Category Archives: How To

6 Tips for Landscape Photographers

1. Use a Tripod!

Image above – Nate Lindstrom getting knee deep for the shot.

I know, I know, tripods are big and cumbersome and they make you feel constricted. I used to feel the same way when I started out.
Now I shoot with one 99% of the time, even in bright conditions with fast shutter speeds.
Tripods are important for a couple reasons:
a. They make you slow down, allow you to find really compelling compositions and fine tune them. You don’t need to shoot 100 images from a sunrise. Take your time, slow down, tweak your compositions and come home with a handful of solid images instead.
b. They keep the camera still and help you to get razor sharp images.

Read this –  Buy your last tripod first! I wish I had read this article before I purchased and wasted money on several inadequate tripods over the years.

2. Keep the horizon straight!

Take your time, level out your horizon before locking in your tripod head and taking the shot.
If you forget to level it before taking the photo, fix it in Photoshop before printing or showing it to others.
Beware, copping to the “fix it in post later” method is lazy and leads to lost resolution due to cropping.
That’s not to say that even if you get it as straight as possible in the field, you won’t have to straighten and crop a bit in post, you probably will, but at least you will have a better base to start from and will lose less of the image when doing so.
Generally speaking, when shooting landscapes, you are trying to convey what you saw at that exact moment and a crooked horizon is not something found in nature and It’s pretty off-putting to see in an landscape image.

3. Focus!

There’s nothing worse than seeing a photo with awesome color, amazing light, gorgeous front to back interesting elements and then nothing sharp in the entire frame. Something to read up on is the “hyperfocal distance“.
To keep it simple, when shooting with a wide angle lens, shoot stopped down in the F/8 to F/16 range. Focus on something in the middle to end of the first 1/3 of the scene, (before the foreground meets the midground) lock the focus and shoot.

4. Graduated Neutral Density Filters!

A Hitech 3 Stop Hard Edge Grad ND was used to capture the image above.

Grad ND filters are the secret weapon in most Landscape Photographer’s camera bags.
Graduated Neutral Density filter is used to balance exposures with a Large Dynamic Range of light. Think of a scene with a bright sky. If you shot that without a Graduated Neutral Density filter and metered for the foreground, the sky would be overexposed (washed out with a loss of detail) and the foreground would be exposed properly. Inversely, if you metered for the sky, the sky would be exposed properly and the foreground would be underexposed (too dark with little to no details). Basically, The Graduated Neutral Density filter will balance your exposures and allow both the bright sky and foreground to be properly exposed.

Graduated Neutral Density filters (GND Filters) come in several different densities or strengths. 1 stop, 2 stop, 3 stop, and 4 stop are the most common. They also are available in hard edge or soft edge varieties. Hard Edge GND filters are best used in scenes that have hard, clean lines without anything protruding through them such as a lake with a clear horizon line.

5.  Dust Removal!

Those aren’r seagulls flying in the sky.

Every DSLR made photograph needs some sort of dust removal. When we shoot at such narrow apertures such as F/8 – F/22 we really start to see the dust spots in our images.

Try to keep the sensor clean with a rocket blower or with a sensor cleaning system
(There are different kits with different solutions for different sensors. Make sure you read the specs before ordering as you could damage your sensor)
Even after a good sensor cleaning, you will probably end up with dust spots in your image after swapping lenses out.
In Photoshop, Look into the cloning stamp or the spot healing brush tools. Zoom into your image at 100% and slowly scroll up and down and across, looking for unwanted dust spots. Clone them out and clean up your photo.
The last thing you want is a print with eye sores.

6. Halos!

Halos are white bands that show up in photos along the sharp edges in overcooked HDR images and over-sharpened images.
(See the right image? It was oversharpened and things went wonky)
Halos don’t occur naturally and in general aren’t very attractive.

If you like to use HDR, you can still achieve that crazy, super saturated, shadow-less, otherworldly, surreal, HDR image without the huge halos. You just have to take time with your software and get to know it’s controls. HDR software isn’t for me, but I get why some people like it.
Same goes with sharpening. You get a 100% magnified view when sharpening, move that view to a sharp, prominent edge in your image and watch for the halos to form. Then back the sliders off a bit until they go away.
A little masking and play with the sliders goes a long way. Learn to mask in photoshop, so when you sharpen your landscapes you aren’t sharpening things that don’t need it such as clouds, blue sky, water, etc…
Sharpening those elements only leads to extra artifacting.

