FINE ART ATELIER: 08 | Nevis Tree

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The Nevis Valley sits behind and above Queenstown, South Island, New Zealand. My good friends Mike Langford and Jackie Ranken live in Queenstown and over the years have gradually discovered some wonderful locations. They kindly took me up to the Nevis (and being generous have taken many other photographer friends up there too) and I was blown away by the scenery. You climb up a long dirt road, a 4WD is essential, and after reaching the top, drop down into an alpine valley and a few sheep stations. This tree was on one of the sheep stations, before the National Park.

What you are seeing in this movie is a series of steps from the basic capture to the final rendering. The steps are not necessarily the quickest way to create the image, rather they follow the thought process of discovering the image through colour, contrast and exposure. Two quite separate processes are involved: that of pre-visualising the image, and that of rendering it in Photoshop.


FINE ART ATELIER: 08 |Hellnar Cottages

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When does an architectural study become a landscape, or a landscape an architectural study? Fortunately for us, it doesn't matter! There are many reasons for including buildings and structures in our landscape photos, so I thought I should acknowledge this with a favourite shot that includes 'the hand of man'. It's interesting what we like, isn't it? I write this because I know not everyone will love these little cottages in Iceland like I do. But coming from Australia, they are different to what I am used to and therein lies part of the attraction. I hope you enjoy the thought process behind the capture and post-production.


KNOWLEDGE: 08 | Correct Exposure for Landscapes

Most people would say this is over exposed.

This on the other hand would be considered underexposed.

Somewhere in the middle is what we call 'correct exposure'.

Cameras use a built-in light meter to determine the correct exposure automatically. However, even though very sophisticated in the way they work, there are situations when the automatic metering system gets it wrong and it is up to the photographer to make an exposure adjustment. Here’s how it works.

What A Light Meter Does

A camera metering system is based on an ‘average’. It looks at a scene, measures all the brightness levels and calculates an average brightness. Then, based on this average (and the ISO setting of the sensor) it determines an aperture and a shutter speed to produce an exposure.

The average brightness is set to a middle grey or a value of 128 using a 256-step grey scale. In other words, assuming black has a value of 0 and white has a value of 255, middle grey will have a value of 128. In theory, if you expose the scene to give an average of 128, then all the tones that are lighter and darker than the average will just fall into place.

Whether in colour or black and white, tonal values are often broken down into 256 steps,
where black is 0 and white is 255. Colours have three values, one for red, green and blue.

Metering systems work remarkably well, especially when the scene has a wide range of brightness or tonal values. However, the main problem is that the meter doesn’t necessarily know what it is looking at. For instance, if you’re photographing a snow scene or a white sandy beach, the meter is going to suggest an exposure that records the snow as a middle grey (value 128), whereas you might prefer your snow to look a little more pristine (say a value of 230 – you don’t want the snow to be paper white at 255 or you won’t be able to see any detail in the snow).

Modern cameras are in fact better than this. Cameras often contain a database of common lighting situations against which they can compare what they are metering. And with face recognition technology etcetera, no doubt cameras have become increasingly expert at determining what they are photographing and setting the correct exposure.

Even so, there will be times when you have to intervene, so how do you know if the exposure is correct? And if the exposure isn’t right, how do you fix it?

The Histogram

This is where the histogram comes in handy. Every camera has a display mode for its rear LCD preview monitor which shows a graph called a histogram. Some mirrorless cameras even include the histogram in the viewfinder - so you can look at it before you take a photo!

The histogram is a representation of all the tonal values in a scene (you can see several examples on these pages). Brightness values or tones which will be recorded as black in the photograph have a value of 0 and are positioned on the far left of the histogram.

Tones which will be recorded as white have a value of 255 and will be positioned on the far right of the histogram.

In theory, a scene with a ‘normal’ distribution of brightness values will produce a histogram that looks like a hill. The edges slope down either side towards black and white, with the majority of tones in the middle. A histogram like this normally indicates a good exposure.

Problem Histograms

When the camera’s metering system gets the exposure setting wrong, your photographs can look unnatural.

An underexposed photograph may show large areas of detailless black. This can be seen in the histogram with all the tonal values stacked up to the left.

