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Snow-covered landscapes introduce a variety of photographic opportunities and challenges. A blanket of brilliant white can do beautiful things with light, but it also complicates exposure. Crystal-blue winter skies are dramatic, but shooting in the cold can be cumbersome and hard on your gear.
In this course, photographer, author, and educator Ben Long takes a trip to Lake Tahoe to explore winter shooting at various times of the day. He also shows techniques for post-processing winter scenes to make them look their best.
I think I've done shooting in a way, you're never done shooting. I might step outside and the light reveals something perfect. But I don't have any other actual expeditions planned for this trip in fact, I'm leaving tomorrow. So yesterday was my last day of shooting. Went back to White Wolf, which was the first place that I'd gone shooting, the place that was in the middle of a blizzard. And wow, it was unrecognizable. It was a completely different experience. In fact, it was what I thought winter landscape shooting was going to be all along.
I guess it was one of the two things I thought. The, the first day there was what I feared it would be which was snow blowing in my face and the second day was, what I had hoped it would be, which was the snow covered landscape that was very simplified because of the presence of the snow. I did a lot of other obviously winter landscape shooting in between, and what I'd like about yesterday was I was up out of the dense forest and I just felt like I had a lot more to work with. I, it was just spectacularly beautiful. So, I want to go over what I shot yesterday.
The selects that I made. I've done a preliminary edit on, on some. I say preliminary partly because the tendency with the human eye is to add too much contrast. As you look at an image for too long, you lose your ability to perceive contrast, so you tend to add more. Throw in a lousy screen with a, with a glossy surface which crunches all your blacks way before they actually lose detail. That's a real recipe for messing up your images. So I'm trying to do all of my edits non-destructively because I'm not sure that the amount that I'm dialing in is actually right.
I may get home, look at it on another monitor and go oh, I added too much contrast and I need to pull that back. Or I didn't add enough. Or I got it in the wrong places. So I'm editing cautiously but also in a way that I can change later. So here's one of the first images from pretty early in the day. There were these two dead trees and honestly I could have shot them all day long. There's just so much going on here graphically. And I have a thing for shooting trees anyway, but I think anybody would have enjoyed shooting these. So I tried a few different things. I tried shooting them individually and here, as a pair.
I like this. They just, they look creepy. But they are also just very interesting visually. I like the light on them. Here is another thing that I, I actually thought this was going to come out better than it did. What I liked here, there are all of these receding lines kind of all pointing to the same place. And here I'm able to play with the repetition in those vertical lines and try and create a, this thrusting upward thing. There was something going on with the light there that really struck me. There was a softness to the tree that I don't think that I have here. Again, I'm not sure I have the contrast right.
I'm going to wait until I get a better monitor to really try and refine it. Going to paper is going to make a big difference too, because I'm going to take a contrast hit there. This I think is my favorite shot of that tree. I don't have much to say about it compositionally, I was working with a very wide angled lens. One thing I like about this is it's not just the tree up against the sky, I do have some background. Now, you may look at this and go oh, you were using a flash, and I wasn't. Or you may think oh well that's an HDR image and it's not. I am actually doing very little HDR these days. I've learned a lot from my HDR shooting about what I like and what I tend to do know is expose for highlights and then, be sure that I'm capturing in a way where I can really play the shadows up in post-production which is a pretty traditional way of working.
I want to show you the unedited image. This is what came out of the camera. A little bit of adjusting, global adjustment in lightroom I think, but for the most part this is just straight out of the camera. The meter got the sky exposure exactly right. I think maybe I dialed it down by about a third of a stop. And then I just painted in a bunch of brightness on the tree itself. This is just a levels adjustment layers in Photoshop. As I look at it now, this is exactly what I'm talking about. I think I went too far. I think as I was looking at this image for a long time, I kept thinking it needed more and more brightness. I think I may need to pull that back because I don't want this to look like a flash photo.
I want there to be some semblance of natural light here. So, I've gotta play with that. I've got some sloppy parts in here that I need to clean up. Another reason that I'm looking forward to getting home is I want my, my Wacom tablet back. It's easier for doing these kind of painting chores. But, I like this image a lot. I just gotta get the brightness adjusted properly. This I, I don't have quite right. I was climbing up this hill. And there was this tree just coming up from back behind the hillside. And this is something that is very akin to desert shooting that I really was enjoying about shooting in the snow.
