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From concept to print: David Noton on landscape photography

From concept to print: David Noton on landscape photography

© David Noton

July 2014

When it comes to landscape and travel photography, there aren’t many people shooting today with more experience and knowledge than Canon Explorer David Noton. With nearly 30 years in the business, he has visited hundreds of locations around the globe photographing the scenery, people and cultures that he encounters on his way. David has written numerous books on landscape photography and his online magazine, ‘Chasing the Light’, offers practical advice for those looking to follow in his footsteps. CPN writer Ian Farrell spoke to David Noton, who reveals the secrets of his craft: from concept to final print, and everything between.

David Noton admits to having something of a love affair for the outdoors, adding that it’s this obsession that is the driving force behind his creativity: “All good pictures start with an idea, and that idea is a result of inspiration. This can come from other people’s photography, or other visual stimuli. For me I find my inspiration in the landscapes of the places I visit. I’m very lucky to be inspired by the very thing I’m trying to photograph.”

David describes a visit to Iceland in early 2014 as an example of when the landscape affected him. “It’s a such a different kind of place. For me, that fostered a different way of shooting. It’s easy to find yourself shooting pictures in a style that shows nothing about the country or location you are visiting, but I’m always looking for subtle ways to capture and show the essence of what places are like.”

© David Noton

Waves breaking on Renisfjara beach in front of the Reynisdrangar basalt sea stacks, southern Iceland. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXTENDER 1.4x zoom lens at a focal length of 247mm; the exposure was 1/1250sec at f/10, ISO 400.

Forward planning of locations

When it comes to researching a location, David is an advocate of being well prepared. “It’s about just getting out there. Getting your boots dirty and eyeballing the scene. When I see a potential picture I try to anticipate what it will look like under different lighting conditions. That way, when I come back at the right time of day I already know the composition I want, and where I need to be to record that decisive moment. Landscape photography often involves split-second timing.”

On occasion, David’s forward planning has even happened from the other side of the world. He reveals: “Last year I shot an advertising campaign for Canon in Patagonia, South America. I had a brief from the advertising agency and the shot was completely pre-conceived before I left the UK. We identified a location using Google Earth and reference shots from other photographers in Argentina. It was a night shoot and we wanted the Milky Way to stretch across the sky; that [type of shot] needed a lot of research in terms of timing.”

Lighting for landscapes

Landscape photographers are often considered crepuscular beings, being most active in the twilight hours around dawn and dusk. David Noton is no exception, although he recognises that the rest of the day isn’t always a write-off: “Dawn and dusk is certainly an evocative time, but there are other lighting conditions that work well for other subjects.”

He explains: “Some subjects cry out for the type of soft muted light you get on an overcast day – I had this requirement shooting up in Balmoral, Scotland, not long ago. The business of what light suits which subjects is a continuous learning process, which involves looking at subtleties, variables and the photographic style you are after. Midday light in the tropics will certainly be hard to work with outdoors, but there are often other things to shoot – get up close and look what’s happening right under your feet.”

© David Noton

Pine trees on the Balmoral Estate, Deeside, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM zoom lens at a focal length of 200mm; the exposure was 1/8sec at f/16, ISO 100.

Selecting the right lens

After all this pre-planning of lighting, mood and inspiration, David’s next step is to finally take out his camera. Although he says he usually knows which lens he needs before he’s opened his bag. “I think about the angle-of-view and the perspective I want before I lay a hand on my camera,” he says. “The relationship I want between the foreground, middle ground and background is really important.”

He reveals: “I like to take plenty of wide-angle options, as these let me play with foreground detail and exaggerate the distance between foreground and background. But I also like to use telephoto lenses to compress perspective – that’s a great approach for mountainous landscapes.”

David advises landscape photographers to consider weight as well as image quality when it comes to choosing the right lenses for a trip. “The best photographs are never taken in the car park; they involving walking considerable distances, usually up and down hills. I can never carry all the kit I have, so compromises have to be made. In fact if there is a long distance to cover I can do with just the EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM and EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM [lenses]. They are very flexible and offer superb image quality.”

Such is David’s faith in this pair of zoom lenses that he only takes prime lenses with him when they can offer something extra, like a fast aperture or tilt-shift capabilities. “The EF35mm f/1.4L USM and EF85mm f/1.2L II USM are amazing for people and travel photography, especially in low light. But I don’t need them for image quality alone, as I might have done in the past. The EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM in particular is wonderful: there’s a lot to be said for the perspective of the ‘standard lens’, and if I was going out with just one camera and one lens, then this would be it. It’s a no-brainer!”

However, David does resort to prime lenses when he wants to use tilt-shift movements to maximise depth-of-field. “I think it looks horrible when a foreground or background is just starting to drop out of focus,” he confesses. “But by using the movements of my TS-E17mm f/4L and TS-E24mm f/3.5L II I can get all the depth-of-field I want.”

Such wide-angle focal lengths are useful tools for landscapers, allowing dramatic perspectives and good use of foreground detail in compositions. Though David warns that ultra-wide angle focal lengths can be “a bit of a challenge” to use properly. “They’re very seductive I think. Wide-angle zooms are best used by thinking about what kind of effect you want, before raising the camera to your eye. Try to avoid standing there, zooming in and out looking for something that works, or shooting at the extremes of the zoom range all the time. A bit of visual discipline, and moving your feet, often helps when you’re thinking about the relationship between foreground and background.”

© David Noton

The Piazza del Popolo at dawn, Ascoli Piceno, Marche, Italy. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a TS-E17mm f/4L tilt and shift lens; the exposure was 1/30sec at f/11, ISO 200.

