Brett Morgan: Capturing the Jesus Rays

Masterclass
W I T H     B R E T T     M O R G A N

Brett Morgan

 

Brett Morgan’s face lights up when you begin speaking with him about photography. Within moments, it becomes delightfully animated as he explains his passion for the medium and for his first love in photography: the fine art landscape.

There is no arguing that this man lives and breathes photography. Listening to him talk about his work and his approach to picture making is absolutely inspiring: it makes you want to grab your camera and tripod, head out into the great outdoors to look for that golden moment, when the confluence of light and landforms make for photographic magic!

Brett is a fine art photographer whose love of the natural world and dedication to his craft sees fruition in evocative and atmospheric landscapes. For this Masterclass, Brett selected one of his favourite landscapes: a panorama of the Blue Mountains at sunrise with the “Jesus rays” breaking through the clouds.

Blue Mountains Sunrise by Brett Morgan
Camera: Nikon D3s, Lens: 70-200mm Nikkor f2.8 VRII at 200mm, 12-stitch panorama, f11, 1/160, ISO 100

 

Brett, the photo you’ve selected for Masterclass is a really moody piece. Tell us a bit of the story behind this landscape.

I took this while on a work trip, returning from Mudgee in New South Wales, roughly back in November 2010. We were basically driving from Mudgee to Sydney to fly back home to Perth. Like many photographers, I had my camera with me handy. It was about 6.30 in the morning, the sun was just starting to come up and there was cloud cover as we drove through the Blue Mountains.

There was a lookout coming up and I saw the sun coming through cloud cover. From what I knew about landscape photography, I could see it all unfolding, so I pulled up quickly at the lookout, jumped out of the car, grabbed my camera and put on my 70-200mm lens, leaped over railing and headed down to a bit of flat ground by a railway siding.

I could see the Jesus rays coming through the sky, just the warm, golden yellow light coming through the clouds. I knew I didn’t have much time, about five to ten minutes max before the rays disappeared. I perched myself in a nice stable position and manually focused on the plateau in the scene and started to take two rows of images at 200mm.

I remember seeing the detail in the scene when I played back the shots on the back of my camera and feeling really excited. I couldn’t wait to get back and start working on the image.

 

You made this panorama a black and white landscape. What’s your thinking behind this?

When I got home, I processed the image in colour. I spent about three to four hours on it, making sure every little detail was perfect. Then, I converted the image to black and white, so that I could decide whether I preferred the colour or black and white version. I went with the black and white because it looks more atmospheric, the monotone really brings a powerful mood to it – a sense of tranquility and enlightenment with the Jesus rays coming down through the clouds. I added some “fake mist” into it – by adding a white layer in Photoshop, set to Soft Light Blend mode, then dodged and burned around it quite a bit. I wanted to create a dramatic, misty effect in the landscape.

 

So, you post-process your landscapes quite a bit?

A lot of the inspiration behind my Photoshop techniques come from a German photographer named Calvin Hollywood. He is a portrait photographer, but his Photoshop techniques are completely different to what others are doing. He has a unique way of bringing out details in his photographs – it’s a fairly original way. He says: “Never be scared of going too far with an image. Always go as far as you want, and make it your own.”

That’s what I did. I converted the panorama into the image I wanted it to be.

 

Does this mean you already had an image in mind when you began photographing the scene at the Blue Mountains?

Yes. I wanted the main focus to be on the Jesus rays over the plateau, so I framed the plateau to the right so that the eye would be led across the landscape to the light falling on the plateau. I lightened the area around the rays, and darkened the hill on the left, to draw attention to the plateau lit up like that by the rays.

But I also wanted the viewer’s eyes to explore the landscape, because it was such an impressive one, so I added more mist in the valley – there was a little bit of mist in the valley but I wanted to add more in post-processing. I wanted to show the depth and breadth of that landscape. Did you know you can also create Jesus rays in Photoshop? But the ones here are real. I picked up a lot of Photoshop techniques from Lynda.Com [online software training videos].

My two most inspiring landscape photographers are Christian Fletcher and Peter Eastway; they go out of the way to be different. They extend their post-processing to create the landscape that they have visualised. My thinking about post-processing landscapes is similar to theirs.

 

How far do you go with the post-production?

As far as I need to go to get the picture I want. I’m a stickler for detail, so when I work on a landscape, I could spend hours on post-production, just going over every single detail in the image, zooming in to 200 per cent and making sure it is perfect. If I put a Photoshop mask on, I make sure the mask fits pixel by pixel, so that it’s perfect.

 

What is it about landscapes that gets you so passionate and fired up?

With landscapes, I can do something that I’m passionate about. I want to capture some kind of emotion or some kind of feeling in that landscape.

I could be walking along and I just see something, feel it in the landscape. I realise the image in my mind before I even capture the image – I see in my head the way I want it to look. That’s where the post-processing comes in. It turns the photograph into a landscape.

 

Can you explain that a little more? What do you mean by “turning the photo into a landscape”?

