FINE ART ATELIER: 03 | Atacama Volcanoes

Press the play button above to view the movie.

Dominating the horizon behind San Pedro de Atacama in the far north of Chile, the Licancabur volcano just has to be photographed. I have visited San Pedro many times, but only on the third visit did I get the right combination of angle and light that produced a rendition I was happy with. Sometimes it really is worth revisiting a location!

And just a reminder, if you're not familiar with how Photoshop works with its layers, we have a Reference section here in the Landscape Photography MasterClass (the last item on the menu) where you can learn all about layers and how to use them. It is introductory in nature, so if you're unsure about some of the techniques or processes used in this movie, all will be revealed when you view the three movies on layers in the reference section.


FINE ART ATELIER: 03 | Cape Palliser

Press the play button above to view the movie.

Cape Palliser lies at the southern end of the North Island of New Zealand. Away in the distance (on the full size file) you can see snow-capped mountains of the South Island, but my focus on this day was the precariously perched lighthouse and my even more precariously positioned camera angle. Actually, it wasn't that bad, it's just the weight of a heavy camera back-pack changes your dynamics as you play mountain goat.

What you are seeing in this movie is a series of steps from the basic capture to the final rendering. The steps are not necessarily the quickest way to create the image, rather they follow the thought process of discovering the image through colour, contrast and exposure. Two quite separate processes are involved: that of pre-visualising the image, and that of rendering it in Photoshop.


KNOWLEDGE: 03 | What Is The Best Aperture for Landscapes?

Optimum Apertures

Compare the clarity and 'sharpness' of these two sections. Left is f32, right is f11. Why did I shoot at f32 at all? Trying to blur the Thames a bit, but at what price?"

As we all know, not all lenses are made equally. There are some good and not so good lenses in most lens ranges, and some types and brands of lenses are generally better than others.

This is the full frame capture of the detail image above. You can see on the left of Big Ben the tower used in the enlargement above. This is an unloved (not lovingly processed) raw file conversion from the Mamiya 28mm lens on a Phase One P45+.

For instance, the 'large format' lenses made by Schneider and Rodenstock are generally considered to be the 'sharpest' lenses made. In terms of clarity and resolution from corner to corner, nothing comes close in the wide-angle range, but the competition is closer with telephoto lenses.

Next in clarity are the medium format lenses (the new digital designs), followed by a bevy of DSLR lenses. In fact, it's interesting to note some old 'German' names and lens designs being championed by some of the Japanese DSLR manufacturers. Certainly these lenses are extremely good, based on what I have seen.

At the bottom of the pack are the consumer and kit lenses, lenses which are manufactured to a price.

The Importance of Aperture

However, it is interesting that in some situations even an inexpensive kit lens can compete with an expensive professional model.

So what are those situations?

When we look at lens performance, there are many aspects to consider, including distortions, flare, colour and contrast. The latter has a lot to do with how 'sharp' we think the lens is, but of course sharpness also has to do with the lens's resolving power. When it comes to resolving power (the ability to create a clear, sharply focused image), there are two issues to consider.

First, is the image quality as good near the edges and in the corners as it is in the middle of the image?

Second, at what aperture is lens performance at its best? As well as controlling exposure and depth-of-field, apertures have an impact on the image quality produced by the lens.

So, in some situations a kit lens can possibly match a more expensive lens because at mid-apertures and in the centre of the image, it is relatively easy to produce a clear, sharp image. Problems arise, however, once you look at the edges of the image and when you use wider or narrower apertures.

When you use the maximum aperture available (such as f2.8), the image is being recorded by all the glass in the lens elements. When you use a smaller aperture, you're only using the middle area of the lens elements. It is easier, I am told, to make a small lens element optically perfect than a large lens element, and similarly, it is easier to get the middle area of each lens element perfect than it is the areas around the sides. Now you understand one of the reasons that lens quality suffers towards the edges of your frame.

However, modern lens design is pretty good and another reason the edges of your photos can appear blurred is field curvature. Lenses are supposed to focus the image onto a flat plane, but the natural tendency of many optical designs is to focus to a slightly curved plane, which doesn't work so well with a perfectly flat sensor. 

Depth-of-field (and depth-of-focus which is similar except it happens at the sensor plane) can also hide some of these issues, but depth-of-field itself doesn't really correct the focus. Simplistically speaking, depth-of-field means the human eye can't see the lack of focus for a given enlargement size. (See Section 19 on camera and capture skills for a better understanding of depth-of-field.)

