Landscape Photography Basics: Part One – wide angle lenses

I’m asked about photography topics fairly often. The questions are usually pretty similar so I thought it was time to start writing. This was going to be one short post. Of course that became a very long post which I thought nobody was going to seriously read, so breaking it up into smaller chunks seemed like a better idea.

A fairly typical landscape photograph. Soft light, wide angles, drama and adventure. Taft Point, Yosemite, November 2018.

Photography can be a complicated subject. Something I’d like to get across early is there is no universal “right” or “wrong”; you either achieved what you set out to do or you didn’t. When people ask me “did I do this right?” I can only ask “what were you trying to do?” Then we can work backwards from there. Having said that, here are some aspects of landscape photography that are common. Let’s start by talking about wide angle lenses.

Many landscape photos share these characteristics:

  • Wide angle lenses
  • Greater depth of field
  • Longer exposure times
  • Lower ISO
  • Softer light
  • Level horizon
  • Composition
  • A sense of drama

Let’s start Part One with Wide Angles lenses

I see most landscape photos shot using wide angle lenses.

  • 18-24mm is a typical “wide angle”
  • 14-17mm is a very wide angle
  • 10mm is a ludicrously wide (OK it’s usually called “ultra-wide”) angle

I have used a handful of wide angle lenses of varying quality. My favorites have been the Sigma 17-50 and the Canon 17-40

18-55 Canon EF-S kit lens
Sigma 17-50 f/2.8
Samyang 14mm f/2.8
17-40mm Canon L Series

There are of course plenty of perfectly good reasons to use a telephoto for landscapes. Let’s talk about that another time.

Wide angles will behave differently depending on the type of camera involved.

A full frame camera (Nikon 7xx/8xx-series, Canon 6d/5d series for a couple of examples) using a 17mm lens will result in a lot of distortion on the image. This probably isn’t something you’d want to use for a portrait.

Canon 7d Mark II with a Sigma 17-50 wide angle lens

A crop frame camera (most consumer and enthusiast cameras like the Nikon 3xxx/5xxx/7xxx, Canon Rebels, 20d-80d, etc) have a sensor that’s quite a bit smaller than their full frame counterparts (side note: the Canon 7d series is an interesting beast: a crop frame, pro camera). 18mm-20mm is still pretty wide and nice for landscapes. A wide angle lens on a crop frame camera will result in a little less distortion, but it will still be there.

Canon Rebel XT with a kit 18-55mm lens
Valley View, Yosemite shot with a 14mm lens on a crop frame DSLR. There’s some distortion noticeable in the trees. Look closely at the trees towards the right edge of the frame.

Take a closer look at this detail of the trees at the right side of the frame. There’s some distortion but it’s not awful A fair amount of editing went into this photograph.

Detail of some distortion with the 14mm lens on a crop frame camera. It’s not bad but it’s there.

Is wider better? That’s up to you.

There’s some misunderstanding that wider angles necessarily let you capture more. Yes and no. When you edit the photo to compensate for the distortion then some of that width gets cropped out.

A photo in progress. Climbers on El Capitan as a bus passes. 17mm with a full frame Canon 5d Mk III

Take a closer look at the bottom edge of the photo. You can get a better idea of the image distortion

Detail of the two cars at the bottom edge of the photo. This is where the distortion is most apparent

To me landscape photography is more about art than necessarily a journalistic/accurate representation of a scene. Everything is up to the vision of the artist using the camera in my opinion. You either got what you meant to achieve or you didn’t. There is no “wrong”. I say this a lot.

Check back for Part Two where we discuss depth of field and aperture.
Did you like what you read? Leave a comment or share with your friends. Thank you for reading!

Yosemite Spring Hike, Chilnualna Falls

This is one of those stories that feels like it deserves a much longer post. For the past few years my cousin Debbie and I have ventured into Yosemite looking for wildflowers in the spring. This year was a little different. We had a little extra time, we were excited about exploring parts of Yosemite that we’ve never really spent much time in, and we were both in really good physical condition.

I found a good deal on a stay at the Wawona Hotel (now known as the “Big Trees Lodge”) so we could hike up to Chilnualna Falls. We did our research, and had some pretty good ideas. We both also felt up to the challenge of carrying our favorite gear.

Wawona Hotel (Big Trees Lodge)
Starting at Wawona Hotel was a great idea. Charming and historic. We met some wonderful people here.
Wawona Hotel hallway (Big Trees Lodge)
Wawona Hotel Detail: Honestly, if you get the opportunity then stay here. The place is amazing.

