To capture perfect images, nature and landscape photographer Ed Heaton needs flexibility: to bring all the gear he needs to any outdoor location and to offer the comfort to carry it all without a hassle.
We spoke with Ed to learn about how he approaches his craft and creates his images. For Ed, shooting great landscape and nature photography boils down to a few basic principles.
We hope you enjoy Ed's advice as much and we did in our interview.
"Let's talk about getting that perfect shot. I'm going to go out on a limb here and tell you that when you jump out of the car, it's not going to be the perfect shot! Now don't get me wrong, I've gotten some really nice images close to the car, but on average you need to really work the scene. Standing next to the car isn't going to cut it!
A landscape shooter needs to be where the action is happening.
I live on the East Coast – we don't have very big mountains. So I'm looking for the intimate, more off-the-beaten track scenes. I might have to bushwhack across a creek to get to a shot. Something may 'look pretty' from 120 yards away, but it's not dynamic and harmonious. You have to build your image for flow and balance. And to do this, you might have to get IN the creek or hang OVER a ledge.
Choosing 'the right time' has a lot to do with lighting which I will discuss in a moment. This day I knew I would want to shoot early, but I also knew the soft light from the overcast day would give me a little longer window than just the hour after dawn. With any shot you have to evaluate what is there for you to work with. You need to be flexible enough to recognize the best shot may not be the one you preconceived."
"I've carried many bags over my career. As my wife would put it, I'm 'bag rich'. But there's one bag that I absolutely love for landscape and nature photography: my Pro Trekker 400 AW. As a professional landscape photographer there are always certain items that I need in my possession all the time while I'm in the field. For instance, I always have my go-to lens with me: a medium-range 24-70mm. And you know you can't leave home without a wide-angle 14-24mm. Of course, my telephoto zoom lens 70-200mm always seems to find its way into my bag. That's a pretty full house! Now it wouldn't be right if I didn't mention that I always have my 90mm macro lens with me for those serendipitous times I come across a small and intimate scene.
Plus, let's not forget the accessories I always have with me like my tripod, split neutral density filters, polarizer, spare batteries, cable release… well you get the idea here. I can't say how many times I've heard people in my workshops say, 'I wish I would have brought that lens'. Invariably, I know that comment will lead to, 'can I borrow yours, Ed?'
This is an extremely comfortable pack to carry, so I can load all the gear I need to take advantage of every opportunity that the scene presents. Oh, and I should mention that this pack comes with a pocket for a hydration reservoir. So I can drink at random and not worry about carrying a water bottle. Really sweet!"
"Now that you know what type of gear I carry let's talk about how I protect that gear. Whether I'm traversing the banks of a river or climbing a hillside, I know with the Pro Trekker 400 AW my gear is safe. It's easy to take this for granted, but this is huge. The last thing you want is to arrive at your location to find your equipment is wet, dirty or broken.
The Pro Trekker 400 AW 'feels right'.
I've tried other manufacturer's bags where the build quality just wasn't there. I know the ProTrekker. The stitching is tight and the zippers keep out moisture and dirt. And the AW cover is there when you need a rain fly.
As a longtime backpacker, I'm very in tune with how your backpack should fit. For me, a sternum strap is a must. This pack also comes with a 'Pack Jack' tool that allows me to adjust the torso fit for better comfort. This is critical for having the right fit and being able to carry your pack long distances without straining your neck and back. The waistbelt is extremely padded and comfortable and lets me take most of the weight off my shoulders – which again is critical for being able to carry gear long distances."
Carrying comfort also plays into how you pack your bag. There is plenty of customizable padding that allows you to balance your load for your own setup. Each piece of my gear has a place in my bag so I know where it is, even in the dark.
I like to work storm edges. When a storm rolls in or it's on its way out – that's when you'll get the most dramatic light. There are those moments of serendipity when everything just happens, but most of the time you have to work with your environment, evaluate what the scene is giving you, and react with the right equipment and settings. To make the most of your available light, it's good to know the correct exposure and aperture to enhance the scene.
On this particular day, I knew I wanted to use the soft light of the overcast morning as strong midday light can create hotspots. The light mist falling really helped "wet" the shot. It enhanced the mood and reflected the light. To make your images more dramatic, you must learn to see how the light affects your subject.
'Seeing the light' takes time and practice.
I can see good light and make an image out of whatever is there just because of the light. For me personally, this comes with time and practice and it's all part of your craft. I've been shooting since high school, and when someone commented on photographs of mine they liked and said, 'that is sweet light,' I thought well, what is that? It's about time. It's about time working with your craft. And it's about shooting in the early morning and in the evening (so you might miss a lot of breakfasts and dinners!)…and just learning to see things."
"It all starts with solid composition. When I teach workshops, I ask participants what attracts them to this scene. Now look at that element and build on it. What about it catches the light in a dramatic way? Paying attention to how these elements 'weight' the image will give you clues to where you need to be to get your shot. Seek the unique perspectives that include and balance these elements and create harmony.
All of this plays into the mood you're trying to convey. For this shoot, I was looking for something that was intimate and off the beaten path. This waterfall had a sense of isolation. I saw the final composition playing with the motion of the water from top to bottom and left to right."
Composing in the Camera
I really try to take my time and nail it in the camera. I never have to crop (insert laughter here). Just kidding! But on this waterfall image, I actually didn't have to crop anything. If I can get it right in camera, I would prefer to do that. As far as post goes, most people tweak color or contrast a bit. But as far as a raw image, I know can take it and make a good shot out of it because the composition is there and the lighting is dynamic.
I'm not a huge 'spray & pray' shooter. You might laugh, but this is what a lot of new photographers do. For this scene (below), maybe I took a total of 11 shots and two of them were a set of HDRs. This one is a single frame. If I can shoot one shot I will. And composition and building the shot all are a part of getting a good result."
Ed Heaton is an award-winning professional photographer and educator who specializes in landscape and travel images. His Creative Composition workshops, seminars, and classes are popular among new photographers and enthusiasts who want to improve their control of light. His passion for the outdoors is reflected in his images of grand and intimate landscapes and nature studies.For more about Ed Heaton see...