‘How Did You Shoot That?’ A Common Question, But is it The Right One?

Of the many questions I receive from my students and from viewers of my photographs, “How was it shot?” is perhaps the most frequent. But is it the right one?

“How did you shoot it?” “How did you do that?” Together with “What camera do you use?” are perhaps the questions I get most frequently from people enjoying my work in print, from my Workshop students, people contacting me on social media, and so on. When Olaf Sztaba, Co-Editor of Elements Magazine, asked me to write a “How it Was Shot” article as my contribution, I was delighted. Not only would this give me a chance to explain my process to those interested, but most importantly it would give me an opportunity to try and refocus the question itself, so to speak.

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We live in technically oriented times, perhaps exceedingly so. We certainly spend a lot of time discussing the equipment we use and the techniques we apply to our photography, both in the field and in post-processing. But perhaps we don’t spend enough time discussing why we do what we do. Classic photographers had a strong enough technical knowledge of their craft to create their images exactly the way they wanted to but, most importantly, they had a vision to follow. For them, the “how” was just a means to an end. What was really important was the “why.” Let me try and tackle both these aspects while discussing how I created my “Majestic Radiance” photograph. To do so, I will ask you to join me for a walk one fall afternoon in the Dolomites, Italy.

In October 2019, when we still could travel freely, I was ready to leave Rifugio Auronzo to photograph the iconic Tre Cime di Lavaredo. The Rifugio is located right under the Tre Cime, on the southern side of the range. To photograph these beautiful peaks, however, you need to walk around them and get to the opposite side. To do so, right at the start of your walk you’ll face a momentous choice. You can head east, circling the Tre Cime counterclockwise, and in about an hour and 15 minutes, you’ll get to Rifugio Lavaredo and to the famous viewpoints, where most people go. Alternatively, you could go west, circling the Tre Cime clockwise, and in about 45 minutes you’ll get to a much less explored area, an area of wild beauty with nobody around if you go off-season as I do. It’s an area without iconic viewpoints, set images, or famous shots of the kind that once seen stay in the back of your mind influencing your choices, even if you aren’t aware of it. In short, it’s a place where you are completely free and you need to put your creativity to work to get your photographs.

Although I regularly visit the more famous eastern side as well, enjoying the challenges posed by working on such iconic views, on that particular day the weather conditions inspired me to take the road less traveled instead. I left Rifugio Auronzo and went west, enjoying the crisp afternoon mountain air as I made my way toward my chosen photographic hunting ground. When I am out photographing, for me even the way I get to the location, in this case, the walk itself, is an important part of the process. On the 45-minute walk, I previsualized the location as I remembered it, anticipating the challenges ahead.

The north faces of Tre Cime di Lavaredo are a beautifully set, majestic group of peaks. They are fairly high, being just one meter short of 3,000 meters. What makes them impressive from my chosen shooting location on the west side is their prominence. To give you an idea, let’s consider the tallest of the three, the Cima Grande. Depending on your vantage point, you are looking at about 600 metres of vertical wall, rising as close as 800 mt to 1 km from you. The majesty of the Tre Cime from there is simply undeniable and it’s much more evident than it is from the more classic east side viewpoints, where you are looking at the Tre Cime from nearly twice the distance and from a much higher vantage point. Looking at the peaks from the west side, one can’t help but feel small against the power of nature. Standing there alone, immersed in the mountain silence, on a good-weather day such as that day in October 2019, the scene evokes a sense of calmness and pure awe.

Power, calmness, awe. These were the feelings I wanted to convey in my photographs on that afternoon.

With that in mind, when I reached the location, I started thinking about the image I wanted to make. I checked the sky again, as I do regularly. Working in a mountain environment, without any water to play with, the sky becomes even more important than normal when you are photographing at the seaside or around waterfalls, and so on. At my location, a dramatic, cloudy sky would have made for a completely different image, one conveying the power of nature very differently from the calmness and awe of that day. On that day, I had very few clouds available for me to use. However, what clouds there were, luckily were moving on a north-south axis, albeit relatively slowly. As soon as I realized this, I could immediately visualize how a fairly long exposure would turn those clouds into a sort of crown radiating out from the Tre Cime.

All I had to do now was organize my composition. To frame the whole of Tre Cime, I needed to use a wide-angle lens. I chose a 21mm on the Hasselblad X1D II, the system I was using before moving to my current system, the Phase One XT. With its field-of-view equivalent to 17mm on the so-called full-frame 35mm format, the XCD 21mm was definitely wide enough. However, as we know, wide-angle lenses have the effect of making distant objects look smaller compared to closer ones. To compensate for that and show the massive size of the mountain range, I decided to create a layered composition featuring different distance planes. I found a crescent-shaped foreground rock mimicking the shape of the mountains and their skirts. All this would convey to the viewer the distance between me and the mountain range, and therefore the real majesty of the Tre Cime.

Equipment is not the be-all and end-all of photography but different equipment can obviously help you pursue different aesthetics, especially when you change sensor size in the digital world. For instance, I’m looking forward to going back to the Dolomites next October with my Phase One XT equipped with the Rodenstock 23mm and Rodenstock 32mm. Although a longer lens than the Hasselblad 21mm, thanks to the larger sensor of the IQ4 digital back, the Rodenstock 23mm covers a wider field of view than the former 21mm. Furthermore, weather conditions permitting, I’ll see what stitching frames with the Rodenstock 32mm can do. Either solution will offer a larger field of view than what I had available in 2019, but both will introduce less of the wide-angle effect described above, resulting in a very different look.

Back to 2019. Lastly, once the composition was decided, I had to decide what kind of light I wanted to use. For the kind of image I had in mind, and given the sky available on that day, I decided to wait until after sunset to use the afterglow to light up the scene. This allowed me to enjoy a beautiful, very soft light, which went well with the idea of calm awesomeness I had in mind. At the same time, the light maintained a strong sense of direction, illuminating the scene from camera right; this, in turn, helped me to add a sense of depth and three-dimensionality to the image. All I needed to do now was choose a small enough aperture to keep everything in focus, as well as decide how long a shutter speed I needed to render the clouds the way I wanted. The former is easy enough to do and I do it from experience at this point in my photographic journey. However, any depth of field calculator will tell you where to set your point of focus for any given aperture to keep everything sharp in your frame. For the latter, you’ll need a little more experience in previsualizing the effect of a long exposure on your available clouds. In this case, I determined that something around three minutes would do the trick and selected the appropriate ND filter to take me there. Finally, I pressed the shutter.

“Majestic Radiance,” the photo accompanying this article, is the result. I packed up and started walking back toward Rifugio Auronzo enjoying the cold evening air and thinking about my next visit to the Tre Cime.

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About the author: Vieri Bottazzini is an internationally acclaimed Fine Art landscape photographer based in Italy and working all over Europe and the US. Passionate about the Earth and its beauty, Vieri’s photography has been described as “a poetic journey in landscapes of endless beauty, landscapes he could capture the inner spirit of by going past their mere appearance in an aesthetic voyage of discovery of our planet’s deepest nature.”

Vieri’s work is regularly published in various magazines; his Fine Art prints are featured in exhibitions and are part of several private collections. A firm believer in the fundamental importance of sharing knowledge, Vieri is a passionate teacher, a prolific writer, and is much in demand as an adjudicator. Deeply committed to the protection of the environment, Vieri partners with Eden Reforestation Projects, Nature First, and Leave No Trace to support reforestation and educational projects. Vieri is a proud Phase One Local Ambassador, a Formatt-Hitech Signature Artist & Brand Ambassador, and a Qualified Associate of the BIPP.