Do you want to take better photos? Yes, of course, we all do. How about with a truck camper, like our Arctic Fox 865, in a landscape? Sure, okay! I am here to help you with that. Every time we raise up that camera or phone to shoot, we are recording what we see as interesting or important to us. So to make the best of the time spent shooting those photos, I have a few tips and ideas that should help you get moving forward on photography.
The first thing to understand in photography is that all the rules are not hard ones, so except for a few, they can be broken.
Light my way
The most important of all things in photography is the light, it is the main component in every photograph, managing the light becomes paramount then. But, you don’t need to master the light the way the pros do, you just need to use it more efficiently, and understand a little more how it works. In landscape photography we are working with natural light 24/7, it changes constantly, though at times like mid-day not as much. That mid-day sun is also when the light is harsher, so then when is the best times to shoot? Early and late. Have you heard of the golden hour or blue hour? The golden hour is about one hour after sunrise, and about one hour before sunset. The light is softer, and more dramatic then, the color is more vibrant and rich. Blue hour is before you see the sun, or after sunset, this is about 20-30 minutes before the sun rises, and again about the same 20-30 minutes after sunset. This does vary depending on where you are at in the world. These two times to shoot are quite magical, but be ready as the light and the color do change quickly. Take a moment to look around and see what the light is doing, it also helps to hang out awhile, wait to see what it will do, especially with clouds around. Sun and beams of light from behind some clouds can add that extra wow to your photos.
“But my phone shot is too bright and this is the shot I want!” Then try this—tap on the screen, your focus box will display, you will be focused on that spot, now right after you tapped the screen along the side edge of the screen you can run your finger up or down to change the brightness on screen before you shoot it. You have just changed the exposure in seconds!
Now on a system camera, you have a histogram, you can put this up on your LCD screen and or view finder. The histogram shows you how the light is being metered, this is the most accurate way you can determine if your exposure is correct before shooting. To go along with the histogram are your modes, located on top of the camera on a dial usually marked A,S,P,M, and AUTO or similar depending on your camera. When you make changes to most of these modes, the light will change too. That is why the histogram is important to look at, it tells you where your exposure is at no matter what you have changed in exposure related settings.
In this photo above taken at the 2023 Truck Camper Adventure Quartzsite Rally (awesome event by the way!) I had to really rely on my histogram, and expose for a medium between the sun and everything else darker, then bring up the shadows in Adobe Lightroom, finally adding some contrast and color to bring my RAW file alive. I shot this with aperture priority mode.
“Modes do what for me”?
Well, here we go….Manual mode is just that, everything you will set manually to get your desired exposure level. Manual mode uses what is called the exposure triangle. This has three elements to it. Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. They will change the brightness of your photo, so an example is if you change your aperture say one full stop worth from f4 to f5.6, to keep the exposure the same you need to change one or both of the other parts of the triangle to compensate, you could drop the shutter speed, and or add a little ISO.
In Aperture mode the priority is your depth of field mode (DOF), the shutter speed changes automatically according to the camera metering the light, you typically will have your ISO at a set value. As long as you have enough light to work with, I feel the aperture mode is your best, quick shot mode alternative to the manual mode which can be time consuming to get right at first. You still get the same creative look from your photos in either of these modes. With a shallow aperture like f2.8, you can keep your background soft and out of focus while all the sharpness and focus is on your subject, good for close up shots. On a phone, you usually have a setting called “portrait”, this can make a phone shot have a similar look to a shallow depth of field f2.8 on a camera. In landscape photography with big open compositions, most will shoot at the other end of the aperture settings with an f-stop between f8 and f22, but with the best results, image quality wise will be between between f8 and f16. The image I took below at Canyonlands National Park was shot at f14, ISO 100, 1/13 of a second, on a tripod.
“So what is this ISO thing about?”
Good question. It’s fairly simple to explain, as it is an internal amplifier to the light signal. The ISO refers to the sensitivity of your sensor as most companies will tell you. The signal, however bright or not that it is, will be amplified as you turn up the ISO setting. In manual mode, that means brighter and brighter is what you will see so you need to compensate with the shutter speed and aperture to keep the exposure near level, in aperture mode you get a higher shutter speed set by the camera automatically.
