Nature Photography

Everyone loves to take their camera into the outdoors with them. For some people, a trip to the mountains is just not the same without that through the lens perspective.

Stretching from horizon to horizon mountains can be an exciting challenge to capture on film.  As you travel through the mountains, it may seem a near impossible feat to transfer the sights, sounds and smells around you onto a two dimensional photograph.  In reality, you can accomplish this by using a few of the many tools of the photographic trade and learning to think photographically. 

One of the most difficult tasks in capturing the mountains on film is trying to squish them into the tiny viewfinder of most cameras.  Since most of us have a limited selection of lenses often only one, we must learn to work within these limitations.  The trick is to capture tiny vignettes of the mountain environment.  Donít try to put everything in one image.  Many of the most successful photographs are those that have been kept simple with only a few elements to compete for the eyes attention.  This is one of the toughest skills to learn as you are surrounded by endless opportunities for great pictures.  Take a few seconds to find the one view that best describes the situation and try to capture that scene on film.  In this way you donít spend more money on film than you spent on your entire vacation.

Exposure

In years past, exposure was often a problem in the mountains.  With slide film it still can be.  Generally, print film is much more forgiving of incorrect exposure than slide film and so slight errors in exposure will not affect the final print.  Slides however, donít have the chance to be corrected during printing and so your exposure must be bang on.  How do you solve this problem.  The surest way is by experience, but since we donít have the time to experiment we need to find another way.  If the scene is vital to your final slide show you can try a technique known as bracketing.  This means that you take a shot at the exposure that your camera tells you is correct and then you take two more one slightly overexposed and one slightly underexposed.  In this way one of the slides should work out perfectly.  I think of it as image insurance and generally take three frames of every image I shoot.  Even the experts make mistakes and we often only get one chance to capture an image.  Just to reiterate, with print film, most of todays cameras can provide you with an acceptable image just by following the cameras recommendations.

Horror or horrors, you have gotten your prints back and they all look washed out.  Before you panic, take a look at your negatives.  One of the realities of most processing labs is that their equipment doesnít think and just spits everything out according to some preset average.  In most cases, your negatives will show lots of detail in the image.  In this way if you have some shots that you really like, you can pay a few dollars more and have them printed by a custom lab.  They normally do them by hand and can often astound you with how good they make your photographs look.  Often the difference between a great photograph and an all right one is found in the printing.

Another very important consideration when taking photographs in the mountains is focus.  More images are ruined by incorrect focus than by any other single element.  Even most of the so called autofocus cameras sold on the market today do require you to consciously focus the camera.  Generally there is a small spot in the centre of the viewfinder that must be placed on the main subject.  Once this is accomplished you depress the shutter release half way and the focus is locked on that subject.  Too often people think that autofocus means point and shoot and they are then disappointed by the results.  Make sure that you understand the inner workings of your camera. 

As a quick aside, also make sure you are comfortable with removing and loading film.  Even professional photographers donít know every camera model and so you canít depend on others to change the film for you.  Also bring along an extra battery because most of today's cameras are little more than extra weight without good batteries.

Composition

Mount Rundle - Banff National Park - Copyright Ward Cameron 2005 All Rights ReservedAs I mentioned earlier, what you include in your photograph is as important (if not more important) as whether it is sharp and clearly focused.  Good composition is not difficult to learn and simple guidelines have been developed to help you improve your final images. 

The most commonly referred to guideline is called the "rule of thirds".  According to this rule, it is a good idea to place the main subject a third of the way in from one of the margins.  The old practice of putting your main subject dead centre in the image doesnít usually give you visually exciting photographs.  Moving it off centre will often add much more impact to the image.  This can be taken one step further by placing the main subject a third of the way in from two different margins.  For instance placing the image one third of the way from the bottom and a third of the way in from the side provides a very powerful composition. 

To move another step further look at your subject.  If it is a picture of a canoe paddling to the right, donít place it on the right hand side of the frame.  Place it a third of the way in from the left margin.  In this way the canoe is moving into the picture.  When you look at a photograph of a canoe, your eye will look at the canoe and then unconsciously look to see where it is going.  By placing the canoe on the left of the image, the viewers eye will be directed into the rest of the image and not out of the frame.  The rule of thirds is a good technique to help make your images much more exciting.

Lighting

Cathedral Mountain - Yoho National Park, B.C. - Copyright Ward Cameron 2005 All Rights ReservedThe last main point is lighting.  Too many camera manuals tell you to keep the light to your back.  Not only is this only one of a myriad of lighting methods, itís often the most uninteresting option available.  Generally it leads to an album full of people squinting in front of flat uninteresting scenes.  Remember, shadow is what defines depth to our eyes.  If you always keep the sun to your back, you wonít see any shadows on the mountains and they will tend to look very two dimensional.  Experiment with light coming from different directions.

For most mountains scenes the best accessory to add to your camera is an alarm clock.  The most dramatic light is usually found in the early morning or during the last few hours of daylight.  At this time the light tends to hit the mountains at a sharp angle causing very strong shadows.  These shadows provide a strong feeling of three dimensions and can make the difference between a nice image and a great one.  Remember you arenít taking a picture of a scene, youíre taking a picture of the light on a scene at a particular time.  You might as well try to get the best light for recording that scene.

