by Dr. Robert Berdan
September 15, 2019
My father is standing on top of a concretion in Red Rock Coulée located in south east Alberta taking a photograph at sunset. I underexposed this photo to create a silhouette of him with his tripod.
This article is a continuation of my Alberta Landscapes Part I article where I share some of my favourite spots in Alberta to photograph. A landscape includes all the visible features of an area of countryside or land that is often considered in terms of their aesthetic appeal.
In this article I include many photos taken within a short distance of my home in Northwest Calgary. Photographing landscapes is easy compared to other types of photography - the landscape doesn't move and unlike animals it won't run away. You can take your time setting up and you can visit the same location under different lighting and weather conditions to get the type of photo you want. In addition you can photograph landscapes at sunrise, midday, sunset and even at night to produce very different photos. Landscape photography is often included as part of travel photography though the photographer may also want to include people or animals.
View of the Rockies (Mount Lougheed) from Highway 1 into Banff National Park at night with full moon and the planet Venus to its right.
Rocky Mountains and foothills near Cremona, Alberta - mid day. 70-200 mm Telephoto lens.
Homestead and canola field on a bright sunny day near Empress, AB. 70-200 mm lens.
McDougall Church along Highway 1A near Morely, AB. The church burned down, but the Stoney Mission Society is working to rebuild the church.
Shooting Format - Vertical or Horizontal - Do Both!
One of the first decisions a landscape photographer must make is whether to position the camera in landscape mode (horizontal) or a vertical mode. Most landscapes are taken with the camera in a horizontal position, but some pictures look better vertically. Vertical orientation also emphasizes depth. Magazine editors prefer vertical photos for the cover, so I remind myself to take both.
Left: Moraine Lake Banff National Park, Middle: Spirit Island Jasper National Park, Right: Vermilion lake and Mt. Rundle, Banff National Park.
Where to Place the Horizon
The second decision for me when taking a landscape photograph is where to place the Horizon. If the sky is spectacular I will put the horizon low, if the sky is white or overcast I will often cut the sky out all together. Putting the sky in the middle of the frame is usually not the best place unless you have a mirror reflection like that shown below. See my article on composition for more examples of varying the position of the horizon.
Forgetmenot pond in Kananaskis photographed about a hour before sunrise. Putting the horizon in the center works in this photo because of the mirror reflection.
Visiting a Location in Different Seasons
One thing all landscape photographers can do is to visit the same location at different times of day and in different seasons - at least those locations near you. I often make a mental note of a particularly good place and mark spots on my Back roads map book so I can come back over and over again. Some photographers use their phone or a GPS (Global Positioning System) device to mark potentially good locations. I do most of my scouting in the middle of the day. I have visited some locations like the Vermilion lakes in Banff National Parks hundreds of times in different seasons and different times of day. The light isn't always great, but I force myself to look for something a bit different and always take a few photos. Below are a few photos of Pyramid mountain in Jasper National Park that I have photographed several times and in different seasons. At this location morning light is my preferred time of day.
Pyramid mountain in summer early morning light.
Pyramid mountain in winter early morning light.
Pyramid mountain in Jasper National Park, this time I asked my father to stand in front wearing his red fleece jacket and his signature black cowboy hat. Photographed in early morning with the moon just visible on the top left side of the picture.
Pyramid Mountain in Jasper National Park from Patricia lake. I used a wider angle lens and again asked my father to stand in the lower right corner. I suggest taking a picture with and without a person in front. In my experience magazine editors like the image more if it includes a person.
Above is Spirit Island in summer around sunset - without anyone in it. To get a photo in this light you would have to paddle down the lake about 6 hours and camp overnight. There are tour boats that visit this vantage point between 10 am and 4 pm and they bring groups down to this location. I kayaked to this location and camped with a friend for a few days in order to have opportunities to photograph this iconic island at sunrise and sunset (see below).
My friend and fellow wildlife photographer Peter Dettling and I kayaked to Spirit Island on Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park. This photograph was taken in July about 4:30 am.
Spirit Island just after sunrise, there was a heavy fog over the lake which cleared in about an hour. To take this photograph requires camping nearby and paddling to the campground about 2 km away. I remember scraping ice off my paddle in July and getting in my Kayak in the dark to get here in time for sunrise.
