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Landscape photography in the Mountain of Montserrat (and what I learned from it)

My name is David Balcells and I work as a Chemistry Researcher at the University of Oslo (Norway). Besides science, photography is my big passion. After reading a few inspirational books, like Chris Weston’s Nature Photography, I found the perfect school in my hometown’s backyard: the mountain of Montserrat (Catalunya, Spain). In this post I want to share with you 7 useful tips that I learned in this unique location.

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Use perspective and scale. They introduce a strong 3D-character. For this picture, I carefully placed the tripod in the SW corner of La Roca Foradada (meaning “The Pierced Rock”, a popular rock feature of Montserrat) to get the best perspective. I introduced scale and extra depth by placing myself on the opposite corner and waited for the sunrise to finally shoot at f/16 with my favorite Tokina f/2.8 wide-angle set at 16mm.

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Exploit time and location. Shot in the region of Agulles (“Needles”), this picture captures the fantasy orography of Montserrat, which gathers hundreds of rock monoliths on a small-sized mountain range (ca. 4 x 12 Km). After several attempts, this is the best image I got for 3 good reasons: magic hour (sunset; don’t forget that little headlamp!), season (winter snow, rare in the Mediterranean regions) and unique viewpoint (shot from a hidden lonely ridge).

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Watch out for wildlife. Besides landscapes, mountains also provide wildlife with proper habitats. Seemingly impossible in Montserrat, due to the big cities around (Barcelona is only 30 Km away), but mountain goats (capra pyrenaica) were successfully reintroduced in the 90s. I met this old male in a seldom visited area and shot it with the Nikkor 80-200 f/2.8. The eye-level perspective engages the observer through the connection with the animal’s glance.

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Don’t be afraid of HDR. This sunrise over the Benedictine abbey of Montserrat broke the dynamic range of the Nikon D700. I solved this by blending 3 bracketed images in Photomatix. The final HDR image was a success: it became a friends’ favorite and was awarded in a local contest. Yet some argue that, being HDR, it looked “unnatural”. Fine, BUT, if I’m asked which of the 4 images is closest to what I saw, no-brainer: the HDR. I believe that “unnatural-looking” often means “never saw this” because, hey, how many people wakes up at 5AM for a 2-hour drive and hike in the dark to see, only if lucky, these awesome scenes?

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A landscape can be better than a portrait. Mountains are excellent venues for the practice of extreme sports. Climbing is the most popular one in Montserrat. In this photo, instead of zooming into the climber for a portrait, I used his vertiginous position in the rock wall for adding drama to the landscape in the background. Another key feature in the how-to of this image is the viewpoint – a rappel station giving a side view from above the climber.

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Be there. All photos obviously require us to be there. But this one even more, since it is the photographer who creates the highlight on it, due the Brocken specter. This optical illusion arises when the light hits the viewer from a low angle through the fog. The viewer’s shadow, in this case mine as I took the picture, is projected with a circular rainbow frame. This is a rare event which, in 5 years and despite frequent fogs, I have only seen a couple of times.

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Silhouettes and sunstars can work great. They add a symbolic value to pictures. In this one, I combined both by using the Micro-Nikkor 60 at f/22, which generates the 18-pointed sunstar and still delivers good image quality. There is a little adventure story behind this image – After getting up at 4AM for the early summer sunrise, I had to run over the mountain to find the exact spot where the sunlight was projected on. And once there, I had to act very fast!

Thanks for reading. I hope these tips are useful. I am looking forward to your comments!

David Balcells

If you have an interesting idea for a guest post, you can contact me here.

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  • Kynikos

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and images. Most of these are amazing. The sunstar is extraordinary! Even on the couple I don’t particularly care for, your notes explain what you’re doing and I appreciate where you’re coming from. This is really thoughtful work and you should be proud of what you’ve created. Great stuff!

  • David Thompson

    Thank you for sharing your insight and your photographs. I enjoyed both and will carry something away with me.

  • Pau

    Hi David, glad to see your post here in NR! Impressive the HDR and the Brocken specter photos. Very usefull tips.
    Salutacions des de Barcelona ;)

  • whisky

    a great set of photos and tips. most of all, demonstrating the need to be in the right place at the right time, with a heaping spoonful of good luck. :)

  • Spy Black

    Excellent compositions. Great work, and thanks for your insights.

    Inasmuch as you were satisfied with your Photomatrix HDR process, I would like to make a suggestion with your HDR experiment, I have experimented with the “HDR” controls in Capture One Pro 7, as well as similar controls in Lightroom. You may want to experiment with them on your RAW files, you could possibly get some good results and maintain a more natural look to your HDR composition. You could download trials of either of those programs if you don’t have either one.

