How to Create a Classic

America's top landscape photographer shares secrets for better scenics with digital or film.

How-to-Create-a-Classic

How-to-Create-a-Classic

How can you make breathtaking landscape photographs? This is a question I'm often asked, as a longtime landscape photographer and workshop instructor. Read on for seven answers for any photographer, in any medium.

Follow the light.

You can find a beautiful scene like Yosemite Valley, with granite cliffs and a spectacular waterfall, but if the lighting isn't right, you won't successfully convey that beauty in a photograph.

For every scene, the appropriate light can be different. It may be the delicate directional light of dawn or dusk, or the soft, open light of a cloudy afternoon. For me, it's often the quiet light before sunrise or after sunset that is magical. To get this "perfect" light, however, I rise long before dawn, and I'm not on my way back to my van until well after dark.

Return to splendor

I usually make my best photographs when I am familiar with a location, and this often requires multiple visits at different times of the day or during different seasons. Often my best images are made on a second or third visit to a location, perhaps because the landscape or its lighting has changed, but just as often it's because I've changed as a photographer.

Study the masters

When I was a young college art major, I was lucky to have a professor who sat me down and pointed out how many of the Old Masters' techniques had a direct application to photography. She showed me Rembrandt's portrait lighting, and other techniques too, such as how painters darkened the edges of their paintings in order to focus viewers' attention on the central subjects of their canvases. Ultimately, I learned something about photography in almost every class!

Make mistakes

The vast majority of my pictures are, well, less than magical. That doesn't mean they're without value. I make proof prints of every negative I expose, and then study and learn from them.

Stick to your gear

For my earliest years in photography, I had only one lens, a 210mm. Getting to know it intimately was a great learning experience. Bouncing from format to format, camera to camera, lens to lens, or film to film will only frustrate you. Go slow.

Print early and often

If your final output will be a print, make a rough proof print, even a small one, before you start tweaking an image. I've spent hours working on an image on the computer, and then made a print, only to notice fatal flaws that weren't as obvious on a monitor display.

Watch the exposure

Perfect exposure differs with the medium. With black-and-white film, I meter for the shadows in order to retain detail. For transparencies or digital capture, I meter to hold highlight detail and work hard to prevent overexposing. With a DSLR, I protect highlights by checking that the histogram highlight curve is well within the histogram's box.

Tools of the trade

Weather reports

Before planning a day trip, make sure the weather is willing. Dense cloud cover can thwart you. I consider wind my nemesis. For some scenes, it can be an asset, but for most, it blurs sharpness and detail.

Websites

There are many internet sites to help you find landscapes with photographic potential. National parks such as Yosemite offer multiple web cams (www.yosemite.org/vryos) that reveal their vistas in real time, showing current weather and lighting conditions. Robert Hitchman's excellent Photograph America newsletter, published since 1989, is now available online (photographamerica.com), with hints and tips for promising locations in virtually every region of the U.S.

What-if kit

Countless times I've said, "I'm only going out for a short while. I'll just take the camera out past that bend. I don't need a jacket or water." Next thing I know, it's four hours later, getting darker, and I'm unprepared. I've learned the hard way to always carry a jacket and space blanket, a good headlamp with extra bulbs and batteries, water, and a compass. Some of the most stunning places on earth are also the most remote. They're places of extreme beauty, but also of danger. Be prepared for both.

John Sexton is a widely respected photographer, master printmaker, author, and workshop instructor. For more on his work, publications, and workshops, visit www.johnsexton.com.

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Nature-John-Sexton-From-Recollections-Three-De

From Recollections: Three Decades of Photographs by John Sexton.
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From Recollections: Three Decades of Photographs by John Sexton.John Dugdale
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From Recollections: Three Decades of Photographs by John Sexton.John Sexton
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From Recollections: Three Decades of Photographs by John Sexton.John Sexton
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From Recollections: Three Decades of Photographs by John Sexton.John Sexton
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*LEGACY OF LANDSCAPES*: The images in this gallery and more can be found in Recollections: Three Decades of Photographs by John Sexton (Ventana Editions, 2006; $75).John Sexton
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Nature-John-Sexton-John-Sexton-is-a-widely-resp

John Sexton is a widely respected photographer, master printmaker, author, and workshop instructor. For more on his work, publications, and workshops, visit johnsexton.com.John Sexton
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