Beyond macro photography

Obviously the focus up to this point has been on macro. However, landscape photography is an essential ingredient for setting the scene and creating context for many macro photos. If you do decide to publish, many editors like to see a landscape photo which sets the scene and can provide background information on where such marvels creatures can be found. Even when they don’t specifically ask, I have found that offering up such a contribution still works in one’s favour. When taken from remote jungle, or high mountaintops it can show the efforts that went into a photo in a way that a caption like “deep jungle” simply fails to do.

I find it to be especially important in chronicling my tales of misfortune in my adventure blogging. Keep in mind though that books have been written on the subject and to be perfectly honest, it’s not by area of expertise, so take what I say within the context of macro photography and documenting the travails of trekking across the globe rather than a how-to guide for flawless landscape photography.

Landscape photographers go on about the golden hours, sunrise and sunset. Undoubtedly these hours are important and indeed transformative in some cases. However, the rest of the day should not be neglected. The key to an engaging photo to my mind is atmosphere. Fog, mist, clouds, contrast, rain, snow, all these elements add interest to a photo and should be pursued rather than avoided.

It was just about the start of the rainy season and I’d just come from a miserably wet bogland (Read full story HERE). The rainclouds constantly threatened and I was reluctant to offer up my camera gear as another sacrifice. However, between the option of staying in and nursing leech bites and going on a trek to find the beautiful and endemic ‘doughnut pitcher plant’, Nepenthes aristolochioides, (It’s much more beautiful than it sounds) I opted for the latter. Danau gunung tujuh or 7 mountains lake is only a short 3 hr hike from the nearest village and is the site of these wonderful carnivorous plants. Clouds rolled overtop of the lake and mountains and brief spats of rain interrupted my 2hr shoot with the plants, however I was more than justly recompensed for my gamble (Full story HERE).

Storm clouds over 7 Mountains lake in Sumatra, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

One of my favourite landscape photos from my last trip to Indonesia was the shot below. I feel like I got most of the elements and balance right in this shot. Taken on Gunung Kerinci on the island of Sumatra. Kerinci is the 2nd highest climbable volcano in the area and attracts mountaineers from all over Indonesia. The climb itself is strenuous, though not overly so. Nevertheless summiting by sunrise still requires waking up at ungodly hours, braving the bracing cold, the shrieking wind and the icy rain. The view from the summit itself was choked with fog and I was most disappointed. However, while descending the mountain, the clouds parted briefly and I was able not only to get a partial view of landscape, but also to document the arduous climb upwards. I feel like the barren scree above the treeline, the roiling mists, the dark foreboding clouds, golden dawn, scenery and the dwarfed and almost insignificant climber combine together to make this a memorable photo. The climber is in the bottom right so as to emphasize the distance yet to climb, as well as show the steep angle of incline. I was fortuitous that the climber was wearing a poncho which whipped about with the wind and subtly gave more character to the shrill wind.

Climbing Gunung Kerinci to photograph the Giant red leech, a previously undocumented species. Photo taken on Gunung Kerinci summit, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

It can sometimes be daunting browsing through a photographer’s portfolio. Why would they ever put their failures up for all to see? In fact the reason is manifold. Not only do they wish to appear as professional as possible, but errors, the unpolished work might also give clues to their technique. After all, knowledge and experience is learning from one’s own failures, however; wisdom is learning from the failures of others.

I have often found the importance of documenting one’s failures alongside one’s successes. This not only acts as a kind of photographic journal, but can also be used for future reference should you find yourself in similar circumstances (not to mention that it’s a little humbling putting out your failures for all to see). Although I had initially planned on deleting all my pictures from the chocolate hills on the island of Bohol (Philippines), I decided that putting them on display and walking through my method and thought process might prove useful to others, despite the fact that there are few if any salvageable photos in the lot.

An attempt to incorporate foreground elements to block out and draw attention away from farmland. Photo taken in the chocolate hills, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Like the previous picture, I hoped that perhaps by shooting through a foreground subject I might be able to divert attention away from the lacklustre landscape. In this case it wasn’t successful. Photo taken in the chocolate hills, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Nevertheless, the photos do demonstrate some principles borne of experience which are applicable to other scenarios. For example, knowledge of local practices like the burning of trash, agricultural clearing or nighttime fires common to many SE Asian settlements can create haze which can negatively impact photos. Research beforehand the most up to date information on the area you plan to visit since a pristine area may have undergone development since it was last publicly photographed/updated on Wikipedia.