    Thanks again for your article, and I hope you have more opportunities to visit such beautiful places to photograph. I wish I could do that, but can’t at this time. :-)

  • Global

    A lot of people don’t like HDR (and I personally feel your shot has a “smidge” too much) — but its very personal. In fact, one of the reasons why HDR is so popular is because of how we subjectively see (and remember) things. The human eye and brain combination actually has MORE “HDR” than current cameras. The thing that throws HDR-haters off is that the human brain focuses on specific objects within a frame (we rarely are humanly capable of “seeing the big picture”) and that object (portion of what we are looking at) is what our eye and brain dynamically adjust for (the rest of what we see is obscured in our mind as peripheral vision). But if we are very honest and “see the big picture” (as is often the case in travels and nature adventures), we can “soak it all in” and the emotional effect is much closer to HDR than any particular still image that has no HDR processing at all (including internal). Cameras just don’t do psychological justice to what the brain sees and more importantly, feels. That’s another reason why post work is so important. Things that are in the picture that our brains edit out, we edit out. And that dynamic range that is missing from the picture but which our brains put in, we add in. Because this is as emotional as it is an art without very scientific specifications at all (for who can measure YOUR personal experience?), HDR can be hotly contested. We don’t even know if all people see color the same as us — and certainly some people see red and green differently. So whose to say exactly what your brain’s HDR range is? I too am often struck by how light-amounts of HDR make an image “feel” more 3-D and “feel” more human. Even though, as its applied throughout the image, it also “feels” less natural. I think our brains heavily process HDR, but for objects of focus, not for the big picture — though in scanning over an area, we can acquire the “feeling” of momentary HDR. And that difference between the momentary HDR experience and the permanent fixed HDR of a photo is the main gap, even separate from the “too much” or “too little” argument. Just thoughts…

  • Alex

    I dont think the HDR is looking closer to what you have seen. I do know I was not there … but i believe there is a confusion here. What I do agree is that the DR in HDR pictures is closer from the DR that our eyes see than “non HDR” pictures, but the overall photo neither show fidelity (contrast, colour, transition between shadows and light) nor give beauty to my taste. I dont say HDR is bad but I think it requires to be processed carefully to look good. An excellent HDR must not look HDR to me. But it is all a matter of taste of course, and I really like your first and last picture.

  • NoMeJodas

    Great photos! My favorite is the first one. It reminds me of how small and unimportant we are to this planet..

    The tips are also great. Well, except for HDR. I never liked it, and this award-winning picture didn’t succeed in changing my mind, I’m afraid.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • js200022

    Great job. Thanks for sharing the pictures.

  • nikondude

    I’ve been there, even earlier than 5 am, and I would say it doesn’t look exactly like your HDR. ;-) I like most of your photos, and I don’t want to be overly confrontative, but while I agree that probably none of your bracketed exposures looks like what you saw when you were there, neither does the HDR. I use bracketing of exposures a lot, but I don’t use photomatix or the like exactly because I think the results often look unnatural. You can also just manually blend the exposures in photoshop, and for me, these almost always look more natural than photomatix & co. Of course, if you are after the “stylized” HDR look, you’re free to choose to do so, but then, it’s no longer an attempt to make it look natural, but rather to make it look unnatural on purpose (which many people seem to like). Just IMHO.

  • Q

    Dont be afraid of HDR..but be very afraid of real life scenes that look HDR

  • http://www.blueswanmedia.com/ BlueSwanMedia

    Fantastic! Like several others, I’d say the sunstar is my favorite, and I love the Indiana Jones-esque story that goes with it – reminds me of the cavern scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark!

  • Graeme

    A boring set of pics and a lame set of tips. Meh.

  • camaman

    Wow this write up is very impressive.
    It really shows how much of your self you put into your work. Starting with timing dedication and equipment choice tto gain a desiret effect and capture your intended scene and emotion.
    To little coments on the Brocken specter photo. It awesome!
    Thank you. It was very inspirng for me.

  • bigeater

    I’ve always thought that the photographer’s most important tool is an alarm clock and your early morning shots prove this.

  • Aldo

    Excellent post. I enjoyed reading your comments on each photo. To my taste…the sunrise is overexposed… although I understand why you chose to do it that way. The hdr photo could use some work so that it has more contrast and looks more natural…this does not take away from your excellent timing…composition and photographic skill in general.

  • gorji

    Excellent article. I enjoyed the text as well as the pictures very much.

  • Aldebaranss

    The problem is not the HDR, it’s the way software “tonemaps” the image which is flattening all of the dynamic range you have in 3 images into 1 image, that result in that discernible “HDR” style. There’s a lot of ways to “HDR”, like, exposure fusion, photoshop masks.. etc.

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