Taking a landscape photo is more than just photographing a location. A photograph of a location is just a picture of that location. But when you take a landscape, you turn the location into an art form, you make someone feel that they’re there and that they’re feeling what you felt when you saw the landscape. Anyone can take take picture of a location, but landscape photography is about transforming the landscape, giving it emotion and feeling.

When I shoot a landscape, I plug my iPod in and have music going. It could be classical, or pop or AC/DC, but I begin putting the music into the way I shoot the landscape.

 

So, it’s about creating a work of art that people can connect with?

Yes, a piece of art that’s got a piece of myself in it, that gives it something.

 

What emotions do you convey in your landscapes?

The main emotions I want to convey are smooth, calming, enlightening emotions – for people to look at the image and feel relaxed and calm, feel like the way I felt when I shot the landscape.

 

What do you feel when you shoot landscapes?

When I shoot landscapes, I feel free. I might have so many stresses during the day but when I pick up my camera, I feel free and peaceful.

 

Mountain Country by Brett Morgan

 

Do you shoot mostly on your own or with others?

I go shooting landscape photography with Adrian Wayte – we have a passion for it and we feed off each other. I also shoot with Mark Stothard; we often go off on photographic expeditions and feed off one another. Share ideas, techniques…

At other times, I head out on my own. Sometimes I can’t sleep at night, so I go out at 1am in the morning, head out into the city and take a 20 image stitch of the city over the Swan River. Or just walk around the city at night, just taking pictures of the streets, people coming out of cars, of the Belltower.

 

What equipment do you use in your landscape photography?

I’ll use my Nikon D3S always set to ISO 100 – the lowest ISO I can go. I use my 50mm f1.4 lens when I shoot stitched panoramas, usually at f8 or f11 to be able to obtain deep depth of field. I also manually focus stack by taking two panoramas, one with focus on the background and another with the focus on the foreground. Then, I whack them into layers in Photoshop, mask them in and get a landscape that has sharp focus from foreground to background.

I’ve even used my Zeis 100 macro to do a pano – you take twice as many frames so you get more detail.

I use the 14-24mm wide angle zoom lens if I want to get a rock or something up close as a strong foreground feature.

I use a Gitzo carbon fibre tripod with a Manfrotto head on it with an L bracket (a bracket that lets you change from Landscape to Portrait orientation). I always shoot stitched panos in Portrait mode.

 

What about filters? A lot of landscape photographers swear by graduated neutral density filters to be able to expose for both foreground and sky, especially for “golden hour” shots.

I use Lee filters, but mostly these days, I bracket exposures. I’ll do two different exposures – one for the sky and one for the foreground, then blend and mask in Photoshop because I feel that I can get a sharper image as there is no actual filter there softening the image. But to do that, you have to work quickly as you only have a very small window of opportunity at that time of day. Nick Rains described it as “the beauty glow” where the sun is close to the horizon and all the colours are soft and vibrant. This is about half an hour before complete darkness. You have to work quickly before the light goes.

 

How far have you pushed yourself physically when you shoot a landscape?

I’ve stood on the edge of a cliff, stood waist deep in the ocean doing seascapes. If I see an image that I can capture there’s nothing I won’t do to try and capture it. I’ll go above and beyond as much as I possibly can to get the perfect image… sometimes I’ll look at a photo I’ve taken and delete it because it feels as if I haven’t gone far enough in taking the photo.

 

Have you injured yourself?

I’ve hurt my bum cheeks slipping over a slippery waterfall, and lost skin on my arms. I put body and camera gear on the line sometimes, whether it’s the salt spray in the ocean, or the fresh water rushing down a waterfall, or balancing on rocks trying to get one shot. I’ve climbed a tree and tried to shoot from the tree just to see if I could.

 

And could you?

Nup. [laughs]

 

Ok, let’s talk a bit about how you got into photography.

My first ever digital camera was a Fujifilm digital camera. I got a massive passion for photography at that point. I was living up north, so I used to go out with a mate and shoot the sunsets at Port Hedland. My favourite spot to shoot the sunset would be about 55 kilometres north of Port Hedland, at a place the locals call Tit Hills. There’s a spot called Claw Rock up there – the sunsets there are just unearthly, the colours and vibrance are beyond this world.

Later I upgraded to a Nikon D90 and then, when I realised that I wanted to make money out of photography, I upgraded to a Nikon D3s because I was branching out from landscapes to also shoot weddings, events, sports like the Westtrack 15000 Motorcross event.

 

So you’ve done weddings and portraits. Is there much difference between shooting a landscape and shooting a portrait, in terms of what goes on in your head?

I feel that capturing an emotional landscape is my forte – it’s what brought me into photography in the first place. But in my wedding and portrait photography, I’m also focusing on capturing emotion.