Also donít ignore the opportunity to shoot directly towards the sun.  This technique has many more uses than the traditional sunset shot.  It can be used to produce very graphic images as the subjects are often recorded as dark silhouettes.  Some of my favourite images were taken in this way and are often much more interesting than the traditional front lighting (sun at your back).  One word of caution!  If you are shooting towards the sun, donít look directly at the sun through your viewfinder.  This is particularly important if you are using a telephoto lens.  The sun can cause damage to your eye, particularly when magnified through a lens, so be cautious not to look at it directly.  If Iím including the sun in my frame, I hold my eye a short distance from the viewfinder and I avoid looking at the sun directly.

Finally the quality of light is very important.  On sunny days with harsh shadows we call this hard lighting.  This is the type of light that is best for mountains during the early morning when the light comes in from the side.  However when you take pictures of people, often this harsh lighting makes their eyes disappear into dark sockets and makes every line and wrinkle jump out at you.  In short it is often unflattering for portraits. 

However, on overcast days, when many people tend to put their camera away, the much softer light often provides no shadows at all.  This is great for portraits as not only do the lines and wrinkles tend to disappear, but colours are much more bright on overcast days.  For this reason rainy days are great for taking photographs of wildflowers as the colours tend to jump off of the image.  Generally a good guideline to follow is:  "if the sky is white crop tight".  Basically this means that if the sky is white, concentrate on portraits and close ups and try to keep the white sky out of the image.  It will generally only record as a featureless sea of white anyway so why put it into the frame.  Donít ignore moody landscape shots during bad weather.  Often the fogs that fill the valleys can lead to very exciting images.  The main secret is to be aware of the quality of light and use it to its best advantage.

The preceding guidelines will help you to bring home much more exciting memories of your trip to the Canadian Rockies.  The rest of this manual will be devoted to a few techniques that will be of interest to more advanced photographers and will refer to a few of the optional pieces of equipment that can take their photography one step further.  Donít feel that you need to continue on if youíre experience and goals are no more than an exciting record of your trip.

Tripods

Bighorn Sheep - Banff National Park, AB - Copyright Ward Cameron 2005 All Rights ReservedTripods are one of the most misunderstood pieces of photographic equipment.  So often people think they are used only to take pictures when there isnít enough light to hand hold a camera.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The tripod is one of the greatest compositional aids ever used by the photographer.  As a professional I use some form of camera support for virtually every image I shoot.  By placing a camera firmly on a tripod, it allows you to take a few extra seconds to more carefully compose your image.  How often have you carefully planned a picture only to move slightly when you pushed the shutter and suddenly an unwanted tree branch crept into the scene from the margin.  With a tripod you will see exactly what you are going to get in the final image and in most cases your images will improve greatly. 

Tripods also extend your creative possibilities.  They do allow you the option to use longer shutter speeds in low light or for special effects (ie. long shutter speeds make waterfalls look much more delicate rather than freezing the water droplets).  If youíve got one, I strongly recommend you begin to use it more often.

Filters

People often look at good photographs and wonder if filters have been used to enhance them.  In most cases one of three types of filters have been used: polarizing filters, warming filters and split neutral density filters. 

Polarizing filters are the most commonly used filter in photographing mountains.  They are a filter that is actually rotated in front of the lens and provides a varying effect.  Generally they are used to remove glare and darken blue skies.  Since light coming into the camera lens comes from many different directions, there is a lot of scattering.  This scattering tends to degrade the image.  A polarizing filter is like a screen that lets light enter the lens from only one direction.  This allows it to remove glare off lakes, darken blue skies and even cut through haze on hot days.  If this sounds like a miracle cure, you wonít get any argument from most pros, however there is a cost for this cure.  First of all it costs you light.  It is a fairly dark filter and so less light gets into your camera.  If it is getting late in the day, it may force you to use an exposure too slow to hand hold your camera.  This is therefore another case where having a tripod can save the day.

The second type of filter is a warming filter.  Slightly yellow or magenta, they are used to warm the image up and give it a slightly golden look.  The effect is very subtle though and often imitates the warm glow of morning and evening light.  Also, if you are taking a picture of someone sitting in the shade on a nice sunny day, they will come out with a slightly bluish complexion.  This is because the blue sky tends to tint the light in the shadows.  A warming filter can counteract this effect and give them a more natural appearance.

Finally a split neutral density filter.  Basically this is a filter that is dark on top and clear on the bottom.  Normally in the mountains, you often have a situation where the mountains are very bright but the foreground is quite a bit darker.  Most slide films cannot record this large range of light.  By placing the dark part of the filter on the mountain, the range of light in the image is reduced and often the film will then record an image more like that viewed by the eye.  The line between light and dark in the filter should be placed along some natural horizon and this allows it to effectively disappear.  This is another great secret weapon used by many professionals but again costs you in light.  Donít forget your tripod.

Taking photographs in the mountains is not nearly as difficult as it may appear at first.  Perhaps the most difficult aspects are focusing your eye on small vignettes and not trying to take one photograph with everything in it.  Take the time to familiarize yourself with the mountain environment and before you know it youíll be bringing home the photographic bacon.  Have a great Rocky Mountain adventure and donít forget to bring along lots of film.

 

 
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Bringing the Wonders of Nature to Life since 1986