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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.
So I've been out shooting for the last couple of days, and I just want to take a break here and kind of assess where I'm at. The weather is not what I was expecting. Now, when you think winter landscape, of course, you think snow. And I had snow at the beginning, but. This is the driest winter in 500 years. It's when I have chosen to come, shoot winter landscapes. I heard on the radio the other day that the last time it was this dry in California, Sir Francis Drake was moored here. That's how dry it is. So, I'm not getting the wintry snowy landscape that I have been expecting, it was snowy but then it rained and now the rain has washed all the snow away.
So I'm, just going out anyway, and I went into the forest, actually just around where I'm staying, and this is the first thing I saw in the morning when I went out. All of the trees were subliming, and it was just really cool. If you get it backlit, there'd just be these clouds of steam and, so you could argue that this is absolutely a winter landscape picture, because this is a phenomenon that always happens, only happens in the winter. So that's something to think about. Don't just go in with your expectations that winter means x, y, or z.
I had seen this happen before, so it was really cool to go out and see this thing that only happens in the winter. And I've never seen that, because, I usually avoid going cold places. So, this was a nice discovery. Similarly, I have spent. A long time just walking around in the forests, and know this doesn't, to my eye, look particularly wintry. On the other hand, if it wasn't winter there might be a lot more brush on the ground, there might be a lot more undergrowth, the trees might be a lot thicker. So, I'm probably seeing very different things, than I would see at a different time of year. So, it's still worth considering this a winter landscape.
And, I'm not just saying this to. Defend my shots as actual landscape shots, I mean walking through a snow free forest still yields you something different in the winter than it does, at other times of the year. As I mentioned before in the forest I was just working geometry a lot, and it's really hard to ignore the shadows, and this is something about winter, the sun never gets up very high so you get these nice long shadows all day long. So, again, some of these shots are seasonal. They're only things you can get at this time of year. As I'm going through these, I've done my initial round of selects and some edits, and I'm having trouble deciding on some things.
I don't know if I like that shot or that shot. And you may think well, I can't go on until I've made that decision. I'm just going to say, yeah, I like one of those. I don't, I don't know. I'll come back in a few months, and probably have a very clear idea. I usually find that my eye changes once I'm away from the place for a while. When you're working with pure geometry, as you are with trees, there's a point at which you need to give up on thinking of them as trees, and you need to just start thinking of them as lines and looking for relationships between the lines. And one of the most difficult things to wrap your eye around about is Drag your eye around is that there's a relationship front to back also.
So here's a case where I'm playing with different planes of depth, and coming up with different relationships. One of the reasons I say that's difficult, is because, as I'm walking through there, I know that that tree in the middle is further behind. So I maybe don't think about it, as part of the composition when I'm looking at these two fort trees in the front. Photos flatten everything. They don't care about depth. They are just about a single plane with lines on it. And this is a great way to practice that, walking through a forest and just playing with the lines. And again, I'm not trying to capture these as trees. You don't see branches. You don't see leaves, that kind of thing.
Here again, I'm stuck between that one or this one. I'm think I'm really heavily leaning towards that one now that I look at it. It's interesting, it's only been a couple of days and right away I'm going, Why was I thinking maybe that one? I guess I like these shadows down here at the bottom, I don't know. Here's another case of playing with the relationships between trees at different depths. Here I'm also playing a little bit with brightness. And this was a case of walking along, and seeing this tree lit up between these two other trees and then just working to frame it. What's always difficult about these trees is that they're just so tall. It means that whether your shooting, that if you're shooting portrait you're.
You're dealing with odd proportions, so I'm not sure that I'm not going to crop this. I think I may cut it down here, make it more of a four to three image, than a three to three image just because it's so much about vertical, or I might go the other direction and play the vertical up even more and crop the sides off. I'm not sure. I mentioned before, looking up, is a fun thing to do when you're in a forest. You get just these wonderful receiving lines. Here's a place where I was still thinking in color. As I went on I shifted more to black and white, and I think this works a lot better.
