Landscape photography: gear or light ?

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Landscape photography is not about cameras, gadgets and gizmos. Photography is about photographers. A camera doesn’t make a great picture anymore than the best word processor writes a great novel. Before you go off and buy that € 3.500 camera body, or the latest € 2.000 super-sharp lens, Think twice: they will not make you a better landscape photographer.

Before I get too many death threats, let me try to explain what I mean: 99% of the world’s landscape images are based upon a large depth of field (DOF). That is to say, that we want to have as much of the subject in sharp focus as possible. Front to back sharpness will help to convey to the viewer the splendor of the view, and help to convey something of our own experience when taking the photo. To achieve this in an image, we will shoot with the aperture stopped down to about f/11, and focus one-third of the way into the frame. Remember the hyperfocal rule. This gives the greatest depth of field possible, culminating in an overall sharp and detailed image. With nearly any gear or lens.

I’m not trying to say that a lens like the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 ED isn’t worth owning. Please don’t get me wrong. I’m sure it has faster focusing, a better build, better contrast, better color rendition and better handling than any basic 18-105mm kit lens. No doubt about a fact. But it also costs five times as much, without returning five times better image quality.

And full frame sensors offer better low-light performance, better dynamic range, if we are comparing the latest technology. This is true, but so what? If you are primarily a landscape photographer, then the camera should be set up on a tripod and set to the lowest ISO possible anyway. And as for dynamic range, it’s nothing that post-processing can’t deal with. The argument could be made that full-frame cameras are ”pro” cameras, and therefore better built, weather-sealed etc. That also means, however, that they will probably be bigger and heavier to carry around, the files will be bigger to deal with, and the lenses will generally be more expensive (and heavier). As a result, you will capture better images with your iPhone: you GOT it at the right place, and in the right time.

Above all, the most important aspect of great landscape photography is light. You can stand in front of a beautiful coastal scene, with a wonderful composition of foreground, middle and background elements, full of sweeping curves and leading lines. But, if the light isn’t right, then you have no image. More than anything else, it’s the quality of the light in a landscape that will determine its success or failure.

The photographers you admire may very well use the latest full frame bodies, and the most expensive ultra-wide lenses that money can buy. But, that’s not what makes them great photographers either. When it comes to beautiful landscape images, it is most definitely not about the gear. They will chase the light. They will get up early, and go to bed late, in pursuit of that damned right light. They will stand on a cliff for hours, with their camera set up in the one spot, waiting for just the right light to make just the one image. And if they get that one shot, then they will consider it a successful day. It’s about planning to be in the right place at the right time. And then it’s about getting lucky when mother Nature decides to turn up with glorious light.

Use whatever you want to make the kind of image you want to make. Choose full frame cameras if they suit your needs. Get an ultra-wide if that’s what it takes to bring your vision to life. But don’t also fall into the trap of feeling somehow inferior if you’re not shooting on a full frame camera with a pretty expensive lens, because you certainly don’t need them to try creating stunning landscape images. Maybe that money would be better spent going on location to a place you’ve always wanted to shoot, somewhere in our beautiful world.

Mastering light

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What makes a photo great is not the camera sensor, the DSLR or mirrorless design, or the so-many points of your magic autofocus system. Photos are made from light.

There always are, and will be, new articles outlining new tech devices with better attributes. They compare the iPhone Xs camera to a pro DSLR, and therefore pose the question: is the good photographer a dying breed ?

With high quality image capture devices steadily becoming more affordable and accessible, who needs a “real” photographer anymore ? Because isn’t the high quality, expensive gear the defining factor between a pro and an amateur ? And is that gap narrowing with the advent of better, cheaper, cameras ? To all of that, the answer is NO, because that’s not where the gap exists. Having the right gear may be a prerequisite in some cases, but it’s not the end of the road. But only the beginning of a narrow, dusty and climbing path.

A picture is made with light. To capture that light, you have to be able to see it, to observe how it moves, see how it reflects and refracts. With no light, there is no image, and, just like us, not all lights are created equal. Hunting the good light is a never-ending endeavor, and that’s where the gap between good and great images. Therefore, you have to study light. Study it in everyday life. Pay attention to its properties and how it behaves. See how it changes after the sun dips below the horizon but it’s still not dark. See what it does when it bounces off a white wall, or wraps around a black sphere, or shines through the hair of someone you love. Then capture it with whatever camera you have.Study and understand composition and balance. Understanding the inverse square law won’t hurt either. Read about specular vs. diffuse reflection and know how to work with both. And color temperature. And have the Itten book on your night table.

Now, one has to do care about the gear. The camera is what let’s us capture the light in the exact way we want to. The reason better gear is desirable is because of the way it can function a tool, but it ultimately doesn’t create a photo on its own. Better sensors and bigger apertures allow photos to be taken with less available light. Sharper lenses mean sharper images, which are generally preferable. Being able to shoot more frames per second means a greater chance of getting the shot at the exact right moment. Faster, more accurate autofocus systems mean more in-focus images.

But you’re not going to get better without deep study and daily practice. This is true in every art, from playing piano, sketching or dancing on ice. 

Like Johannes Vermeer, learn to work with the light. Then your gear will sit in the back seat, and you’ll get a small chance to become, one day, a master in your art.

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