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Adirondack Explorer

July, 2010

Contemporary Landscape Photography
Author: Carl E. Heilman II With Greta Heilman-Cornell

Review by: Kenneth Aaron

Contemporary Landscape Photography By Carl E. Heilman II With Greta Heilman-Cornell Amphoto Books, 2010 Softcover, 176 pages, $24.99

Contemporary Landscape Photography
By Carl E. Heilman II
With Greta Heilman-Cornell
Amphoto Books, 2010
Softcover, 176 pages, $24.99

CARLHEILMAN II takes the kind of iconic Adirondack photographs that make you want to quit your day job, blow lots of money on lenses, and head into the hills to capture some of those epic vistas yourself.

The great thing about landscape photography is that everybody who wishes can shoot the same landscape. So everybody, you’d think, could take the same kind of landscape photographs.

And, actually, most people do take the same kind of photos: blown-out highlights, shadows that swallow half the picture, being at the right place at the wrong time— these and other problems crop up in amateur photos over and over again. It’s often hard to capture the splendor you’re sure is there. That’s the impetus behind Heilman’s latest book, Contemporary Landscape Photography, which was released in June. After publishing more than a dozen lush picture books, Heilman gives shooters a course in crafting their own memorable photos, whether they use a digital or film camera.

The instructional manual is split into four sections: “Equipment & Techniques”; “Creating Your Vision,” a primer on composition, lighting, and effects such as blur and soft focus; “Locations & Lighting”; and “Post-processing,” a short chapter on Photoshop techniques.

The book is well-designed, accessible, and encouraging, with most sections broken into two-page mini-lessons. It contains more than three hundred of the author’s pictures. Heilman never makes it seem like his great works are unattainable unless you have some supreme talent. Given the right ingredients, you, too, can take a Heilman-esque photo.

The trick, then, is to do it again and again. So perhaps the most valuable tip in Contemporary Landscape Photography is among the most obvious: Heilman’s rich photographs don’t happen by accident, and just because you take a camera on your next hike, don’t expect to come home with something you’ll hang over your mantel.

Summer wildflowers in the Rocky Mountains.

Summer wildflowers in the Rocky Mountains.
Photos by Carl Heilman II

It’s a point that will grow more apparent as you get deeper into the book. While Heilman makes the point fairly explicit, many of his suggestions build upon the understanding that the professional landscape photographer spends as much time preparing for the moment as actually taking pictures. Great landscapes are a function of the shooter’s perspective, he points out, but also the sun’s position in the sky and the weather. And all of that, to some extent, can be predicted in advance. Heilman tries to explain low-pressure and high-pressure weather systems and teach you when you can wake up expecting fog and when you’re likely to find a luscious red sunset. And while science can’t predict a good location, Google Earth might be able to; Heilman recommends using it to scout places to shoot before you ever shove off. (Frankly, I can’t imagine ever doing that, but if it works for him— as he shows for a shot taken in Montana—I won’t argue.)

Ultimately, what you take out of the book will likely depend on your skill level. Big plus: The book is aimed at a broad swath of shooters. So while I’ve been shooting since seventh grade, I still found that the book left me thinking about the process of taking pictures and making exposures. That’s something I haven’t done consciously in a while, and I expect my shots will improve as a result.

Here’s the drawback: the book is aimed at a broad swath of shooters, and as a result, some of the shooting suggestions he offers will probably fall flat, whether they’re too simple or too advanced. Tips such as “every mountain range has its own character and mystique, so seek out the unique qualities” left me flipping the page. But to readers new to a camera, or the woods, that could be just the pep talk they need.

The rule of thirds: split the frame in three, horizontally and vertically, and place key elements of the image where the lines intersect.

The rule of thirds: split the frame in three,
horizontally and vertically, and place key elements
of the image where the lines intersect.

There’s enough good stuff in the book to read it cover to cover. Many of the photos include exposure information, which can be instructive; I was interested to note how many of Heilman’s shots are made with slow exposures, too long to be made by hand. In his equipment chapter, Heilman points out the value of a good tripod, and the results back him up.

I’d have liked more description of what it took to make certain shots. I inferred a lot—“He must have woken up at 4 a.m. to get high enough up this trail to get that sunrise panorama,” “He must have slogged through a lot of snow to get that shot”—but in most cases the stories behind the pictures went untold. That’s OK, though. He’s performed a bigger service by giving us a glimpse into his photographic mind—and helping us make those home slide shows more bearable.

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