How bad do you want it?

Though this is a blog about photography, “how bad do you want it” is a question that applies to just about anything and everything, but I digress…

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Austin, Texas under a clear starry night. This shot made it all worth it.

You may be thinking, Jason, what the hell are you talking about… well. “How bad do you want it” is a question I ask myself just about every Friday before my head hits the pillow. For those of you who don’t know, much like many many other landscape photographers, I have an “adult” job. Not adult like an adult film star or anything, but a full-time job that has nothing to do with photography.

After working over 40 hours a week, at times away from my lovely wife and all the comforts of home for several days, there is nothing more I would rather do than sleep in, relax and marathon Walter White as he Breaks Bad. So,  I have to ask myself, “how bad do you want it“? And for me, “it” is that one banger shot that makes you smile when it pops up on the back of the camera after hearing the shutter click. It could be vivid colors of the Milkey Way arching over Enchanted Rock or a beautiful smile beneath piercing eyes in dramatic black & white.

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The beautiful Austin, Texas skyline from the boardwalk along Lake LBJ.

Being a photographer in a digital world is, in many ways, so much easier than it was when I started shooting film. In an instant after freezing time, you can know if you captured your vision. The leaps in technology have, for sure, brought with it benefits that I can’t imagine living without. However… with all those wonderful leaps forward there is bound to be an equal and opposite reaction, according to some guy that goes by the name Issac.

Social media is without a doubt a huge part of what I do as a photographer, as it is with just about every business these days. It is still possible to do well without social media, but when you can reach 100K plus people with one banger image, well,  that’s a large audience and you would have to be a little crazy to pass that up. But,  with social media, there is a constant pressure to produce great content. That could be a single image, a video, tutorial, or a blog post like this one. And, contrary to what some people think, pumping out content and posts that will actually catch the attention of an audience is a large dedication of time not to mention a lot of work.

My office for the night

One Friday night, a few weeks ago, after a very busy week at my “real” job, I had to ask myself “how bad do you want it“? The weather forecast that night called for zero clouds, which can be great if you’re into shooting nightscapes like I am. It also called for temperatures in the upper 30’s. I know what you’re thinking, upper 30’s isn’t cold. Well if you live in Central Texas and are going to be standing lakeside on a breezy night, its cold.

For several weeks that I had been waiting for a clear night on a weekend so I could get what I hoped would be Star Trails above the Austin, Texas skyline. But that meant waking up at 3:30am, driving for over an hour, walking for about a mile with 38 pounds of camera equipment on my back, just to stand in 39° temperatures for several hours. Gotta want it pretty bad to go through all of that after the week I had.

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This is a combination of 24, 2-minute exposures. There are very faint star trails in the upper right corner showing the rotation of the earth.

So it was cold… really cold… But I think I mentioned that. My fingertips and toes were numb and the filters I was trying to use kept getting condensation on them, which really sucked because it ruined the shot I wanted so much. Originally I had a grand plan of making a video out of the trip with some great aerial B-role as the sun broke the horizon and illuminated downtown Austin. Though I did piece together the video below, there isn’t any epic drone. I couldn’t feel my fingers by the time the sun started to rise. Sometimes things just don’t go as planned. But, the video doesn’t do it justice and I loved every minute of it.

So, that brings us full circle. How bad do you want it? What are you willing to do to get the thing you want most? Next time you think you would rather sleep in or not get out and make it happen, ask yourself that.

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Get Out There…

One of the most difficult aspects of landscape photography for me would seem to be a very simple part of the process for a lot of you, getting out there

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Typically, the best times to shoot landscape photography is in the early morning just before and during sunrise, and late in the day before and during sunset. At these times you can not only capture some of the most beautiful natural colors in the sky caused from the light breaking through the atmosphere, dust and water vapor along the horizon, but the side light shadows created by the sun being low in the sky can create depth and dimension in the scene. And if your lucky and get some thin and high altitude Cirrus clouds, the sky just seems to catch on fire with a pink and orange glow.

This doesn’t mean it isn’t possible to get fantastic images during the middle of the day though. Depending on the conditions it is very possible to capture something amazing. Personally, I like shooting black and white at these times, the dark shadows can create a lot of contrast. But as a general rule, during the middle of the day when the sun is high in the sky, everything can appear to be a bit flat due to the harsh light and the lack of dimension in the shadows.

Of the two prime shooting times, I normally prefer to shoot in the early morning hours. There are normally fewer people out which helps me have a scene to myself, take my time, and not worry about missing the perfect light due to distraction or an unintentional photobomb.

