Practical considerations when traveling for landscape photography
When working in a studio, you have almost absolute control over your subject, your setup and other factors influencing your workflow. Shooting out on location however, especially a remote location, is wildly unpredictable. You can’t control the weather, nor how the light changes, who else is around, or how safe it is for you and your equipment. That’s why thorough preparation is so important, trying to account for as many possible scenarios and outcomes. Just as important, on the other hand, is to be able to adapt your plans to changing conditions. Before you set foot on your shooting location, make sure you know what kind of terrain you’ll encounter and what natural elements you’ll need to take into consideration (wind, dust, snow, clouds, fog, etc.). I always start out the day by checking the weather forecast – that is the easiest and most accessible way to ensure that you are prepared for the elements and gives you the opportunity to change plans to avoid unsafe situations. The more passionate you become about landscape photography, the more likely it is that you’ll also turn into some sort of a meteorology freak. It’s definitely helpful to learn how to analyze the type and height of a cloud formation to predict upcoming weather, and it’s crucial for your photography to always be looking up at the sky, to understand how the light/shadow play will influence your composition and predict when the right moment will come to take your desired shot. You’ll soon learn that cirrus clouds are ideal for a dramatic shot, cirrostratus clouds help create a moody, warm glow, cumulus are the safe choice for an evenly lit image, and cumulonimbus are a sign that you should hurry up with your shot and find shelter as soon as possible. If the location is dangerous or highly unpredictable, it’s crucial that you get a local fixer to help you navigate the terrain, keep you safe and just generally help out. It’s also important that you make sure your access to food, water, shelter and medical care will be easy throughout the day, no matter what happens. In volatile environments, remember to keep your equipment protected at all times and only take it out when you need it. You will protect your valuable equipment, while at the same time ensuring that you won’t spend ages in post-processing.
Section in Review: Staying safe while getting great shots
✓ Check the weather forecast, and adjust your plans and/or clothes to suit
✓ Learn to read the clouds to stay safe and capture great images
✓ Get a local fixer for more dangerous or unpredicable locations
✓ No matter what, ensure that food, water, shelter and medical care are accessible throughout the day
Putting it all together for the perfect shot
At some point, all of your planning will be put into action. This is the exciting part we all look forward to, but that doesn't mean it won't be challenging, unpredictable and, many times, frustrating. Alaska is one of the most unforgiving landscapes in the world, but that’s also what makes it one of my favorite places to shoot. It’s said that 70% of visitors to Denali National Park each year don't even get to see the mountain itself. It’s so massive that it creates its own weather. Most of the time, it covers itself in clouds. At over 20,000 feet tall (6,000 meters), it is the tallest peak in North America, and the third most prominent and isolated summit in the world. With a short window of time, the quickest and most efficient way to access the Alaska Range was by airplane. I chartered a small plane capable of flying with the windows open so I wouldn’t have to shoot through the plexiglass. By studying the region and terrain beforehand, we were able to communicate with our pilot on where exactly we wanted to fly to get the planned shots. Checking the weather on the day of the flight, it looked like we were going to have clear skies, albeit with a temperature of -40°F (-40°C) while hanging out of the open windows. It’s of course always essential to know when the best light is, and that might change depending on the look you’re going for. For me, this time the light I was aiming for was about an hour and a half before sunset to get the alpenglow. Photographing out of an open airplane window in temperatures colder than most people on this planet will ever experience is one of the most challenging environments you can ever be asked to shoot in. The whole team was crammed into a tiny airplane. Each turn we made in the aircraft pointed the window nearly straight down, giving us a look at the glaciers 13,000 feet below. I had brought along the 23mm and 70mm Rodenstock lenses and the XT. For most of the shots at this location, I used an f-stop of around 4.0, shutter speed 1/500, and ISO 800. I knew about the IQ4’s amazing high ISO performance, so I wasn’t too worried about having the ISO at 800. I was more worried about the shutter speed shooting from an airplane and didn’t want to leave any room for error here. With 150MP of resolution, even the slightest technical error could have significant consequences. On this trip, all of my planning and previous experience meant that I got the shots I was looking for.
To get to our other location and hunt icebergs to photograph, we took snowmobiles. The ride on the snowmobiles was about three and a half hours each way, crossing frozen rivers and uneven terrain most of the way. This really tested my packing in keeping the equipment safe. Due to the length of our trip there, once we got to the face of the glacier we were losing light fast as the clouds rolled in - a signal for bad weather ahead. It didn't look like luck was going to be on our side for this location. Our knowledge of the clouds and weather patterns helped us make the decision to give it a go - albeit fast. So we quickly unloaded gear, set up and executed the planned shots.
It goes to show that all the planning in the world can't guarantee a success. A big chunk of landscape photography, especially in more remote locations, comes down to lucky timing. We were extremely lucky to see Denali in all her glory, but nearly got caught in a storm at our second destination. There are usually more bad timings than lucky ones - but if you remain patient, eventually luck will be on your side.
How it was shot: Alaska by air and snowmobile
How I planned the shot It's been quite the privilege having the opportunity to fly over the Alaska Range several times, and that was a huge part of my planning - simply my own experiences from previous flights. I always knew that I wanted to come back to photograph the mountain in medium format, and I was so lucky to get that opportunity with the Phase One XT.
Camera and settings Phase One XT IQ4 150MP Camera with XT-Rodenstock HR 32mm f/4 lens 1/800 second at f/8.0, ISO 100
Shooting out of a plane window, I needed to make sure that the shutter speed was fast enough for handheld aerial capture while at the same time ensuring maximum sharpness and the lowest possible noise. Since I was shooting just before sunset, I had to be careful to find just the right balance to keep things sharp while also having a great exposure. Luckily, with Phase One cameras, I could go a bit under, knowing that the massive dynamic range would help me get to the ideal exposure without any quality loss in post.
How I planned the shot On a trip to Iceland in the middle of winter, I discovered that giant parts of glaciers would break off and float off into their respective lagoons below. These icebergs would become suspended in time as temperatures dropped enough to freeze the glacial lagoons over. I became obsessed with these suspended icebergs because they are entirely unique - you can never truly see, or capture, the exact same one twice. I researched locations where I could find the same phenomenon in Alaska using both local resources and Google Maps to assist in my search.
Camera and settings Phase One XT IQ4 150MP Camera with XT-Rodenstock HR 32mm f/4 lens 1/80 second at f/9.0, ISO 100
Since a storm was incoming, I needed to get to a final result fast. It was a good thing I had planned what I wanted in this shot before heading out, even though I didn't know what the exact iceberg would look like. I knew I would need a person in the frame for scale. And I knew that I would need a wide angle lens to capture the whole scene. I was on solid ground, so I used my tripod for extra stability, and so I could keep the ISO as low as possible in the light we had left as the storm moved in.
One of the mistakes that I found myself making earlier on in my career was just getting too caught up in the moment. I’d show up to a location and just get tunnel vision on this one shot that I’d have to have. I would then go home and look at the results, thinking ‘are these the only pictures I got?’
I wasn't keeping an open mind. I wasn't staying creative.
It’s so important to remind yourself to be open and adapt to what you find on location. Don’t get caught up trying to engineer your shot and getting lost in complex camera settings. That’s why I’m grateful for a system like the XT Camera that’s so well focused on, and streamlined for, the types of scenarios I shoot in. I don’t want to need to focus too much on using the camera itself, and instead be fully immersed in the landscape around me, be able to really see it, and capture its beauty through my own creative vision. It’s one less thing to think about, and that opens up part of my attention to be able to focus on what’s around me rather than just that one shot.