The simplicity. Everything stripped down. Except I've got this tree that's much more lush than I would find in the desert. We got to the top of this cliff and there was this enormous fallen tree trunk that was really beautiful. I shot a lot of it. I, I, unfortunately none of them are capturing what was there at the moment. I put this in here to show an edit that I've done, which is there was this hole in the tree, and that's the forest way, way behind. There is no way that I can actually shoot with enough depth, enough depth of field to capture that, so these are two frames.
One I focused on the tree, I tried to keep my framing, and I focused on the forest and then I've composited them. That was something I thought of while I was out there, really thinking about depth of field, what was possible to achieve, what might have to be done in post, and I made sure to gather the raw material that I needed to pull that off. This is very similar to shooting sand dunes, as the light gets low you pick up a bunch of texture and you start finding these patterns. This image is a prime example of one that looks completely different to me if I come down here. So, I've really got to get this on paper and figure out where the right contrast level is.
All right, this might be a little confusing, particularly since you're possibly seeing it kind of small. This is the trunk of a tree on growing out of an exposed patch. This is a ro, a rock right here. This obviously is just gravel over here. This is an extreme slope leading down to a valley and trees growing down here. When I was standing there, what first struck me was just the bear tree, and I shot a lot of it in a lot of different ways because I like the texture on the tree. But, I have so many pictures of trees and there wasn't anything especially interesting about the shape of the tree.
So, then I started to think, now what is possibly interesting here is this weird perspective I have. because there's a tree growing up, but the ground's going down, and there's stuff down here. So I was trying to play with that, I was trying to play with the extremities of the foreground background that I have here. So I think I've got that. I have darkened this up a little bit to, not so much to create something that was closer to the reality of what I was seeing, but playing purely formally. I feel like, with this section, with this corner darker, I just had more of a proper composition and proper interplay between the shape of this triangle, and the shape of this exposed bit here.
So all of that's going on, and I, I think for those formal ideas I've pulled them off just fine. I don't know if it's an interesting picture or not. And I don't know if it's as confusing as I thought it was going to be. I like the idea of playing with the confusion of the depth. The answer to that is to show it around to other people but, I think mostly it's I've got to set it aside for awhile and come back to it. And you may think that I am just sitting here with nothing but negative things to say about my images, but honestly this is normal for me when we are talking about images that I just shot yesterday, I've been living with them, editing them all night and all morning.
There is a point where I have to walk away from them and come back with fresh eyes. So I'm trying to stay formal, I'm trying to make sure everything is alright technically. I'm trying to remember what my original impulse was. Now, I get away from it for a month or two, come back to it there're going to look completely different and I'm going to have a whole new take on them. That actually, I think for me is the part of the process that I like the most. Coming back to the images that have been sitting alone for a while, the adjusted images, and getting fresh eyes on them then I almost always know exactly want to do to them. Another tree picture, I what I like about this one is this just says Sierras to me.
This is so much the mountains in California and Nevada, and I had not spent a lot of time seeing those mountains in the snow. So, this image fo, is a somewhat personal image for me just in terms of encapsulating. Wow, this is really what winter in the Sierras is like. I've spent a lot of time in them, in other seasons. So it's cool to get to see these kind of trees with snow around them. This I liked just because of the shape. It's, it's almost an integral here with these two curves at the top and the bottom. It's funny the, how the dead trees in a way are so much more interesting than the live ones.
That's a rather morbid thought, I suppose. But I also like here the interplay of this line with all of these weird streaks in the snow. And then we have some cool clouds backing it up. So we've got a lotta lines moving in one direction. Here again just formal geometry playing with the trees and the rock and the lines in the snow. I'm able to do all of this because of the hour, because the sun is going down and this is just Basic Landscape Photography 101. You gotta get up early and you gotta stay out late, maybe try a nap in the afternoon, because all the good light is going to happen at those times and you're going to see textures which are going to create compositions that you wouldn't have seen any other time.
I don't think I would have taken this picture if the snow was smooth, because I like this line leading up to this tree, this line leading up to that tree, the rock balancing things in the middle. Here's another example, and, I had come to this big plain of snow, where there were just all of these lines. And we were told later that that's actually caused by rain. The rain runs through the snow and, and creates these ridges in the snow. And I saw that plane from far away and though, I've got to get out there in the middle of that, because to be standing out there amongst those lines with them radiating away from me in all these directions, there's got to be a lot I can do with that.
