Hey, everyone! My name is Brandon, and I am a freelance landscape and adventure photographer based out of Richmond, Virginia. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area of California but spent most of my summers exploring the Sierra Mountains, which is where my love for the outdoors, especially mountains, started. When I was 20, I joined the Navy, serving six years as a rescue swimmer, which is how I ended up in Virginia. While in the Navy, I got married and had my eldest son. Now as a father of two energetic and adventurous boys, I love taking them hiking and camping in the Appalachian Mountains as much as possible, so hopefully they too will grow up with a passion for the outdoors.
I am fortunate to live within an hour of not one but two U.S. National Parks: Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway. When I first moved to Virginia in the fall of 2006, the first place I wanted to explore was Shenandoah National Park, and my love for this park in particular has grown since that first visit where I watched the sunrise atop Old Rag. Over the past 12 years, I have hiked hundreds of miles through Shenandoah National Park, exploring and photographing during all four season and attempting to capture its sheer beauty. Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway are located within the Blue Ridge Mountains section of the Appalachian Mountain Range, which is what inspired my company name: Blue Ridge Imagery. These mountains have become my home away from home.
Tip #1 on Landscape/ Nature Photography
Light is the cornerstone of photography. Generally, the best light for landscapes and nature occurs during the magic hours: the Blue Hour and the Golden Hour. The Blue Hour occurs just before sunrise and just after sunset when the sky tends to have a rich blue hue. The Golden Hour occurs just after sunrise and right before sunset. Being a landscape photographer means having to wake up early or staying up late to take full advantage of the best light possible. The quality of the light is superior when the sun is low in the sky, which creates less contrast across the landscape, opposed to that of the light found around midday, when the sun is high in the sky resulting in sharp contrast throughout the landscape. Sunrises will usually produce more blue tone on the landscape, whereas sunsets will usually have more golden tones. Both are beautiful and can be used to help set the overall feel to the image.
Tip #2 on Waterfall Photography
As I stated above, light is everything in photography, and the best time to photograph waterfalls is on overcast days especially after a few days of rain. On overcast days instead of hiking to a mountain vista, I hike to a waterfall. The overcast skies provide an even light across the waterfall, which prevents bright highlights and dark shadows from creating dappled light. The overcast sky also brings out the rich colors in moss and fall colors. But one of the best things about overcast skies is the ability to use longer shutter speeds without filters. To achieve long shutter speeds, set your camera’s ISO to its lowest native setting (usually ISO 100), and use a small aperture (f/10- F/22). A long exposure is what creates the smooth silky effect in the water. Usually, a 1-5 second exposure will create this effect. If your camera is at its lowest ISO and smallest aperture, and your shutter speed is still too fast, then you will need to add a filter to the front of your lens. The two most useful filters are a Circular Polarizer (CP) and a Neutral Density (ND). Most landscape photographers use a CP filter to enhance the color of the sky, but it can also be used to remove the glare from water and wet rocks while enriching the colors to a deep natural look. Most CP filters also block 1-2 stops of light which will slow the shutter speed allowing you to create the smooth water effect. ND filters are a dark piece of glass placed in front of the lens reducing the amount of light passing through lens; think of ND filters as sunglasses for your lens. ND filters allow photographers to use long exposures even on bright, sunny days. ND filters come in strengths blocking anywhere from 3 to 15 stops of light.
Tip #3 on Fall Foliage
Planning your fall color trip is very important because photographers have a very small window to photograph fall colors once the leaves begin to turn. The weather.com fall foliage map is a great place to start especially if you are planning to travel. This map will give you an idea of when a region of the U.S. typically hits peak color, but keep in mind every year is different.
When most people first start photographing landscapes, they only use a wide angle lens; a few examples of wide angle glass are the 16-35mm, 14-24mm, or 18-55mm. This can be great for showing the whole scene of a large vista, but the problem is everything in the frame will be small including all of those beautiful trees turning colors. Usually, unless I am able to get really close to my subject (i.e. a tree or waterfall) and am able to fill the frame with the subject, during fall my wide angle lens usually stays in my camera bag. Typically, I have found medium and telephoto lenses (examples: 24-70mm or the 70-200mm) work best for capturing the fall colors. Using these focal lengths will help you isolate your subject, making it big in the frame, which will help showcase the fall colors.
Tip #4 on Additional Photo stuff
Dressing for success will help make sure you are in a position to capture some amazing images. Staying comfortable and dry are very important because the truth is that landscape photographers sit around a location for hours waiting for the perfect light. If you are hot, cold, or wet, it may force you to leave early, which could lead to you to miss a beautiful sunrise or sunset. Dressing in layers is very important especially if you have to hike to a location, and never wear cotton as a base layer. In fact, you should just leave your cotton clothes at home. A rule I was taught in the military while going though survivor training was to stay comfortably cool while hiking. This will help keep you from sweating, which in turn will help keep you dry. Once you get to your location, you can start adding layers back as your body cools down from the hike. If you are not comfortable, you will become miserable, and you will not enjoy the experience of being out photographing landscapes and nature. Besides being miserable, being hot, cold, and wet could lead to more serious issues like heat exhaustion, heat stroke, or hyperthermia, so please dress appropriately.
I hope you keep these tips in mind while on your next adventure and are able to wow your friends and family with some beautiful images. Remember: the best way to improve your photography is to get outside and practice. Practicing these photography skills might just be the excuse you need to visit that dream location on your bucket list.
–Photography & Writing by: Brandon Dewey of @BlueRidgeImagery