Also posted in Landscape

Latest Photo – Poseidon’s Molar

The weather we have had in Northern MN lately has not been conducive to my winter shooting style. We have had 48 degree days in January and while this makes going from the house to the car to work more tolerable, it makes for boring winter photos. I want cold temperatures, I want arctic steam hovering over the lake at sunrise, I want snow, I want ice buildup on Lake Superior’s shoreline. All of these elements are what make interesting photographs for me.
Luckily the warm snap broke, the overcast skies gave up their stronghold and some interesting clouds appeared over Lake Superior this past Friday. I had to take advantage of this situation as I haven’t shot anything that excited me in over a month, maybe closer to two months and I was getting antsy. I took off from Duluth a couple hours before sunset and drove an hour north to a location I had scouted several months earlier but had yet to take any photographs.
I arrived at the location, got out of my car and one of the first things I was was this interesting rock formation approximately 50 yards off shore. I took my camera, 70-200mm lens and 10 stop ND filter out of my bag and set up on my tripod. I found this composition, set my focus on the rock (used live view to zoom in at 10x on my LCD to ensure that the edges of the rock were razor sharp) then I got my base exposure, screwed on the 10 stop filter, plugged in my cable  release and exposed the photo for 128 seconds. The sky was much brighter than the foreground so I knew I had to reduce the exposure in the sky while taking this photo.
Most of the time I would use a graduated Neutral Density filter for this, but I do not have a Panel Filter Holder and hand holding a Grad ND for 128 seconds would be very difficult without shaking the camera and lens. I resorted back to a tried and true method that I use often when taking photos that are longer than 30 seconds. I used my hand/black glove to block off the upper portion of the lens for part of the exposure. (this is similar to burning in the darkroom) You can also use a black card ( black carboard) and get the same effect. Place your hand or black card in front of the lens and move it up and down over the area that you wish to reduce the exposure (generally the sky).
In this case, I blocked off the top part of the frame for around 30 seconds during the 128 second exposure. The time you block off will depend on the scene and you might have to try several times before you get a feel for this technique. The big thing is to keep your hand/glove/black card as close to the lens element as possible, without touching it. If you bump the lens during the exposure your image will not be sharp.

Here is the image – I originally called it King’s Crown, but my friend Jeff Swanson suggested Poseidon’s Molar. I thought that sounded much better and I took his suggestion.

Here is a terrible video I made (should have held the iPhone horizontally) while taking this photo that shows how the black glove technique works. This should give you an idea as to what I am talking about.
Notice that my hand never goes down to the bottom of the lens, it only stays toward the very top (the sky portion of the image).
The other trick is to keep your hand moving or else it will show up in the image if it sits still in front of the lens for too long.


Also posted in Lake Superior, Landscape, tutorial, Winter

How This Shot Was Made – Mixing City Lights With Ambient

There is a brief window, just before sunrise and just after sunset where city lights and ambient light mix together to make colorful and interesting images.
In the case of this image, I wanted to shoot it after sunset when the huge Bentleyville Christmas display was completely lit up in front of the Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge.
I arrived right around sunset and waited for the park lights to turn on. I wanted them to turn on while there was still a little bit of ambient light left so I would still see some definition in the clouds. Luckily on this night, there was a near full moon directly overhead which added an awesome spotlight effect.

Just after sunset and you can see the light was pretty flat and boring. This is where you might pack it up and head home. But, sometimes it pays to wait.

5-10 minutes later and the color is getting a little better. The city lights are starting to come on and are adding some
interesting elements, but the overall scene is still fairly boring.

5 minutes more and the color is getting better and more city lights are coming on.

Another 5 minutes passes and everything is starting to jive, the city lights are looking great and mixing well
with the ambient light.

Another few minutes pass and everything is getting dialed in, the city lights are looking pretty awesome with the
glow of the remaining ambient light. You can still see some detail in the sky. Now  if only they would they would light
up the park before the last bit of ambient light is gone…

Then a couple minutes later, the park lights up, there is still a bit of ambient light allowing a faint view of the clouds
on the horizon and the 3/4 full moon shines down like a spotlight on the Aerial Lift Bridge Bridge and Lake Superior
adding a bit of drama to the scene.