It becomes much more about just graphical lines. Now. I'm not just walking around going, oh yeah, I'm looking up, there's some trees, I'll take a picture. There are some looking up shots at trees that are better than others. And what caught my eye here were all of these branches, all of these dead branches sticking off this tree. I decided that was probably something that I could build around. And they mirror. These over here are a little bit. So, I was looking ahead of time for particular candidates. You can't really walk through the forest like this. You'll bump into something and hurt yourself. So, you find the tree that looks interesting and then you look up and then you work, work your way around the tree but also work at pivoting your camera because composition changes a lot as you pivot your camera.
And shapes change and intersect in different ways, for example the difference between this image and this image. This is the same tree, but I've rotated the camera. And I'm not sure which of these I like better. I like how in this one the tree is so dominant in this part of the frame. Here, I don't know, I like this right angle, just forming a black square over here in the corner. These kinds of shots are just pure Geometry. They are only about relationships of lines. It's like, it's like Mondrian paintings. You, you, I don't care that these are trees.
This is just about finding the lines, and the overlapping light and dark that I like. In this case, it's not just that the tree was in the light. The backlighting was very nice. And that's something you find a lot in the Winter. Again, because the sun stays low, you often find these great back lighting situations. That's something that's difficult to get at other times of the year. Unless you're really out at the right time of day. Obviously there are still snow around in places, so I'm finding sun here and there. This was, I don't know, this tree just struck me for some reason. I liked the curly branches. I, I liked how dramatic the texture is on the trunk.
And how the bottom of it is really reaching into the ground. And I had a very wide angle. It seemed to be that doing closeups of any of these things wouldn't work. I couldn't really zoom in on these in any way, because there was too much other stuff. So I just went for shooting the whole tree. Now this is not the image that I shot. This is the image that I shot. Couple of things to notice that I've changed here, first of all this image vignetted a lot, so this is a problem. The tree is lost up against the background, so let me should you my original again and you'll see that, watch the corners up here as I change.
Back, you can see I take the vignetting out. Now look down here, and you'll see that I darkened the background up a lot. And that was simply taking a levels adjustment layer in Photoshop, dialing in much darker, and then using a level mask to paint these background trees darker. I still don't know about this image. It's still very cluttered. I wish this tree, was much more isolated. I wish I could push the background back further. I don't know that I can, and even if I can, this is the place where I think the snow is a problem and I should have shoveled it out of the way, or something because I don't like this big white spot there.
I don't want to tone that down because gray snow is not particularly appealing. But I don't know, I'm going to let that sit for a while, and come back to it and see what I think. Here was, here's another example of doing the same kind of thing. I liked this play of light on the trees, or on this tree. Actually just stood there for a long time looking at it. There was something about it that I just thought was really pretty. I don't know that I captured it. There was just something about the way the light was hitting the tree and the branches. And it may be that what I was finding pretty there was not a purely visual thing. It might have been that I was just having a really nice moment, there in the forest and this was what I was looking at.
And a whole lot of sensorial things combined at the same time. It smelled good, and my coat was keeping me warm, and it was just a happy moment, and so this looked pretty. Because right now I look at it and go yeah, there's some nice light there, but I don't know. So I need sit with this image a little more, but I want to show you what I did here. You may be wondering about all this weird stuff around the edge. That's because this is a composite that I haven't cropped yet. I wanted to do, I knew when I shot this. Well here, I'll just, I'll do the reveal now. This is the picture that I shot. So same problem as the other one.
The background is too bright. In this case I darkened the background in a different way. I bracketed. I shot two shots. I shot one very, very underexposed, and then I shot this one. I stuck the two of those into Photoshop, aligned them, and then used a layer mask to paint in the darker background. So this is from the underexposed shot. This is from the regularly exposed shot. You could say, well, why didn't you just do the layer mask thing. And I could have just done the layer mask thing. Sometimes though, underexposing gets you, well, a couple of things.
Doing a layer mask on this image would have been difficult to paint in, because of the interface between the trees and the could behind it. With the underexposed shot, I know that the sky. And everything is darkened a uniform amount. I don't have to worry about trying to mask the trees. So, this is a case where the background was so busy, it seemed better to just shoot an underexposed one and do a composite later. So, what you'll find here is that some of these branches out here on the end are probably. The branch is from the underexposed shot.
