Eastern Sierra Dirt Roads

This year’s trip into the Eastern Sierra was a little different. I planned well, had many ideas, and in the end had to scrap most of them and improvise. Winter and summer seems to provide just the right conditions for all the gold and yellow I could imagine. The reality is that it was, in what I would call using my extensive knowledge of the English language, weird.

The areas that I expected to be past prime were right on schedule. Sagehen Summit was mostly brown by the time I got over Hwy 120. What surprised me was how much of a mix of past prime and utterly green it was in the valley from Ellery Lake to Lee Vining. Usually when I’m rolling through here it’s popping with yellows, although it’s in the early afternoon and poor quality light for me. Debbie and I usually promise that we’ll stop here on the way home. This time it was obviously unusable.

Yellow, Orange, and Brown .
Photograph available on my sales site: https://studiocomradz.smugmug.com/SeanMcLean/i-3jfhdGQ/A

This year I took my Subaru Forester with the plan that we could get into more remote locations. There are a few dirt roads near Conway Summit and this was the day to explore.

Power Lines, Dirt Road, and Grove Of Trees
https://studiocomradz.smugmug.com/SeanMcLean/i-F8txgbQ/A

Typically I avoid elements like power lines. They’re not natural and they’re kind of an eyesore. This time I included them as part of the landscape helping lead the viewer into the scene. I didn’t want to get much closer to this grove because the dirt road had a section of deep mud that somebody obviously got stuck in the day before. Judging by the tire tracks he had much more clearance than I did and got stuck anyway. No thanks. I chose to photograph this scene with my Sigma 150-500 to both isolate my subject and bring it closer.

Shark Fin Cove. Iconic or Loved To Death?

Tonight at Shark Fin Cove. I have to admit that I have a mixed relationship with this place. An iconic Santa Cruz scene that’s been “loved to death”.

Shark Fin Cove at Sunset. November, 2018.

This scene is occasionally found on the cover of magazines like Outdoor Photographer. It’s a tricky location to shoot, and I’ll be honest there are a lot of times when this place doesn’t do a lot for me. There’s usually a lot of garbage from visitors who couldn’t be bothered to pick up after themselves, graffiti, or any number of people who want a selfie while I’m trying to compose a photograph here. Usually I patiently wait out that last one.

A fashion shoot was actually happening off to my right and we were all careful to work around each other. I’m grateful for that kind of awareness. The selfie variety… not so much.

This scene is shot from just about every angle; up high behind this perspective, up and to the right, and slightly less often up the cliff and to my left. I think that what really makes this scene work is an interesting foreground. The rock outcropping that I’m standing on here almost always has interesting reflections and leading lines. The algae on the rocks provides a little color contrast. Tonight the sun was setting to the southwest and provided a fun pop of lens flare.

Processing the Image

It’s a little more complicated than it seems; this is a blend of two photographs. It’s nearly impossible to get both the sunset and the foreground exposed the way I like in a single frame, so this is a blend of 2. I can see a good argument for using 3. Actually blending them together is a lot of work and met with varying success. This area is alive and not standing still at all. For example the cliff sides have tall grass swaying in the breeze. To blend the two images together means carefully painting in a mask along the grass.

There are dangers shooting here. A lot of folks along the cliff don’t realize that they’re standing on an overhang. If you’re visiting here please leave no trace, pick up some trash, and be very careful along those cliffs.

Thanks!

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.
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