Tag Archives: landscape

In Search of Sunlight

It’s been a while since I last posted anything in this blog. I have lots of excuses to back it up though: Firstly, there’s work that gets in the way when the weather seemed to be ideal for a photoshoot. Of the few times that the weather seemed to cooperate, I am assigned to do 24/7 on-call shifts 😦  Then there’s another hobby of mine that has been competing with photography: music. I was gigging around Brisbane before I shifted into photography. It was my day job that required me to fly all around Australia to conduct trainings and do consultancy work and it was because of this that I had to quit my band. Travel was taking its toll and I needed something that would sustain me and keep me excited. And so I decided to take photos. Photography betrayed my music and now it was payback time for my guitar.

When the Christmas holiday season started, I still could not shoot. I already had two gigs booked which required me to learn about 20 songs, most of which I have not heard and played before. But that’s over and, as always, the bad weather strikes again whenever I am free to shoot.

The weather forecast tells me it’s going to be stormy for at least 10 days. By then, my holiday break would soon be over. Heck, the year would soon be over. Yesterday I decided to make a suicide run.

I know it was going to be very gloomy so I had to pick a subject that would work well on overcast weather conditions. Water falls and creeks come to mind but I find them to be uncertain and dangerous especially with the non-stop rain. I chose to shoot flowers.

With my gummy boots and trusty weather-sealed Olympus EM-5 camera and 12-50 kit lens pair, I made a two-hour suicide drive into unknown weather conditions. The destination was a small town called Allora where I’m supposed to find sunflower fields. The Willy Weather iPhone app told me that rain is expected during the morning and afternoon so I started driving at 10AM hoping to get there by mid day. Mid day is usually bad for landscape photography but the overcast skies should give me the soft light that I needed for the flower shots.

I got there at exactly 12 noon but I could not find any sunflowers. There was a tourist drive called sunflower route but it seemed like they have already harvested the sunflowers. After an additional 10kms of driving I finally found acres of sunflower fields. What’s really surprising was that this field was unfenced. It is quite rare here in Australia to have something like this that is totally unfenced and I did not see any “No Trespassing” sign anywhere. I parked along the shoulder road and started framing shots. After about 20 frames, I called it a day and started the long drive home.

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Such is the beauty and frustration of landscape photography. You go into the unknown hoping that you would return with some decent shots. In my case, a four-hour drive and a late 3PM lunch got me four frames that I thought were good enough. No, I am not really happy about them but this is better than nothing. I haven’t shot for a few months and I needed to break the spell.

That’s it for me. (Belated) Merry Christmas and may all of you have a prosperous 2015!

Tricky Fifty

The nifty fifty. The classic 50mm lens of photography. The stuff of magic. The lens that can do it all. The fastest lens in your arsenal…and possibly the cheapest as well.

This lens has been proven in street photography and photojournalism. Classic photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and even the more modern Steve McCurry have been known to use this lens during much of their career.

But how does this lens fair in landscape photography? What does it take to capture landscape photos with the 50mm?

I mentioned briefly in one of my posts this particular landscape photographer who shot with film and most of his fantastic shots were made by the 50mm lens. Study his shots very closely before you continue.

Here’s one of the biggest, if not THE biggest problem faced by a landscape photographer: how to create the illusion of depth. A photograph is basically two-dimensional so how do you make it look 3D?

The issue is that the 50mm is a normal lens. It is a close approximation to how the human eye sees things. We perceive depth because we have two eyes but our cameras can only use one lens to record a photograph. Try closing one of your eyes and notice how everything looks flat. That’s how a camera sees a landscape: flat and boring. This flatness worsens as you increase your focal length. A 200mm lens for example will bring your foreground closer to your background, an effect we call lens compression. I have covered this effect in detail in my one of my old posts. And that’s why a landscape photographer would usually prefer a wide-angle lens. A 35mm lens is sometimes good enough but others want to go much wider with 24mm. Shooting with 17mm or even 14mm is quite common as all-manual third-party prime lenses are getting relatively cheap. All this, for the sake of depth; to create that separation between the foreground and the background. That 50mm just isn’t good enough.

So how do you separate the foreground from the background? You may not have much choice really. You’re lucky if your intended foreground is far enough from your background. You can try moving closer assuming that your foreground will still fit in the frame. This is actually very difficult in practice because the 50mm is quite tight. You normally will have to stand back which makes a flat scene even flatter. Bottom line is, you really can’t use this technique except in very special cases.