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Though I am a morning person and rarely sleep in, planning on a morning landscape shoot can be a big investment in time. Unless you are lucky enough to live in one of those areas where you are just surrounded by amazing scenes, this means you have to wake up at 3:00’ish, drive 1-2 hours, walk in the dark to get to your location, set up and wait for that magic light to “Hopefully” happen.

There is a lot of planning, pre-scouting locations, watching the weather, and even then you can’t be sure what exactly you are going to get once the sun starts to break the horizon. Clouds, wind, humidity, rain, light… There are so many things constantly changing and can’t be predicted that all the planning and preparation can seem to have been wasted. It’s easy to get frustrated after driving for several hours, hiking for 3 miles while carrying 30-40 lbs of gear, just to have the clouds close in and shut down the excitement of getting that hero image you were chasing.

Just taking the step to get out there and put yourself in the places and situations needed to capture an epic image is something I struggle with on a regular basis. Photography is a huge part of my life and as much as I love being out in nature, life isn’t that one dimensional for me and there are things that conflict with getting out there. Family, friends, dinner, drinks, cookouts, movies… It isn’t always easy to cut your fun short on a Saturday night because 3:00 comes so very early, especially if you are fortunate enough to have someone like Mrs. Red 5 in your life that loves the nightlife.

Hamilton Pool

That being said, there are only 2 times I can think of that I actually regretted taking a step out the door so early in the morning. The process and journey are always rewarding not to mention the sense of accomplishment from setting and crossing a goal off your list. The real reward is given in the fresh air, being away from all the thoughts of bills, meetings, and normal day to day stresses.

So be sure to take that first step. Find a place and situation to put yourself in that will elevate what you do. Challenge yourself to go a little farther, try something new. And most importantly, Get Out There!

Post Processing…

Do you edit your images? I get that questions a lot and the answer is a very simple, yes.

Desk

Now I am not talking about changing out the sky or adding a dinosaur to the foreground. What I do in post-processing would be considered more as adjustments in my view. The reason is not to make the image look more impressive or different, but to make it look more like the scene and composition looked to me when I pressed the shutter release. That raises the question “why doesn’t the image look the way it did when you took it”?

There are a few reasons for this. First would be that I shoot everything in a RAW format. Raw files are named so because they are not yet processed and therefore are not ready to be printed or edited. These files capture and contain much more information and detail from the scene than you would get from a Jpeg image, which is great. The downside of shooting RAW is the images look somewhat drab and flat straight out of the camera.

Lightroom

Another reason is the dynamic range of the images I normally shoot is greater than can be processed straight to a JPeg image, it is just way too much information to be stored in that format. Bit, all that extra detail in the RAW files can be pulled out by processing the image. I use Adobe Lightroom for 85% post-processing, and by making a few simple adjustments to the image, the dark shadows are brightened to reveal detail that you couldn’t see, and the highlights are muted to allow the blown out areas of the image to be tamed and more impressive.

Adjustments

Once I have pulled images into Adobe Lightroom, the first few adjustments I make are pretty much the same for all my landscape shots and though they are very slight, they have a pretty big image on the overall look of the image.

  • Contrast
  • Highlights
  • Shadow
  • Clarity
  • Vibrancy

I don’t have a standard amount for each adjustment, it is all done by eye to get the visual impact of the image to be as close to what the scene was when the image was taken. These are just the normal adjustments I make, and depending on the image I will make other changes as needed to the Whites and Blacks of the image, Exposure, and Sharpness.

Something I try not to adjust that often, and when I do, it is very slightly, is the color saturation of the image. Instead, I use the color Vibrancy adjustment. The difference between the two is that the vibrancy raises or lowers the primary color of the image, for this image it most affected the greens. Color Saturation, on the other hand, affects the level of every color in the image, and it is really easy to get carried away.

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Adjusting the saturation of an image can really help and I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t ever use it, this image has a very slight saturation boost as a matter of fact. That being said, I think oversaturating images is something that a lot of photographers go to in an effort to elevate the impact of the image, and there are many that take it too far. So, I would suggest having a light hand when adjusting the saturation, but that is just my opinion.

Two other adjustments that I use but try to keep at a minimum are the Clarity slider and the Sharpness. Both can have a pretty dramatic effect on the image but can be taken too far pretty easily. Adjusting the Clarity can soften the image giving an ethereal look, or it can add a gritty harshness to the shot, which can lend well to some styles.

Screen Shot 2018-08-11 at 7.39.26 PMSharpness is very important to most images, and having a slider seems like an easy way to raise the level of the detail. The downside of using the sharpness adjustment is that the more you add, the more grain or pixelation there is to the image, and this can really cause a messy look to the image if you are printing it. When I am adjusting the sharpness of the image, I will always use the Masking feature along with it. This allows the adjustment to be applied to specific areas of the image rather than the entire image in a blanketed fashion. So, rather than an entire blade of grass, just the edges.

