Thursday, 27 August 2009

Landscape Photography Part 2 - Technique

In part 1 I discusssed the artistry behind landscape photography. Before I start on the technique, I'll say a little about micro landscapes. Micro landscapes are pretty much as the name would suggest, landscapes on a small scale. This could be a detail shot of a small area or perhaps even a macro image showing the minute details in a very small scene, maybe showing the habitat of an insect or other small animal.

Some assumption is made below regarding knowledge of photography basics, such as depth of field, aperture size and the relationship between the two. There are a number of articles available that describe the basics of photography if needed. I may cover some basics in a future blog entry.
Whether a micro landscape or a more traditional one, the basic technical issues are similar. Some form of support is essential. Normally this would be a tripod, but if the conditions dictate, a beanbag could be used or perhaps rarely, a monopod. Beanbags are particularly handy for low level perspectives or if the conditions are very windy. Some tripods are also able to be dropped down very low to the ground. Generally speaking, shutterspeed is a secondary consideration to aperture size and ISO setting. Unless conditions are windy and a faster shutterspeed is required to freeze foliage, then the slowest film speed or ISO setting should be selected, which for most digital cameras is ISO 100 (some may require the use of a "low" setting to achieve ISO 100 and some may offer ISO 50). Aperture is dependent on the scene itself and how much depth there is. For most landscapes, an aperture of f/8 to f/16 should be selected, occasionally narrowing the aperture to f/22. Most scenes contain quite alot of depth to them, so to get adequate depth of field, f/16 is needed, in order that the whole scene is in sharp focus. Sometimes a scene may not require as much depth of field, for example, photographing a waterfall or cascade from a distance, when there is very little background. In such cases, it is better to aim for a slightly wider aperture such as f/8 or f/11, as most lenses are sharper at the slightly wider apertures (i.e. mid-range). It is also preferable not to go narrower than f/16, as you start to get problems with diffraction, which is a physical barrier and one that will soften the image. At f/22 it is easily noticeable, but there may be occasions, where the need for more depth of field outweighs the effects of diffraction. Beyond f/22 though, the image is little more than a soup without much detail and should be avoided. A natively sharp lens will be sharper at f/22, even though the effects are just as great, so high quality lenses will still allow a higher quality image. One last thing to consider is the camera you are using or more to the point, the size of the capture device. Film cameras and full frame digital cameras will require a smaller aperture than crop cameras (smaller sized sensors) to get the same depth of field.
The key to taking a competent landscape photograph is to understand how the different settings on your camera interact with one another and what effect they have on the resultant image. The first point of call is your user manual, it is surprising how much useful information you will find, they don't just contain instructions for use, but also chapters on making the most from your camera. Being able to take a great landscape photograph however, is a different story. It is something that takes lots of practice, luck, swearing and visiting an area several times until the light is just how you want it. It is important to know your camera inside out, so that you can then concentrate on the creative side to try out different ideas.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Landscape Photography Part 1 - The Artistry

Landscape photography is perhaps one of the most varied forms of photography, ranging from urban landscapes, through to dramatic mountain scenes and even micro-landscapes; the small scale landscapes of small subjects. The basic rules and principles remain though, whatever the subject.
The key to a good landscape is maximum sharpness across the whole scene and to have a strong subject or lines. To get maximum sharpness, a tripod is essential. Even when you're able to use high shutterspeeds, there is some softening of the image if a tripod isn't used. Sharpness can also be increased by using mirror lockup and in fact for longer shutterspeeds, it is imperative. Weather conditions can also affect the quality of what may otherwise be a perfectly good landscape image. Wind is often the bane of a landscape photographer, especially without a solid, sturdy tripod. In very windy conditions, a beanbag may be useful, as the lower the camera is to the ground, the less it is affected by the wind. Foliage is also blown about by wind, so unless you're looking for more of an abstract image, the wind may dictate when you photograph your chosen subject landscape.
Lighting is the next key to a good photograph and may turn an average image into a great one. Bland, grey skies rarely make for an interesting landscape, but change those for deep, moody clouds and you can have a very dramatic scene. This image typifies the sort of image you can get on the Scottish Western Isles and proves, you don't need bright colours.

There are also other ways that you can make use of the light, for example, sun shining through the clouds onto the main subject or simply the angle of lighting, particularly in the golden hours after sunrise and before sunset.

Shooting during the golden hours gives you the best chance for a landscape with real impact, because it is when the light is at its softest, allowing for less harsh contrasts and the ability to use the lengthening shadows to add depth to the scene. This also increases the mid-tone contrast, which is the area in the histogram that gives the image the punch it needs to stand out.
Without a strong compositional element though, many landscapes fall flat, simply because there is nothing within the scene to attract viewers. The best landscapes are often simple when you look at them closely, even when they contain many fine details. Most of the best landscapes can be diluted down to an interesting foreground, which draws the viewer in, then there may be leading lines, either diagonals or s-shaped curves, pulling the viewer towards the main subject, which is likely to be on one of the thirds intersections. Sometimes, the main subject is the landscape as a whole, but there is usually a strong supporting subject on a thirds line in these cases and the leading line acts as a guide, taking the viewer on a tour around the image. Both of the above examples use the shore as a leading line from the corners to the distance, literally going through most of the scene.

