- Like people, buildings have their better sides, and they benefit from beautiful light. The worst time for photographing a house is when the sun is shining from behind the building. The best times are overcast days and sunsets or sunrises
- What you see with your eyes hardly ever matches what your camera will record. The camera doesn’t capture bright highlights and dark shadows very well within the same scene. The camera will also emphasise the foreground at the expense of the background
- All good photography has a clearly defined subject, whether it’s a person or a detail of the landscape
- When lighting foregrounds, you can use the BESTOW method devised by the late mountaineer and photographer Galen Rowell
This year marks the tenth anniversary of my living in the Blue Mountains of Australia. I moved here in 2008 with my future wife, Gina. We rented a small wooden cottage in Blackheath. The place had a huge grassy backyard with trees and shrubs and other plants.
There’s a manly memory from our Blackheath residence. We rented a line cutter to tackle the overgrowth in our backyard. Having spent my youth living in apartment houses I had never used a whipper snipper before but somehow managed to start the machine. I remember Gina standing on the terrace of the house filming me clearing the shrubbery. Unfortunately, the fun didn’t last long. The motor shut off and I had a very hard time turning it on again and finally failed to do so at all. I have since become handier with machines: living outside urban areas in Australia is a constant battle against the encroaching nature.
From Blackheath, we moved to Katoomba, the main village in the Blue Mountains, with all the big shops and the main library. We’ve lived here ever since – minus a two-year stint further down the mountain, in Hazelbrook.
The City of Blue Mountains is located about a hundred kilometres west of Sydney. The population in 2006 was 162,000, today probably more. The City is comprised of twenty-five villages, most of which are located on a narrow ridge along the only road traversing the area, Great Western Highway.
The population centres are surrounded by the vast wilderness known as the Blue Mountains National Park which itself is part of the larger Greater Blue Mountains Area World Heritage Site. The UNESCO listing took place in November 2000 and was the fourth such listing in the state of New South Wales.
Shooting the Street Architecture
Photographically, Blue Mountains offers a variety of interests, mostly within the nature and landscape categories. Photography in towns is necessarily limited as all activity tends to happen on one street in each of the centres. For those interested in architectural photography, however, the area offers a huge array of beautiful private buildings along sleepy tree-lined streets. The best mixture of well preserved historical and modern architecture can probably be found in the villages of Leura and Wentworth Falls. These areas are also relatively flat and easy to walk and the houses are close together.
I am not usually interested in taking pictures of people on the street. For one, there are no people on the streets of the Blue Mountains. Secondly, I’m not really a fan of those gritty black and white photos of commuters walking on city streets with a harried look on their faces wishing they were home already and hoping they’d never have to get up in the morning and go to work again. That style has been done to death.
What I’m aiming at is recording houses and buildings from suitable angles in flattering light. Like people, buildings have their better sides, and they benefit from beautiful light. The worst time for photographing a house is when the sun is shining from behind the building. You are facing the light, which leaves the face of the house in shade and creates so much contrast that you will either have a properly exposed building and a blown-out sky with no detail or a detailed sky and a black house.
Fortunately, you can always move to the other side of the street and photograph the houses there. Because I don’t usually plan my walks to coincide with the best light my results vary photographically. A lot of the time, a cloudy sky gives you a better chance of walking away with successful photos as the light is dispersed and there are no harsh shadows. The orange evening light at the end of a cloudless day beats the overcast look, however. If you are lucky enough to be in an architecturally interesting area at sunset with a camera use the opportunity and walk as fast as you can to photograph as many houses as possible. When the sun goes down the game is over, even if you can still see where you’re walking. The camera sensor is less forgiving than your eyes and will either give you dark, dull images or – if you decide to use a high ISO – make your images too noisy. Architectural street photography is all about using the existing light wisely.
Photographing the Bush
I’ve done a huge bulk of my photography in the woods. Walking the bush with a camera in your hand allows you to enjoy the silence and the energy of nature while staying alert to the patterns and colours that form pictures in your mind. Most often, I have my dogs with me, which makes photographing harder. The lost opportunities are replaced by the proximity of the forest, however. If I don’t manage to capture a scene this time I can always go back.
