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Photographer shares tips for capturing state’s scenic beauty

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By Melvin Hartley

Melvin Hartley captured this scene of a hiker watching a rainbow develop over New River Gorge. He says understanding light is the key to getting good scenic photos.
Hartley hikes extensively in West Virginia and other states. He never goes anywhere without his camera and his dog, Bear.

You don’t have to travel far to find inspiration for capturing West Virginia’s scenic beauty. From the Potomac Highlands to the New River Gorge, West Virginia offers numerous areas for any adventurous photographer. There is so much to see and capture -- from mountain vistas, waterfalls, old structures, farms, to wildlife.

Landscapes tell stories. While photographing the New River Gorge area, I reflect on its history. The land was once used by Simon Kenton, one of the first frontiersmen in the region. The Mary Ingles Trail went through the gorge, following footpaths used by the Shawnee and Cherokee, who used the area as their primary hunting grounds. The rise of the Coal Age led to the building of mining complexes, such as Nuttalburg.

Now, we have the rise of outdoor adventure sports, along with hunting and fishing, which fuel the local economies. This landscape also brings us great joy by letting us be in the moment with nature, by letting us watch the sunrise or sunset on the mountain range or plateau.

No one is born a photographer. Even professional photographers learn their skills one at a time, just like everyone else. I got into photography because I wanted to document the beautiful National Parks and other places that I visited, and to share them with others. I’m self-taught. I enjoyed the challenge of discovering on my own how the camera operated. I started slow, learning what each dial and button was for and how it impacted my image.

The first step is learning to make a good exposure -- learn the exposure “triangle” of ISO, shutter speed and aperture, and how each one affects the other to get a good exposure. The ISO lets you dial in the light sensitivity of the camera’s sensor. Dialing in too high an ISO can create digital noise in your images. The camera’s shutter speed is what lets you freeze or add motion to your images. The last part of the triangle, the aperture, affects the depth of field (how much of your image is sharp and in focus).

The three key elements of photography are light, composition and subject. The word “photography” means “writing with light.” We can all learn to write better by exploring and understanding light. There are four types of light in landscape photography: diffused light, the really soft light that you get on an overcast, cloudy day; side light, the light we can get during the first hour in the morning and the last hour in the evening; backlight, which is what you get by pointing your camera at the bright sun; and magic light, the perfect light, which is what we all want as photographers.

The second most important element in making a good photograph is composition. A good technique in composition is to emphasize perspective. Do this by anchoring the image to a subject in the foreground, such as a flower, rock formation, something interesting, and letting it lead the eye to your main subject. Another technique is to find a frame within a frame with tree branches or boulders. If the sky is interesting, angle the camera to include more of it. Use lead-in lines, which could be a fence, creek, railroad tracks or trail.

Last, but not least, is subject or moment. Find something interesting to shoot. Go to the high ground, find something in the foreground to anchor your shot, to give the viewer a sense that they are standing at the spot where you are standing, then include a grand vista of the scenery in the background. This works well at overlooks. Use a tripod to eliminate camera shake.

When you find a good location, if the light is not right, visit the site again. Landscapes and weather are under constant change. The seasons and weather patterns add new scenery and different lighting each time you visit.

So, know your camera, and know the components of exposure. Find your style, keep shooting and it will develop. Study art, look at art, look at and read photography books and magazines.

Go slowly and enjoy the journey. Mistakes will be made; learn from them.

Hope to see you out there and hear your shutters clicking.

Melvin Hartley is retired and lives in Fayetteville.


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