In Part 2 I will talk of some of the more technical aspects of landscape photography and visit micro-landscapes.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Macro Photography

Macro photography is arguably one of the more difficult forms of photography to master, it is certainly more technical than some others and it is important to understand the effects of depth of field. In many ways, depth of field is one of the biggest hurdles a macro photographer has to overcome, either by using a narrow aperture or to embrace the narrow depth of field in such a way that it becomes a form of creativity. At wider apertures, the depth of field can be measured in millimetres. Almost without exception, manual focus should be used because of the narrow depth of field, even at f/16.
True macro is considered to be 1:1 or life size (or larger). Many zoom lenses are marketed as macro lenses, but typically, they are around 1/3 or 1/4 life size and they certainly don't have the sharpness associated with true macro prime lenses. The choice of lens is dependent on what sort of subjects interest you as a photographer and what backgrounds you want to include. At their closest focusing distance, all macro lenses will blur the background to an equal degree for any given aperture, although the focal length will determine how close it focuses. For example, a 100mm lens will have a closer focusing distance than a 180mm lens, but if both are 1:1, they will both blur the background to the same degree. However, the 180mm lens will include less of the background, making a pleasing background easier to achieve, as it will potentially have less distracting background elements (such as bright objects). For best results a tripod (or monopod/bean bag) should always be used, although sometimes it simply isn't possible.
Shorter macro lenses are good all-round lenses (50-60mm range), useful for a range of macro (and non-macro) subjects, although trying to get close enough to insects would be a challenge, so they are best used for still life or where there is limited space. The medium sized macro lenses (90-105mm) become more useful for insect macro photographs, so are perhaps even more useful as all-rounders, although in confined spaces, it may be difficult to fit larger subjects in the frame (i.e. non-macro images). If insects are likely to be your main interest, then the longer (150-200mm) lenses are going to be the most useful, although they do come at a price and they tend to be less sharp than the medium focal length lenses, also some sort of support is essential. Luckily, because you're further away from the subject, it is much easer to set a tripod up, without disturbing the subject and sending it flying away. Another advantage with the longer macro lenses, they are compatible with teleconverters (extenders in Canon land) and not just extension tubes. Teleconverters and extension tubes both increase the magnification (and converters also increase focal length of course), but the 2x converters can reduce image quality quite a bit and extension tubes prevent infinity focus. Most (but not all) of the shorter macro lenses are unable to make use of teleconverters, although they can make use of extension tubes. Short of getting specialist macro lenses (like Canon's MPE-65 5x macro lens or microscope attachment), this is the greatest magnification you can achieve.
There isn't really a bad macro lens in terms of image quality and they all have a high reputation interms of image quality. In the two most poular mounts (Canon and Nikon), Nikkor, Canon, Sigma and Tamron all make excellent lenses, with Sigma offering the greatest range of focal lengths. Sigma and Tamron also make lenses in the other popular mounts, along with other options from the camera manufacturers. It may also be possible to get adaptors to use other lenses, such as Zeiss, Leica and M42 mounts.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Shortlisted for BWPA Awards

I found out today that a number of my images have been shortlisted for the 2009 British Wildlfe Photography Awards. It's a good feeling to get past the first hurdle and I always imagined that the best chance I had of getting anywhere with awards, was for landscapes, even though I prefer to photograph wildlife. I was quite pleased when I saw the categories, as I knew I had a good chance of finding some invertebrates and as it turned out, I had a couple of coastal images I felt were suitable.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Singh-Ray Filters

I first came across Singh-Ray filters after reading an interview of an exceptional photographer by the name of Mike Dawson on Better Photo in 2008. I already had some neutral density filters form Hi-Tech, but the results weren't ideal for sunsets. Singh-ray are known for their high quality in the United States, but they aren't available in the UK. However, they make special reverse graduated neutral density filters, especially designed for sunsets and sunrises and are the only manufacturer that makes them that I'm aware of. Instead of having the darkest part of the filter at the top, the graduation is darkest at the centre, gradually decreasing towards the top, with the bottom remaining clear, as with a standard ND grad. I have been using them now for a year, with some results I'm really pleased with. In fact, with a couple of exceptions, most of my sunset work has been done using a 3 stop reverse grad. I've even been considering a 4 stop version, but I keep hoping the exchange rate will be more favourable first. I also usually couple it with a warming circular polarizer, instead of a slightly cool cast you get with most CPL filters, it warms the image up a little, again ideal for sunsets.
The filters have been instrumental in developing my style, without them my only option would be HDR, which is a technique I'm not over fond of, except as a tool for occasional use. They make it possible to make use of striking lighting, without resulting in blown highlights.