In an actual scene, there may be a lot of dark tonal values, but they are not all black. In fact, they are all different when you view them with the naked eye. However, if you underexpose the image (the histogram is stacked up on the left), all these subtle differences can be lost and all the different dark values would be recorded as a single tone, black.

Even if you lighten the image afterwards in a program like Photoshop, you won’t be able to recover the subtle differences; they are lost forever. This problem is called ‘clipping’ because tonal values are lost or clipped from the histogram.

An overexposed photograph has the opposite problem with large areas of detailless white and the histogram stacked up to the right. Generally speaking, overexposure is worse than underexposure – it is visually harder to deal with.

In Camera Solution

If you take a photograph and the exposure is incorrect, sometimes it can be rescued in post-production (using a program like Photoshop or, preferably, your raw processor like ACR, Lightroom or CaptureOne), but if the tonal values have been ‘clipped’ or lost, then you will never get the detail back.

The best solution is to get the exposure correct using the camera and you can do this most of the time using the histogram.

STEP 1: Change your camera’s LCD display mode to show the histogram when you review your photographs. If you’re unsure how to do this, read your camera manual. All DSLR and mirrorless cameras will show you a histogram immediately after you have made an exposure (and some will let you preview the histogram before you take the photograph).

STEP 2: Take a test photograph. If you are photographing an important event, take the test photos before the event takes place.

STEP 3: Review the histogram.

If the histogram has a ‘hill’ somewhere in the middle and it doesn’t stack up either end, the exposure is good. Continue shooting! However...

If the histogram stacks up towards the left, the image is underexposed and you need to add exposure.

If the histogram stacks up towards the right, the image is overexposed and you need to subtract exposure.

If the histogram is stacked up to both the left and the right, you have a scene with a very wide tonal range (e.g. most outdoor scenes in Australia in strong sunshine). The exposure you have may be the best you can achieve.

STEP 4: Adjust the exposure using the exposure compensation control on your camera (refer to your camera’s instruction manual if you need help). Make an adjustment, say +2 EV or -2 EV and then repeat Steps 2 and 3 until the resulting histogram looks good!

So, Is This Correct Exposure?

Even with your histogram correct, this isn't necessarily the correct exposure from an aesthetic viewpoint. A better result might be quite dark or very light, but generally this is a decision left until later. If you record a poor exposure technically, there's less that you can do later in post-production; on the other hand, record a correct exposure with your camera and post-production will allow you to do whatever you wish later.

When trying to record the perfect exposure in the field, try to position your histogram so it is as far to the right as possible, without touching the right hand edge. This is called 'exposing to the right' and it is done because (simply speaking) the quality of the pixels on the right of the histogram is better than those on the left. Pixels on the right (in the lighter tones) have more tonal steps than pixels on the left (in the shadows). If you decide later on to lighten the shadow pixels, you won't get as good a result as if you had exposed them correctly in the first place; but if you want to darken lighter pixels, this isn't a problem.

Finally, sometimes it's not possible to get a perfect exposure in the camera. In this situation, certainly you want to be shooting in raw so you can possibly extract a little more out of your files later (as we've done elsewhere in this Masterclass). Another option is to take more than one exposure - to bracket. Most cameras can be set to take three, five or more exposures, but to make the most of this feature it's best to lock your camera off on a tripod so the different exposures can be more easily joined together in Photoshop (no alignment problems).

Correct exposure is a matter of opinion, but only once you've achieved a 'technically correct exposure'.


POST PRODUCTION: 08 | Lab Color Mode

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Photoshop is not perfect. Did I say that? Wash my mouth out with soap and water! However, I'm correct and the fundamental basis upon which Photoshop works is somewhat flawed when you're using curves to make adjustments. There are several solutions of course (there always are with Photoshop, so perhaps it is perfect after all), one being luminosity blend mode, the other being Lab Color mode. See why - although be careful, these are not perfect solutions either!



LOCATION SURVEY: 08 | Niseko Japan


Most people visit Niseko to ski or snowboard. In recent years, there has been a huge rush to discover untracked powder snow, but these days there are so many Australians there, it's hard to find a run to yourself. Not impossible, just harder than it used to be!

