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on Jun 23, 2009 in Landscape Photography

The Digital Landscape

…Let Your Imagination Loose!

How far can your imagination stretch? Can it take you on a magical journey to the horizon and back, making stops along the way to explore all the glorious wonders you might pass? It’s the invitation into that journey and the path it takes that makes the great landscape photographs great. That invitation all begins with a click of a button as the imagination, passion and talent of the person behind the camera are captured in a fraction of time. Are you such a photographer? Would you like to be such a landscape photographer? I think that when you explore landscape photography with a digital camera and use its unique tools, you can take others on your journey of imagination and passion!

How can a change in mediums take your landscape photography to such levels? It really depends on the person behind the camera and their knowledge of the medium to make the vast improvements. The key to why digital can make a difference is because it places no bars on your imagination; you can capture what you see with your eyes and mind. I can honestly say that the switch to digital has radically improved my own photography. This is how I make the most of the magic of digital in my landscape photography.

The Monitor

What’s affectionately called Chimping (so named after folks heard some photographers at a US Open making ooh…aah sounds when looking at their monitors), looking at your newly created image on the camera’s monitor is essential feedback to success in landscape photography. I’m not talking about looking at the monitor to see your exposure or color, but rather selective chimping to see what you can improve in your photograph. How can looking at an image on the monitor improve your landscape photography?

Just taking your eye away from the viewfinder is a start. The personal attachment photographers form with their image while looking through the viewfinder can be a powerful one. For example, we typically attach our widest lens when going after that spectacular landscape. We look through the viewfinder and see all of that view in the viewfinder and then click away. In order to show that grandeur in our photo though, we have to eliminate all the junk that the ultra wide captures, which for most is incredibly difficult to do when looking through the viewfinder. But when that image appears on the monitor, that junk smacks you right in the face. Recognizing it, taking the appropriate measures such as changing camera angle, focal length, depth of field or any combination of these or other techniques can eliminate the junk and capture the beauty you’re trying to communicate. But using the monitor effectively goes beyond just this.

I rarely run across a photographer who doesn’t have a polarizer in their camera bag, but correctly using a polarizer for most is a real challenge. Typically, the polarizer is attached and rotated until the sky turns blue. That’s not really what the polarizer is meant to do (though at times that can be an aid). The polarizer is meant to remove reflections and in the case of landscape photography, we use the polarizer to remove the reflection of the blue sky from our subject so the bright, vibrant colors are captured by the film. Many have a hard time seeing this removal of blue reflection, which is where the monitor comes in. You can take a series of four images, each one with the polarizer being rotated 90 degrees. You can then look at these four images on your monitor and instantly see the before and after images, seeing the effect the polarizer has. Until you learn to see the polarizer’s effect through the viewfinder, this is a great learning tool that only digital offers.

Before you go out and think that the monitor is the next best thing to sliced bread, realize it has flaws. You cannot, I repeat, you cannot judge correct exposure or color by looking at the monitor! A great example is using a monitor (with Highlight Warning turned off) to determine if you’re correctly using a split graduated neutral density filter. You carefully slide the filter in the right position, it looks perfect in the viewfinder and you click the photo. You quickly look at the monitor and see you’ve made the top of the image too dark and the bottom of the image too light. Most make the mistake of adjusting the filter according to the monitor and not until they get back to the computer and the calibrated monitor do they realize the camera monitor lied to them and then it’s too late. (Having a calibrated monitor is essential in the quest for the perfect landscape.)

The camera monitor is essential and great for looking at the placement of elements in the photograph. In checking for correct polarization or the presence of vignetting, the monitor can’t be beat. But the monitor’s greatest benefit to the digital landscape photographer is learning light and exposure! Exposure? I just said you can’t judge proper exposure by using the monitor. What gives?


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Blinkies: A Landscape Photographer’s Best Friend!

