This morning, I led a one-on-one workshop for artist Susan Leite, a member of the Hamilton Camera Club, who missed my presentation of Creating Compelling Landscapes. Tiffany Falls Conservation Area in Ancaster, Ontario, is one of those near-ideal places to learn about landscapes. A well-maintained, and easily-walked side trail of the Bruce Trail leads up the valley, across two bridges to a platform in front of a class cascade waterfall – Tiffany Falls – some 21m (70 feet) high.
As the point of this morning’s workshop was specifically landscape photography techniques, we were looking for “classic” landscape views that would include a strong foreground element set in the context of the background, connected through the mid-ground with a leading line, a “pathway” that would help the viewer navigate through the photograph. Assembling these elements is the job of the photographer. They are “out there” far more often than many photographers realize; recognizing them and actively, purposefully composing the photograph to include them is what makes them work.
At times, though, it is a challenge: as we noted this morning, much of the valley and river bank has the scrubby-looking remains of cut trees. Trees that naturally fall have an organic look to them; cut trees have sharp, rather obvious and totally un-natural edges where they were chain-sawed. There were also many parts of branches left from the cuttings that have not decomposed as one might expect leaves and small branches would do over a season or a year, so they, too, left (to my eyes anyway) a bit of a slash-and-burn eye-soar to an otherwise beautiful valley. If you have ever felt the need to remove unwanted outgrowth of trees and plants, consider going for a removal service.
So, that’s a bit of the context of the location. The morning, itself, was overcast and still, making for near-ideal conditions for photographing in a forest. The contrast was easily managed; just the sky, filtering through the upper canopy, created difficult lighting. Photographers learn quickly, though, the importance of being flexible and working to the conditions provided by Mother Nature: when given a white sky, work to eliminate it from photos – and that’s we did.
This morning, thanks to the recent rain, Tiffany Creek had an excellent flow. It’s been a cool, wet spring – ideal for gardeners and photographers of nature and landscapes . So often, the rivers and waterfalls of southern Ontario suffer from a lack of water. Not this spring – the rivers have been well-flushed!
The Basic Set-up
Both Susan and I were using “bridge” style cameras – hers, a Lumix FZ-200 with an excellent Leica lens, and my Sony RX10iii – on travel-style tripods (both MeFoto Roadtrips). We had both come to the same conclusion regarding carrying equipment in travel-style conditions: less is more! We were both using ND filters and my Polarizing filter. The ND filters slowed shutter speeds to capture more movement in water; the polarizing filter reduced the glare off the water and foliage (see comparison photo).
We set our cameras to Aperture Priority, using Exposure Compensation to adjust exposure when clipped highlights showed in the histogram. In these situations, shutter speed is less important than the need for adequate depth-of-field to maintain sharpness from foreground through the background. Obviously, in breezy conditions, shutter speed matters, but with the still morning, we had some leeway. With small-sensor bridge cameras, this is achieved in the ƒ5.6 range. On the 1″ sensor Sony, ƒ5.6 is equivalent to ƒ15 on a full-frame system; with Susan’s FZ200’s 1/2.3″ sensor, ƒ5.6 is the same as ƒ31 on a FF system – plenty of depth of field for most landscapes! Any smaller than ƒ5.6 will result in increasingly unsharp edges due diffraction, the bending of light through the smaller aperture.
We also had a discussion about ISO. To maintain the highest image quality, I always recommend using the lowest ISO that will provide the maximum dynamic range (the difference between pure white and pure black). For many DSLRs, it’s ISO200. For the Sony RX10iii, it’s ISO64; the FZ200, ISO100.
Susan also set up her self-timer to delay each exposure by 2 seconds to eliminate camera shake from shutter activation by hand. Using tripods that were shorter than normal for comfortable viewing, we also chose to use the LCD for final compositions. However, working on a tripod can be very restrictive when composing, so I always recommend using the quick release to remove the camera and actively compose “free-hand” by moving in and out, up and down and side to side. You really need freedom of movement to find that compositional “sweet-spot”, then set-up the tripod to match that precise location.
In the field…
Now for some photos. We both agreed, the ferns and other greenery along the river bank were great foreground objects with lots of detail. As well, the river itself provided and natural pathway through the various scenes. When the river seemed rather straight, it was important to manouevre to “help” it into a more diagonal position; diagonals are always preferred for compositions as they create more dynamic movement than straight lines.
Wandering up the trail took us to this point, where we could just begin to see the waterfall through the trees. The foreground element was in place with the greenery and rocks and the curve of the river became the natural pathway through the scene.
The 1-second exposure provided appropriate movement to the water while the -1 exposure compensation was required to prevent the highlights in the distant waterfall from clipping.
I highly recommend this method of exposure, where you expose as “high” as possible on the histogram without clipping the highlights – commonly referred to as ETTR or Expose To The Right. This allows more photos to be recorded in the shadow areas, reducing the amount of noise when the tonal values of shadow areas are lifted. Due to the beautiful, lower contrast lighting of the morning, this technique wasn’t absolutely essential, but it is good practice to get the most out of any sensor.
