How Professional Landscape Photographers Work, Overview

Learning to shoot like a professional nature photographer.

Note: All the pictures in this article can be clicked on for more information about the picture.



One of the questions I am asked over and over is "Why don't my pictures look like your pictures. I see this gorgeous scene and I take a picture of it and then when I see the picture later it looks nothing like the scene I saw. It's usually just terrible." I usually mumble something like, "Well, I have forty years of experience," and let it go at that. It's not that I don't want to tell people how it's done, it's just that to really explain how to take good pictures is way beyond what I can say in a few minutes.

One of the things I try to do in these newsletters is answer that question in detail. In this article I want to give you the big picture, the overview, of how professionals go about making great landscape photographs. The details of the process won't be in this article. I plan to flesh out the details of how great landscape pictures are made in the months and years to come, one article at a time. As I implied above, forty years of experience takes a while to communicate.

A good place to begin is with cameras. Professional photographers use professional equipment and this makes a big difference. They use only top of the line cameras and lenses that they spend a lot of money for. It isn't absolutely necessary to spend fifteen or twenty thousand dollars or more for a camera system but it does help. Landscape pros use both film and digital cameras for shooting. In the film camera department, some professionals shoot 35mm cameras; these are the guys (and gals of course) who are shooting for magazines and for stock in general. Stock photographers are professionals who shoot large amounts of pictures in a specialized area and then sell them to stock photography companies who re-sell the pictures to all kinds of clients for advertizing and journalistic purposes.

Landscape photographers who plan on selling their pictures as prints to be framed and hung on the wall generally use larger cameras such as medium and large format cameras. A medium format camera makes either negatives or chromes (what the pros call slides) in sizes like 6x6 or 6x7 centimeter. This is roughly 2 x 2.25 inches in size. Large format cameras make a 4"x5" negative or chrome. A few pros will use an 8"x10" large format camera but this size camera is extremely rare these days. 8x10 cameras are mostly a relic of the old days in the thirties and forties and fifties when film was so bad, a huge camera was needed. Now-a-days, film is so good, there is no need to use such a slow, cumbersome, awkward camera. I have several friends who decided they were going to go the absolutely A professional nature picture taken on Monarch Passtop-of-the-line route and bought an 8x10; all of them junked the camera as too impractical after the first year. The 35mm film cameras most pros use are Canon and Nikon. The most often used medium format cameras are Bronica, Hassalblad, and Pentax. Large format cameras are Swiss Arca, Wista, Calumet, and other brands not as recognizable as the more popular 35mm brands.

In the past five years or so many professional photographers began switching to digital cameras. Landscape photographers will probably be the last to switch. This is because the necessities of landscape photography are much more demanding than those of journalistic, style, or stock photography. There are several reasons for this: landscape photographs are full of tiny detail, they are often printed very large, and extreme sharpness as well as smooth transitions between varying levels of brightness are both absolutely necessary . Only in the last two years have digital cameras become good enough for landscape use. The top digital cameras used by landscape pros are Nikon and Canon, with Canon being the most popular. The Canon 1Ds line is probably the best. The Canon 1Ds Mark II is a 16 megapixal camera that sells for $8000; with the lenses that go with it, this is easily a $15,000 plus camera system. The pictures that come out of this camera are extremely sharp with great tonalities and brilliance.

I began my professional career with two Pentax medium format cameras and 8 lenses. Soon after, I added a 4x5 Calumet and a 4x5 Wista camera with another seven or so lenses. For the past two years I have been using the Canon digital 1Ds Mark II. I think the quality of the pictures that I have gotten out of these cameras is pretty similar; all of them are equally capable of taking professional quality pictures. The main differences are ease of use. The 4x5's are not particular heavy as most people assume but they are akward and clumsy in that it is quite time consuming to set them up and then focus and shoot them. Film is also very expensive, both to buy and to develop. As a result, not many pictures get taken with these cameras; in fact I have missed a lot of good scenes because by the time I get all set up, the light is gone or the wind as come up or it has started to rain or something. The Pentaxes were my favorite camera for many years because they are fast and easy to use and because the results were always good. Now-a-days, the Canon digital is my favorite. It is fast and it has a lot of features that make it a great camera for a landscape photographer. For instance I get exceptional sharpness, I can change film speed on the fly, I don't have to use filters to correct for unusual light, I can check exposure instantly, I get much cleaner images, and I don't have to scan the film. In addition I can combine four or five shots to make a very high dpi image that is, I think, as good as an 8x10 image. As I have heard several pros say, "I wouldn't go back to film even if it were free."

One other piece of equipment that you will never find a professional landscape photographer without is a tripod. A tripod sounds like a simple thing but it really isn't. For one thing, without a tripod, a photographer can't get the large depth of field that is essential for getting both close foreground and background in sharp focus. (See my recent article on Depth of Field.) Also, using a tripod makes it much easier to frame the exact picture the photographer wants. Also, using a tripod forces the photographer to think about what he is actually getting when he trip the shutter. It makes him concentrate on composition. When I see other photographers in the field, I can tell instantly who the amateurs are: none of them have tripods.

Having said all this about cameras, I do have to say that the type of camera you use is not the most important thing. The most important thing is how you use the camera you have. It goes without saying that professional photographers know photographic technique inside and out. They have years of experience dealing with lens choice, proper exposure, focusing correctly and attaining maximum sharpness. In addition, they have an intimate understanding of photographic composition. The art of composition is basically making visual sense out of all the jumbled images we see when we look at the world; composition is basically making order out of chaos. Composition is the art of looking at scene and eliminating the non-essential junk, high-lighting the essential and presenting the viewer with an easily understood story. None of this is all that difficult. A lot of people see what professional photographers do as somewhat magical or secret. It isn't, learning to be a good photographer is actually quite straight forward. What I hope to do in future articles is to give you some of the simple basics of photography that anyone can easily learn.

After our professional photographer has captured the image with his camera, the next step is to turn this image into a picture printed on paper. Printing an image is actually just as hard or harder than taking the picture. Ansel Adams, one of pioneers of landscape photography as we now know it, put it well. Ansel used a musical analogy to explain the relationship between an original negative and the print. He said the negative is like the original musical score and the print is like the performance of that score. Just as a musical score can be performed in many different ways, an original photographic negative, or chrome or electronic capture can the interpreted in many different prints. Various prints can be lighter, darker, more or less contrasty, have different color balances or saturations or the image can be cropped in different ways. The art of photography is in both the shooting and the printing, but for many landscape professionals, printing is the place where the real art of photography happens.

Printing has two parts: editing and the actual transfer of the edited picture onto paper. The heart of printing is editing. In the old days, editing happened in the darkroom. Photographs have never been printed exactly as the camera took the picture; the color balance, the contrast, the saturation, the lightness or darkness and all kinds of other things are never quite right straight out of the camera, never the way our eyes saw the original scene. Unfortunately, cameras don't see the world the same way as the human eye does; editing is what corrects what the camera saw and brings it back to what we saw with our human eyes. All of this editing used to be done in the old, wet darkroom using a color enlarger and photographic chemicals. Now-a-days the same thing is done using computers. All professional photographers now digitally edit their pictures using a computer; they do the same thing that photographers have always done in the darkroom, except with much more control and precision.

If the original image was captured on film, the film is first scanned to get a digital image. Scanning is a complex job in itself. And since good scanners cost around $50,000, most photographers have scanning done by a lab. There really isn't much artistry in scanning, it is mostly just doing a good job of capturing as much of the highlight and shadow detail as possibly while avoiding unpleasant digital artifacts. It is a technical job, rather than an artistic job. Today, most photographers shoot chromes (slides) rather than negative film because chromes scan much better than negatives. (In the old days, most landscape photographers shot negatives because they printed much better in the old analog enlargers than slides did.) If the image was captured using a digital camera, editing can begin immediately.

Today, almost all photographic editing is done using Adobe Photoshop. The professional version of Photoshop costs over $800.00 and is thus not really available for the average photographer. Fortunately Adobe makes a limited version called Photoshop Elements. In future newsletters I plan to write several articles on using Photoshop elements. Basic editing using Photoshop is not terribly difficult but it is absolutely essential to getting good landscape pictures. I'll try to get to a basic photoshop tutorial soon so you can get started on this aspect of making great landscape pictures if it should interest you.

Once the editing is complete, the final step of creating a picture is the actual printing of an image on paper. Now-a days no professional photographers print using the old wet chemical, color darkroom. The possible exception is the fine-art black and white photographer, a few of whom hang in there with the old black and white darkroom. And I suspect, even the black and white darkroom will be gone soon since digitally printed black and white fine art printing can now be done much better digitally with deeper, richer blacks and infinitely better contrast control.

There are two basic methods for printing fine art color photography today, the digital light jet printer and and the digital ink jet printer. The light jet printer exposes regular light sensitive paper with laser light rather than optical light. Once the paper has been exposed it is developed in regular photographic chemicals. Since Light Jet printers cost in the neighborhood of a quarter of a million dollars, most photographers use a professional lab rather than owning the machine themselves. The other main type of digital printing is ink jet printing. The current leader in ink jet technology is Epson who makes large format inkjet printers as large as 44 inches wide. Both Light Jet and Ink Jet printers do an excellent job of making large landscape photographs, far better than could be produced in the old darkrooms even with the old Cibochrome paper which was the top-of-the-line printing in the old days. The quality and color accuracy of the new digital prints is so superior to the old darkroom prints that this is the only way professional photographers print today.

Like scanning, the actual printing of photographs is more of a technical job rather than an artistic job. However, rather than having a lab do my printing, I prefer to do it myself. The new ink jet printers make this possible since the newest Epson 44 inch printers are pretty affordable at around $6000.00. The advantages of doing your own printing are that you can be sure the print is exactly right as soon as it is printed and if it is not exactly right it can be repeated immediately. For making smaller prints there are a lot of reasonably priced printers in the $200 to $600 dollar range that are capable of producing prints as good as any made by a professional photographer. For the non-professional, using ink jet printers is a far better technique for making great landscape photographs than having a lab do the printing. Many amateur photographers have a great deal of trouble getting good prints out of inkjet printers but once you understand a few basics like using profiles correctly it is quite straight forward. I plan on a series of articles about using inkjet printers; I'll try to get one out on the basics on inkjet printing in the near future.

Fred Hanselmann
Rocky Mountain Photography