And then I, I got to this hill where you can see these lines and I realized, you know, the clouds are actually doing the same thing, so I've kind of got this perfect symmetry. I've got these lines going this way, and these lines going this way. So I took the shot. Now I needed a subject. It couldn't just be those lines. So I found these three trees and I was hoping that I could find an angle that would at least reveal the repetition of those trees. And I think I've got it here. I want to show you though, the images that came out of the camera. This I feel is pretty close to what my eye was able to see, because the human eye just has such an incredible ability to perceive contrast.
This is what the camera captured. So when I opened this image up, I was at first disappointed. I thought oh, wow I guess, I guess I was imagining all those lines or something. And no, it's that you've gotta work the shot to get it. So, this is one reason it's a good idea to do an initial pass on your image pretty soon after you shoot the stuff. Even though I say I need a fresh eye a couple of months from now to look at the image, a lot of times I don't know how to edit the image unless I can remember what I was seeing at the time. I would not have necessarily known to go into this image, to pull it out to there because I might have just forgotten.
So it's good to have that immediate edit just because a lot of times you have ideas that you might forget if you let them sit too long. I climbed up and down this hill a couple of times, trying to figure out what to do with this tree. I didn't know if I wanted it intersecting the horizon or not. I was afraid that if it was below the horizon, there wouldn't be depth in the image, scale would be messed up. And I decided this was the right thing. But now coming back here, looking at my images in review, I came across this which works much better. It turns out the one that I thought was right when I was out shooting was completely wrong.
One of the ones that I had rejected when I shooting was absolutely right. It was to shoot up way high, really down on the thing. And I feel like this is really conveying to me a sense of the landscape there. It also has a subject right in here, and the light was really cooperating with me pouring a pool of light right onto these trees right in the middle. This I feel is the landscape shot that I wanted to convey where I was, but that also reads well and my eye knows what to do with it. Now, that said, I played with the light a lot with this image.
Here's what came out of the camera, so we'll get the retouchings out of the way. I took this thing out over here, I took a little bit of vignetting out over there. But I want you to do is watch this area right in here, as I show you the other one. You're going to see the trees brighten and the hills darken. So you can see that I've really changed the tonal relationships in this image. I want the trees to pop out from the background. So I brightened them a lot. I wanted to be able to see the depth of the scene, I wanted to see that this was a big valley, a big bowl, which here, it just looks like a face of a cliff or something.
So I painted a shadow in here, and left this alone, and that gives me more of a sense of depth. So I manipulated this image a lot to get it to read properly, but I still feel like it's a true authentic image of what I was experiencing there. I'm going to get it on paper and see if I want to maybe change this up a little bit, lighten this bit a tiny bit, play with the shadows that I painted to make them a little more realistic. Here I'm playing light against shadow. I recognize that the tree has been lit up. So I tried to find a composition that would play that up.
I like this. I don't think it is as strong as that other image as far as a big landscape image goes. I don't know where they were coming from. There were contrails through the sky all day long. There's so much fo, they're so tempting to play with, and it's such a puzzle because these are supposed to be landscape images. You typically want them to be nature images. You don't want to feel the presence of mankind there. And a big jet trail through the image. But how can you resist the graphical nature of them so I, I allowed myself this one and I, it was actually moving very quickly because of the wind.
And so I shifted my position around the lot trying to get the relationship between the line and the tree that I wanted. And finally there's this one. This one is kind of similar to the one that I had of the lone tree in the middle, sticking up from behind the snow bank. There was just something mysterious about them out there. I feel like this is closer to that than the other one was. And maybe it's the lighting. I've let a lot of it go into silhouette. I've played up the, the highlight on this side. I'll have to work out those tonal relationships. I think this image works better than the other one. So I'm, I need to learn from this one and figure out what to do with the other one, but I, I really like this one.
So those are my picks. I, I'm really pleased with what I got. Believe it or not, it makes me want to get back out in the snow which I wasn't expecting, and which I'll, I probably won't say once I get home somewhere warm. But, but no I'm going to come back. So I think I got some good stuff here. I do need to rework it when I get a better monitor and when I can get some stuff on paper, but I think I got a lot of good raw material to work with.
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