Making Beautiful Landscape Photos On A Sunny Day

Water cascades down the face of Steavenson Falls near Marysville in north eastern Victoria.

The Death Of Photography

Making beautiful photos on a blinding bright day is not easy. Perhaps it's photography's greatest irony that the weather under which most photos are made is so often the worst possible light by which to make a beautiful rendition of the subject or scene depicted. I've been known to go so far as to refer to such light as being the death of photography. 

Black Sunday Bushfires

The above photo was made at Steavenson Falls near the town of Marysville about 100 km northeast of Melbourne, Australia. I had made the trip with my old friend Ashley the previous year to look for signs of nature renewing itself following a devastating bushfire that swept through the town on February 7, 2009. On that day, known as Black Saturday, around 400 bushfires ravaged the state of Victoria resulting in the loss of 173 lives, injury to 414 people and tremendous loss of property, wildlife and natural habitat. Ashley and I decided to revisit the area around the end of 2012, when the above photo was made.

Bushfire is a terrible thing. A former work colleague and his wife had owned a lovely house and beautiful garden in Marysville. He's planned retirement was largely unmade by the bushfire which totally destroyed his home. Last thing I heard was that he and his wife were living in a caravan in the backyard of the home owned by one of their children.

As far as a day out this particular trip was spectacular. A beautiful sunny day under a deep blue sky made for a great driving experience. But, as the goddess of photography gives with one hand and takes with the other, such great weather presents problems for the photographer. We can summarize these problems as follows:

Flat Looking Images

Bright light tends to wash out detail and color, as it reflects much of the fine detail and color off surfaces within the scene. A polarizing filter can be a help under such conditions. By reducing reflections the polarizing filter prevents much of the color and texture from being reflected off the surface of the subject in question.

Difficulty Achieving Creative Blur

Bright light can make it difficulty to achieve the slower shutter speeds normally required to blur moving water. Your ability to produce emotive, ethereal images is, therefore, reduced by your inability to achieve long exposure times under bright light.

The solution is to employ a Neutral Density (i.e., ND) filter. After a considerable amount of research I purchased a selection of Formatt-HiTech Firecrest ND filters. These are high-quality, visually opaque glass filters which, by significantly reducing the amount of light reaching the camera’s sensor, result in the need for longer exposure times. By selecting the right strength (i.e., opacity) Neutral Density filter you can arrive at the shutter speed required for the amount of creative blur you require.

Photography: The Rule Of Doubling And Halving 

There are a variety of strengths of neutral density filters. At this stage I have 10, 13 and 16 stop ND filters, though I expect I’II add a 6 stop ND filter down the road aways. A 6-stop ND filter will increase the exposure time from, for example, 1/500 second to ⅛ second. The same image made with a 10-stop ND filter in place would require a 2 second exposure. Employing a 16-stop filter, under the same circumstances, would result in a 128 second exposure.   

As well as the actual filters you’ll also need to purchase a filter holder and one or more adaptor rings by which you attach the filter holder to the lens in question.

High Contrast

The brighter the light the darker the shadows will photograph.

One of my favorite photography mantras, the above quote explains the loss of essential information, be it shadow detail and/or highlight texture, that often occurs when photographing under high contrast conditions.

The difficulty associated with photographing subjects or scenes of inherently high contrast (i.e., dynamic range) is probably the hardest thing for the aspiring photographer to understand. The simple fact of the matter is that the camera cannot record the world in exactly the same way as the eye sees it or, more correctly put, the mind remembers it.

Thankfully the latitude of camera sensors is increasing, which makes it easier to maintain highlight texture and shadow detail under moderate levels of contrast. But high contrast situations remain beyond the ability of most if not all modern cameras to satisfactory record, when used in JPEG mode.

The good news is that redistributing tones, so as to reduce contrast, by darkening down highlights and opening up (i.e., lightening) dark shadows is within easy reach of millions of photographers via applications such as Adobe Lightroom. Photographing in RAW rather than JPEG will provide you with larger files and significantly more data (i.e., finer chunks of data) for even better results.

However, if you only want to post process images on an occasional basis, you’d be better off accepting a quality loss and continuing to work in JPEG mode. In that case I would recommend setting your camera to the highest quality JPEG setting for the best quality JPEG file.

RAW Rules, But Not For All

RAW mode is for the super keen as the image isn’t ready for sharing, and often looks pretty shabby, until it’s been processed on the desktop. While JPEG files receive basic image processing in camera, RAW files are designed to be processed, on the desktop, by the discriminating photographer.

I have no issue with people setting their camera to JPEG mode. In fact I feel it’s appropriate to the vast majority of enthusiast level photographers for whom the joy of photography is making the image, in camera, and then quickly and easily sharing it with the world. RAW will produce better results, but only if you’re prepared to do the work and process all of the images you want to share yourself. This involves a commitment in time and a new skill set (i.e., post processing).

However, Adobe Lightroom will provide the average photographer with fantastic results, most of the time. And, when properly taught, you can become sufficient with Lightroom after one or two sessions. I’ve got loads of folks who I’ve taught Lightroom to who’d echo those thoughts.

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Making The Photo

My approach to managing contrast on the above photo was to employ a polarizing filter to reduce reflection and, thereby, hold onto detail and color in the brightly lit rocks which, due to the spray from the waterfall, were particularly reflective.

Unfortunately I didn’t have my fancy pants Format-Hitech Neutral Density filters back then so, to produce the desired amount of blur in the water, I set my ISO to the camera’s default ISO 100, closed my lens’s aperture down to f 22; and benefited from the further reduction of light reaching the sensor, due to the use of the polarizing filter.

The final, and most pressing issue, was the high contrast conditions under which I was working. By reducing reflections the polarizing filter had helped to lower the overall contrast, but not enough. 

HDR To The Rescue

While I was happy for certain elements (e.g., trees in the background) to render quite dark, I wanted to ensure sufficient detail was retained in the rocks and foliage around the waterfall. I made a series of images, at different brightnesses, so as to record as much detail as possible. It was simply a matter of ensuring little or no movement of the camera and subject matter (except, of course, for the water and the odd fern blowing in the wind) throughout this series of exposures. It was time to employ my ultra steady Really Right Stuff TVC-33 tripod. 

The resulting images were converted, via a HDR workflow, into a single, new composite image containing far more information than any of the original exposures. The composite .tif image was then processed in Adobe Lightroom), prior to final processing, including conversion into black and white, in Photoshop.

Photography As Art

If I'd chosen to stay in color I'd probably have tried to keep the brightness of the shadows up. That's because, in a color photo, folks expect to see green leaves on trees, even dark trees. But black and white allows the artist photographer to opt for a higher contrast result, which is often more visually arresting.

The trees in the top left of the image are now really more shapes than they are trees. That's what removing color from an image can do for your photography. It removes it, to an extent, from reality and brings it a step closer to abstraction. This process seems to open up new possibilities for visual and, sometimes, spiritual exploration. And so photography becomes art.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru