Beginning a Landscape Photography Journey
I love landscape photography. It's an introvert's dream: hiking, creating, and minimal human interaction.
I recently told the story on my redesigned website of how my love for photography started at six years old, when my parents gave me a point-and-shoot film camera. I loved taking pictures with that camera. When it was loaded up with film I took pictures of pretty much everything. Relatives, train sets, stuffed animals. You know, six year old stuff.
Another time when I was small, my grandparents took me and my cousin to Dearborn Michigan to visit the Henry Ford Museum, and gave each of us one of those yellow Kodak disposable cameras. The one roll of film, something like 30 pictures as I recall, was all we got for the three day trip. I think I was a bit older then, and those pictures are a little better. The subjects are entirely in frame and I was more concerned about getting good pictures of the things that mattered.
My interest in landscape photography, though, really started when my family took a series of vacations to Yellowstone, the Black Hills, and the Grand Canyon. Most people had switched to digital cameras at this point, although it was only a few years later, so I was essentially allowed to take as many pictures as I wanted; and at the same time I was presented with some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country. My family did a lot of hiking on these vacations. Up mountains, down into the canyon, that kind of hiking. Never more than a day, but frequently long enough we had to pack our lunch to eat on the trail. Out there, a couple hours hike up the side of the mountain, you can get incredible landscape photos even if you’re inexperienced.
If you don’t like to hike, you won’t like landscape photography. But for me hiking and photography generally go hand in hand. I don’t only take pictures when I hike, in fact with an iPhone always within reach I take pictures of everything that interests me, but when I hike I always take pictures.
Most frequently when I'm hiking somewhere, though, I go with my close friends, which means, we've gone to hike. I take some pictures along the way, most often with my phone, but it's not the sort of affair where I can set my tripod up and spend an hour in one place like so many landscape photographers I follow on YouTube do. I haven’t done much of that at all, actually. Several times during college I took my camera out just for photography, but before and since photography has usually been something to do along the way and not necessarily the object.
So, this year I decided to go on one dedicated photography outing each month. Due to COVID-19 I'm not traveling, as much as I would love to, but my intention is to explore the local area specifically with photography in mind. Ohio isn’t really known for it’s big landscapes, but there are some pretty places around, at least on a smaller scale.
Now I should say at this point that I have already skipped going out for photography in February because of the weather. As I am writing this, two days from the end of the month, it’s finally looking better, but everything has been covered with deep snow for the past several weeks which I’m just not personally too keen on going out in. Instead I plan to set up my equipment for some macro shots indoors and share this blog post about my last trip out.
Before the trip, I purchased a new backpack for my camera, because my shoulder bag starts feeling heavy pretty quickly and isn't even able to carry a tripod.
The bag I chose was the Lowepro Flipside Trek (affiliate link). I won't get in to the details in this post, but I will say the new bag significantly improved my experience. It was much more comfortable as well as being large enough to carry all my gear. I’ll share a full review of it in the future, so stay tuned.
I also planned my trip before actually going out, choosing a park and using satellite maps to pick places I wanted photos from, to give me some direction when I got there, which kept me from just wandering around aimlessly or feeling lost. Incidentally it was snowy that day too, and, for some reason, the parking lot near the area I wanted to photograph was closed, so I had to park on the opposite side of the lake and walk up probably 3/4 of a mile of bike trail. I could probably use the exercise anyway, though, and it gave me a chance to see how comfortable the bag was over a short distance. I was kind of picking through some snow, but it felt very secure on my back and didn't seem to be weighing me down, even with all my camera gear, a thermos, some binoculars and other little things, and a tripod strapped to the back.
To be honest, when I got to my location, I think I made a mistake right off the bat, which was to use my 18-55mm kit lens that came with my camera when I bought it. I grabbed it out of my bag because I didn't want to walk around too much in the snow, and using it instead of my 35mm prime lens would let me adjust the composition with the zoom. It seemed like the right decision at the time, but I had forgotten that I used to avoid using that lens because the images I get with it tend to always be a bit out of focus.
That being said, the weather conditions weren't ideal and it was my first time out, so my biggest focus was on having fun, which I did.
Ironically, though, the very first picture I took was on my phone, and it's probably the picture I'm happiest with:
The main thing I liked about this as soon as I saw it, and still like now, is that it's very minimal. The sky was pretty bright, and I turned up the exposure to make it fully white, the snow was white, and there's just this black tree and picnic area on the hill. It's simple and no nonsense.
I took this on my phone with the intention to photograph it again with my camera later, but by the time I got done with everything else I ended up sticking with this. Honestly, it's fine, though. There's not quite as many pixels there as I'd get from the camera, but otherwise there's really nothing wrong with this image.