Next problem: depth of field. N00bs like to use the fast 50mm because it gives them that nice bokeh that they have always been longing for. It is precisely because of this very shallow DoF that landscape photography with a 50mm becomes a nightmare. At f8, the hyperfocal distance is about 35 feet which means anything from 17 feet to infinity should look sharp. Now 17 feet is quite far for a foreground. Remember our first problem with background separation? If you move closer, your foreground will be out of focus. If you step back, the scene becomes flat. Lose-lose situation. So you stop down to f11. At this aperture the hyperfocal distance is 25 feet. Still not close enough. So you stop down further to f16 just to get that foreground and background in sharp focus. But then at this aperture everything will start looking blurry because, you guessed it, diffraction starts to kick in. You will have to sacrifice sharpness with depth of field. Can you feel the frustration now?

So how do you create depth if you can’t separate the foreground from the background without getting one of them out of focus? Well there are other tools that you can use.

Use lead-in lines: http://www.slusarczyk.net/winter/0008.php. The dead tree leads you deep into the scene.

Use frames: http://www.slusarczyk.net/autumn/0150.php. See how the branches frame the main subject which is the flowing creek.

Use contrast and shadows: http://www.slusarczyk.net/autumn/0009.php. Here, the almost-black trees provide a reference point for the brighter leaves in the background. It also uses a different kind of lead-in line by using the base of the tree trunks to form a curve. Here’s another example of shadows and contrast: http://www.slusarczyk.net/winterII/0099.php. See how the silhouette of the trees become a reference point. It creates the illusion that the brighter mountains are farther. The farther the mountain, the brighter they become. Very clever.

Ok enough of the limitations. Let’s discuss where in landscape photography a 50mm might be useful.

It is easier to isolate your subject with a tighter lens. The 50mm is very good at this that is why it is a common lens for portraiture. It simplifies your composition. Simple is good.

You can use a circular polarising filter (CPL) without the fear of having your sky look uneven. Ultrawide lenses are really bad with CPLs. With UWA lenses, you will notice that half of your sky will have perfect blue but the other half is just dull and lifeless.

Your 50mm lens is perfect for panoramic stitching. Shoot in portrait orientation and take 4 to 5 shots sweeping across the scene and stitch for a nice 1×3 panoramic shot. If you shoot with a wide angle lens, you will capture a huge part of the foreground which will not blend easily when stitching. It will also make your final photo look distorted. A 50mm though will be perfect.

This post was not meant to discourage anyone from using the 50mm in landscape photography. As a matter of fact, the examples I provided here showed us that with the right subject and solid technique, the results can be amazing. You will have to think twice though before you decide to bring that lens on your next trip. It can be a good challenge to see what you can do with it.

Good luck!

Landscape Photography Appreciation #1

I have decided to create another series of posts that deal specifically with landscape photography. I hope that this will make others be aware and appreciate what goes into creating landscape shots.

Among the different types of photography, I find landscapes to be the most interesting, fun and, in some cases, very frustrating. I have been in this hobby for about four years now and I think I have some ideas as to what makes landscape photography tick. I will attempt to describe my own experiences, compare it with other types such as portraiture or sport and generally point out why you should try it if you haven’t yet.

I understand that most people who visit my blog are after topics that discuss equipment so let me cover that first. What I like about landscape photography is that it does not require expensive gear to get fantastic shots. Even ordinary point and shoot cameras will get you there.

The photos below were captured by my Canon G10:


It does not matter if you have the cheapest small sensor m43 camera like my old E-P1 with 17mm/2.8 lens:


or E-P3 with 40-150 kit zoom:


Even inexpensive APS-C and kit lens are good enough such as the Nikon D60 and 55-200mm that I borrowed from my friend:


You want full frame? Then shoot with an old FILM camera:


Gear does not matter at all in landscape photography. Compare with sports or wildlife photography where you will need super telephoto lenses and cameras that shoot high FPS. Even portraiture calls for wide aperture telephotos that cost thousands of dollars. In landscape photography, any camera will do, even an iPhone can capture fantastic shots:


It’s all in your hands … and eyes. Gear has got nothing to do (figuratively speaking) with taking landscape photos. So go out there with whatever camera you have and start your own photography journey.