In wedding photography, I feel privileged to be able to capture so many emotions in one day; you can capture ten different stories in the one image. The dad in the background, the mum crying because her daughter’s getting married, the bride’s emotion. You’re capturing these emotions and creating images that are very special for them. I feel very privileged to be part of it. The money in shooting a wedding is there because you like to get paid for it but the biggest kick I get out of it is to be able to capture an emotion.

My passion for photography is huge, I would love to do it full time. For me it’s not a job, but a passion – even when producing wedding images for a client, I get a sense of gratification and satisfaction when the clients see the images and their eyes almost pop out.

 

Tell us about your favourite places to shoot landscapes in Perth.

One of my favourite places I’ve photographed recently was at Araluen. It was at the start of Spring and it was pretty amazing being able to capture the colour, the vibrance and saturation of colours in the gardens.

My favourite seascape location is Trigg Beach, but the stretch between Cottesloe and Trigg Beach has plenty of great shooting spots.

My favourite place to shoot street photography would be Fremantle.

 

City Beach Sunset by Brett Morgan

 

What advice can you give budding photographers who are keen to get into landscape photography?

The best five tips I can offer are:

  • Go and feel and find out what attracts you to landscape photography. Go away on a camping trip into the middle of the bush. Or go to a sunset every night of the week without your camera, and just observe and try and feel. Try and get into emotional connection with the setting. Then take image after image and then look at how you can post-produce the image to show the emotion you felt when you took it. When you start shooting, stay focused on the details in the scene – details such as a rock on the beach with the waves coming around it. This is what draws your viewer’s eyes to the scene, it’s what helps create the emotional power in the scene.
  • Have an iPod on you with different genres of music from really calm, tranquil music all the way to something like heavy metal. Then when you see the landscape, choose the music that goes with it. You could say, “this could be classical, maybe a bit of Mozart” or this is “AC/DC with a bit of Metallica”.
  • Never let anyone tell you that too far is too far. Always push it to the outer limits, as far as you can push. Both in terms of your photography (for example, getting right into the landscape) and your post-production of the image. Push it too far even and then drag it back, just to see what it’s like.
  • Find a landscape photographer you can look up to – everyone has someone they look up to – and draw some inspiration from them. Maybe email them, have a phone conversation with them, find out the way they post-process their image. Find someone that inspires you and try and outdo them!
  • Never try and stop learning. Always try and better yourself, experiment always learn new things.

 

MASTERCLASS ACTIVITY

One of the main points Brett raises in this Masterclass is:

“Taking a landscape photo is more than just photographing a location. A photograph of a location is just a picture of that location. But when you take a landscape, you turn the location into an art form.”

Brett talks about the emotional connection he feels with a setting, and how this affects the way he visualises that setting as a photographic landscape. He then uses Photoshop to create what he has visualised, using the tools available to him in Photoshop to transform the picture of a setting into a fine art landscape.

He also discusses the importance of music in helping him find the emotion in a landscape, whether he’s listening to Mozart if he’s looking at creating a serene, tranquil landscape, or to heavy metal if there are angry skies in the setting.

 

YOUR TURN

For this activity, you should aim to take a landscape photograph at the golden hour (about half and hour before full sunset, or half and hour after sunrise):

  • Get to the location early, so that you have time to scout it out and find a place from which to take your landscape photograph.
  • Bring your iPod or portable music player with you and, while you’re scouting or setting up for the shot, listen to songs that you feel reflect the mood of the setting.
  • Pre-visualise the landscape you’re going to shoot: imagine what it will look like as a finished image, and use this pre-visualisation to help you compose the scene. Where do you want the viewer’s eye to enter the scene; what are the key area/s in the scene that you want to make stand out in the finished image?
  • Once you have set up and have an idea as to how your finished image will look, wait for the golden moment – the “beauty glow” – and start shooting.

When you’re back on your computer, post-process the image to obtain the image you had pre-visualised. Remember Brett’s advice: “Never let anyone tell you that too far is too far. Always push it to the outer limits, as far as you can push… Push it too far even and then drag it back, just to see what it’s like.”

 

MAKING PANORAMA STITCHES

Creating a panorama by stitching multiple images together isn’t too difficult. There is software available, such as Hugin, that automates the process for you (many of them are free).

The trick is to take your images so that they can be stitched together to create a panorama. We recommend the following technique when shooting to create a panorama stitch:

  • Shoot in manual exposure – that way, you maintain consistent exposure across all the frames that will form the panorama.
  • Manually focus on a point in the landscape that you want in focus (ie. don’t shoot in Auto, as your camera may select a different focus point for each frame).
  • Overlay each new frame with at least half to two-thirds of the previous frame (ie. each new frame should only introduce 33% to 50% of the new scene).
  • Make sure that your frames have detail that will allow the stitching software to identify and match identical areas between frames. For example, if you shoot five frames of blue sky, or ocean, the software isn’t going to be able to find detail between the frames to match them and the auto-stitching process may fail.
  • If possible, avoid using a circular polariser, or you’ll end up having one portion of your landscape panorama polarised, and other portions unpolarised. Try and maintain consistency in the look across all frames.