When I paddled to Spirit Island the first two days it rained resulting in images like that above. I still took a few pictures. We had checked the weather and it was forecast to clear, but we also gave ourselves four days to paddle around the lake and take photographs. At one point a wolf followed us along the shoreline and we could see him but it was too far away to get any pictures. In general, the more time you can spend in an area the better your chance of success, but you should also check the weather forecast for the time you will be there.
Landscapes next to the Road
You don't have visit exotic places to take beautiful landscape images, though if you live in a big city you may have to drive to the county or visit a local park. Most of my images are taken close to home. If the weather is unusual I will get up early and head north of the city driving toward Cochrane or north on Bearspaw road. I have managed to photograph wildlife and interesting landscapes when the light and weather was interesting only a short distance from home. I go out out to photograph in all seasons and always bring my tripod.
About 5 minutes north of Calgary on Highway 1A I photographed this autumn scene. The light was flat and overcast. The Rockies are visible in the distance and the hay bales are common in late summer and early autumn.
Bearspaw road in north Calgary lets me escape into the country and foothills. On this early morning there was hoar frost covering the trees. I also used the road as a leading line into the photo to add a sense of depth. I have photographed foxes, moose, owls and deer along this road.
Fields next to Bearspaw road before sunrise with hoar frost covering the fields and trees.
Another scene from Bearspaw road in winter taken with a 70-200 mm telephoto lens in late afternoon.
Winter scene in late afternoon. The sun produced a warm light even though it was snowing. This location is about 15 minutes drive from my home in Calgary, North West.
Prairies and Rocky Mountains in winter. This photo was taken beside a road about 30 minutes from my home. I feel fortunate to have so much beauty and wildlife within a short drive.
Autumn colours taken on a side road off Bearspaw road in autumn.
View of the Rockies from Highway 567 about 10 km from my house.
If you have to drive out of town for business I recommend you take your camera with you and leave a bit early or leave yourself a little extra time when coming home. I often do this and though I don't always have landscape opportunities, it is better to be prepared for an opportunity then to have an opportunity and not be prepared. I have found baby foxes, owls and interesting landscapes during my drives. For a number of years I would drive from Calgary to Red Deer to teach. I would leave early morning and many times I encountered good photo opportunities from the side of the highway. A car allows you to cover large distances and you don't have to be particularly fit in order to carry or hike with your equipment. I have a lot of camera gear which can weigh quite a bit so when I hike I try to take just what I need. When travelling with a car I often take almost everything: tripod, monopod, bean bags, and most of my lenses as the weight is not a concern.
Sunrise near Innisfail next to highway 2 north. I took this photo on my drive north of the city to teach in Red Deer College. 300 mm F2.8 lens.
Sunrise next to highway 1A near Morely, Alberta. 70-200 mm lens.
Sunrise next to highway 1A near Morley, Alberta. 70-200 mm lens. Same scene as above but on a different day.
This photograph of light rays breaking through the clouds in front of the Rocky Mountains was taken from the gas station north west of Calgary heading toward Banff. 300 mm F2.8 lens.
Pond in Northern Alberta near Paddle Prairie. I was returning from Yellowknife in autumn.
Great Gray Owl on fence post next to highway 1A near Morely, AB (DM).
Alpine slopes next to Highway 40 in Kananaskis near the Highwood pass. Grizzly bears frequent this area and I have photographed them walking down the road toward me.
Autumn colours next to the road in Kananaskis
Early snowfall in autumn next to the road in Kananaskis
Including the Road in your Landscapes
I often include the road in some of my landscapes. The road is a symbol of travel or life's journey and the road provides leading lines into the picture. In the same way a river, path, edge of a lake can also act as a leading line into the picture. Our eyes tend to follow these lines to explore the photo - see my article on Visual Elements of Design for a more in depth discussion of leading lines.
Road heading toward Pincher Creek in southern Alberta
Highway 40 Kananaskis heading to the Highwood Pass in Kananaskis
Dirt road from Stoney Plain Park off Highway 1A
Side road heading to the Rockies near Longview, AB
Dirt road north of Calgary on a foggy winter day.