I visited Niseko for ChillFactor ski magazine and marked it as a place to return to. My focus was on skiers and skiing, so many of my photos from this trip are not directly related to landscape photography, but as you can see from the above image, I couldn't help myself. There is a lot to love about the Hokkaido landscape.

Mick at Annupuri - an amazing place with or without the skiers!

Most of the photographs I took were from skis. In other words, I skied to my locations because walking there simply wasn't an option. However, what I didn't do very much was stray into the countryside around Niseko, but when I did, what a countryside! The landscape is stark and simple, there are some wonderful old farms and road, and the trees in the snow are simply wonderful.

You certainly don't have to ski to get great photographs. There are lots of roads to drive around, but if you go in winter, be careful!


The main street in Niseko 10 years ago on a clear winter's day - well, the road is almost clear! Actually, you wouldn't recognise Niseko these days (2020) with heated roads to melt the snow and lots more hotels! But not far away in the surrounding area, the small towns and street scenes still look just like this.

One of the reasons skiers love Niseko is because it is a snow magnet. Storms come across the sea from the Russian mainland and dump lots and lots of it. For minimalist landscapes, it's perfect.

And for an Australian looking at a different culture, I also loved the buildings in the landscape.



This particular house was in the heart of Niseko, but with beautiful clear skies on our first day, one wondered how it accumulated so much snow. I found out the answer the next afternoon when I retraced my steps in very different weather... (And I confess that on return visits in 2016 and 2020, you're unlikely to find it looking so spartan. Niseko has become very cosmopolitan, but as mentioned elsewhere, you only have to drive a few minutes out of town to find smaller, sleepier villages that look just like this.)


It doesn't take long for the weather to change in the mountains and a day later it was pouring with rain! However, not to worry because the day after that the rain turned back to snow and all was good in the ski resort!

Finally, if you've wanted to see Mount Fuji on the main island, take a look at Mount Youtai instead (there are several spellings in English). It's a perfect, conical volcano, dormant as far as I know, and a great place to walk or ski at any time of the year (weather permitting of course)!

Mt Youtai, Hokkaido's Mt Fuji

I don't feel I photographed it quite perfectly, and I'd love to return when the light and atmosphere are just right. Ahh, well, I'd better add Hokkaido to my list of places to go... again!

Another shot of Mt Youtai taken in 2016


PHOTO ADVICE: 08 | Critique Session

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During the production of the Landscape Photography MasterClass, some of our early subscribers kindly provided some images for critique and review. This has turned into a very popular part of each MasterClass and we have received many complimentary comments about how useful the Critique Session is.

Of course, there are no absolutes in photography and so what you view in this movie is really just one photographer's opinion about another photographer's work. However, hopefully the advice and observations can be helpful in improving your own photography.


BUSINESS ACUMEN: 08 | Setting Up An Exhibition


Go On! Exhibit Yourself!

Years ago I exhibited my work with a group of photographers (called Cavé) in bank foyers around Sydney city and suburbs. Since we donated a commission to a worthwhile charity, the banks saw giving us the space for no fee as a community service.

Unfortunately, bank foyers aren't the best place for viewing work and people aren't necessarily in 'a buying frame of mind'. Other locations include shopping malls, local scout halls and community centres. Many can be hired for a couple of days or weeks, but you need to keep in mind security out of hours, having to stay with the exhibition while it's open, and whether or not there is any passing trade (walkers-by).

This is where the commercial galleries (sometimes doubling as framing stores) can be useful. While they take a 30% to 50% commission, in return they offer their staff and security. Unfortunately for photographers wanting to exhibit the first time, gallery owners prefer more established artists who are likely to sell several works - and hence cover the gallery's overheads. Newcomers without a track record are higher risk and few galleries can afford many exhibitions with low or no sales.

While looking for a gallery, it's also important to consider why you are exhibiting. Is it to sell work, or is it just as important to build yourself a profile?

Exhibition Design

Before spending time and money producing prints and frames, it's useful to visit the exhibition venue to see what will work, how big the prints should be and how many will fit comfortably.

Before exhibiting at a venue, I will measure the walls so I can calculate how many photos are needed. While some photographers like to keep all their prints in the same size frame, there's nothing wrong with variety. It's a matter of personal taste.