So, every time you attach your lens and choose an aperture, there are a whole lot of issues swinging around that are going to affect the quality of your capture and, given we generally want the landscape to have has much detail as possible, it's important we know what to do.

Optimum Aperture

With a wide-open aperture, it is difficult to make a landscape appear in focus from foreground to background. It is also difficult for the lens designer to produce perfect image quality from centre to edge. So generally speaking, we don't use the widest aperture.

Some landscape photographers automatically go to the other end of the aperture scale, selecting f22 or f32 (or f45 or f64 with large format). This, they correctly believe, produces the greatest amount of depth-of-field. Unfortunately, when the aperture is really small, the light waves diffract around the iris blades as they pass through the aperture and you get a loss of clarity in the image. So while depth-of-field improves, image sharpness overall decreases.

Somewhere in the middle of your aperture range you are most likely to find the 'optimum' aperture, the point where the image is clearest and sharpest from one edge to the other. The aperture will be different for every lens, sometimes even within the same focal length and model.

For instance, I used to use a Mamiya 300mm f4.5 APO lens, but I only used it at f8. At any other aperture, it just wasn't as sharp. Other lenses I can't tell the difference in quality between f5.6 up to f16, so I have a choice of apertures that I can use.

Does this mean I never shoot with my lenses at the other apertures? No. I'm talking about the ultimate in quality, so a photograph of horse jumping might not need the same level of quality as a classic landscape, especially for a smaller enlargement. We need to keep things in perspective.

However, as landscape photographers, we also need to know how to achieve the optimum image clarity when required, even if it is not possible to do so. Sometimes I know the 300mm needs to be set at f8, but I will shoot at f4.5 simply because I need a faster shutter speed to freeze the action (e.g. wind in the trees) or prevent camera shake.

Testing Your Lens

The beauty of digital photography is that it is very easy to test your lenses. Pick a subject at a distance, with a strong pattern design. A city skyline or a row of houses is good. Set your camera up with a sturdy tripod, lock the mirror up (if you're using a DSLR - but this isn't relevant for a mirrorless camera) and use a cable or remote release to fire the shutter. Optionally, use live view and the camera's self-timer to fire the shutter. (If you don't have a mirror lock-up facility or live view on your DSLR camera, make sure you're shooting in bright light so the shutter speeds are always 1/60 second or faster because mirror bounce can impact the sharpness of your image, even more than the aperture you select. At faster shutter speeds, there isn't time for mirror bounce to impact the exposure, but from 1 second to 1/60 or 1/125 second, degradation is very possible.)

If in live view, switch to manual focus and focus the image precisely at 100% magnification.

Now, shoot a series of images, each at a different aperture. Process and open the files on your computer. If you process your raw files out, make sure you apply the same amount of sharpening to all of them. Now compare the images taken at different apertures at 100% on your screen. If you're struggling to see any difference, then you have a great lens (assuming the images are clear and sharp). Otherwise, you will soon see which aperture gives the sharpest result. (For a more detailed set of instructions, refer to Chapter 19 and the movie on Testing Apertures.)

As a separate test, compare lens performance in the centre of the image with the edges of the image. To check this, photograph a subject with it positioned in the middle of the viewfinder, and then again with it positioned at the edge of the viewfinder or in a corner. When you compare the two files (making sure they were taken at the same aperture this time), you will normally see the subject from the middle of the frame is much clearer. Again, if you don't see much difference, you have a very good lens. Repeat this exercise for each aperture and you will begin to understand your lens a lot better.

Keep a note of the best aperture or apertures. Now you know how to optimise image quality using the aperture.



Press the play button above to view the movie.

There's no such thing as a 'secret recipe' when it comes to landscape photography, but there are a number of tools that make life more interesting! 3D Lut Creator is an excellent tool for taking control over the colour in your images. In fact, you can use it to process your files instead of Photoshop or Lightroom etc, but generally, I use it to refine the colour in my work. It's very close to a secret recipe - once you work out how to use it!




The Wild Wild West


Bryce Canyon. 30 March 2007. Fresh snow, bluebird sunrise. Doesn't get better!

As an Australian photographer who has made a few short visits to America's South West, I realise my knowledge of the area is thin on the ground. This is such a huge place you could spend a lifetime photographing it – as many Americans have.

However, if you’re going there for the first time, how do you do it? Where do you go? What should you see? Here's what I have discovered.


Unfortunately, if you have one or two weeks, you can't see everything. However, the first thing you need is a car (unless you're going with a guided tour). You probably don't need a 4WD as most of the places you visit are paved or good quality dirt. Once you've done some first hand research, I know of places that a 4WD would be needed to visit, but the time involved probably also means you won't be going there on your first trip.