Vimy Peak Waterton National park with grasslands in the foreground - next to the highway.
Photographing Landscapes at Night Time
Photographing at night isn't for everyone, but it can result in some very interesting photos. When I plan to photograph at sunrise I often have to get up and leave an hour or two before sunrise in order to be in place. While driving if I notice something interesting like the full moon or the northern lights I will often stop and take some photos. A tripod is essential for the long exposures. If you are new to nightime photography, focus on infinity at night and try some different F-stops from F2.8 to 8. Higher F-stops will require longer exposures. You can also increase the ISO speed of your camera to 1600 or higher in order to shorten the exposure time. With aurora photography I am usually using ISO 400-1600 - see some of my older articles e.g. Photographing the Aurora Borealis, E-book on Aurora Photography, Photographing the Night Sky or read the free Chapter in My Art of Canadian Nature photography e-book.
Remember that your camera will show the scene much brighter then you see withyour eyes when taking a long exposure. Experiment with exposures of various length and check the preview on your LCD screen to see how the images look.
Moon over the Rockies from Highway 1, 70-200 mm lens.
Photographing lightening isn't difficult at night. You set up your tripod somewhere safe like under a roof or porch, or if the lightening is far off in the distance you can set up outside with your tripod. Alternatively you can sit in your car and mount your camera on window mount or a tripod in your car. Set your ISO speed low at first about 200 and set your lens to F5.6-8 and take some test shots varying exposures from 10-60 seconds. You want long exposures, because your going to hold the shutter down until the lightening occurs. As soon as lightening flashes let go of the shutter to close it. If you hold the shutter open too long, the picture will be overexposed and washed out. So lets say you are using about 30 second exposures - press the shutter open and count to 30 (Camera is in B or Bulb mode), if there is no lightening, release the shutter and press the shutter again. You will have lots of wasted photos, but there is no cost for blank photos. When you do capture a lightening strike, close the shutter immediately and check out the image on your LCD monitor and make adjustments if necessary. You only need a few good photos and can discard the bad ones.
Lightening, Calgary, AB. In summer during lightening storms several cars gather over Bowmount Park to watch the storm move through. Folks are always entertained when they see me setting up my tripod- though I have no idea what they might be thinking.
Lightening photographed in Bowmount Park, Calgary, AB. When this lightening flashed I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck rise and I immediately got into my car!
Photograph of lightening next to the Bow river near the Calgary Zoo with Calgary in the background (DM).
Night Sky and constellations, Fort McMurrary, AB
Composite image of star trails and Aurora Fort McMurray (DM).
Aurora Fort McMurray near the Airport in January.
Aurora photographed east of High Level, AB
Aurora photographed a few km east of High Level, AB
Consider Black and White for some Landscapes
Some scenes look better in black and white. I don't ever recommend you set your camera to black and white, but rather shoot in colour then convert the image to black and white during digital image processing. This will give you more control of the image tones as you can adjust the colour sliders during conversion to make certain colours lighter or darker. Black and white is best for scenes that are lacking in colour but show strong form and shape. Experiment to see what works best. Colour can sometimes be a distraction and black and white images are sometimes considered more "art-like". Below are a few landscapes I converted to Black and white.
Kananaskis River - I spent the early morning here with friend and bird photographer the late Alan McKeigan. We were waiting for Harlequin Ducks which did show up about an hour later.
Spillway lake, Kananaskis Provincial Park, Alberta.
Prairies near Empress Alberta. I deliberately made the sky dark to provide more contrast with the clouds. With black and white film photographers (e.g. Ansel Adams) he would use a red filter to darken a blue sky.
Hills near Nanton in spring with freshly melted snow forming ponds. There wasn't much colour in the scene so I decided to convert the image to Black and White to emphasize the form in the landscape. The fence in this image is used as a leading line to draw the eye into the image.
Hay field in winter - the patterns in the field attracted my attention. 70-200 mm lens
Aspens along Horse Creek Canyon Road north of Cochrane in winter
Grain Elevator in southern Alberta - technically not a landscape I liked the old buildings I found while driving through small prairie towns in southern Alberta.
Landscapes in Colour
Forgetmenot pond at sunrise, Kananaskis, AB
Ram Falls Forestry Trunk Rd.