I’ll see you next time.

In Praise of the Pentax K5/K5II

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I have been using my Pentax K5 for roughly 20 months now. During this time, I got one lens glued to the K5: a cheap Sigma 17-70mm/2.8-4.5 that you can buy brand new for more or less $300. I did buy a no-name fully manual 50mm/1.7 but it didn’t really get used at all. It was practically 20 months of one camera one lens.

To be honest, I did not expect much from the K5. After all, I already have a Nikon D700. I was in a store (which I wouldn’t name) wanting to test the K5. It was their only stock. I would have been buying a display model. I asked if they could give me a discount for the “used” item. The sales person didn’t give in but instead he mockingly said “trust me, it’s good as brand new. It’s a Pentax. Nobody wants to touch it.“, to that effect. No, I didn’t buy my K5 from that store. The only reason I bought the K5 was that I was about to go on a vacation to the Philippines and didn’t want to bring my heavy equipment. Philippines is not the safest country for photographers either so in case the K5 got stolen it won’t hurt much. It was a risky decision; a month of holiday with a camera that had a bad track record for reliability (remember the sensor stain and mirror flapping issues?) and one that I was not familiar with. Those issues have been fixed already and Pentax were very supportive of those unfortunate customers who recieved faulty units. Nevertheless, I went on with the purchase.

It was during that month long holiday that I became very close to the K5 and the Sigma lens. I quickly learned all the features and limitations of my equipment. Since it wasn’t CaNikon, other photographers didn’t bother with my gear either so I got to concentrate on just making photos. I didn’t have to pretend that I knew what I was doing just because I was carrying CaNikon gear. I was carrying a Pentax so I must be clueless 🙂 One photographer even (jokingly) commented that I should get a real camera. Such is the joy of being different — you get to do your own business without the need to defend your gear from fanbois.

To summarize the rest of this post, the K5 is the best camera for landscape photography…and then some.

You might want to read my post on essential settings for landscape photography because it supports the rest of this article. Here’s why I strongly think that the K5 is one of the best, if not the best, landscape camera at present.

Let’s tackle the easy one first: resolution. Believe it or not but 16Mp is plenty. I have a 12Mp JPEG shot at ISO 800 with an old camera that I cropped to 2×1 format and printed it at 1m x 0.5m and it looks fantastic. That’s roughly 8Mp printed at 1 meter long. When was the last time you printed that big? At 16Mp, it means I will have 12Mp 2×1 panos or 8Mp 3×1 panos. That’s a lot.

I won’t even bother discussing about high ISO noise because in landscape photography, if you are shooting above ISO 400 then you are doing something silly or you are just too lazy to carry a tripod. I won’t expect people of this kind to even wake up early or stay up very late to take photos. Needless to say that the performance of the K5 sensor is very good. The interwebs should be able to provide you with all the technical measurements and results.

Now for the important features ….

Intelligent timer and mirror lock-up mode. I can see that the engineers at Pentax really used their brains here. MUP is a very important setting for capturing landscapes. With the K5, the moment you engage the timer, it automatically activates MUP to avoid camera shake. Not only that. Since the K5 has in-body image stabilization, the timer also automatically disables SR. Genius!!! I have never seen that being done by other brands. Timer and MUP are usually two entirely separate modes. To disable image stabilization in other camera brands, you will have to remember to turn them off or dig through the menus.

Very flexible exposure bracketing. You can have up to 7 brackets with infinitely flexible intervals. That means you can do, say, 5 frames at 1 stop intervals to span -2 to +2 or use 2.5 stop intervals for a really wide -5 to +5. It’s the HDR photographer’s dream! Wait, there’s more. You can do fully automatic single click bracketing or single-shot type multiple click bracketing. With the former, just click once and the camera goes through all the bracketed exposures unattended. No need to hold the shutter or click multiple times. Wait, because there is even more. You can couple bracketing with the timer and MUP. What does that mean? It means you do not need a shutter release cable even. Just set your brackets, then use the timer mode and since the timer is coupled with MUP you get absolutely shake-free automated bracketing. Photographers of other camera brands do not know what they are missing.