So here is a well known tip to keep your images sharp for say general landscape or everyday walk around shots. Whatever your lens focal length is—say 50mm—you should have the shutter be at least double that so 1/100th of a second or higher. The bigger zoom lenses might need even more shutter speed to keep an image sharp. That is where you add ISO, drop aperture and so on to accommodate what type of image you are trying to shoot and keep it sharp. Again, you are managing the light, and being creative with it on every adjustment you make that affects exposure.
Finally, P or program mode and AUTO mode are not going to give you options like the other modes will. Once you get an idea of how to use manual and aperture modes, i would suggest you avoid using P or auto. They can give you a baseline of what the camera thinks is correct, okay, but be creative and use the other modes.
Night Sky Photography
Let’s step it up a little and have some fun. Night sky photography time, oh yeah! one of my favorites. You get to see a different side of nature. First off, you will need a few specific items for successful images.
- You need a tripod, period. Most any will work aluminum included, the more expensive carbon fiber ones reduce vibrations better, and are lighter to carry. Bigger diameter legs are best.
- Wide angle lens, f1.4 to f2.8 is best, though an f4 lens can get you by in certain situations. Wide angle in full frame format is like 12-16mm, even 20mm. Zoom or prime.
- Wireless remote though not required, it is recommended. Don’t touch the camera when shooting a long exposure, get a wireless remote.
- Head lamp to see what you are doing, but able to have a red mode and very low light lamp at that.
- Patience, you will be shooting long exposures spending a lot of time for a handful or two of images, enjoy the experience of night shooting.
With a truck camper in most type of images, a front corner angle shows more of the rig, it has a more dimensional look to it. More dynamic if taken close enough.
A newer cell phone and GoPro can both shoot at night with a preset night mode feature. That means they basically take a long exposure to let as much light in as possible. You don’t get much in the way of settings choices, the camera in those devices chooses most of that for you. System cameras especially full frame versions are the best at this type of photography. Today’s sensors are really good at low light, but even so, you are shooting close to the edge of exposure in the darkest of nights. So how do you focus at night for the first time? A great exercise is to shoot mid day with your lens at it’s widest focal range, set the aperture to the most open your lens will do like f 2.8, then try to focus on a subject at least 50 feet away, farther if you can as this is the infinity focus area of most wide angle lenses.
If you want sharp stars in your image, focus to infinity. “What, why should I do this during the day?” Because all lenses are not created equal, their own infinity mark is usually off, and at a shallow depth of field like f2.8, you need to see in daylight where infinity really is, that “spot” is really narrow. Mark the spot with a felt tip pen or piece of tape on the lend barrel, or just remember where it is. If you have a really bright and detailed LCD screen you might be able to focus on a bright star or planet, but be ready if that does not work.
Okay, here we go, lower your tripod from max height down at least half way, especially in a light breeze, as it can move. The slightest movement on a long exposure means a blurry shot. Put some foreground element in there like a tree or a bush, you should have room, then point the camera skyward. I will tell you settings to use for a full frame camera since it is the standard by what all else follows. With auto focus off, and your focus set to infinity, be sure you are in manual mode and set your in camera shutter speed to 20, 25, or 30 seconds with a 16mm lens. Shorter shutter speed gives you sharper rounder stars. Use your cameras internal timer, 5 or 10 second delay. Now set the aperture to its widest or open value, such as f2.8. ISO next, on a really dark, moonless night you need to be at least at or above 3200 ISO. Once you start shooting, try higher ISO settings too, don’t be afraid to go to 8000 ISO.
This will get you shooting right away, go for it! Now if you have a wireless remote, you will set your shutter speed to BULB, this is usually one click beyond 30 seconds on your shutter range. Then set your remote to desired shutter length, and since you don’t need to use an internal timer, just click when you are ready. “How about noise reduction”? You can but don’t have to use it. If you do for a little cleaner image, just remember your camera will shoot a second exposure with the shutter closed, this is how noise reduction works by overlaying a second image on-top of your original shot. It also doubles the time to finish the entire shot. So if you set you camera or remote at 30 seconds long, the second shot is another 30 seconds for the noise reduction to complete, 1 minute of shoot time required. that is it, you did it! There are many other ways to do night shots with multiple images stacked for noise reduction, also for showing star trails, among other techniques that exist today, but this is the easiest way to get shooting single photos and get hooked!!!