If I had packed it up and went home just after sunset I would have missed the best light of the day. Something to
think about next time you are out shooting. Even if you aren’t anywhere near city lights, the afterglow can leave you
with some amazing light to shoot with. When you see other photographers packing it up after seeing a nice sunset,
stick around for another 30 minutes, you might be surprised at what you see.

A Tripod, Cable Release and a 70-200mm Lens were used to make this shot.
Tech details are embedded for all images.
The last image was captured with the following settings – F/11 – 13 seconds – ISO160

Also posted in Lake Superior, Landscape, tutorial, Uncategorized, Winter

Embracing Bad Weather

Often times we see a bad weather system moving in, get bummed and sit inside wishing for better photographic conditions. More often than not, bad weather actually translates into great photo opportunities.

This image was captured on a cloudy day. A 9 stop filter and polarizing filter were used to get a long exposure. The long exposure helped give the image an ominous feel by adding motion to the clouds.

Here is the same island with a wider view on a different day. On this afternoon, a  storm was developing near sunset at Ellison Island in Split Rock State Park, along Lake Superior’s North Shore.

Looming storm clouds can add a sense of drama, adding extra interest to your outdoor photography, like this image of an old fishing shack on Lake Superior’s North Shore. A storm had just started moving in near sunset.

Overcast, cloudy days can be terrific weather for shooting waterfalls, streams and reflections. The reason for this is the light becomes soft, diffused and the overcast skies allow you to get slower shutter speeds for soft, silky looking water.

This image was captured on an overcast day in Zion National Park. I used a polarizer to enhance the reflection and  definition in the sky.

Foggy days make for great, moody imagery. Walk into the forest on a foggy day and you will notice an ethereal effect that can really add some depth and interest.

Or, head out to some urban areas.

Sub-zero temperatures can add many different elements such as steam, sundogs, ice patterns, frost, etc.. which add depth and drama to make extremely dynamic imagery.

Storms that are clearing out near sunrise or sunset often make for the best light shows. As the sun is rising or setting it is low, near the horizon. The light is bouncing and reflecting through small particles and molecules which change the direction of the light rays, resulting in different colors. Add to this, some nice clearing storm clouds and you get an amazing light show. If you are lucky and there is a break in the clouds, you might see some nice sun bursts blasting through.

Also posted in Lake Superior, Landscape, tutorial, Winter

Using Creative Filters to Capture Dynamic Scenes


I want to talk about using creative filters to achieve certain looks while photographing scenic landscapes.

Creative filters are used in front of the lens to enhance an image or can help make the scene look very close to what you see with your eye.

My favorite creative filters are 4×5 Graduated Neutral Density Filters (will be referred to as GND filters) and extreme Neutral Density filters (aka ND filters), specifically the B+W 10 stop (aka ND 3.0) filter or the Lee Big Stopper 4×4 filter.

A Graduated Neutral Density filter is used to balance exposures with a Large Dynamic Range of light. Think of a scene with a bright sky. If you shot that without a Graduated Neutral Density filter and metered for the foreground, the sky would be overexposed (washed out with a loss of detail) and the foreground would be exposed properly. Inversely, if you metered for the sky, the sky would be exposed properly and the foreground would be underexposed (too dark with little to no details). Basically, The Graduated Neutral Density filter will balance your exposures and allow both the bright sky and foreground to be properly exposed.

Graduated Neutral Density filters (GND Filters) come in several different densities or strengths. 1 stop, 2 stop, 3 stop, and 4 stop are the most common. They also are available in hard edge or soft edge varieties. Hard Edge GND filters are best used in scenes that have hard, clean lines without anything protruding through them such as a lake with a clear horizon line.

A Hitech 3 Stop hard Edge Grad ND was used to capture this image. I placed the hard edge transition line of the filter on the horizon.

Soft Edge GND filters are best used in busier scenes such as a Pier with a lighthouse or a stream with foliage, trees and a bit of sky showing.

A Hitech 3 Stop Soft Edge Grad ND was used to capture this image. I used a soft edge filter due to the tree line on the left meeting the sky and the trees on the right protruding into the upper portion of the image.

Whether you decide you use a Hard Edge or a Soft Edge GND, the brightness of the scene will help dictate which filter strength is best to use. You can wing it and guess or you can use this metering technique to calculate which filter might work the best. Start by metering the scene twice, once for the sky and once for the foreground. Let’s say the sky metered at 1/1000th of a second and the foreground metered at 1/125th. This means the sky is 3 stops brighter than the foreground, (1/1000th to 1/500th second to 1/250th second to 1/125th second) you would want to use a 3 stop Graduated Neutral Density filter to balance the scene. The top portion of the Grad ND filter is going to block 3 stops of light and the bottom of the filter is going to allow all of the light to pass through for an even exposure.

Here is an example of no filters vs. Using a Grad ND filter. As you can see, the Grad ND really helps balance the exposure for a much better looking final image.
I used a HiTech 3 Stop Soft Edge Filter on the right portion of the image. You might be asking why I didn’t use a hard edge filter since the horizon line is so clear with no obtrusions. I used the soft edge filter to help keep the water in the mid ground from overexposing. If I had used a hard edge in this case, everything above the horizon would have been exposed properly and the water would have been a bit too bright.

The last filter I am going to talk about is the 10 Stop Solid Neutral Density Filter. This filter reduces the amount of light that hits the camera’s sensor by 10 stops which allows you to achieve very long exposures in bright conditions.

This side by side image will help you visualize what the filter is capable of.
The image on the left was shot with a 3 Stop Soft Edge Graduated Neutral Density Filter and the image on the right was captured with a 10 stop Solid ND filter only.
The image on the left had an exposure value of ISO100 – F/16 – 5 seconds
The image on the right had an exposure value of ISO100 – F/11 – 256 seconds
Even though I shot the 10 stop image at a wider aperture than the non-10 stop image, a much longer exposure was needed to expose the image properly.

To calculate the proper exposure you need to get a base exposure without the filter attached to the camera.

Put the camera on your tripod and dial in your composition. Take a photo and review it, making sure you haven’t over or under exposed the image. Once you have the exposure and focus dialed in and the composition looks good, set the lens to manual and attach the 10 stop filter. Turn the camera’s mode dial to Bulb. Attach your cable release.
Now, you need to review your last image and see what the settings were. Let’s say your settings for the test image you just took are ISO100 – F/11 – .5 second
You need to double the exposure time 10 times to get the proper exposure to compensate for the 10 stop filter you just attached to the camera.
Let’s double our exposure 10 times, starting at .5 second
.5 second
1 second
2 seconds
4 seconds
8 seconds
16 seconds
32 seconds
64 seconds
128 seconds
256 seconds
512 seconds
( I find that doubling the exposure 11 times for to compensate for my 10 stop filter generally works the best, though Your mileage may vary.)
In that case, the final exposure would be:
1024 seconds (17 minutes)

The 10 stop filter adds a bit of drama and an extra element that the eye cannot see, helping to capture dynamic scenes.
Also, I find that I rarely ever need to combine a Grad ND filter with the 10 stop filter. The final exposure with just the 10 stop filter almost always retains all of the exposure information from the scene. Your mileage may vary with this too.

A storm had just passed through Split Rock State park. I used a B+W 10 stop ND filter to get a 256 second exposure. The long exposure smoothed out the large waves and blurred the clouds, giving the image a painted feeling.

If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below or you can email me. I am always happy to answer any questions.
Thank you for reading this article and I hope it helps you understand the advantages of using creative filters in the field.
– Shawn

Also posted in Landscape, tutorial

Converting a Manfrotto 488rc4 ballhead clamp to Arca Swiss

I have wanted to purchase an Arca Swiss style ballhead with a L bracket for my 5D but could never afford it.
My big issue with the manfrotto clamp and Quick Release plate was the size and it just seemed to be a bit wobbly when mounted with a 70-200 F/4 lens.

I kept my eye out on a couple photo forums and found an Arca Swiss clamp (photo clam brand) for $35 and I also found a Kirk BL-5D for $70 in LNIB condition.
I removed the old proprietary manfrotto clamp from my manfrotto 488rc4 ballhead and installed the arca clamp.
It was super easy.
The end result is a smaller setup with a tighter clamp, more versatility and L bracket compatibility.

**Check HERE for an assortment of arca style clamps.** (I am not sure if all are compatible with bogen heads)

Here you can see the massive difference in size between the two clamp/quick release systems.
My old Pentax ME was just a stand in for my 5D. When the L bracket is on the 5D it completely hugs the camera’s curves and becomes a part of the camera.

Here is an image from Kirk’s website that shows how the L bracket hugs the 5D and allows all the doors, flaps, etc.. to open.

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