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How To Photograph The Spectacular

Posted by Jacob Hawthorne on

To successfully photograph the spectacular it's essential to think beyond the landscape, architectural site or event depicted.

To photograph the spectacular your own, authentic response is what matters most. Great composition and the right lens focal length will emphasize visually appealing elements within the scene. Likewise controlling exposure, dynamic range, white balance and focus will ensure a great technical result.

Spectacular Sunset Near Ushuaia

A spectacular sunset must surely be one of the most beautiful sights there is. I was fortunate to photograph this incredible sunset while on a helicopter flight over the Beagle Channel near the city of Ushuaia way down at the bottom of Argentina.

It wasn’t an easy photo to make. The pilot was pushing to get us back to base before the night descended. Consequently we seemed to be flying quite fast.

I made the photo with my then Canon 5D Mark II at the relatively modest shutter speed of 1/250 second at f/4. I set my camera’s sensitivity to ISO 400 which is a relatively modest speed by today’s standards.

Depth of field wasn’t a concern, as everything was quite a distance from the camera. However, sharpness was a concern and I found myself photographing from the back seat of a pretty small helicopter with windows that weren’t all that clean.

And this is despite the fact that I was assured the windows would be cleaned prior to booking and paying for the flight.

Reducing Reflection and Maximizing Sharpness

Photographing through glass or perspex is always problematic when making photos from a plane or helicopter.

I’ve had the door of a helicopter removed, but it’s rare to be accommodated in this fashion and, usually, the best you can do is to score a front seat on a helicopter with relatively flat, clean windows.

The reality is that you’ll have to do your best to manage reflections and the inevitable loss in sharpness that occurs due to photographing through dirty windows.

In the case of the above photo not only did I have dirty windows to deal with I also found myself having to photograph through curved perspex.

To minimize reflection I positioned the front element of my camera’s lens as close as I could to the perspex without actually allowing the two to touch.

If they did touch vibration from the helicopter would cause the camera to move during exposure. Blurred pictures would be the result of this kind of camera shake.

I also had to maneuver my body, while ensuring my seat belt remained fastened, at quite a tricky angle so as to keep the camera’s lens parallel to the perspex window.

This action helped to reduce any loss of sharpness and also minimize the chance of light reflecting off the surface of the perspex back into the lens.

It didn’t make for a particularly comfortable experience but, given that I travel to make photos, it’s simply one of many inconveniences you put up with to create beautiful, life-affirming photos.

Despite the difficulty involved in making the picture I’m really happy with the result as it’s a visually dynamic image that will help preserve the memory of that amazing sunset for many years to come.

Ushuaia: A City of Contrasts

Ushuaia is an interesting city, situated as it is at the bottom of South America. It’s a long, long way from anywhere and surrounded by beautiful yet quite wild landscapes.

As a case in point Tierra del Fuego National Park offers a variety of experiences for the visitor, from gentle explorations to full blown hiking and mountain climbing expeditions.

Actually it’s worth noting that when it comes to determining the actual subject matter of a photograph sometimes the less obvious is what makes for the most interesting images.

The main tourist precinct seems quite well to do and clearly benefits from the influx of tourists, some of whom arrive on their way down to the Falkland Islands and/or Antarctica.

But the drive in from the airport showed the reality of life for the common working poor in this part of the world and I began to experience a sense of disquiet which grew significantly stronger during my visit to the capital, Buenos Aires.

Despite a prosperous past, evident in grand architecture, much of the Argentina’s former glorious capital is crumbling and decrepit.

What’s more I could almost taste the disillusionment and anger amongst elements of the population.

Walking back to my hotel after a fabulous meal in a famous restaurant (a rare treat for me) I came upon the remains of what had been a fairly large protest.

The strange thing was that everybody seemed to be looking at me and my traveling companions. As an experienced traveler I’m used to this, but the feeling was different this time.

Just out of site I noticed a truck with a water cannon attached. It was surrounded by armed security forces.

Buenos Aires remains a fascinating and vibrant city to visit and I have no hesitation recommending Argentina as a travel destination. Yet, like other countries in the world, you need to have your wits about you when visiting as an independent traveler.

Tourist muggings are, apparently, common place in Buenos Aires. I understand it’s normally pickpockets at work, nonetheless you should be on your guard and research the places you’re going to visit and how to travel there.

Huangshan: Spectacular Mountain Landscape

Huangshan or Yellow Mountain is a spectacular mountain landscape, above the clouds, in Eastern China.

While Huangshan offers expansive landscape views the mists that frequently descend often make more intimate views the better option.

I’d been walking for hours through the mist shrouded landscape when, suddenly, this interesting scene appeared before me.

I needed to act quickly but, with the distant background still affected by the atmospherics, I set my camera up, nice and close, and employed a wide-angle focal length lens to explore the highly textured foreground elements within the scene.

I like how the lighter tonality of the snow covered foliage provides great separation with the darker mid ground while, simultaneously, linking with similar lighter tones in the low lying clouds towards the back of the frame.

Have no doubt Huangshan Mountain is a truly spectacular location offering wonderful hiking and fabulous opportunities for landscape photography.

