by taking a longer exposure because you are using a tripod, right?
- Find what you are best at seeing. Some people are intuitive about knowing how to get the best out of a human subject. Other people just know where the perfect break in the trees will best frame that mountain. Others will know that the weather is about to set up a perfect photo of lightening. Try a lot of things and then further develop what you are good at.
- Get a computer and some photo software applications that work for you. You don’t have to spend a fortune. A cheaper computer may just take longer to do the editing. There are sometimes free open-source software applications that can do the job for free. Once you have the tools you want learn them well. That can more than compensate for a slower computer or software application.
- Have fun. If it isn’t fun, don’t do it. I really love taking photos and using photography as an excuse to go to great places.