What in the heck are blinkies and more importantly, what can they do for your photography? You will only find blinkies (that’s what I call them), or more commonly called Highlight Warning, on digital cameras. Blinkies visually indicate the areas of a photograph where the exposure is beyond the range of the film. Blinkies literally blink black and white at you. You have to turn the blinkies on to make them flash, but when this feature of your monitor preview is active, you will know instantly and visually where you have an exposure problem!

Blinkies are a visual clue to exposure problems. You visually can see exactly where in your image you have lighting problems. There are no numbers to decipher, no Histograms to analyze, just black blotches that blink at you, telling you your pixels are saying, ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch!

Digital has exposure latitude just like conventional film and when you go beyond that range, you literally will have no information, zero, which is what causes the blinkies. If the exposure range is extreme, you could suffer not only from over exposure but also pixel bloom. But you don’t have to worry about any of this if you have Highlight Warning (blinkies) active and you know to look for them. Because when you see blinkies you then know you have a problem with exposure.

Going back to the split graduated neutral density filter, it’s a snap to use it using the monitor with blinkies active. Take your first image when you think you need to use the filter and then look at the monitor. Blinkies will occur in those areas where there are highlights blown out; blinkies are the area of the image that must have the help of that split filter. Now attach that split graduated neutral density filter, slide it down and take the next photo. If you’ve done it right you now have no blinkies and you have a technically perfect exposure (which might not be the same as the perfect exposure, but that’s another article). If you still have blinkies, adjust your filter accordingly. With digital, you know instantly if you’re doing it right or wrong. You can take blinkies to another level in creating the perfect landscape, which takes us into the digital darkroom.

There are certain situations where there is no way, no matter what tools, techniques and talents we might bring that we can capture in just one image the exposure range our brain is exposing on our mind. A perfect example is a waterfall. When photographing waterfalls, our subject is the falling water. Photographing them in no direct light, before the sun even rises, there is no way we can capture the highlights of our subject, the water, and the shadows of the world around it, in just one image. This is not a problem with digital.

We take our first image at the proper exposure for the whole scene and then look at the monitor and see what blinkies appear. With the camera on a tripod and locked into place, we dial in exposure compensation to properly expose for just the highlights and take a second photo. We check our results on the monitor and if we’ve dialed in the correct exposure comp, we have no blinkies. We now have two images, pin registered by the very nature of digital that we can now combine in the digital darkroom to have a full tonal print, preserving all highlight detail of our subject.

Blinkies are the most magical way for any photographer to learn light and exposure. Since light is what makes the landscape before us magical, it’s the perfect marriage of technology and talent!


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The Digital Effect

With the advantages that digital brings to landscape photography, I’m always saddened when I hear a photographer fret over the digital effect on ultra wides. Digital cameras by their nature change the effective focal length of a lens so an ultra wide is not as ultra wide on a digital camera. While this is true, it should not stop the digital photographer from capturing the perfect landscape image. All that is really required to make it work is that a PHOTOGRAPHER be behind the camera! The digital effect does not stop the imagination from stretching or the invitation from being sent!

Merely attaching an ultra wide does not guarantee the perfect landscape image anyways. Being able to truly look at the image in the viewfinder, include important elements and exclude the junk as I’ve already mentioned is essential. When you can’t do that in the viewfinder, the monitor can help. But when it comes to the digital factor and effective focal length, it’s up to you the photographer and your imagination that limits what you capture, not the camera body! I think digital brings way more to the landscape photographer that out weighs by tons anything it might seem to take away!

Great landscape photographs contain many elements. First and foremost is light as light brings shape, depth and drama to our world. As visual communicators we take advantage and manipulate light and the elements it touches to capture in the split second of the shutter the image of a lifetime. When you combine your talent, imagination and passion with the tools digital brings to landscape photography, you’re inviting others to travel on the journey you made when you clicked that shutter. With a photographer behind the camera, the digital landscape lets the imagination loose!