It is easy to spend a lot of time on the road. For instance, on one trip I visited Bryce Canyon and Monument Valley, plus a few places in between. Travelling with a fellow photographer (on this trip Phil Kuruvita), the hours pass quickly enough and can be justified if you travel during the middle of the day. The idea is to be at a location for last light and first light the following morning, then move off to your next destination and be in position the following afternoon.

The distances are huge and it's a bit like travelling in outback Australia. It can also be extremely hot in summer and all of my trips have been in late winter or spring. If you go too early some locations are not accessible because the roads remain snowed in; if you go too late you won't get out of the car's air-conditioning during the middle of the day!

Some locations don't have a lot of accommodation. Out of season this isn't such a problem. For instance, you can drop into the Grand Canyon and find somewhere without a booking, but smaller places like Bryce could be problematic. Or you could do what many Americans do and drag a trailer along behind you!

Antelope Canyon. It's a popular destination these days. Ask for the special 'photographer' tour as they give you more time.


My trips have begun in Las Vegas following the WPPI convention which I attend quite often. After being couped up in a hotel for a week, not really knowing whether it is day or night, hot or cold, it is fantastic to be released into the desert.

If Las Vegas or Los Angeles are your starting points, then Death Valley is a great destination. From L.A. it is a good six to eight hour drive depending on how many stops you make (and which way you go – I went up the 395 to Lone Pine and set off east from there); less if coming in from Las Vegas. Highlights in Death Valley include the white sand dunes just outside Death Valley township (made famous by Ansel Adams among many others), and Badwater, the lowest point in the world not under water and edged by some impressive mountain ranges. However, just driving through this landscape and doing a couple of short walks will reveal a wealth of material.

I still don't think I've quite got what I want in the Capitol Reef area, but it's getting close. Great erosion!

Heading out east there are lots of opportunities around the Grand Canyon and Page (where Antelope Canyon hides). Although touristy, the Grand Canyon is a must and just remember you can ramp up the contrast in Photoshop to solve problems of atmospheric haze. Nothing can prepare you for the scale of the Grand Canyon the first time you see it, and even me writing this won't change your reaction! You can spend a week searching around this area and feel you haven't touched the surface.

A bit further north in Utah you'll find Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef National Park, Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park. You can't go wrong in any of them. The mistake I made the first time in this area was trying to see Monument Valley at the same time within a short time frame. While they are part of a big loop, you need to allow more time than you think.

Early morning in front of the Totem Pole in Monument Valley. We needed a guide to gain access at this time of the morning.

Monument Valley and the Goosenecks are further south in the Four Corners area (where four American states join) and you're getting back closer to Page. Access in the early morning and late evening to Monument Valley (assuming you want to get up close) requires the services of a local guide and when we were there in 2007, cost us around US$50 to $60 each – it's not cheap, but the photos were worth every cent. And while it is wonderful to get changeable weather (because blue skies can be boring), it's amazing how much cloud does cross overhead (but not always when you want it!).

This Joshua Tree is in the middle of nowhere and I was lucky the wind stopped for the four second exposure.

Finally, if you're drawing a big circle back to Los Angeles, take a look at Joshua Tree National Park. I'm still struggling to work out how to photograph it properly. There is just so much there, but it is hard to isolate. I think the only way is to spend time walking around, perhaps hooking up with a camping tour and getting out amongst it. While the road networks get you in and around, it's hard to get that iconic shot, but I won't mind returning one day to try again!

So how do you decide on your locations? I just went and looked around. In souvenir and bookshops there are lots of photo and guide books and a quick flip through will give you half a dozen 'must see' destinations. You can also search on Google, of course, but sometimes there's simply too much to look at! For my photo of Horseshoe Bend, I researched this on Google based on a photo I had seen in an old book on photography years ago, and was promised by the many writers that it was easy to get to. When I finally did get there, all the advice was exactly right. It's about three kilometres outside Page and a 15 minute walk over a lump of sand. Make sure you stop before you reach the edge, but these days, chances are you will be in the company of several hundred other keen photographers!

Looking over the Canyonlands near Mesa Arch. Nothing like a little contra-jour to test your lens shade.


PHOTO ADVICE: 03 | Critique Session

Press the play button above to view the movie.

During the production of the Landscape Photography MasterClass, some of our early subscribers kindly provided some images for critique and review. This has turned into a very popular part of each MasterClass and we have received many complimentary comments about how useful the Critique Session is.

Of course, there are no absolutes in photography and so what you view in this movie is really just one photographer's opinion about another photographer's work. However, hopefully the advice and observations can be helpful in improving your own photography.