Very easy full manual exposure. Ok so you want to be a pro. Pros shoot only in full manual mode. Automatic modes are for n00bs. So you set your camera to M mode (M for macho), your ISO to it’s lowest native sensitivity and your aperture to the sharpest for your lens. What about your shutter speed? With other cameras, you will wear out your thumb rolling that thumbwheel. Not so with the K5; it has this magic green button. Click it once and it automatically closes the aperture to your intended value and get a metered reading all in one go thus giving you a shutter speed that is very close if not perfect for the intended exposure. Another genius!!! Hey, this feature works with fully manual lenses as well; it simulates stop down metering but in a split second and with a touch of genius. I call that green button the instant pro button.

Five custom setting banks. These are real custom settings banks that persist unless explicitly overwritten. Sorry Nikon folks but unless your camera has U1/U2 then you do not have this at all. Even the most advanced D4 and D800 are crippled in this respect. Why would a landscape photographer need these custom banks? Well, I know several photographers who unintentionally shot an entire session in high ISO because they forgot to set their cameras. Landscape photography may involve people in the scene as well so you need to be able to switch quickly between long exposure and instant capture modes without wrestling your camera.

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Very efficient live view mode. When your camera is a foot above the ground, you wouldn’t want to use the viewfinder. Live view is not only advisable, it will also save you on trips to the chiropractor. The K5 is a very efficient machine. Even with hours of shooting in live view I could get more than 500 hundred shots in a single charge. That’s a lot of shots. As a comparison, my D700 drains batteries in live view mode like a camel drinks water from a bucket.

Full professional-grade weatherproofing. Landscape photographers take their cameras everywhere and whatever mother nature throws at them. Having a camera designed to withstand harsh conditions gives you that extra confidence that you will come home with keepers and get to shoot the day after.

DNG RAW files. Heard about photographers complaining about Photoshop not supporting their RAW files? It’s not the end of the world for them really but it does hurt the bottom line if they have the older version of Photoshop that Adobe abandons as soon as a newer version is released. Getting new RAW file support for the previous version of Photoshop is futile. Forget it. It won’t happen. I, on the other hand, am not worried because my K5 shoots in DNG RAW. Every worthy photo editing software supports DNG out of the box. You want proof? Lightroom 4 is happily editing the RAW files from my unsupported K5 II. How awesome is that?

Of course there are other features that do not mean much to landscape photographers but it would be nice to mention them as well:

Very fast autofocus. Landscape photographers use hyperfocusing. Nonetheless, the K5II can autofocus in complete darkness.

In-body image stabilization. Landscape photographers carry tripods but there are times when you need to shoot in tactical situations like when human figures add a point of interest in the scene.

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It is light. For a camera built like an M1 Abrams, the K5 is light. You can carry it around your neck during long treks.

Sensor dust reduction. For those times when you absolutely need to change lenses during a shoot because absolutely need to bring your holy trinity of lenses plus multiple primes on your family holiday trip.

Seven frames per second. So you can capture the minute movements of the tectonic plates and improve your spray and pray technique. Seriously, you don’t need this.

So that’s it, dear readers. The Pentax K5/K5II in real world scenarios. The best landscape camera you can buy NOW.

Essential Settings for Landscape Photography

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(An HDR image of Salamanca harbour in Tasmania)

I have been asked about what settings I use when shooting landscapes. It’s no secret but depending on the camera and lens that you use, you may have to use different configurations.

Let me start by saying that I use my Pentax K5 for most of my landscape shots because it does everything I needed it to do. My lens of choice is a cheap Sigma 17-70/2.8-4.5 which you can buy brand new for about $300. I like it’s very flexible range and the focus markings in the barrel.

Without further delay, let me go through my camera settings.

0. Always use a tripod. It will slow you down to think about proper composition. You want to get it right the first time if you can. Of course it will also allow you to shoot at low ISOs and smaller apertures. If you decide to be lazy then stop here; landscape photography isn’t for you.

1. I use aperture priority mode when shooting landscapes. It allows me to keep on shooting even when the light conditions are changing fast without the need to constantly adjust my exposure settings. The only time I use full manual mode is when I’m stitching panos or when doing exposures longer than my camera can handle (i.e. more than 30 seconds).

— Aperture priority mode does not always get the exposure right. When the luminance of the sky and land are almost the same or when there’s only a stop or two of difference between them, say, after the sun is down, I tend to do exposure compensation of +1 stop to maximize the available light (ETTR concept). I also do this during blue hour. If unsure, check your histogram.

