Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Approach to creating landscape and travel images

As with most other kinds photography, I see the creation of good landscape and travel images as a three stage process, with each stage involving a series of individual steps.  This is my approach:

  1. Previsualisation - the conversation I have with myself
  2. Capturing the image in the camera
  3. Finessing the image in Photoshop

Previsualising the image

When I see a situation I feel has the potential for a good picture, I have a very quick conversation with myself - it goes something like this:

  • What is it about this situation that appeals to me?
    My answer helps me decide the answer to my next question, which is:
  • So what exactly is my subject going to be, and how can I best portray it?
    Once that’s decided I then need to choose an ideal viewpoint - so I ask:
  • From which viewpoint will this look best? - from here?, from left or right of here?, from higher or lower?, closer or further away?, zoomed in or out?
    The answer to this question will influence my choice of lens.
  • What about the background? - are there specific elements I’d like to include or exclude?
    (this too can influence my choice of lens)
  • And finally, do I want the background to be sharply or softly defined?
    This will influence my choice of which aperture to use.

Capturing the image

Having already previsualised how I’d like the image to look, the technical decisions about how best to capture the image are made so much easier.

I’ve already decided what I want to photograph, where I want to photograph it from, which Lens (focal length) would be best and whether a small, medium or large aperture would achieve the look I want for the background.

If the ideal lens is not already on my camera, I’ll quickly change to the right one - Quickly, because situations and opportunities can and do change very quickly.

My preferred Metering mode

Most of the time I leave the mode set to Av, (meaning "aperture value") When I’m using this mode it’s the combined effect of my selected aperture, ISO setting and the light intensity that determines my shutter speed.

The actual speed is rarely critical, so long as it’s fast enough to overcome any camera shake and arrest any subject movement. If I’m shooting fast action I’ll sometimes switch the mode to Tv, (meaning "time value"). In this mode it’s the combined effect of the shutter speed, ISO and light intensity that determines my aperture. In action situations the aperture settings tend to be of less importance. To my mind it’s more about arresting the action of the subject itself and less about how much else is in sharp focus.

The ISO and when I change it.

If the light is sufficiently bright and my subject isn’t moving too much I prefer to leave my ISO (light sensitivity) on its lowest setting, (on my camera that’s  100). You get the best image quality your camera can deliver when it’s set at its lowest ISO. Higher settings progressively introduce digital noise. However, there are lots of situations where you have no choice but to use a higher ISO.

If I’m shooting a scene in low light and I want good depth of field, a longer than normal shutter speed is often needed. Typically I’d use a tripod, but if I don’t have one with me, or it’s not convenient or legal to use one, I have no choice but to set a high ISO. The image will be noticeably grainer (noisier) than if I’d used a tripod and a lower ISO, but at least I’d have a picture.

Sports photographers shooting fast moving action have to use high ISOs, especially in low light. When press photographers are barred from using flash, high ISOs are their only option.


Composition, more than any other thing is what makes images stand out from the crowd. Here are some of the things I think about while I’m looking through the viewfinder before I press the shutter.

  • Is this composition close to what I previsualised as the ideal one?
  • Am I leaving just the right amount of "elbow room" around the subject? - so that it appears neither too tight nor too loose?
  • Is my horizon level? (off level horizons can make images look amateurish)
  • Am I considering the "Rule of Thirds"? It’s not really a hard and fast rule, but it often helps to position the main element/s of a photograph at or around the one third or two thirds position on an imaginary grid in the viewfinder.
  • Does my composition look well balanced, regardless of any so called "rules"?
  • If there are "leading lines" in this picture, am I making good use of them?
  • Is this image as it stands well proportioned, or might I need to crop out some parts of it later, or possibly change its proportions in Photoshop? It’s worth thinking about this while you’re composing the picture because it can influence your final composition.

Focus - where should that be?

When our subject is one specific thing, like a person, the answer is simple - "on their eyes". The sharpness of the rest of the face is important, but less so. But if our subject is a scene we are usually dealing with depth, as in front to back depth, and need to consider our "depth of field" (or "depth of focus") ... i.e., how far in front and behind the point we focus on is to rendered sharply.

This in turn is controlled by our choice of aperture, the smaller the aperture, the greater the depth - also where in the scene we choose for precise focus.

Shutter speed also needs thinking about.

In most cases I’m not looking to stop action, but when I’m hand holding my camera, which is most often the case, I need a shutter speed that’s fast enough to overcome the effect of any camera shake. The longer the lens, the faster my shutter speed needs to be.

There’s an old rule of thumb that says: When you’re hand holding the camera your shutter speed needs to be at least equal to the focal length of the lens you’re using. For example: If you’re shooting with a 100mm lens, your shutter speed should not less than 1/100th of a second.

The advent of image stabilization has made it easier to shoot at slower speeds, typically at half or even a quarter of the focal length, without degrading the sharpness due to camera shake. However, we also need to be mindful of subject movement, a problem that even clever technology cannot fix.

A final quick look around the viewfinder

Am I 100% happy with composition as it currently appears in the viewfinder?

Have I overlooked some small annoying element near the edge of the frame?

Should I change my composition slightly to eliminate it, or will I live with i\any small problems for now and clone them out once I get it into Photoshop?

Finessing the image in Photoshop

  • Open the image.
  • Apply lens corrections (auto if the lens is recognized), otherwise manually.
  • correct any lens distortion, chromatic aberration or vignetting.
  • Set the Exposure slider to optimize the density.
  • If the highlights still look too light, nudge the Recovery slider.
  • If needs be adjust the Blacks slider to optimize the shadows.
  • Nudge the Clarity slider to add "snap" to the image.
  • Nudge the Vibrance slider to liven up the colour.
  • Check the horizon, and if necessary, rotate the image to level it.
  • Fix any blank edges that were created by the previous step.
  • Check that the horizon is straight (not bent) and if necessary, straighten it.
  • Consider whether the image could use some "glare reduction". If so open the Shadows/Highlights tool and tweak the Highlights slider.
  • Consider whether the image could use any more or less contrast - a little extra often helps. Open the Curves dialog and try nudging the tone line to just below the ¼ tone mark and just above and ¾ tone mark. A slight "s-curve" will often give an image an attractive lift.
  • Consider whether the image needs any more or less saturation. This is very much a personal choice. Pictures shot in dull light will often benefit from a boost in saturation. But use restraint because too much saturation can make an image look rather garish.
  • "Deglitching" is my name for the process of removing visually annoying elements that detract from an otherwise clean looking image. (I call them "eye magnets" because they attract attention away from the main subject). I can’t recall ever taking an image that couldn’t be improved by removing some small, visually irritating element. They always seem most annoying when they’re close to the edges or corners of the image.
  • Consider the image proportions. Many compositions can be made stronger by altering their proportions, the "geometry" of the image. I’ll often make a last minute decision to crop an image to improve its composition, and in doing so, change the proportions, i.e., the width to height ratio. Another technique is to squash or stretch parts of the image. Some people regard this as cheating. I see it as "artistic license".

15 Post Processing Steps

15 steps I go through with every RAW image I process.

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