A lot of people judge photographers by their gear. The more bulk and bucks, the better. I don't believe that. I judge shooters by their shots. And to test this thesis, I took a $330 compact digital camera to Yosemite National Park and trod the photographic sacred grounds of Ansel Adams.
Could I even approach Ansel's artistry in landscape photography with a 6.3MP Fujifilm FinePix F30 and just two days in the park? Of course not. But I hope you agree that I got some keepers. Here's how I did it and how you, too, can get serious pictures with a camera that the photo snobs might not take seriously.
Yosemite can be as daunting as it is beautiful. After all, the park is nearly 1,200 square miles of mountains, valleys, meadows, and breathtaking waterfalls that mist you as you walk by. To compound the situation, I'd never been there before.
That's where local knowledge comes in. I made it a point to chat up everyone I encountered, from park rangers to tourists in the parking lot. A photographer I met suggested a sunset shot from a spot near Glacier Point, away from the throngs of people and cars.
The fleeting evening light was painting the sky with intense oranges and pinks. In the instant I had to shoot, I wanted to capture the colors and reflect the majesty and size of Yosemite. I quickly composed the image so that there were three main parts: the foreground of trees, the distant mountains, and, of course, the light.
The sloping foreground adds interest and personality to the scene. The trees also carry the viewer over to Half Dome in the distance, making the image more dynamic. The mountains have texture and detail, but would have been bland if not for the colorful sky. It's only when the sky, mountains, and trees are combined that the image becomes something special.
Unfortunately, the huge range of exposure values created a challenge. Either I could expose for the dark foreground and blow the sky to white, or expose for the sky, severely underexposing the rest of the picture. If I'd had time and a tripod I could've taken several exposures both above and below, and combined them in Adobe Photoshop. Instead, I solved the problem somewhat crudely by holding a rectangular Cokin graduated neutral-density filter in front of the lens. Checking the shot on the Fuji's LCD, I positioned the filter so that it followed the slope of the foreground and helped balance the bright and dark areas of the scene. Without it, the picture would have been almost impossible. To get a sharp image without a tripod, I leaned against a boulder and braced myself, controlling my breathing and gently pressing the shutter.
Tech info: Zoom, 36mm equivalent. Exposure, 1/40 sec at f/5, ISO 200, through a Cokin graduated ND filter.
Bright Light, Big Mountain
I arrived in Yosemite in early afternoon. The light was harsh and there were no clouds in the sky -- hardly ideal for photography. But El Capitan was right in front of me, and I had to get something. So I went for a classic composition that made the best of the situation.
Even before I stopped the car, I looked for ways to frame the mountain naturally. The stand of trees in the foreground offers a nice contrast to the sharp features of the distant rock, and I used the tall trees on either side to direct the viewer toward the subject. I also like how the slight side lighting emphasizes the jagged power of El Capitan. Side lighting brings out texture and depth, while a soft, diffused light is good for details and softer scenes. Since the sky was a bland blue, I minimized it by pointing the camera down slightly and emphasizing the foreground and trees.
Tech info: Zoom, 36mm equivalent. Exposure, 1/460 sec at f/5.6, ISO 100.
Keep The Detail
Waterfalls can be challenging to shoot, especially in the harsh light of noon when the roiling water creates annoying whites and deep shadows.
But before I dealt with exposure, I tackled the composition. Heading off the well-trodden path, I searched for a composition that let the water flow out of the bottom of the frame. The bright trail of water would carry the viewer into the image, leading to the impressive waterfall in the distance.
The first photo I took had a tree coming in from the bottom left, seemingly cutting the flow of water, and distracting from the overall scene. Reviewing the LCD, I saw that the camera had overexposed the scene due to the dark rocks and trees in the foreground. To keep detail in the rushing water, I underexposed by a stop and a half. I also figured I could pull the shadows up a bit in Photoshop (much like Ansel might have done in the darkroom).
Tech info: Zoom, 47mm equivalent. Exposure, 1/540 sec at f/6.5 and ISO 100.