The stretch goal

We had a stretch goal depending on how long it took us to get to the main fall. Above the waterfall are the streams that flow into the falls themselves. I wanted to visit here mostly because it seemed like it would be remote and uncrowded. That was an understatement. We encountered very few people the whole trip and none at all after passing the main waterfall. We had this place to ourselves and it was glorious.

Debbie crossing a seasonal creek
Debbie crossing one of the seasonal creeks that made the trail interesting.

Actually getting to our stretch goal destination was something of a comedy of errors. Note, that’s absolutely normal for us. The trail was washed out and we had to do a little bushwhacking. That meant getting creative crossing yet another stream then essentially losing the trail once we got to the other side. Thankfully some hikers before us stacked up some stone ducks pointing the way.

That water is freezing cold. I had my heart set on wading out there. I think I remember letting out a shriek. It was worth it. I think Debbie has a picture of me doing this which I’ll share some other time.

The primary goal

The primary goal was of course Chilnualna Falls. We backtracked our way here with a minimum of mishaps. I envisioned a long exposure of the water rushing over the middle cascade and flowing to the lower cascade behind me. I had a very wide angle in mind. 17mm on a full frame Canon is really wide and distortion was expected. I liked it and ran with it.

The primary goal: Chilnualna Falls.
This photograph is available on my sales site:
https://www.coastalimagesbysean.com/Landscapes/Yosemite/i-FDmzjMM/A

I switched lenses to my Canon 70-200. For some reason I chose to bring my obnoxiously heavy 70-200 f/2.8. In retrospect my 70-200 f/4 would have been a better choice for any of a dozen reasons, but hey this is what I brought and fitness-knucklehead me, I was up for carrying it.

Portrait orientation shot of the middle cascade with the telephoto.

Time to go.

We stayed for a while and enjoyed the place until it was obviously time to go. We needed to hussle back downhill before we ran out of daylight entirely. Along the way I couldn’t help but stop and photograph the beautiful scenes unfolding in front of me.

The sun dips low between trees along the Chilnualna Falls trail, Wawona, Yosemite

My tripod was strapped to my pack and I just didn’t have time to dawdle much. The remaining shots where hand held at higher ISO. These were moments that I just wanted to capture. It was something of an attempt to take this home with me and remember the experience.

The sun sets on Wawona Dome with trees in the foreground.

While passing these last scenes I could here the voice of Gary Crabbe reminding me these words of wisdom:

If it looks good, shoot it. If it looks better shoot it again

Tree snag and distant hills bathed in warm sunlight.

Sometimes my favorite photos are just out my door

full moon
The moon sets over the San Lorenzo Valley
Available at my sales site

Often I don’t need to go very far to capture a beautiful scene. There are plenty of times when I simply need to go out my front door. Feb 1st, 2018 was one of those times. The full moon was setting behind some wispy clouds. I literally walked outside with my tripod and a good Canon 200mm to capture it.

Making photographs of what moves me, not what’s popular

I like to make photographs of many topics but I’m going to be totally open with you. There are subjects I’m utterly not interested in. If I wanted something to go totally bananas on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or Google Plus (hey, I actually used Google Plus a lot. No really! I’ll talk about that some other time)  then I’d post pictures of fluffy kittens or overly processed portraits of people who were already beautiful to start with. That’s not my thing.

I’m moved most by landscapes. Why landscapes? To quote Dan Mitchell

I’m fortunate to live in a (photographically speaking) “target rich environment.”

I live in the Santa Cruz Mountains; a “target rich environment” among target rich environments. I’ve lived in California for most of my life (there were a couple of years in Las Vegas. Ask me about that over a beer or two some time).

Black and white redwood grove

A grove of redwood trees in black and white. Santa Cruz Mountains, California. September 2018.
This photograph is available on my sales site
https://www.coastalimagesbysean.com/Black-and-White/i-zmZBm9V/A

I look around me and I see art everywhere. The rich patterns and textures in redwood groves. The sheer height of even second-growth redwoods. The fascinating, curling bark of the manzanita tree. The deer wandering through my back yard. The darned turkeys that stubbornly walk down my little street when I’m late for work. The occasional mountain lion (I’ll write about that story again soon. It was one of those blog posts that I let bluehost delete when I gave them the proverbial finger). Often I photograph those scenes in color, but there’s something about redwoods that seem appropriate for black and white.

I often walk through this area looking for inspiration. Today I stopped to study this one grove. I was attracted to the repetition of forms, how the trees framed the one in the middle, and the small amount of depth in the scene. Something clearly in front, back, and in the middle. This particular morning was overcast; absolutely ideal for shooting in this forest. The light catches the bark and seems to bend around the tree enhancing the sense of volume. I must have walked past this grove a hundred times without ever thinking about it. This time I stopped and really looked into the forest. That may seem overly deep considering I just wrote about how I misspelled “photography” on my own header image — and then left it in because it’s funny. But that’s how I feel when I’m in this space.

