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Lighting a landscape photograph, pre-photoshop

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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And now, a photograph I took at a local park:

Late afternoon at the Meadowbrook Park Prairie in Urbana, Illinois

Prairie is a visually subtle biome and, in my experience, one of the most difficult to photograph. It is at once both plain- a flat horizon with few salient landmarks- and hopelessly busy, packed with intricate textures. To craft a decent image, careful control over the lighting is essential.

When I started the session, I took a simple snapshot:

Exposing for the prairie leaves the sky blown out.

The sky is overexposed and mostly white, while the prairie is dark and slightly underexposed. This is a common issue with landscapes. One can expose for a bright sky, or a dark ground, but not both at the same time. Nowadays some photographers take several exposures and combine them digitally to form surreal High Dynamic Range images (examples), but I’m more old school. The sky and the ground can be brought into balance before the image even hits the computer by stacking filters on the lens.

gradient filter

A gradient filter is like sunglasses for part of the frame. With the clear part is lined up with the ground and the dark part with the sky, the same scene balances out:

With a gradient filter (4 stops) darkening the sky, the photograph balances out.

This exposure is better, but the crowded, overdetailed foreground is still not where I wanted it. So I selectively applied extra light.

By hand-holding a flash just above the camera’s line of vision, I illuminated the foreground flowers.

An overhead flash at low power accentuates the goldenrod at the front.

That’s even better.

For a final adjustment I decided I preferred a vertical orientation. To produce the image at the top of this post I rotated the camera and filters. As soon as the late afternoon sun emerged through the clouds I tripped the flash and the shutter together. The entire process, from setting up the tripod to planning the final exposure, took about 15 minutes.

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is an Illinois-based entomologist who studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books, and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Lou Jost 12:40 pm 09/28/2011

    That is really beautiful. It shows the importance of your inner vision….this (and patience) is what makes a good artistic photographer.

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  2. 2. Alex Wild 12:54 pm 09/28/2011

    To put my 15 minutes for a decent photograph in context, it’s worth noting that Ansel Adams spent months- literally, months- scoping out locations and waiting for the right weather conditions to get the shots he wanted.

    Of course, if Ansel Adams were to post in today’s photography forums, he’d be pestered primarily about what brand film he was using as though that were the most important thing.

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  3. 3. Dean Kosage 7:12 pm 09/28/2011

    Hi Alex.. Your captures are great. I love the photos.
    I will be waiting for more of your photos!
    Keep rocking.. Dean

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  4. 4. Alex Wild 10:14 pm 09/28/2011

    Thanks, Dean- I appreciate the comment!

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