I’ve written extensively about the three days I spent traversing this mountain wonderland.

I wonder if, like me, you’re attracted to the idea of avoiding the crowds that flock to this spectacular mountain location throughout the warmer months. If so you’ll be interested in reading my post titled Huangshan Mountain In The Winter.

Photographing The Spectacular Forbidden City

No trip to China is complete without a visit to The Forbidden City. I first visited this historically significant site back in 1989 where, amongst other encounters, I was entertained by the then Mayor of Beijing.

China was such a very different place back then. On that particular trip I only saw one local person wearing jeans. Nonetheless, change was in the air and China had begun to open up to travelers.

The great economic miracle that we’ve all watched from afar has been inspiration and speaks to the ingenuity, hard work and long term motivation of that society.

The Forbidden City is well worth a visit. Expect to spend a good half a day there and wear comfortable shoes as exploring the site involves quite a bit of walking.

You’ll find numerous large spaces separated by spectacular architectural elements such as the pavilions pictured above.

As you can see it’s a highly structured environment where the color red dominants. Of course red is an all pervasive color in Chinese culture. Dominant in the country’s national flag red has, for many centuries, been seen to symbolize good luck, energy and happiness.

For the most part I believe red symbolizes prosperity.

It’s still common today for children and adults, up to the age of thirty, to be presented by elders with money enclose within a red envelope.

Red is very much dominant in the above photo. In this case the red facade of the pavilions shares the composition equally with the orange roof tiles and the deep blue colored sky.

While shape, texture and repetition are important compositional elements within this picture color reigns supreme.

Are you interested in traveling to China to photograph the spectacular landscape and architecture that awaits you, behind the bamboo curtain?

I always think it’s helpful to know a little bit about a country before visiting it for the first time. Doing so can influence one’s perspective and really help to form more realistic expectations.

My post titled China Holiday - Then And Now aims to provide an interesting perspective on just how far China has come over recent decades.

Iceland: Spectacular With An Extra Serving Of Bliss

I’ve had the privilege to undertake two photography adventures to Iceland. On the first trip I drove all the way around the island on the famous Highway One, also know as the Ring Road. My second visit was based around a landscape photography tour I ran to Iceland.

This particular photo was made just a short distance away from the rim walk around the amazing Viti crater near the tourist town of Myvatn in northern Iceland.

I love how the dry, stony soil leads the eye down to the small, green valley running through the centre of the image. The light illuminating the landscape was getting warm which provided a great contrast with the bluish light of the approaching stormy sky.

Iceland is one of our world’s great landscape photography locations. With incredible waterfalls, seascapes, thermal activity and volcanic vistas Iceland offers adventures around each and every corner.

Whether you’re there for the long days of summer or to photograph ice caves and the Aurorea Borealis during the cold winter months Iceland has it all.

I can’t wait until I return.

Spectacular Night Sky Photos At Lake Tekapo

One of the most spectacular experiences of my life, thus far, was viewing the night sky above the famous good Shepherd Church in the tiny tourist town of Lake Tekapo on the south island of New Zealand.

Mind you, other than dodging groups of Chinese tourists constantly taking flash photos, my mind was totally focused on the challenge of making photos during an extended, and very cold, night photography adventure.

It wasn’t easy photographing this scene, particularly with all those folks walking right in front of my tripod mounted camera during the middle of a long exposure and taking their own flash photos.

Thank goodness I wasn’t using a film camera. It would have been expensive to keep making one photo after another, knowing each one had been spoiled part way through.

Still I got there in the end and I’m happy with the final result. I also think a black and white rendering was appropriate.

In this case color really didn’t add anything and simplifying the image down to black and white helps concentrate attention on the stillness and wonder that’s being explored.

We are, after all, just a tiny dot in an expanding universe and this photo showcases but a small slice of that infinite space.

I hope it speaks to the duality of the isolation we perceive and, at the same time, the actual connection that bonds us to the universe that both surrounds and flows through us.

This particular photo was made with my Sony a7Rii camera with a Sony/Zeiss 24-70 mm f/4 lens attached. The image was exposed at ISO 6400 for 15 seconds at an aperture of f/4.

I love New Zealand and I hope to return later this year. With luck Lake Tekapo and the spectacular landscape and sky that surrounds it will be part of my next itinerary.

Maximizing Your Opportunities To Photograph The Spectacular

Of course the best thing you can do to increase your chance of success photographing the spectacular is to get out and about and enjoy the world around you.

While international travel offers many exotic locations for amazing landscape photography, have no doubt that a creative approach and the right amount of effort will allow you to create really stunning photos in your own neck of the woods.

The notion I use to describe my own approach to photography is Making Something Out Of Nothing. Believe me it’s a concept that will serve you well in your own photography endeavors, particularly when you’re unable to travel to more exotic locales.

To that end timing, by which I mean time of day, can be an essential element in determining your success.

Remember the transient, transforming and transcendental nature of light. Light is the most fundamental component in a photograph. It allows us to illuminate the subject or scene depicted and to imbue it with mood and meaning.

Whether your travels are local or abroad I wish you well in your own adventures photographing the spectacular world around you.

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