While studying the way the light played on the bark I decided that black and white was the most meaningful approach for me. Bring this up. Bring this down. Enhance the bright parts of the bark just a little. Bring down some of the shadows, but don’t let them get totally buried. Add a nice organic vignette to emphasize the subject in the middle of the frame. Add a twist of lemon. Just right.

I always appreciate comments and re-shares of my posts. Contact me for prints or licensing. Join me for a hike in the SCM (Santa Cruz Mountains). Or even better buy a print or two from my sales site. Right here again, you know, just in case it got lost up there.

And we’re off again!

Soooo…. I launched the new blog yesterday. Or did I re-launch a re-named blog. I don’t know. Maybe it’s not that important. I just wanted to get off my butt and get started again. I had a couple of posts ready to go. I had my basic graphics from my old blog. Copy, paste, update this, tweak that, publish.

Then my dear cousin Lyn found something I should have seen… uh… 3 years ago or so. I misspelled “photography” on my header image. I misspelled that damn thing 3 years ago.

Yeah I totally fixed that. 

There’s some good news here. I am not the stuffy, overly technical, “read this because I am an authority on this topic” bullshit. I am silly. I like naughty words. I like a good laugh, usually at my own expense. Occasionally I word poorly.

Thanks Lyn.
Mwaaaaaaah!

Space X Falcon 9 launch

A group of friends planned on viewing and photographing the launch of the Space X Falcon 9. The launch was going to happen out of Vandenberg Air Force Base shortly after sunset. The idea was that we would gather up at an agreed upon spot in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

I had just gotten off work and it was a race with the devil to get up there on time. That meant bombing up a little mountain road that’s been beat up by logging trucks. Fortunate for me I’m familiar with the twists, turns, and gaping voids in the road that we’ll call “potholes” for the sake of argument.

Space X Falcon 9 as seen from the Santa Cruz Mountains. October 7, 2018

Once I pulled up I saw the rocket launch from over 200 miles away. I barely had time to setup let alone truly dial in the exposure that I wanted. My first two attempts overexposed; I had never photographed a rocket launch before. I had setup the same way that I would shoot stars at night: ISO 3200 and about 25 seconds with my Canon 5d Mk III. Oh no, definitely not the way to go. I dropped the exposure time way down and got this shot just in time (ISO 3200, f/4, 2 seconds at 40mm using my 17-40 L-series). You can see the main booster coming back to earth in the bottom left corner of the frame. The other colors are mostly from the sun setting. This was a stunning display.

Space X Falcon 9 launch as seen from the Santa Cruz Mountains.
This was my first shot upon arriving, and just trying to get anything at all.

Time for some Milky Way fun

After the launch there was still time to shoot the Milky Way. There was no moonlight, it was pretty dark, and the clouds were cooperating. Why not? I setup a composition that I liked with my car and the Milky Way. I opened the door so the dome light would turn on for a few seconds, introducing a glow inside.

Car and Milky Way
Thanks for another fun day AdventureMobile!

Long exposures on the West Side

I had an idea for a scene on the west side of Santa Cruz. There are a few staircases that lead surfers into the ocean but one in particular just didn’t really do anything for me — until I had an idea. I had envisioned the staircase in sharp focus while the waves washed over it. Shortly after the idea formed the weather and tide cooperated perfectly. The tide was high and the sky overcast.

Step Into My Office #2.
Prints of this photograph are available on my sales site: https://www.coastalimagesbysean.com/Black-and-White/i-FGkqnBL/buy

The great thing about the overcast sky was that just after sunrise a bright band would appear over the horizon between the ocean and the clouds. Some time with Photoshop created exactly the look I wanted.

Step Into My Office #3 is born

Step Into My Office #3
Prints of this photograph are available on my sales site:
https://www.coastalimagesbysean.com/Lifestyle/Expressive-Surf-Images/i-Gf568ZW/buy

I had another idea involving elements that moved and elements that kept still. I was hoping for a surfer to come up the staircase. This involved a 3-stop neutral density filter. For shots like these I often manually focus on the part of the image that I want in sharpest focus. This may vary if I’m going for  hyperfocal depth of field. Soon enough a surfer approached and started coming up the staircase.

I’m going to be blogging fairly often and there are some things you can do to help:

  • Visit here frequently
  • Leave comments
  • Share with your friends
  • And (oh boy this would help a ton) purchase the occasional print.