Recently I took a trip through some of Utah’s most impressive national parks. I took lots of photos and wanted to jot down what I learned shootingwise. But before anything else, some comments on this post. These are notes rather than a tutorial; and in many ways, notes to myself for the next time I shoot. I do not claim to be an expert or a teacher in shooting landscapes and panoramas. If someone is about to shoot and finds these notes helpful, all the better. Also, I’m often traveling with friends, which changes things. To get the best picture, you should travel alone, take your time, shoot, evaluate and shoot again. With friends, I’m more likely to take the fastest best picture I can without a tripod, so notes help when I’m trying to shoot quickly. A lot of stuff below is obvious… until you forget it.
Shooting and Processing Landscapes
To Bracket, or Not To Bracket. Usually I take one picture and minimize compositing, but this time, I decided I would play with photoshop to get the best photo. Truth is, pictures out of the camera don’t look very good, and our eyes make the world look much better than any camera. On this trip, the problem was that in any given photo, the sky was bland or overexposed while the land had the right lighting, or vice versa. To be safe, I decided to bracket and then merge sky and land in photoshop if necessary.
Then I got to post, tried it and found it wasn’t necessary to bracket, especially if (1) I had a photo with an acceptable exposure for both sky and for land; and (2) I worked in .RAW instead of .jpeg. The .jpeg format has a much lower range of detail so curve adjustments, if pushed too far, looked terrible.
Compositing Sky and Land. What I ended up doing after much fiddling was the following:
- Adjusting the sky in .RAW and saving that as its own file. In this file, the land would look terrible.
- Then I opened the same original file, adjusted the settings so that the land looked as good as it could, which meant that the sky would look terrible.
- In the land file, I would select the sky and save the selection as a channel. This simply saves a copy in case I wanted to use the selection again. As we all know, re-doing a selection is a pain in the derriere.
- Then, I would take the sky file, copy it and superimpose it over the land file. Here, I had to make sure that photoshop was set to snap (e.g., snap to document bounds under >View) so that I wouldn’t have to fiddle around with positioning. To copy from one file to another, select the entire picture, set the cursor to move, move the sky photo to the tab where the land photo is named, wait for photoshop to switch windows, move the picture (and the cursor) back to the area where the land photo is, hold the shift key down before releasing the cursor, and then release the cursor. If necessary, uses the arrows to adjust, but with >Snap on this should be pretty easy. Yes, I think this sounds much more complicated than it should be.
- After that, I loaded the sky selection from the channels palette, created a mask and then inverted the mask to show only the sky over the land.
- And voila, we have a composite.
- If further adjustments are necessary on either the land or the sky, you can just reload the sky selection, use that to isolate land or sky and perform adjustments such as curves or apply blending modes such as multiply or overlay. I found that reducing exposure on the sky, blending modes of multiply or overlay, curves and/or increasing contrast would make the sky look much better.
- In some cases, I would use Select > Color Range on the clouds and adjust in curves, and then use Color Range again on blue sky and darken them using curves.
Paying Attention To Composition. Because I was running and gunning, I often just took a picture and said I would figure it out in post. And we all know what happens there – you don’t figure out everything, and you have lots more pictures than you will ever need. And in my rush, I let go of one of the most basic tenents of photography: since what the camera sees and what the eyes see are quite different, you have to make sure that what you see in the lens is a good picture, particularly composition wise. While I was quite happy with the photos I got, I’ve got plenty of photos where there was too much sky, or too much land, or the monuments were too small, or there simply wasn’t a worthy subject of focus in the frame.
Defining Scale by Including People and Familiar Objects in a Shot. Usually, I prefer a clean shot without people or cars, but if you take that shot, it’s often hard to understand the scale of something in a photo. With a photo, it’s sometimes hard to tell if something is 5 feet high or 500 feet high. Of course, it also depends on what you are using the photo for. If you’re just showing it to friends, people and cars give you a sense of the scale of something. However, including people and cars may not be good for more artistic photos. So choose, or do both.
Using the Wide Angle. While you can get some amazing shots with a wide angle, I found it less useful in shooting landscapes than I thought. The sky would be amazing, and if there were lines and perspective, the shot could be wonderful. At the same time, the distortion around the sides often made monuments lean, which was interesting but not very real. If I had to do it over, I’d probably use the standard lens more often and the wide angle less.
Don’t Forget the Lens Hood. Because I was hiking and wanted to travel light, I figured I could travel without the lens hood. No, no – while it might not solve every problem, bring the lens hood next time.
The sights were so impressive, I shot lots of panoramas. A few notes:
- Best to shoot on manual with a consistent light setting, because of course, you don’t want the lighting to vary.
- I tried shooting a few panoramas with the wide angle just for fun. Photoshop actually figured out the distortion in some cases, but not often enough to do it frequently.
- Sometimes, the panoramas were so wide it was hard to see on the computer screen. For most everyday purposes (computer, hanging a photo on a wall), 3-4 horizontal photos is enough for a panorama. Any more and all you get is a very thin photo that’s hard to see on a computer screen.
- Of course, you can shoot more sky and foreground to fill in, but in fact, that’s usually stuff that doesn’t make the photo significantly better.
- Shoot something drastically different between your panoramas, otherwise you spend endless time trying to figure out where your panorama begins and ends.
Shoot the Info Plaque. Many sights have a plaque with information about whatever you are looking at. Shoot the plaque, it helps you organize in post and reminds you of what you shot.