This is a guest post by one of our Landscape Photography Workshop participants, Emily Fagan (check out her excellent RV blog), who sent me the article along with some pictures, after attending our workshop earlier this year. She sent it to me a while ago, but after getting swamped with too much work and trying to balance things at home with a new baby in our house, my mailbox eventually got flooded with emails and I did not have a chance to get to it for a long time. I hope you enjoy this guest post and get to participate in our future workshops!
Table of Contents
Landscape Photography Workshop in Colorado’s Peak Fall Foliage
Major Topics Covered:
– Sunrise tripod shot with manual camera settings
– Use of polarizing and graduated neutral density filters
– Composition using leading lines, triangles and the rule of thirds
– Use of hyperfocal distance to maximize depth of field
– West Dallas Creek, Dallas Creek and Last Dollar Roads between Ridgway and Telluride, Colorado.
– A fantastic 5-star day of photography and instruction in one of Colorado’s most scenic locales.
Getting Started: The Morning Shot
In the cold pre-dawn hours of September 22nd, 2012, my husband Mark and I crawled out of our warm bed and piled into our truck with all our camera gear and a couple of peanut-butter sandwiches to take part in Nasim Mansurov’s Colorado Fall Foliage Landscape Photography Workshop. Mark and I each take about 15,000 photos per year with our twin Nikon D5100’s, but this was our first photography workshop.
At the Ridgway Lodge parking lot about 15 or so attendees stood shivering in the pitch black morning, eager to get started. Rides and drivers weren’t pre-planned, but within minutes the whole group had squeezed into four vehicles and we were off to the location of our sunrise shot. The night before, Nasim had gathered us together in the hotel to give us a quick overview of the day’s itinerary along with a brief equipment review. I have never seen so many professional Nikon cameras in one room. It seemed that everyone had a Nikon D800 with an assortment of extraordinary lenses. All these camera buffs were very generous exchanging information about their gear, and at times I suddenly found myself holding a camera and lens that I never imagined I’d see in person.
He discussed polarizing filters and graduated neutral density filters and the roles they would play in our shoot. He also discussed composition, describing two methods for obtaining maximum depth of field in our landscape photos by utilizing the concept of hyperfocal distance. “Imagine you have a nearby seashell and a distant lighthouse and you want the whole image to be in focus.” Aside from the complex method of using depth of field calculators, he explained two simpler methods for accomplishing that objective. One method is to focus on the distant background and then check the image on the back of the camera, coming in closer and closer until the image first loses focus. That point is where the real shot should be focused so that both foreground and background objects are in focus. The other, simpler method, which might not be always accurate is to focus about ⅓ of the distance into the photo. “And try not to go higher than f/8 on a crop sensor camera or f/11 on a full-frame camera or you will get diffraction.” Nasim added. Then he talked about camera to subject distance and the fact that one might never achieve perfect focus on everything with a standard camera setup, that a tilt-shift lens or special bellows might be needed in certain situations.
These concepts were still rattling around in my mind as we arrived at our first shot of the day, a scenic overlook on Route 62, a few miles south of Ridgway. A long wooden fence faced the San Juan mountains with pointy Mt. Sneffels towering on the left side. Nasim explained that the sun would be rising over our left shoulders, and as it rose it would light up the left edges of the peaks. In no time a row of tripods faced the dim view in the lightening sky, and a row of shivering photographers stood just behind, patiently waiting.
“Now to get this shot you need your polarizing filter and you want your camera to be in manual mode,” Nasim called out to everyone. His marching orders continued as he walked down the line, and a flurry of fingers, button clicks and flashlights responded. “If you have an older Nikon like D300, set the ISO to 200. If you have a newer one that has a lower base ISO, set it to 100.” He paused to help someone. “Now turn off Auto ISO.” I frantically ran through the menus to get these things set. I don’t usually shoot in manual mode because my camera knows more about exposure than I do. But I was here to learn, so I followed each instruction carefully.
“Now focus your lens, and then set it to manual focus. And turn off VR.” He paused. “Then set your aperture to f/8.”
A growing glow and series of shutter clicks heralded the arrival of the sun. As it threw its first shafts of light across the mountain peaks the excitement in our ranks grew. I tried a shot and was thrilled with what I saw on the back of the camera: vibrant colors and craggy mountain contours. I tried a few more and then ran to a new spot to get a different angle on the scene.
“I sure wish I had a remote,” I muttered to the guy next to me who was manning two tripods and two elaborate cameras simultaneously.
“Do you have a self-timer?” He asked me. YES! I set it up and found myself jumping up and down with excitement as one gorgeous image after another appeared on the back of my camera.
I put a portion of the wooden fence in the foreground of my image and was exhilarated when the sun suddenly highlighted it in shades of bright orange. I waved enthusiastically at my husband Mark who had chosen a spot on the top of a hill. Checking our photos later, we were delighted that our images were completely different.
Leading Lines and Hyperfocal Distance
Once the sun was all the way up, we all climbed back into our cars and headed to our next shot down West Dallas Creek Road. Thick swatches of vibrant yellow and orange aspens striped the hillsides between the evergreens, while the jagged grey mountain peaks rose majestically behind. Our heads whipped from side to side as we drove down this spectacular dirt road. In between “oohs” and “aahs” at the stunning scenery, there was a rapid-fire discussion in our car about polarizing filters, neutral density filters and the merits of the latest lenses from Nikon.