As with architectural photography, it’s useful to keep in mind that what you see with your eyes hardly ever matches what your camera will record. The most obvious difference between human eyes and a camera lens is that we can detect more variety in the world.
The camera fails in capturing bright highlights and dark shadows within the same scene. Unless you use extra lighting you will have to decide whether you wish to keep detail in the shadows or in the highlights. Some cameras can stretch their visual range more than others but no camera is as flexible as the human visual cortex.
There is also a difference in how we understand the outline of the landscape compared to the way the camera sees it. When we look at a scenery our brains interpret the visual information, rearranging the various elements into a cohesive system. For us humans, it doesn’t matter if an object is close to us or if it’s farther away. It will always settle harmoniously into the scenery and be seen as a natural component of it.
How the Camera Sees the Landscape – And How You See It
What the camera sees – when you aim it at a landscape – is something different. The camera will always emphasise the foreground at the expense of the background. The effect is magnified if you’re using wide angle lenses or have a prominent object right in front of you. To compensate for the relative difference between the foreground and the background, you can either work to eliminate it as much as possible or use it to your advantage by consciously making the foreground the subject of your photograph.
The only way to make the foreground less prominent is to not have it. This means photographing large landscapes with sweeping vistas: mountain valleys, seascapes, deserts, fields. The higher your vantage point, and the less detail there is in the landscape, the less distortion the elements in your photograph seem to have compared to one another. While you cannot completely eliminate the preeminence of the foreground – unless you’re shooting aerials – you can make it all but disappear.
A more creative solution – and often the only possible one – is to use the foreground as a compositional element in your image. All good photographs have a clearly defined subject, whether it’s a person or a detail of the landscape. As a photographer, you have a bag of tricks at your disposal for highlighting your theme. You can, for instance, make the subject of your photograph stand out by using contrast in light or colour, in addition to emphasising it by making it the most prominent aspect of your composition.
Before you can make your composition, however, you will need to choose what’s important in any given scene you’re interested in photographing. The one thing that separates a serious photographer from a person that likes to take snapshots is their clarity of thinking. The photographs he or she takes are a result of conscious mental processes and communicate intentionality. Whatever the subject of creative photography, it always requires physical and nervous energy. Artistic expression never happens accidentally.
How to Light Your Foregrounds
If you’re serious about landscape photography you will sooner or later run into a situation where you’ll need to add light to foreground of your image. The landscapes are almost always unevenly lit due to the different surface reflectivity of the objects as well as their uneven distances from the camera. Often the only way to bring out the foreground, in relation to the lighter background is to use artificial fill-light.
According to the late mountaineer and landscape photographer Galen Rowell, the automatic flash output tends to be too bright and will often blow out the foreground. He recommends dialling in —1.3 to —1.7 stops of flash exposure compensation. If there are obscuring objects, such as twigs or blades of grass, in front of your main subject even this reduced amount of light may be too much. For these situations, Rowell recommends “tunneling” the flash output into a narrower beam. When photographing with a 24mm lens, for example, change the zoom control on the flash to 50mm. This will concentrate the light in a more limited area, helping you to illuminate only the objects you choose to.
In order to make sure his landscapes were always evenly lit, Rowell deviced a mnemonic based on an acronym. It was his aim to BESTOW a “perfect balance” of natural and artificial light on his images. In order to do this he would:
B – bracket natural light using manual exposure
E – use varying flash exposure compensation values
S –soften his light by using a soft box or bouncing his flash off a suitable surface
T– tunnel his flashlight to avoid blowing out objects in the foreground
O – use off-camera flash to render his light brighter or more directional
W – use warming gels to complement the warmer light in the morning and in the evening
Galen Rowell: Inner Game of Outdoor Photography. W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.
All photos copyright Markus Jaaskelainen 2018.