2. Set your camera to the lowest NATIVE ISO required to make the shot. Native ISO is not thefake extended ISO values. Most cameras have ISO 100 or 200 with extended ISOs being 50 and 100 respectively. Extended ISOs use some whacky tricks inside the camera that may be detrimental to the images that you capture.

— ISO values are a bit tricky to manage and how you handle them depends on your camera. Note that noise is affected by ISO sensitivity and length of exposure. You will have to test this with your camera. Do not be afraid to shoot at a higher ISO if the scene calls for it. I have been in situations where I have pushed my camera to the limits by shooting at ISO 6400 for 30 seconds. The result was worth it:

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3. Know your lens’es sharpest aperture. It’s usually around f8 when shooting wide or f11 when zoomed in. The difference in aperture compensates for the focal length. At f11, APS-C sensors will start to experience softness due to diffraction but by zooming in, you force the aperture blade to open up to maintain the same f-stop thus allowing you to maximize the center of your lens without suffering from diffraction issues.

— Having said this, don’t be afraid to shoot at f16 or f22 if the scene requires it, say, you want to force a longer exposure to blur the water. If your shot is good enough, people won’t notice the insignificant blur caused by diffraction.

4. Manually focus to your hyperfocal distance. This is something that even experts tend to ignore. Most people rely on autofocus. Learn to hyperfocus because it will save you when your lens starts hunting when the light drops or when you use very dark ND filters. If your lens does not have focal distance markings then you will have to estimate. Read my tutorial on hyperfocusing here.

5. Turn off any image stabilization feature of your lens and/or camera. This means Canon IS, Nikon VR, Pentax SR, Sony SSS and so on. Image stabilization will cause blur because it will try to compensate for movement that isn’t there. This is a feature that is meant for handheld shots and is destructive when shooting on a tripod.

6. There are several choices on how to release the shutter but the best option is to use mirror lock up mode (MUP). MUP will flip the mirror up before opening the shutter curtain to avoid camera shake. Especially that sensors are getting denser, the effects of mirror shake become more noticeable. When using MUP mode, use a shutter release cable to avoid touching the camera. You will have to click the shutter twice: once to flip the mirror and then to open the shutter curtain.

— Your second option is to use the camera timer. This is handy in the absence of a shutter release cable. Set your timer to two seconds or whatever option is available for your camera. This will allow any movement in the camera to settle down after you press the shutter before taking the shot.

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The rest of the settings I will outline below are entirely optional and might be very subjective.

7. If you need to bracket, set the exposure intervals to at least 2 stops. That means -2, 0 +2 for a three-shot bracket. Anything narrower than that is kinda useless because a one-stop gap can easily be recovered from a properly exposed single RAW image.

8. Save both RAW and JPG copies of your shot. Although RAW is very flexible, JPG will save you a lot of retouching time later on. This assumes that you get it right in the camera as close as possible to your intended result. Shooting JPG benefits those who would rather spend time shooting than being in front of the computer.

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(JPG capture looks fantastic if you get it right in camera.)

9. That UV filter is useless unless you are shooting film. Digital sensors have built-in UV filters. UV filters will only cause unnecessary flare and prevent you from using filters that do matter like a CPL or an ND filter for example. If you really want to protect your lens, use a hood instead; it will also protect you from flare instead of causing flare.

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(CPL filters will give you nice saturated colors. This is straight JPG from camera.)

So that’s it. Very easy to follow settings that will hopefully make a difference to your landscape photos. Until next time.

Bad Adventures in Photography

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(Byron Bay lighthouse. iPhone shot)

I woke up at 10:30AM already. I was very tired from yesterday’s activity: I had to sing in the church choir and played bass guitar for my new band’s last major gig for the year. After several stressful weeks, today I was determined to spend time for myself.

So we drove to Byron Bay, a good two hours from Brisbane if you stick to the speed limits. I have already checked the weather radar and the forecast showed a clear afternoon in our destination. Brisbane already had a few showers and continued to be gloomy so I was hoping that the weather in Byron Bay would not disappoint.

I was very excited. I brought my landscape camera of choice: the Pentax K5. My Mamiya 645 was also loaded with a fresh roll of Provia 100F and I could not wait to try the 45mm/2.8 lens that I got from Ebay. I even skipped lunch (bad move #1).