It's hard to tell without them being aligned. I just didn't have to bother masking this part, because I feel like it's okay that they're in shadow. So, this is a technique I'm just kind of fiddling with. I, I, it works well. I just haven't found the right shot yet, that really ends up being a nice picture. Again, I found some snow. It's just great the light and shadow that you get with snow. The simplicity of snow. It's taken all of that clutter on the ground and removed it. Reduced it to just nice white. So that this one little bush with these shadows, ends up being this nice little moment. I, I wanted the sun to come out from behind the clouds to give me an even.
A darker shadow, and it just didn't happen. And when it did happen, the sun had moved so the clouds are out of the way. But I actually like the softness of that. It's not so overt. This is a very, very simple composition, just like coming to the trees. It's, it's not fantastic. I don't think there's something about it though that I feel. Evokes for me the landscape that I was in and the experience that I've been having. So I'm. I'm pleased with that shot. The other day we were out on the lake and we, we keep going to these places right on the lake shore, and across the lake are these snow capped mountains that are just beautiful.
But Lake Tahoe is enormous, so the mountains are very far away. So you go out there and you go gah, I just need a panorama of that, and I've been putting it off I haven't shot one because I thought it's not going to work. But we were out there the other day and the sky was so ridiculously dramatic, that I had to do one and so I shot this and sure enough there's the dramatic sky and there's the snow-capped mountains. And it's a really wide shot and I can see a lot of it and it's just a boring picture as far as I'm concerned. There's just no subject here. I could maybe crop in some, but still I'm just, I'm a long way away.
I put on a longer lens. And even with that the sky is very pretty, but it's not pretty enough to hold the picture. It was just one of those moments that I had to simply enjoy. Who does that these days? Until I moved around a little bit more and found a subject. And like I was saying the other day, maybe the way to show them out in some of the skies, to find a sundry to anchor the shot and at least they're there as background. I need to print this before I can figure out what the right exposure is, on the sky and the mountains. It's, this is a tricky one because I can't let this, this was such a weird phenomenon in the sky.
That this part was so dark, and there was this bright bit beneath it. I need to be very careful about exposure on this. This whole thing needs to be, well this whole thing needs to be darkened up. But, if this goes darker it's going to look unreal. I do not want any of this dark stuff to turn black. And in fact, this may already be too dark in here. This type of cloud doesn't get real dark on the bottom, so I don't want to push it to that point or it will look obviously edited. So I've got a little bit of more work to do on this. I have not done it here because this screen isn't that great for that kind of precise editing, and I just, I need to get some things on paper to see what they need.
I happen to have with me an infrared camera. This is a Rebel TE-1I. I think that's been modified for infrared. I'd forgotten that I had it, and I pulled it out the other day when we were in the forest. And I wasn't sure what it would do with the particular trees that we had. And it was great. They turned really white and there were clouds in the sky that day. Clouds do great in infrared. I think this is the shot that I liked the most from that day. This is a great a approach if all you gotta do is shoot trees. The problem is I didn't bring the battery charger, so I got about four shots off and that's all I could do with that camera.
Infra-red. And sometimes a gimmick, you need to be careful. You know, one of the things you first think when you see this shot is wow, that's an infrared picture. And it maybe distracts you a little bit from the actual content, so I wouldn't travel only with an infra-red camera, I don't know how much I want to use it. But, for shots that I would do as black and white anyway like this shot of just this very striking cloud, you don't necessarily see this as an infra-red image. And infra-red gives you all this extra little filigree on the crowds, clouds. I really like. Shooting this kind of stuff with it. I can see that I've got a little flare here that I didn't notice before.
How could I not have seen that? I'll have to try and clone that out. That shouldn't be a problem as I've got enough usable tone, on either side, but it will take a little bit of work. So I won't be able to do any more infra-red. But, it's nice that I got those, and I haven't shot that much with that camera, so it's cool to find out. That it does work with these trees that we have out here. So, that's where I'm at right now. I want to get back into the snow and there is snow forecast. The forecast is changing every day, so it's difficult to know if we're really going to get any. I want to get back out there. These few snow shots that I've gotten are really making me.
Want to go out and play with that kind of geometry again. Again like in this shot, just, I love the simplicity that I get here. So I'm looking forward to getting back out into that. I don't want to go back into the quantity of snow that we had the other day. Or I'm fine with the quantity that was on the ground, it was the quantity that was in the air that was a problem. So hopefully, we're not going to get back into that. If we do though I got some ideas about working with that so I'm looking forward to getting back out there.
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