The overall appearance of this initial exposure is a bit on the dark side. The shadows are open, and the whites are near white, but the mid-tone greens appear drab rather than lively. That’s okay! The camera is simply a tool for recording a file that can then be processed – just like negatives were processed – into a final photograph that matches the way I saw the scene. The camera can’t do it all. Jpegs from many cameras are excellent, but there are still techniques that can be applied to further improve the photograph. This is way shooting raw files has become the default, especially amongst fine art photographers. It’s the difference between a “machine print” from a negative and a custom print, made by yourself or a professional printer. Learning a few simple manipulations in an app like Lightroom can go a long way to improving your photographs.
Back at home, in Lightroom, I made the following adjustments. Lightroom is designed to be handled “top down” starting with White Balance then moving through Exposure, Contrast, etc. I often start with Whites and Blacks, using Lightroom’s “Auto-Whites” and “Auto-Blacks” feature (NOT the “Auto” button you see there) to pin down the darkest and brightest pixels. Holding the Shift key and double-clicking on the word “Whites”, then doing the same on “Blacks” will do just that.
From there, I move to Exposure. Now, you might think “Wow, +1.20 in Exposure is a lot!”, but it really isn’t. Exposure in Lightroom lifts the mid-tones – exactly the tonal range that needed lifting. Rather than using the sliders, which can be rather clunky and imprecise, I use the number boxes and increase exposure using the cursor key while looking at the photo (not the adjustment slider!). The Cursor will raise the value by 0.10 each time; holding Shift and pressing the cursor will raise the value by 0.33. When making adjustments, it’s better to start out with big leaps and going past the “ideal”, rather than trying to creep up to it in small hops. Once you beyond what”looks good” you’ll know right away; you can then use the fine tuning of 0.10 increments to nail down the ideal increase.
This same principal is true for all the other adjustments: use the cursor keys for +/- 1; Shift-Cursor changes it by +/- 10. The Shadows improved with a small bump to +20. Clarity – the adjustment to raise or lower local contrast – is great for giving very fine separation between light and darks, such as the edges of leaves or the bright water agains the dark. But too much clarity can make the photograph look artificially etched, so +10 “worked”. Bumping the Saturation to +10 gave the leaves just a little more punch.
With the gross changes made, it was now time to look at how I might shape the photograph using graduated filters and local adjustment brushes. Here is the photo with those initial tonal adjustments. It’s bright and has a three-dimensional presence. But, to me, the foreground area in front of me seems just a bit too bright. Pulling in a Graduated Mask with decreased Exposure, seemed to work except the greens seemed dinghy, so I increased the Clarity and Contrast. This allowed the greens in the mask to better match the greens in the rest of the photograph.
This is an improvement, but now the water in the river seems a bit dinghy. I felt the whites of the turbulence should have better separation from the darker river bed. Using an Adjustment Brush, I painted over the river water, adding additional contrast (30), reducing the shadow values by -30 and increasing the clarity by 40 to provide that local contrast separation. lastly, I made the tones cooler using the Colour Temperature adjustment. I find the rock of the river beds in this area to be rather yellow, often with algae; cooling it down a little helps to “restore” the river, if only photographically.
This photo shows the area of that was “brushed”. These Grad Mask and Adjustment Brush features of Lightroom allow an almost infinite series of adjustments, that I find even more intuitive than Photoshop layers. As well, they add virtually nothing to the overall file size as they are simply instructions in a text file as opposed to pixel-level changes. To accomplish the same “feats” in Photoshop, would bloat the file to be 3, 4, 5, even 10x larger than the original. It’s the beauty, and simplicity, of non-destructive editing.
Finally, the photograph was coming together, but needed a little more “massaging”. First, I’ll take you back to my printing days in the darkroom. Often we would introduce a very light vignetting of about 10%. It’s not apparent to the viewer, but it acts in an almost subliminal way to contain the eye within the photograph, especially in prints that would be matted in white then framed. The white mat draws the eye to the outside; the vignetting helps to pull it back in again. Lightroom has Vignetting under “Effects” and, really, -5 to -10 should be enough, but not too much to make it obvious.
Lastly, I felt the scene could use a little cropping and straightening, as shown in this photo. Ideally, this is done in the field and I lament having to do so on screen, but adding a slight “Transform” of -10 on the Horizontal and +20 in Aspect returned the image to what I remember of the scene. There is, now, a progression of light from the top, where one would expect it, gradually dimming to the bottom, where one would expect it to be darker, given the canopy of trees above.
In the gallery below, I’ve included the four progression images so you can see the subtle changes that may not be apparent looking at them separately as they are presented above. As well, you’ll find a few other photographs from this morning. If you have any questions, be sure to add them to the comments below.