When we arrived in Byron Bay, the weather was not perfect but manageable. The wind was a different matter though. It was so strong that sudden gusts could literally throw me off balance. It was only a matter of time before it brought a few rain clouds which made taking photos so much more challenging. My K5 is weathersealed but a single droplet on the lens’es front element is enough to ruin a shot.

I took a few cliche shots of the lighthouse before deciding to head down to the beach (bad move #2). I haven’t tried going through the path that leads from the lighthouse to the beach but I have seen other people walking and even running so I thought it should be an easy trek. Some of them even look a lot more unhealthy than me (not!!!). So down I went with nothing but 3kg of equipment. Not even a bottle of water (bad move #3).

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(The path that leads to the beach. iPhone shot)

I immediately realized that the pathway was a lot steeper than the others that I have experienced because my thighs were shaking with every step. I started blaming my injured right leg; it is still a bit swollen even after a year from when I fractured both bones in basketball. The surgeon did a good job of repairing my leg by inserting a titanium rod inside the bigger bone to put it back in place. I began to think about alternative routes for my way back to the top. Going back via the beach would be the only possible route if climbing was no longer an option. Confident about my decision, I continued the long way down to my intended destination. I clocked my descent so I could double that and get a rough estimate how much time it would take me for the return trip. I wanted to be back before it gets dark.

I did not actually head down to the beach but went to the same spot where I took this shot:

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(The lighthouse is about 100 meters above this location. The beach is further down that path.)

I captured this with a 35mm camera so I wanted to try using the Mamiya knowing that a film that is three times larger should give me better results.

The weather did not cooperate. It started to shower before I could even take my first shot. I carefully wiped the lens with my shirt and fired a few more. The weather was getting worse so I decided to pack up. I was ready to call it a day when my photographer instincts told me not to go home yet. If there is shower and there is sunlight then there should be rainbow somewhere. So I waited, both cameras inside their bags (bad move #4).

My prediction was correct: a rainbow started appearing so I quickly pulled out my K5. It was very tricky to shoot under the rain. I was actually spending more time wiping my lens than shooting. Very annoying indeed. I have given up hope in getting even a mildly decent shot with my smudgy lens. Frustration came in very quickly and I decided enough was enough. So I packed up for real this time.

Sweat mixed with rain plus no decent photo; this has certainly drained the remaining strength I needed for the climb back to the lighthouse. After a dozen or so steps, I could feel my heart pumping wildly and I could hardly breathe. Mind you, I am 5 feet 10 inches at 76kg. Not really somebody that you can call unhealthy. I used to play competitive basketball and volleyball for 15 years. So did my old man who died in a massive heart attack. Cardio problems run in our blood and I am certainly aware of this. I was very careful not to trigger a panic attack just like what happened to me in Canberra a few years ago. I had to call an ambulance after hopelessly trying to hail every incoming vehicle because I thought it was game over for me.

I rested for a bit while thinking about my next move. I remembered the beach access because I have been there before. This is the shot I took from the beach several months ago:

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I immediately called my family who were waiting for me at the top and told them to meet me at the other side near the beach. I gathered myself and went back to where the pathway forked. Then came the surprise: the beach is gone!!! It was all under water!!! I could not see one bit of sand. Gone!

The tide was so high and the wind was so strong it was blowing 6, probably 8-foot waves. I looked for alternative paths. There must be some other routes. I was walking over jagged rocks trying my best not to fall. I knew I should have brought my trekking sandals that have secure straps and not this orthopedic thingy that I have been using to rehab my injured leg. I came to a spot where I could have a look at the other side of the cliff to assess the situation. Waves were smashing against the rocks so I started studying their rhythm patterns. I began counting the intervals between waves so I could estimate my own movement and make sure that I would have enough time should I decide to turn back in case the small gap in the cliff would prove to be impassable. I counted a few seconds between big waves so as soon as a big one hit the cliff I scrambled for it. Leaping over jagged rocks I went but soon realized that the only passage I had was already neck deep under water. I quickly turned around hoping that a big wave won’t engulf me. I called my family again and told them to abort. The tide has cut off my only route to the other side of the cliff.

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(The gaps between these rocks were supposed to be my way to the other side of the cliff but they were already deep under water. That far hill in the background is where I was taking photos.)