We stopped on the roadside in a spot where the vivid yellow of the aspen flooded the whole landscape, and began our daylong drill of clambering out of the car, running around to get some shots, and then climbing over each other again to get back in. We had all used tripods for the sunrise shot, but the rest of the day would be hand-held, as the sun was strong and we needed maneuverability to grab the beautiful images that surrounded us.
Attendees hailed from all over the US: Washington, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and “locals” from other parts of Colorado. Besides having a chance to further our photography skills, many of us were seeing fall foliage in the mountains of Colorado for the first time, a memorable experience in itself. “You don’t have red maples out here,” Photography Life’s team member Bob Vishneski from Pennsylvania commented while feasting his eyes on the views out the car window. “Yeah, and the season is 2 weeks earlier out here than in New England,” I added, noting that it would be possible to see both in one year.
We descended into a valley and turned a corner to park near a meadow where there was a wonderful old crooked wooden fence. Nasim bounded out of the car and leapt up onto the fence. “This is the perfect place to think about composition,” he began as we all gathered around him. “Think about leading lines. Look at this fence and those mountains and think about triangles. Put the fence in the foreground and use its lines to lead to the yellow aspens in the mid-ground and then use those to frame the shape of Mt. Sneffels in the background. By putting the foreground with the fences in 2/3 of the frame, you are also following the rule of thirds.” All eyes followed his hands as pointed everything out and explained the shot.
“Rule of thirds is an ancient concept,” he continued. “If you go to Rome, Athens and other ancient cultural centers, you will see that the artists and architects of ancient times used it in many of their works. They used triangles and the rule of thirds to lead your eye through the scene. Bring the lines in from the corners…” He jumped off the fence. Instantly several people hopped onto the fence where he had been standing and began setting up their shots. Suddenly we had the crazy situation of people getting into each other’s photos. We sorted it out, taking turns. I loved the paparazzi nature of it all. What fun!
As we each struggled to find creative ways to use the fence to lead to the mountains, Nasim mingled among us. “Guys, listen! This is also a great place to think about hyper focal length. Remember the sea shell and lighthouse I was talking about last night?” I was challenged enough by incorporating the weird lines of the fence that worrying about depth of field was beyond me at the moment, but Mark tried the two methods and then tried focusing manually, all of which worked well for him.
A bow-hunter camped in the meadow caught my eye and I wandered over to chat with him. He had been camped in this spot and elk hunting for three weeks but hadn’t gotten an elk yet. More intriguing, he had been here the year before when the daughter of Ralph Lauren (who owns much of the most majestic land in this area) and the son of ex-Governor Jeb Bush got married on Lauren’s property over Labor Day Weekend. Every road had been shut down and guarded by the Secret Service as two ex-presidents and untold celebrities gathered for the event.
More Leading Lines and a Canopy of Aspen
Back out on the main highway, our caravan traveled a bit further south to awe-inspiring Dallas Creek Road. This dirt road took us deep into the heart of brilliant fall color once again, giving us the bright reds and oranges of scrub brush as well as the yellows of the aspen, ideal for framing a red-roofed hunter’s cabin we passed. We stopped by a pond with a long, narrow, wooden pier, and again Nasim explained to us about leading lines. “Get right down in there and bring the pier in from the lower left corner of the frame,” he said. He borrowed Mark’s camera and took a great shot. “Like this.” Our group stood and squatted in the tall reeds trying to get the angle of the bridge just right.
Perhaps the best part of the day, however, was the drive along Last Dollar Road where we immersed ourselves in a thick stand of aspen. “This is where I get my own camera out,” Nasim said, grabbing his Nikon D800E and starting to shoot. “Look at the patterns of lines of these trees, and look up at the contrasts of the yellow leaves, white bark, and blue sky.” He held us all back at the entrance to this magical corridor of aspens until we had each gotten a shot of the canopied road, and then let us wander into the interior where we craned our necks and marveled at the exotic beauty.
Last Dollar Road descends into Telluride, making wide sweeping turns through a patchwork of brilliant hillsides that lit up for us in a dazzling display in the late afternoon sun. We didn’t have time to visit Telluride itself during the workshop, but at least half of the attendees were staying in the area a day or two longer, and we had all been making mental notes of places we wanted to return to on our own. Nasim wanted us to get a sunset shot on our way back to Ridgway, putting round hay bales in the foreground with golden mountains in the background — like the header photo on his website — but we were 15 minutes too late and grey shadows had already stolen the scene. Next time!
By the time we returned to the Ridgway Lodge it was pitch dark and we had been buzzing around taking photos for 13 hours. Most everyone was too tired to gather for dinner, but tentative plans were made to meet again the next day at sunrise. Mark and I were too pooped to participate, but we spent the next day happily reviewing our photos, comparing images and savoring the memories of a great workshop amid some of the most splendid landscapes the US has to offer.
The 2012 Landscape Photography Workshop by Photography Life in Colorado will rank right up there for us as one of the best weekends we have ever experienced: peak fall foliage color, a terrific instructor and guide, and a fun group of fellow photography enthusiasts.