Ansel in Your Pocket

A journey in the footsteps of the master shows how you can capture beautiful landscapes -- with just a $330 compact camera.

Ansel-in-Your-Pocket
Ansel-in-Your-Pocket

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.

Three-Part Harmony

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.

Who Needs Sky?

Walking on the roadside along the Merced River, I came upon this scene, which I thought offered perfect balance and composition. The foreground boulders frame the flowing water and prevent the eye from wandering out of the scene. The water flows nicely in from the upper left and forcefully out of the bottom right, with lots of interesting detail in between. Also by shooting from the side of the road, I was elevated enough to shoot down and keep the annoyingly bright sky out of the photo.

Taken during the harsh light of noon, when contrast is at its highest, this photo required a stop of underexposure to keep detail in the water. Using the LCD to check exposure, however, can be tricky. The panel can be tough to see in bright light, and unless you view it straight on, the image can look underexposed. The bright light had me using ISO 100 and a shutter speed of 1/800 sec. This would be a perfect spot to shoot on an overcast day when a slow shutter speed would make the water a pleasing blur.

Tech info: Zoom, 36mm equivalent. Exposure, 1/800 sec at f/6.5, ISO 100.

Wading For Inspiration

The interplay of high salinity and calcium carbonate springs has created amazing spires, like ruins of a lost city, in Yosemite's Mono Lake. But from where I stood, most of the "tufa towers" had uninteresting shapes or were too far away. So I waded into the lake as brine shrimp danced around my toes. I wouldn't have tried this with an expensive DSLR and lens, but with this low-cost little Fuji, I figured it was worth the risk.

I waded until I came upon this scene, where the tufa was dense enough to be interesting and the scattering of colorful plants and reflection in the foreground added life to the image. The soft evening light let me capture some nice details in the tufa and in the darkening sky. Had the sky been white or a cheerful blue, I would have lost the somber atmosphere.

The gray sky and rocks were easy to meter, but the relatively slow shutter of 1/25 sec required a steady hand. So I cradled the camera from underneath with my left hand and pulled my arms in close to my body.

Tech info: Zoom, 36mm equivalent. Exposure, 1/25 sec at f/6.5, ISO 200.

Visual Echoes

An overcast sky and a shallow pond are hardly as compelling as Yosemite's grand mountains and waterfalls. Yet I felt this scene begged to be photographed. I was drawn to the way the rock in the foreground mimics the mountain in the distance. I also like the grasses poking through the water, and the way the broken log adds life to the scene.

I shot from high up to capture the mountain's reflection and used a wide angle to include the grass and rock in the foreground. I placed the submerged rock loosely around the rule of thirds to avoid a static composition. The soft lighting was easily handled by the camera's pattern metering, but I bumped the ISO to 200 to boost the shutter speed enough to overcome camera shake. I also could have spot-metered off the rock since it was close to 18 percent gray.

Tech info: Zoom, 36mm equivalent. Exposure, 1/35 sec at f/7.2, ISO 200.

Yosemite Survivor

The Fujifilm FinePix F30 isn't even a vague echo of Ansel Adams' view camera or as capable as a DSLR. But there's a lot of photographic potential in this pocket-sized package.

With 6.3MP, a 3X zoom equivalent to a 36-108mm lens, and no viewfinder (just a 230,000-pixel, 2.5-inch LCD), the 6-ounce F30 is, on the surface, like many other little cameras. But where it shines is in its wide usable ISO range. While compacts typically produce noisy images when you crank the ISO to above 400, the F30 controls noise very well even at 800. In fact, it goes all the way to ISO 3200 with clean images. (Click here to see full Certified Test Results from the Pop Photo Lab).

On my Yosemite trip, the camera's size and weight were a godsend. Hiking in the midday sun with a DSLR and a couple of lenses can make you redefine "essential gear." I also liked being able to take the F30 anywhere, not just because it's small and easy to protect from the elements, but because it is -at $330 -- almost expendable. I took it up-close and misty next to waterfalls, and carried it as I waded around Mono Lake. The little camera was a trouper, and the battery lasted longer than my trip. In fact, Fuji claims 580 shots per charge on the lithium ion cell.

Although I didn't bring a tripod, I didn't use the camera's Picture Stabilization feature, which simply boosts the ISO and shutter speed to subdue photographer and subject movement. I prefer to make my own settings and stabilize the camera myself. In some ways, I guess I am old-fashioned.

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Photo By Ian S. Frazier
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Photo By Ian S. Frazier
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Photo By Ian S. Frazier
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Photo By Ian S. Frazier
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Photo By Ian S. Frazier
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Photo By Ian S. Frazier
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