I was already hyperventilating. Two stupid ideas: 1) call emergency rescue so they can bring down a helicopter for me or; 2) they would have a bunch of people carry me to the top with a stretcher. That won’t be just stupid, it would be very embarassing!

It’s when humans become hopeless that they start thinking about a Greater Being who can perform miracles. This must have been my punishment for skipping mass today. But hey, I sang in the church choir yesterday and this feels so unfair. I started praying. Three Our Father’s, three Hail Mary’s and countless Glory Be’s.

I gathered myself again, trusting in my muscle’s capacity to recover quickly. In a basketball game, I usually get tired during the first 10 minutes so I normally get substituted. But after another 10 minutes of rest, I could finish the whole game with enough strength left for another half. I climbed about 20 steps before I had to sit down and take another rest. It’s that steep. Did a dozen more then more rest. Every time I rested I was praying: Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, over and over again.

It was still bright enough for me to see clearly. By this time, I have probably recited more prayers than I ever did for the year. Even that stupid rainbow was still there. I took another shot of it with my iPhone. Photographers: they never stop taking photos while they are still breathing.

It was already 6PM and I’m only halfway through the climb. At this rate I’d reach the top just before it gets dark. There was a couple who were kind enough to ask if I was OK. I told them I wasn’t but I asked them anyway how far is it to the lighthouse. They said it’s still a long way and it gets steeper. Thanks for the encouragement.

I kept climbing and resting every few steps. The cameras now seem to weigh a ton. Ansel Adams had a donkey to carry his gear when he was photographing the Sierras. Me, I’m just stupid.

I probably made more than a dozen stops before reaching the top. It was 6:30PM. It took me an hour to climb back to the lighthouse which is now lit with it’s 1000W lamp. I took a few more shots of the lighthouse just to remind me of how crazy this day was. I passed by the water fountain before heading back to the car where my worried family was waiting.

Will I be going back to this location? Of course I will. But I will be more prepared next time.

What have I learned from this crazy adventure?
1. Bring at least a bottle of water.
2. Be mindful of the tides.
3. Exercise!!! If going down is tough, going up is 10 times tougher.
4. Unplanned shots rarely work.
5. Make sure people know where you are going.
6. Wear proper gear.
7. More equipment may result in less photos.
8. Pray. It helps.

You guys take care.

Welcome to My Playground


This is the title that I gave to the photograph which I posted in Flickr. I chose the word playground to portray fun and joy. For me, fun should always come first in photography.

But what does it take to capture such a simple photograph?

The main ingredient is light. Photography, afterall, means painting with light. Not just light intensity or brightness but the quality of light as well. In landscape photography, there are two choices: dawn or dusk. Anything in between is just a variation of the word CRAP. Dawn and dusk have different qualities of light. When you are in the east coast and facing east, dawn will give you a warm orange light while dusk gives a cooler magenta glow. If you are in the west, it’s the opposite. Depending on your location or the time of year, you can have both at the same time. The photo below was taken at dawn as well but notice the magenta tint:


Shooting at dawn has several advantages compared to dusk. People are generally too lazy to wake up early which means you have the entire spot all to yourself. No distractions. For those who have day jobs it means you can still shoot during weekdays especially during summer where a typical session ends around 5:30AM. You’ll be home before the rest of your household is awake.

Dusk sessions have advantages as well. You can shoot longer even up until blue hour kicks in and get nice long exposures. Cityscapes look fantastic when artificial lights turn on.

Anyway, let’s concentrate on the first photo. I woke up at around 3:30AM to prepare myself. My friend’s house is still a 20-minute drive to my place where we agreed to meet. While waiting for him, I started putting on my ski gear because it was just 6 degrees outside. I checked the weather report again to make sure that our target location is free of any weather disturbances. If we suspect heavy clouds then we may need to divert to Cedar Creek instead to capture the waterfalls. The day before, I already knew the tide pattern so Point Halloran was the perfect spot. The tide will be high enough to give us some reflections but low enough such that the small boats won’t move. Timing should be perfect. If the tide comes in too quick before sunrise then our plans are ruined.

My friend arrived around 4:20AM. That’s the advantage of shooting in winter. The sun rises at 6:30AM so we didn’t have to wake up that early. During summer we usually start driving at 3:00 AM for a 5:00AM sunrise. Anyway, we left for Point Halloran and arrived at around 5:45AM. Being on location 45 minutes before sunrise is just right. One hour would be ideal so that you can scout the area. Because we were “late”, we had to rush and start shooting whatever subject we could find.