Herbert Lake around sunrise, Banff National Park - next to the highway
Moonrise over Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, AB
Fly fisherman (Frank Wood) in the Athabasca River in winter, Jasper National Park, AB
Glacier lilies in spring, Elbow lake area of Kananaskis with Mt Rae in the background.
Sofa Mountain in spring photographed next to Highway 6 Waterton National Park, AB
Adding a Point of Interest to your Landscapes
Moose next to the road that leads from Longview into Kananaskis Provincial Park, Alberta. Sometimes the addition of a person, animal or building in the landscape can make the picture more appealing. Even a very small image of an animal or person will attract the viewer's attention (see below).
Moose in meadow, photographed from the Spray Lakes road in Kananaskis.
In this photograph of the Tonquin Valley, Jasper National Park I set up my tent and asked my father to stand next to it. We slept in cabins at the lake - the tent was just a prop.
Castle Mountain in Banff National Park with my wife standing in the foreground. I usually like people in my landscapes to wear red or yellow coloured clothing to draw attention. Having a person in the photo encourages the viewer to imagine themselves in the scene.
Above is a photograph from Red Rock Coulée showing large concretions, some of them have split open and I asked my wife to lie on top of one to provide a sense of scale and interest.
Above photo of a mule deer in the grasslands Writing-on-stone provincial park at sunset.
In this wintry landscape of the prairies the old building adds a focal point.
Above grain stuble in winter forming a horizontal pattern of rows. The pattern and the white sky grabbed my attention for its simplicity. Not every photo needs a dominant object in the foreground, though I know this image might not appeal to everyone I am trying to convey the vast openess of the prairies.
Landscape Photography Tips
1.Keep your camera with you as much as you can and be prepared. If travelling give yourself extra time to stop and photograph should you encounter something interesting.
2. If you want to take better landscapes - use a tripod, in my opinion it is the most important tool that can help you improve you composition and the technical qualities of your image. Vary the height at which you shoot, don't photograph everything at your standing height. Get low to the ground, or try to reach a higher vantage point. Your point of view affects the image - experiment.
4. Vary the exposure of your photos to learn how this affects the image and then choose the most appropriate image. If you process your images with Photoshop or other program and you shoot RAW files you can adjust exposure afterwards. However if you bracket the exposures by 2 F-stops you can also experiment with high dynamic range imaging.
5. The single most important factor in being successful and getting good landscapes is related to the amount of time you spend using your camera photographing landscapes.
6. Filters such as a hard-edge grad, soft-edge grad, and a polarizer can help make a photo better at times, other times no filter is required (e.g. some winter scenes).
7. Try photographing at night - this will require a tripod. Try short and long exposures. Practice first in your backyard at night to become familiar with where you camera buttons and controls are in the dark. A head lamp can be helpful, perferably one with a red light so it doesn't affect your night vision.
9. Be aware of the weather; fog, rain, snow - don't always be a fair weather photographer. For more colourful light try shooting in the early morning, evenings or during a storm.
Two Jack Lake and Mount Rundle, Banff National Park at sunrise.
This is part two of my Alberta Landscape series and shows some different scenes in the province during different seasons and times of day. Unlike wildlife, I am almost always able to find interesting landscapes on my outtings which is probably why I have so many. Light and weather play an important role and allow me to take different pictures each time I go out. I do explore the backroads with my jeep, but often I don't need to drive more then a hour out of the city. The colour of the light around sunrise and sunset can make for more colourful and interesting landscapes, though it is possible to take good photos any time of day. Mid day is good for panoramas. Landscape is one of the easiest types of photography to engage with, but it is also challenging to take landscape photographs that provide interest and impact. Living in a beautiful place makes it easier for sure, but any place can produce great landscapes under the right conditions. RB
Also see my Article: Tips for Better Landscape Photography on this site.
Bio: Robert Berdan is a professional nature photographer living in Calgary, AB specializing in nature, wildlife and science photography. Robert retired from Cell\Neurobiology research to take up photography full time years ago. Robert offers photo guiding and private instruction in all aspects of nature photography and Adobe Photoshop training - including photomicrography, macrophotography.
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