By Rob Sheppard
Did you ever see the photos of Ansel Adams standing on top of his car? He had a platform built that allowed him to set up a camera and tripod on his car to gain some height. A challenge we often face when photographing landscapes is that we are too low. Too low means we have to shoot through foreground stuff that is distracting or we can't get a good perspective on the scene. We can't get above important objects so they become truncated and we cannot show their real relationship with the scene.
The obvious answer is to get higher. You can see the difference in these two shots from Death Valley showing a creosote bush in the Eureka Dunes area. You would not think that the main bush is the same one! The first shot is from a high camera angle, whereas the second one is shot from standard tripod height. The first shot gives an interesting foreground to background relationship that shows how the creosote bush fits into this landscape. The second is hardly worth considering because the bush is too high in the landscape. (The green of the creosote bush is better in the first image because I used Viveza 2 on that image, but not on the second.)
So how did I do this? Did I drive a truck onto the dunes? Bring a big heavy ladder with me? Nope. I used my tripod, but in a unique way that works very well with digital photography.
I extended the tripod legs to their max, then brought them together. I set the self-timer of the camera to 10 seconds, set up my exposure and focus appropriately (in this case, aperture priority and auto focus), pressed the shutter, then hoisted my camera on tripod over my head. I held it until the shutter released, then brought it back down.
The great thing about digital for this technique is that you can instantly see what you got and make revisions. You may need to hold the camera straighter, aim a little higher or lower, and so forth. In just a few shots, I had my shot. (I did have to do some minor cropping for a slight straightening -- it can be hard to get the camera perfectly level when doing this, but then the Crop Tool in Lightroom makes this easy to fix!).
Obviously, you have to watch your shutter speed doing this or risk unsharp images due to camera movement during exposure. With a wide-angle lens, you can shoot at a slower shutter speed and still get sharp images, though this is inherently an unstable camera position, so you can't go too low. With a wide-angle like this, it is easy to use f/8 or f/11 to allow a faster shutter speed, plus I will use a higher ISO as needed, too.
So the next time you are in front of a landscape that is giving you problems, try hoisting your camera overhead! It can be worth a try just to see what the landscape looks like from up there.
This last picture includes a shadow of me hoisting that camera overhead to get some unique views of the tufa formations at Mono Lake that actually show Mono Lake as part of the scene.