Bruce Dale

At the age of five, Bruce Dale fashioned a close-up camera out of an old Agfa roll film, eyeglass lenses, and tissue paper. He wanted to make an image of a flower.

Dale's passion for photography and talent for creative technical innovations have been evident ever since. He had more than 50 photographs published in newspapers in his native Cleveland, Ohio, while still in high school, a precocity that led to a seven-year stint at the Toledo Blade newspaper. In 1964 he joined the staff of the National Geographic, where he had more than 2,000 images published during a 30-year career. Dale was one of the first photographers to become actively involved in digital photography, beginning in the 1970s, and he recently received an award from the Smithsonian Institution for his innovative work in the field. Since leaving the Geographic in 1994, Dale has expanded his photographic passion with a blend of journalism, advertising, and teaching.

One of the hallmarks of Dale's career with the Society was his evocative work with landscapes all over the world—from deserts to mountains, prairies to forests. He attributes his success to a combination of hard work, dedication, and luck. "When I have an assignment to photograph a new place," he says, "I do a lot of research. I look at postcards, books, Web sites—anything I can find about the place. If there is art or literature—poems, stories, diaries of people who lived there—I study those, too, because I want to learn not just what a place looks like, but what it feels like, how it has struck other people.

"I set out with certain goals in mind, but what I really want is to discover something new, something that hasn't been shown before. Some of my favorite pictures are ones I made while on my way to the places everyone goes."

Every year, Dale teaches a workshop near Santa Fe, New Mexico. On his way back to the East Coast, he ignores the interstates and prefers to meander along back roads. "By just taking my time and keeping my eyes open, I discover something new every day. Then it's a matter of time, of being willing to wait or, if necessary, making the extra effort to come back."

"I've always had good luck following my instincts, but photography really is a state of mind. If you are not in the right frame of mind pictures can pop up all around you but you can't see them. You have to be open to the place."

But the serendipitous discovery is not something you can depend on if you are doing a story for a magazine. "In every story, there will be subjects that you know you have to represent," Bruce explains. "If you have an assignment on the Rhine River, you are going to need a castle, wine, and the river itself. The editors and the readers will expect to see these things, and your job is to get good and, hopefully, new looks at them. Make sure that you spend an appropriate amount of time getting a photograph that illustrates these subjects well."

Dale usually works with 35mm equipment, and his images often look as if they were made with wide-angle lenses. Many are, of course, but more often they are not.

"A good landscape image, like any photograph, is largely about relationships and perspective," he says. "Most people think that when they are shooting a wide scene they should use a wide lens, but that is often not the case. It's natural to try to include everything, but you have to think about how objects relate to each other within the frame. Do you really want to include everything in the photo? Be selective, then try backing up and using a 50mm or 85mm lens to get a more pleasing perspective. I've made a lot of successful images this way.

"You have to learn to see as the film does. If you squint, or look at a scene through a heavy neutral density filter, you can cut down on the visual range your eye sees and more closely simulate the way the film will capture the scene. I also find it very helpful to close one eye. It eliminates the stereoscopic effect and puts you on the same two-dimensional plane as the photograph. Then notice how the scene changes when you move even an inch or two.

"I often use a graduated neutral density filter on the lens if a scene has a lot of contrast in it—a range of light beyond the capabilities of the film such as a bright sky with a shaded foreground. The purpose is not to change the scene, but to let you capture what your eye is seeing."

Dale is a wizard with equipment, and his cameras include medium, large, and panoramic formats that he uses as the subject and the client demand. For his favored 35mm camera, he has a range of lenses from 15mm to 500mm as well as a host of filters and other accessories. But these are far from the most important things to him.

"Lenses, filters, and all the rest are tools. What's really important is to be open to the feeling of a place, to slow down and allow it in. Look at the scene from several angles, have the patience to wait for the right light, and if necessary, return several times to find that magical moment that makes the scene extra special."

Bruce Dale's Landscape Photography Tips:

  • Simplify your gear—less is more. It's often faster to move closer or step back than to fumble with gear that is encumbering you.
  • A good tripod is important for landscapes. If you are waiting for just the right light, you can be all set up and ready if the camera is mounted on a tripod. It's especially critical when you're working with graduated filters.
  • Pay attention to the times when the sun is just at the edge of the clouds. It softens the foreground in an almost imperceptible way.
  • Watch for the shadows the clouds cast on a scene. They can often contribute a lot to your images.
  • To check for the position of the sun and clouds, don't look directly at the sun. Hold your sunglasses in front of you so that you can see the sun in them and check the relationship between the sun and clouds in that reflection.
  • Be careful of the placement of the line if you are using a graduated filter. Hide it along a natural line in the scene. Tip it if necessary. Remember your lens will stop down when you shoot the image and the line will be a bit sharper than it looks through the viewfinder. Don't limit yourself to using the filter only on the sky—use it upside down if there is a lot of bright light, such as snow, in the foreground.
  • Sunlight is nice, but give me fog or rain any day. Moody light can make for some dramatic images, and greens take on a magical quality in rainy weather.
  • Wear good shoes. (I dislocated two shoulders and sprained three ankles before I learned this.)

Text by Robert Caputo, from Photography Field Guide: Landscapes