Using Live View

When sharpness is crucial and depth-of-field needs to be set just right, David is a fan of using his EOS 5D Mark III DSLR in Live View mode. By composing the scene on-screen, he can easily check areas of the frame for critical focus by zooming in. “When the feature first came along I must admit I couldn’t see what I might use it for. But having used it for a while now I can see how valuable it is for landscape photography,” he confesses. “As well as letting me check sharpness it lets me pre-visualise the scene in a different way, which is often useful. It also lets me shoot from difficult angles too, of course.”

David adds that when shooting in black and white, Live View mode helps him see if the composition will work or not. “Just set the Picture Style to monochrome and make sure you shoot in RAW so you have a colour original file to convert afterwards when you get home.”

He also finds Live View useful for previewing the effects of the optical filters he often puts in front of his lens: “When digital photography came along I think that people thought the need to continue using optical filters with their cameras would become redundant, which, of course, isn’t right. For sure, I don’t need the warm-up or cooling filters that used to be used with film [cameras], because we now have white balance, but graduated neutral density filters are really useful as contrast control devices.”

© David Noton

Emerald Lake at dawn with the peaks of the President Range beyond, Yoho National Park, British Columbia, Canada. Taken on a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III with an EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM zoom lens at a focal length of 16mm; the exposure was 1/2sec at f/11, ISO 100.

Filter choice

By positioning an ND grad filter so that it darkens a bright sky, but leaves the foreground unaffected, David can reduce the extremes of bright and dark in a scene, so they can both be captured on the camera correctly. “You can also shoot multiple frames and do exposure merging work afterwards, but that’s no good if you have a subject that is moving between frames – like rolling waves or swaying trees. That’s when an ND grad really comes into its own. There is also something very satisfying about shooting one image that comes out of the camera needing no virtually post-production work – that feels like real photography to me.”

David also uses non-graduated neutral density filters for obtaining long exposures in bright light. He adds: “Polarising filters are very useful. They reduce glare from water and reflections from wet surfaces, as well as making colours more saturated. They darken skies so the clouds seem to ‘pop’ out and make the green foliage in woodland seem more lush. They also make rainbows stand out better.”

Post-production

Once he is back at home in England, David starts the post-production process – picking the shots he wants to keep, and then taking them further in his digital darkroom. He tries to keep his production process as streamlined as possible but has noticed a tendency amongst other photographers to 'over-shoot': “Editing down a large number of shots to just a small collection of images is something I see photographers struggling with. Photographers can now all fill up memory cards with loads of pictures, and it doesn’t cost us anything. But we [photographers] need to be wary of making a common mistake: thinking that if we shoot enough then something will work – it rarely does! You can make a rod for your own back by then having to wade through thousands of mediocre images.”

He advises a more considered approach: “For me, it’s a case of quality versus quantity. By being disciplined and tight, at the time of shooting, you can make life a lot easier at the editing stage. It’s all about keeping that mentality – you’re not looking to process up to between 10 to 20 images of the same scene; more like two to three, or even just one.”

© David Noton

Sunrise at Te Pare Point, near Hahei, Coromandel Peninsula, North Island, New Zealand. Taken on a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II with an EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM zoom lens at a focal length of 17mm; the exposure was 1/2sec at f/16, ISO 50.

Like many photographers David Noton uses Adobe Lightroom software to edit and organise images. For those using a ‘pick-or-reject’ method of editing, he advises starting at the end of the shoot and working forwards towards the beginning. “If you’ve just shot in the evening light, which often gets better and better as time goes on, starting the edit with your best shot makes sense. As you move through the images ask yourself: ‘is this better than the last one I looked at?’ If it isn’t, bin it. Be ruthless.”

He reveals: “When it comes to post-production of images, less is more where I’m concerned. If you can get it right in-camera, life is much easier. A correctly exposed RAW file has all of the shadow and highlight detail that you need and the best image quality. For me, post-production is just about optimising my black and white points, tweaking contrast, saturation and white balance, and that’s it.”

David adds: “I guess if you are exposure merging then things can take longer, but I generally only spend about a minute on an image. I always think that if you find yourself sitting in front of your computer for ages trying to get a picture to work it probably won’t, and you should move on. I think it helps to think through what you want to do before you start to do it, rather than play with a slider and filters randomly. Ask yourself: ‘what does this image need?’ then sit down and do that.”

The satisfaction of printing

At the end of his digital workflow David Noton likes to print images. “I’ve just started using the Canon PIXMA PRO-1 printer, principally because of the image quality. There’s nothing like seeing a large, good quality print. I know we all look at images mostly on screen these days, but it is so rewarding to see them on paper. It’s what many of us got into photography for in the first place! I’ll often just knock out an inkjet print for the hell of it, just to see what an image really looks like.”

He advises: “I think it’s important to renew the fruits of our photographic creativity every so often – to do something with those images. Show them off, rather than just leave them languishing on a hard drive!”

Biographie: David Noton

David Noton

Born in England, David Noton is an award-winning landscape and travel photographer. After setting up his photography business, in 1985, his career developed within the landscape and travel arenas and he won awards in the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition in 1985, 1989 and 1990. Over the years he has travelled extensively to almost every part of the world, exploring deserts, rainforests, mountains, islands and ice caps. In 2008 his first book ‘Waiting for the Light’ was launched to critical acclaim and in 2010 his book ‘Full Frame’ was published alongside his second film ‘Photography in the RAW’. His pictures are published all over the world and he writes for a broad range of media, including photographic magazines and websites. He became a Canon Explorer in July 2012.



Vitrine

A poppy in a field near Norcia, Umbria, Italy. Taken on a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III with an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM zoom lens at a focal length of 170mm; the exposure was 1/1250sec at f/2.8, ISO 100.