Whenever I've been asked, 'How did you take that photo?', the questioner is invariably seeking information on shutter speed, f-stop and the specific gear I used. Yet, if I'm honest, most of the relevant answers I can give actually involve issues of planning, preparation and most importantly, being clear about what I'm trying to achieve. In this article I'm going to share with you the process of creating a specific landscape image while on a recent shooting assignment.

Glencar Lough, Ireland
Canon EOS 1Ds MKIIIEF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM (@ 35mm)
ISO 100, 2.5 sec. @f/22, 0.9 ND grad, polarizer

Some years ago while working on my second book I spent a memorable morning at the shores of Glencar Lough at the borders of County Sligo and County Leitrim in the North West of Ireland.

I had scouted the site a few months before, when the landscape was wrapped in the dull green colours of late summer. Now it was autumn and the forecast had promised settled and calm weather for a few days. So I got up at 4 a.m. and drove the three hours to Glencar. On arrival I was greeted by the precise conditions I had envisioned. The green hues had been replaced by warm brown and yellow tones, the sun rose in exactly the place and at the time I had hoped, the air was still and the sky was just beautiful.

I got exactly the image I had in mind (shown above) and it became one of my most successful photographs. Over time, however, something kept bothering me about it. I was unhappy that the upper part of the tree is lost in the background and overall wished for a greater sense of depth.

A second chance

Earlier this year an assignment brought me back to Glencar; a perfect opportunity to tackle the tree and lake idea again. The time around my goal was an image with a more pronounced feeling of depth. To accomplish  this I knew I would need a bit more foreground and some leading lines.

For the foreground I was hoping to find some flag iris, a beautiful yellow flower that grows in groups in damp habitats like lakeshores. My leading line would be the shoreline if I could find a suitable spot. And of course I also needed to find another tree.

Day 1: First attempt

Arriving at Glencar, I began - as always - with a location walk. Starting right where the original image had been shot I made my way along the shoreline.  Glencar is a glacial valley with towering hills on two sides, among them the famous King’s Mountain and Ben Bulben. The valley opens to the West and faces the Atlantic Ocean.

After wandering the shore for the better part of an hour I came across a promising spot that had everything I needed; a tree, flag iris and a bending shoreline. Unfortunately, at this time of season the flag iris was not yet in bloom.

Day 1: First attempt
Canon EOS 5D MKIII, TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II
ISO 100, f22 (merged from 3 exposures +/- 1 stop EV)

I set up for a first test shot facing south like I did with the original image. The bending shoreline added some sense of depth but overall the composition wasn’t very satisfactory (see above). With the flag iris in bloom and some dramatic evening light perhaps it could just work… but only just. I would have to keep looking.

Day 1: Second attempt

I put away the camera and started walking around the tree, exploring it from every side and the obvious became clear very quickly.

The solution was to place the tree’s crown exactly in the opening of the valley. Because the valley opens up to the West this would be most effective as a sunrise shot. In my mind’s eye I envisioned the rising sun casting its warm light on the mountains while the lakeshore and the tree remained in shadow. The flag iris field would provide some necessary foreground interest.

The technical challenges of making my vision a reality revolved around positioning the camera and balancing the scene contrast. There would only be one spot where the tree would fit exactly in the gap between the mountains and I would have to figure out the rest of the composition from this spot.

Since the tree would protrude into the sky I wanted to avoid using an ND graduated filter because it would turn half of the tree into a silhouette.  Instead I decided to  bracket exposures which I could later merge into a composite image. The 24mm focal length was perfect here. A wider lens would have been taken interest away from the tree and a longer lens would not have captured the sense of space in the valley.

Even though I had planned to return for a sunrise shoot, I proceeded to make some test exposures so I could anticipate any problems that may arise. By this point it was evening and I was shooting under rather dull and cloudy skies so I wasn’t expecting to make any usable images.

Day 1: Second attempt
Canon EOS 5D MKIII, TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II
ISO 400, f22 (merged from 3 exposures +/- 3 stops EV)

The backlit clouds, however, turned out to be visually interesting (see above). With the contrast range far exceeding that of my camera I set about determining exposure and bracketing values. I set an initial exposure that allowed for some highlight clipping in the brightest parts of the sky and through quick tests set exposure bracketing at +/- 3 stops. I kept shooting for about 30 minutes before packing it in, with a plan to return the next morning for the sunrise shoot.

Day 2

The next morning looked promising when I arrived on location at 5:30 a.m. Because I had worked the location the previous evening I knew exactly where to set up and what settings to use on the camera. Unfortunately, the rising sun was accompanied by low clouds and mist. I waited for almost 2 hours, but the light I was hoping for never appeared. The result is a cold and dull scene (below).

Day 2: Early morning
Canon EOS 5D MKIII, TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II
ISO 400, f22 (merged from 3 exposures +/- 3 stops EV)

Day 3

Perseverance is one of any photographer's most important tools. And so, 5:30 a.m. the following morning found me all set up and ready to press the shutter button. A good deal of clouds were in the sky so my expectations were rather low. By 6 a.m., however, the cloud cover had started to break and some shafts of light appeared on the hills. And just 20 minutes after that, conditions had transformed into a beautiful spring morning. Soft light was caressing the mountains, broken clouds dotted the sky and the lake was almost perfectly mirror-like. Planning and patience had paid off with an image largely as I had envisioned (below).

Day 3: Early morning
Canon EOS 5D MKIII, TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II
ISO 400, f22 (merged from 3 exposures +/- 3 stops EV) 

Of course, this doesn't mean that there's no room for improvement. The image shown above is rather cool, because of the dominance of blue and green tones. And the foreground still lacks a dynamic feature.

Back home on the computer, I also created a monochrome version of this shot (using Nik Silver Efex Pro2) that represents yet another direction in which this image could evolve.

I'm determined to return next year when the flag iris is in bloom. A sea of yellow flowers will make a huge difference. Some more direct light on the hills or a red dawn glow in the sky would add warmth. And maybe I'll be lucky enough to get some fog lingering on the lake. The possibilities never end.

Carsten Krieger is a professional landscape and wildlife photographer based in the West of Ireland and author of several books on the Irish landscape and nature. To find out more about his work please visit his website: www.carstenkrieger.com.