Let’s talk about equipment. A tripod is essential. Don’t leave home without it. A torch is very handy so you can find your way in the dark. I also brought my gummy boots because I know that the location is quite muddy. My trusty Pentax K5 is fully charged with the initial ISO set to 200 and configured to capture RAW plus JPG. I only have one lens: a cheap Sigma 17-70 which you could buy brand new for a little over $300. I had a cheap 0.9 GND filter attached to a knock-off filter holder. Don’t bother using a UV filter; it’s the most useless accessory you could buy for your lens. Use a proper lens cover instead and a lens hood if you are concerned about scratching your lens. Now that I have enumerated my gear, the point is that ANY camera and kit lens will do. There is absolutely no need for expensive gear in landscape photography.

So what did actually happen when I captured this moment? I was taking photos of a boat that was docked along the muddy shore. I was shooting wide at 17mm, aperture set to f16 and manually focused to 7 feet with exposure compensation set to +1. I was about to change position when I saw my friend about 20 meters away taking photos along the edge of the water. I immediately recognized the photo opportunity. I quickly opened my aperture to f11 and zoomed in to 70mm which was the longest my lens could go. It was just long enough to get a nice compression. I also had to raise my tripod to avoid his silhouette from merging with the horizon. I immediately thought about my composition. I had him positioned on the left third of the frame with the silhouette of the shoreline going from the bottom of the frame towards the horizon. The horizon was placed high enough but also making sure that my friend’s reflection is positioned nicely along the lower third of the frame. I then set my camera to autofocus and shifted the focus sensor to point at my friend. This was the quickest way to focus at infinity. Unlike older lenses that lock into infinity, modern (crippled) lenses don’t do this. Instead they focus past infinity and completely ruin your shot. Knowing that it’s going to be a silhouette shot, I dialed exposure compensation down to -0.5 to make the colors pop and darken the darkest blacks. I did one last peek to check my shutter speed and noticed that it wasn’t fast enough. So I shouted at him “Wag kang gumalaw!”, which is Filipino for “Don’t move!”. I pressed the shutter and my timer automatically started the 2-second countdown. Just before the timer expired, the camera flipped the mirror into a lock up position before finally opening the shutter curtain to capture the image. All of these happened in about 15-20 seconds. I chimped to confirm that the camera did what it was supposed to do and told my friend that he can continue whatever he was doing…after thanking him of course for being a cooperative model 🙂

I would like to emphasize the importance of an inexpensive kit lens here. Had I used an ultrawide lens, I would not have been able to capture this shot. Those distant mountains would have disappeared in an ultrawide lens and the horizon would have merged with my subject unless I shot from a very high position. If I brought a prime lens, I may had to swap lenses thus totally missing the opportunity or walked very slowly in the mud towards or away from the subject just to frame him correctly. Your kit lens is good enough for just about anything.

We started packing up at around 7AM with several keepers safely stored in our cameras.

Post processing is easy when you have done the difficult part of capturing the moment. A simple curves adjustment to enhance the contrast was enough. I did not crop at all. This is how it showed up in the LCD. I softened the image a bit to avoid halos along the edges of high contrast portions of the image. This halo effect is an artifact of digital capture. All my digital cameras do this. If you want to avoid this artifact, shoot film.

What do I like about this shot? I like the silhouette figures. The silhouette of the shoreline added depth to an otherwise flattened image that was brought about by the mid telephoto zoom. The main subject of course is shown here in a position typical of landscape photographers; bent over holding a leash to make sure that their cameras don’t run away. The mix of warm colors and cool blue foreground was a welcome surprise. I liked it a lot so I put my stamp of approval on the lower right portion of the frame 🙂

Allow me to summarize this post:

1. Light is everything.
2. Shoot at dawn/sunrise or dusk/sunset. Anything in between is crap unless you have something very special in the frame.
3. Preparation will consume most of your time.
4. You have to think fast and react just as fast. Which means …
5. Know your camera. Pick one that does not get in the way. You should be able to operate it even in complete darkness.
6. You do not need expensive equipment for landscape photography.
7. Laziness will get you nowhere.

For lessons on lens compression and zoom factor please refer to my previous tutorials:

Understanding your lens

Zoom factor