BUSINESS ACUMEN: 03 | Creating Landscape Prints For Sale

Quality Landscape Prints

Moreno Glacier, Patagonia. You can just see a small person walking into the glacial field in the foreground.

Fine art landscape photography used to be either black and white on fibre-base paper, or Ilfochromes (Cibachromes) for a high gloss colour result.

Today you will find it difficult print on traditional materials and most photographers are using inkjet printers to create their work on cotton-based papers. Personally, I love the inkjet result using a cotton paper with a matte or textured surface, but some photographers are still selling high gloss prints and this seems to be very popular with their market. If you're producing landscape prints for sale, then you need to know what your market wants.

Print Sizes

One of the reasons successful landscape photographers could produce large prints in high gloss (up to two metres wide) was because their images were captured on 6x17 cm roll film. Today, they are generally captured with 100- or 150-megapixel sensors. These large formats produce a beautiful quality image full of detail, so when they are printed, they have lots of pixels to play with.

So, what can you do if you don't have a medium format camera? It's one thing to produce an A4 or an A3 print with a DSLR or mirrorless camera, but when you go to huge sizes, will the quality fall away?

Not necessarily because a lot of DSLR and mirrorless cameras are offering 30- to 60-megapixels and that's plenty of resolution to make large prints.

Don't get me wrong: I have made prints from Canon's 1Ds Mark III and Nikon's 25-megapixel D3x and they have looked fantastic, but they don’t hold the same level of detail as a 50- or 100-megapixel sensor. And while our customers might not point out the difference, I believe that part of the attraction for some of the market is the exquisite detail that a large format image affords.

In a nutshell, I think you need at least 180 ppi (pixels per inch) when making prints. However, even 100 ppi will work for larger sizes, but nothing beats having lots of pixels to play with.

So, if we don't want to use an expensive medium format camera, what are the solutions?

The first is to change the way you shoot with your DSLR or mirrorless cameras. Instead of making single captures, start stitching your images together. In this way you collect more pixels and the pixels aren't stretched as far when they are printed big. 

Not all subjects can be stitched, so this isn't a foolproof solution.

The second option is to print on something other than a high gloss paper. High gloss papers reveal everything about an image, whereas a canvas finish with its coarse texture hides fine details and creates very acceptable enlargements. A photo that looks terrible on gloss paper because it has been enlarged too far can look wonderful on canvas.

In between these extremes is a huge range of non-gloss inkjet media from companies such Epson, Canson and Hahnenmulle. There are many ranges of wonderful, slightly textured papers (textured when compared to a gloss surface at any rate). You'll find you can make larger prints without offending your sense of 'detail'.

You can also add a little grain or noise to your files before output. It doesn't need to be much (0.3 to 3%), but a visible grain structure can help hide the softness in a file that has been enlarged to much. However, it will rarely look as good as large format file where the pixels aren't being challenged.


It might sound really obvious, but before you make a large print, double check that it has been correctly spotted. Enlarge your image to 100% on your computer monitor and methodically check for sensor spots and dust. There's nothing worse than printing a large file only to find a few unwanted spots. 

And when it comes to sharpening, don't overdo it! Again, look at your files on the screen at either 100% or 50%. If you can see white haloes around sharp edges, or if the fine detail in your image loses its structure, chances are you've gone to far. I generally feel less sharpening is better than too much.

Matting and Framing

When we create our prints, they will only last if we look after then. Light, atmosphere and other materials near or in contact with the prints can all have a degenerative effect over time.

You will have little control over where your customers hang their prints, but you can provide them with a short set of instructions stating that they should not be hung in direct sunlight. You can also consider UV glass, but some UV glass has a colour to it which might cloud the beautiful colours of your print.

Atmosphere can sometimes be controllable, depending where your customers live and where they hang the print. High humidity is generally a problem in the bathroom and kitchen, so suggest that your prints are not hung in or too close to these locations. Of course, if someone lives in the tropics, then keeping a print away from humidity can be problematic. 

Finally, the materials you use to mount and frame your print can give off gases or contain contaminants that, over time, may react with your print and damage it. In the framing industry, people talk about archival and 'acid free' materials which, while more expensive, should be used when selling landscape prints.

Using top quality materials means that the cost of your prints, framed or not, will be more expensive than a cheap print from the local variety store. This is something you should be proud of and use in your marketing. Make sure you tell customers who are looking at your work all about the quality of the materials and the processes involved. If you take that much trouble with the presentation, it must be because you value what you have produced – and that can only be a good thing in the sales process.