Composing a shot
“How about composing a shot, framing, what tips do you have on that?” It’s called the rule of thirds. This well known composition element is where you place important, main subject or prominent features in your photo at or near the corners of thirds, that is the intersecting lines. Imagine what a tic-tac tow grid looks like over your photo…..easy right? Not all photos should use this but you come to a point where you feel certain ones look better with it, and others are better without it. But for one of the easiest ways to spruce up a composition, the rule of thirds is it.
In this image above of Mello Mike at the 2023 Truck Camper Adventure Rally in Quartzsite, he is standing almost on a rule of thirds line, also the person he is pointing to, a class participant is exactly on the opposite side rule of thirds line. I set my grid in camera to rule of thirds, and through the view finder i can see those lines, a very helpful tool in composing images. Now how about leading lines? Well, look again at the image again, the tent to the right is pointing down towards Mike, and the other side where the front row of people are draws a line somewhat towards Mike too. Not done yet, I put the sun just above Mike, star burst it by simply shooting at the aperture of f11, and even more I held the camera just above the ground for a different look. All lines should point toward the main subject in this image, and that is Mike. This image though basically documenting a class at the rally, has a number of composition elements being used.
In this image above also shot at the 2023 Truck Camper Adventure Rally, I use leading lines, but they are not all so obvious. They are, my camper roof, the bottom of my truck, the bushes in a row on the opposite side of the image, how about the tire tracks? The sun has been diffused by the edge of a camper on the left. Generally what you should see here is that the lines take you through the image from the front to the back where other campers are, and a far mountain in the back. Leading lines do not have to be straight either, a curvy creek or river can do much the same as straight ones.
In this image, there are two subjects fighting a bit here, my rig and the massive mountain scape in the background, along Icefields Parkway in Banff, Canada. Rule of thirds barely makes it here as the camper is low in the image, but take a look at the strong lines here, the highway, and the tree-lined ridges on both side of the image all trying to pull your eyes through the image. In the mountains, the lines of a highway, straight or curvy and creeks or streams can be used so effectively to draw your attention from the front to the back mountainous scene. I could have shot from another 70 feet away from the rig and it would have given good sense of scale, and just how big those mountains are. There are numerous ways to shoot the same photo. Experiment.
Another technique in creating drama, or to add a soothing effect is to use a slow shutter speed as in both these images above, additionally as a black and white, they have their place in “wow” factor. The first image of Mount Temple has the upper Bow River in the foreground, the slow shutter smooths the rough water, but leaves some texture, then the clouds show movement, the edge of the river banks, the ridge starting up high to the right, even the trees help to lead your eyes towards the subject, which is the big and massive Mount Temple. The other image is shot a few miles from my home in Lake Tahoe. A simple slow shutter does it here, with the added soft out of focus edges lead your eyes to the waterfall. How were these done mid day you ask? With a neutral density filter, a nearly black filter that blocks most of the light, using slow shutter speeds is the only way to use this filter, it simply threads onto the front of my lens. Using a tripod, I look at the histogram to help with the exposure, since I can’t see the image on my monitor that well with such a dark filter, the histogram info is the only way to get my exposure correct.
I will finish with some thoughts on editing. Both in phone installed basic editing software and pro apps like Lightroom, you can get in trouble fast by using too much. I see a lot of social media images with the saturation just cranked up, even the sharpness is over the top on some photos purposely. They can look fake in a hurry, and every one knows it too. If you want to pump it up and you like that look, you can do so. No hard rules here on this, but more believable tends to be better. Those editing programs have a lot to work with, slider adjustments everywhere it seems, so try this: start with exposure and get the brightness close, next work with shadows and highlights, then color and saturation. Once you get a work flow figured out that works best for you, it will make editing easier. The moral of the last few lines here is that less is more, a little push here, and little pull there goes a long way once they all convene to give you a final image. You can break or stretch the rules in many cases. Finally, we all are story tellers with our images, let that show and have some fun doing it!!!
Time for me to head out on another truck camper adventure and record it all on camera! See you on the road.