From that point I walked down onto the little beach that they've made along the lake, and worked my away around that corner, stopping for pictures at different angles as I went. When it’s snowy like that, it’s important that you get all the pictures you want from one spot before moving any closer to your subject, otherwise you’ll get footprints in your shot.
With that in mind, this is the first composition I came up with:
Lately I've had my camera set to output both a JPEG and a RAW file. I'm a huge fan of RAW file formats, as I'm sure you'll see in the future, because they offer much more room for editing than JPEGs and other compressed file formats do. The downside, though, is that you almost have to edit a RAW file, because the camera doesn't apply any sharpening or other processing to it as it would a JPEG. Since sometimes pictures turn out well and aren't something I want to edit, I'm now getting both a JPEG and a RAW.
The image above is an example of how this picture looked straight out of the camera. It's noticeably very flat looking, rather too dark because I didn't expose it quite right in the bright outdoors, and not very sharp.
I'm also not a huge fan of the composition. The snow at was very thin, so there are a million little black spots at the bottom which I find distracting. I wanted to get the curve of the beach in the frame, but that meant including the grass on the left, which adds a lot of weight to that side of the image. The road adds a nice leading line on that side, but again, it adds weight to the left side. Meanwhile the right side is pretty empty. The trees were supposed to be the subject, but they feel like a far off background element. Not every photo is a winner.
With that said, the advice I'd give you today is to edit pictures even if you're not thrilled with them, unless they're just clearly not going to work. You don't need to put hours into them, but give it a couple minutes of your time, to at least see how it looks if you've corrected the color and lighting a bit, since the camera just isn't going to capture your vision of the scene.
After maybe five minutes of editing, this is the result. I still don't like the composition, this isn't going in my portfolio or anything. But it's a little brighter and a little sharper, the noise is gone, and the trees stand out as a subject better.
Essentially, I've added a bit of contrast and saturation, lightened the snow at the bottom, and darkened the sky at the top. Then I selected a broad area in the center and turned up the exposure, so the center of the image is a bit brighter than the edges. Chances are you probably didn't notice until I mentioned it, but that little trick draws your eye to the middle of the photograph, compensating for the bad composition a bit.
I tried a few more photos from that area, but I really wasn't that happy with any of them even on the camera, so I moved on.
As I walked farther down the beach, though, I found this branch that had washed up on shore from somewhere, which really seemed to grant some interest to what otherwise would have been a very uninteresting scene:
This is my second favorite photo from the day. I actually do like the composition of this one, the only thing I don't like is my choice of lenses. I had the 18-55mm lens zoomed all the way out to 18mm. That's not an amazing lens in the first place and lenses tend not to do as well at their extremes, so this photo just isn't that sharp.
I do like this composition, though. The sky is kind of moody for this shot, and the snow was very bright while the water was very dark, giving a nice contrast. The branch gives it a foreground element while the beach curves off into the background.
The camera wasn't quite level, which somehow gives the photo a more dramatic feel, and sort of points your eye down to the branch. I thought at the time that I actually wouldn't like this; when I noticed I leveled the camera and reshot the image. But actually the level version, which I'll drop in here, is much less interesting to me.
This next shot I wasn't sure about until I edited it, but now I do rather like it as well, although it's still not really a portfolio shot. This section of the beach is generally under water, but the water, which is controlled by a dam, was very low so I could just walk across here, which was an opportunity I didn't want to pass up even though it probably wasn't the most exciting place from a photographic standpoint.
The curve of the beach and the lighting really draw your eye up to the group of trees as intended, and the dark cloud in the sky gives the impression of maybe an oncoming storm, while the water looks fairly calm.
I like this as a square a lot as well:
With it cropped this way, the trees feel a bit more intimate and your eye focuses more on the right edge of them at the end of the beach. This is just one example of how a change to the crop of the exact same shot can make the whole scene feel different.
For my last photo I walked farther down towards the trees, but actually focused on the rocks that were along the shoreline there:
I wish that there had been a bit of mist or snow falling here to just fade out the trees in the background a bit, but I do like how this is divided into quadrants of light and dark. I was getting cold at this point and didn't quite get this composition as good as I really could have. That's how landscape photography is sometimes.
It's easy to pick through the pictures later and criticize them or only share the best ones, but being out there is real life. It's fun and calm and relaxing, but sometimes it's also cold, wet, or hungry. At this point in my trip I walked out to the trees, found a sheltered area, and drank some tea and relaxed a bit with my gloves on to warm up, and then walked back out to my car.
Overall the couple hours I spent out there were an incredible experience and I'll definitely be going out for more of this in the future.
Hopefully you all enjoyed this post! If there's someplace you think I should go, especially in Ohio, or a photography topic you'd like me to write about, you can send me a message through the chat in the lower right corner or on my contact page!