In addition to making adjustments in Adobe Lightroom, I do also use Adobe Photoshop for other editings, like removing, people, trash, powerlines or just clutter from the image that I would rather not be there. Photoshop does an awesome job at this and it is a very easy step in my workflow when finishing the image.

So to answer the question again, absolutely I edit my images. It is an important part of the process of landscape photography and like I said earlier, the majority of the images you see on Instagram, Facebook, and other sites have been edited in some form or fashion. As a photographer in the digital world, post-processing technics are something that I spend a lot of time practicing and expanding on, the same way I do with new photo technics.

What elevates your Landscape Photography?

It seems that there is always something new coming out to make taking pictures easier or better. Some are amazing leaps forward that can simplify your workflow and others that are just gimmicky waists of money.

After making a few disappointing purchases, a Facebook friend sent me a message asking if there was something I have purchased that stood out and really made a difference in my landscape photography. That is a tough one to answer because everything I use adds something in one way or another to my particular style and how I shoot. But, I can say there was something that immediately improved my images many years ago that I still use today, filters

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And no, I’m not talking about the Instagram or Facebook filters you may be familiar with. There are a lot of different filters that do many different things to change the final look of an image, but the basic way they are all used is the same. Filters are somewhat translucent materials that affect the wavelengths and/or color of light that hits the camera sensor or film. There are color filters that block specific light waves, some are used for special effects causing a foggy look in a scene, and others add another dimension to the image.

For me and my style of landscape photography, there are really just a two that I use on a regular basis. One is a larger category of its own, and I probably use in 75% of my photography, the Neutral Density filter. An “ND” filter reduces or modifies the intensity of all wavelengths and colors of light equally, giving no changes in hue of color. So its similar to potting on sunglasses.

One of my favorite ways to take advantage of this is when shooting landscapes with motion, like water and clouds. Let’s say you are shooting a river scene and would like to soften the white water as it passes over rocks, but your proper exposure calls for a shutter speed of 1/60 second, which wouldn’t give that softness. You can either tighten your aperture, possibly affecting your depth of field and sharpness, Or use a 6 stop ND filter allowing you to have a shutter speed of 1 second and achieving that soft velvety look.

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The Roy B. Inks Bridge in Llano, Texas / 16mm, 45 seconds exposure at f/11, ISO 50

Another type of ND filter is the Graduated ND. These filters transition from clear on one side to the ND tint on the other and are used for balancing an exposure rather than modifying the entire scene. For instance, say you are shooting a sunset and your foreground is somewhat dark because of the fading light, but the sky is bright and filled with highlights due to the angle of the sun on the atmosphere. Normally taking this shot would either cause the sky to be too bright and blown out losing all detail in the clouds, or the foreground would be dark and silhouetted.

By using a 3 stop Graduated ND filter you can adjust the horizon line with the tint line on the filter, allowing you to use a longer shutter speed to capture both the detail in the foreground and properly expose for the sky allowing all the beautiful colors of the sunset to come alive.

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Canyon Lake, Texas / 16mm, 6 seconds exposure at f/22, ISO 50

The other filter I use most of the time is a circular polarizer. A polarizing filter is often placed in front of the camera lens in order to darken skies, manage reflections, or suppress glare. I have gone through how I use this in an older blog, How Did You Do That?

Using a filter is pretty simple. There are 2 main types of filters, round screw on filters and square drop-in filters. Which one is best is a decision that I think is up to the photographer and what they prefer. Personally, I use the LeeFilters 100mm drop-in system, for 2 reasons. First, for quality and affordability, I don’t think you can beat the LeeFilters filters. And second, using the drop-in system allows me to have one set of filters that can be used on all my lenses rather than buying a screw-on filter for each of the different millimeter sizes of my lenses.

If you are interested, below is a list of all the filters I use with links.

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Lee Filters Foundation Kit / Filter Holder
Lee Filters 105mm Slim Landscape Polarizer 
Lee Filters Little Stopper 6-Stop Neutral Density Filter
Lee Filters Big Stopper 10-Stop Neutral Density Filter
Lee Filters Supper Stopper 15-Stop Neutral Density Filter
Lee Filters 2 Stop Medium Edge Graduated Neutral Density
Lee Filters 3 Stop Medium Edge Graduated Neutral Density
Lee Filters 1 stop Soft-Edge Graduated Neutral Density 
Lee Filters 2 stop Soft-Edge Graduated Neutral Density 
Lee Filters 3 stop Soft-Edge Graduated Neutral Density
NiSi 100mm Natural Night Filter
Lee Lens Cap Pack 3