The next step is to make an exhibition map. Using Photoshop, I create a simple plan, placing prints (to scale) along each wall. This gives me an idea of how the images will flow and sit together as an exhibition, plus ensures I have enough space.

Printing And Framing

Whether you print your own or have a lab produce them for you, you will need to budget for the printing and then the framing. Each finished print can cost from $100 to $500, so the cost of production may limit the number of prints you can afford to show - or you can consider exhibiting your work unframed.

A good suggestion is to produce title cards for each print, including a caption about the photo and its price. This gives viewers something to relate to as they walk around the gallery viewing your work.

Limited Edition

Photos can be produced in unlimited numbers and the general public is very aware of how easy it is to get a photo reprinted. In comparison, an oil painting or watercolour is perceived as being a one-off and therefore of more value. To create a similar value, many photographers are selling their images in limited editions.

Limited editions vary from 9 or 15 to the more general 100 or 200, right up to 1000 and 2000. The higher the edition number, the less relevant the 'limit' is.

Some photographers and artists have several limited editions for each image - an edition of 10 for a big print, an edition of 100 for a small print, and an edition of another 100 if they sell the first two. It's okay to have different editions for different print sizes, as long as you do this at the start. It is not okay to extend an edition into other sizes if you're lucky enough to sell out of your first edition.


So, the prints are framed and the exhibition has been hung in the venue. Everything looks great, the floor has been swept and you're sitting at the gallery, waiting, waiting, waiting…

Exhibitions need publicity. If your gallery is in a busy shopping area, it still needs publicity.

More established galleries have a clientele and an on-going marketing program to ensure a thoroughfare of visitors. There's nothing like receiving an invitation to get you to a gallery - people like to be invited.

Most exhibitions have an opening night, but it is not essential. If you do, it is usual to arrange drinks and nibbles, plus you'll need someone to serve them. Family and friends can do a wonderful job, drinks can probably be delivered by a local pub and food by a caterer. Of course, the more you do yourself, the less it will cost because an opening night can significantly increase your exhibition budget.

I wrote a story about Stavros Pippos several years ago in Better Photography (Shades of Ochre). In it, Stavros described how he exhibited his work and while sales were good, he also sold a lot of books which he produced to coincide with the exhibition. He found that the many people who didn't want to spend $1000 on a print were happy to outlay $60 to $80 for a book. I have followed Stavros' advice myself and found it to work very well.

So how much should you charge for your prints? This is totally up to you, but you need to factor in not only the cost of the print and frame, but the gallery commission (or rent), and the cost of the frames you don't sell.

Let's take an example. Say you sell your print for $600. Deduct one third commission ($200) and the cost of the print and frame - say another $200. This leaves you with $200 'profit'. Let's say you have 12 prints and you sell six of them - a good result. The profit from the six you sell (6 x $200 = $1200) will pay for the prints and frames for the ones you didn't sell. And there is no allowance for your opening night expenses. So, good exposure, but no profit.

Let's put the price up to $900. Now you are making $400 profit per print, but you might only sell four of the 12 prints. That leaves you with $1600 to cover the $1600 it cost to make the eight prints that didn't sell. Again, no profit.

Now deduct the cost of your time sitting with the exhibition, not to mention taking the photos and preparing the prints. There are many ways to cut costs, but how photographers charging $400 to $600 a print can make it work in a gallery situation I don't know! Chances are they can't, so there must be something else in it for them.

There is. We all have to start somewhere, so the object when you begin exhibiting your work isn't to make a huge profit, rather to be 'collected' and purchased. Then, over time, you can build your profile and increase your prices to a profitable point.

In any event, exhibiting your work is a lot of fun and worthwhile doing at least once. Why not set yourself an exhibition as a project for next year - you'll be amazed how quickly the time passes!

This is an office-turned-gallery where Tania Niwa, David Oliver, Jo Felk and I exhibited in Neutral Bay many years ago. We tried small prints because a previous photographer had been very successful - unfortunately, we weren't so successful with this size, at least not in this area with this clientele. Also, the gallery was up a set of stairs, so we didn't have a lot of passing trade. Location, location, location and lots of marketing are essential.