Trash and agricultural burning can create haze, especially in the evening hours. Photo taken in the chocolate hills, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Sometimes just as important as the location is the time, weather and other elements beyond the photographer’s control which can utterly transform a landscape. A good example of this is the chocolate hills, a tourist draw on the island of Bohol in the Philippines. I had seen pictures online and was immediately drawn in and made a special effort to get there. The online pictures had piqued my curiosity, however I didn’t see any that truly inspired me. Could I be the first to capture this magnificent landscape in a way it deserved?

However, upon my arrival I was quite disappointed. The reality of the place didn’t seem to match the photographs I’d seen. The ‘forest’ from the photographs which looked like it occupied the valleys in between the hills was in reality quite sparse and was more farmland than forest.

The unfortunate reality. Rice patties interrupt the spaces between hills and haze blots out a beautiful blue sky. Photo taken in the chocolate hills, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Late in the day haze from burning trash made sharp photos next to impossible and to cap it all off, the sun set not in front or behind the hills, but to the side behind farmland, making for a weaker composition.

Despite the fact that there’s a sunset, a misty haze, a few hills and even a flock of birds (bottom left) the picture still fails to impress in my eyes. This is largely due to the sunset not setting directly behind the hills which would make for a much more impressive display. Photo taken in the chocolate hills, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

The following day I woke up at 4AM and drove my scooter an hour along the potholed roads to reach the lookout point in time for sunrise. Unfortunately the sunrise too was in a poor location, at least relative to my position at the lookout.

I brought my 300mm lens to see if I could zoom in on the hills to avoid some of the obstructions and perhaps frame the hills so as to avoid the ugly farms. The result wasn’t to my liking, however it was still a worthwhile exercise, as experimenting with different lenses opens up many possibilities.

Chocolate hills captured from the central viewpoint with a Canon 300mm f/2.8 lens. Photo taken in the chocolate hills, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

I wandered about the lookout hill and found a spot with the least number of obstructions and decided to shoot in a way to maximize shadows (to hide the farmlands and make it appear more wild, as it might have been decades ago) and appear more atmospheric, with the rising mists, rays of light and shadow outlines of the treetops and hills. The result are the below photographs which conceals more than they reveal but are beautiful all the same.

An acceptable photo focusing on the hills. I had to underexpose the photo to hide the farmland and palm trees between the hills. Photo taken in the chocolate hills, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Sunrise over the chocolate hills on the island of Bohol, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

View from the top. Lookout points are natural magnets for the landscape photographer, especially in the rainforest where it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees. It is worth the extra effort to hike or summit that hill or mountain early in the morning to catch the dawn, just to enjoy if not to photograph. Early mornings in the rainforest often also produces a low lying mist due to transpiration. This can create a glow which lights up the entire horizon as the sun shines through it. During the day the mist is usually burned off and is only replenished in the cool evenings.

Taken during an early morning hike to Pejenakan mountain, opposite Mt. Bromo, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Taken during an early morning hike to Pejenakan mountain, opposite Mt. Bromo, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

This aerial view of the wonderful Guyanan rainforest was taken from a small Cessna plane on the way back from Kaieteur falls. Sometimes by air, especially in remote areas that offer no chance of scaling mountains to achieve viewpoints, is the only choice for captivating scenic views. When traveling into or around a country with rainforest, always consider:

1) Taking a golden hours flight

2) Asking the pilot what the route will be (for smaller (and more flexible planes) there are sometimes alternate routes that can be taken or else the pilot will sometimes loop around a particular attraction so people can get a good view). Ask beforehand and they might accommodate you.

3) Bringing a camera aboard fitted with a polarizing filter to cut down on the reflections from the window.

Unspoiled wilderness. The river is the Potaro which extends downwards towards Mahdia and which eventually empties into Guyana’s largest river, the Essequibo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

Oftentimes one needs to get above the forest canopy to capture engaging photos. Unfortunately not all rainforests are so accommodating. When such is the case try dusk and dawn hours to catch sunlight streaming in through the forest canopy. This can make for enchanting photos. Note that there will be a great deal of contrast between the shadows at the forest floor and the brightness of the canopy and light rays. This would be a good job for HDR, though a single shot can still work, and sometimes the contrast is desirable, as below.

Daylight streaming through the canopy on Gunung Mulu, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2009.

In cloud rainforest, high humidity and fog can pose problems with condensation on the lens and malfunctioning equipment. However, it can also provide opportunities for an atmospheric photo.

Morning mist at Altamira ranger station, La Amistad national park, Costa Rica. Copyright Paul Bertner 2012.

Waterfalls range from iconic and touristy to hidden and secretive. There are people that specialize in just this and so despite their beauty it can oftentimes be difficult to achieve a unique waterfall photo. Nevertheless, they are an important part of the landscape in rainforests and worthy of mention. Moreover, many insects, amphibians and reptiles can be found along the stream banks and in the cascading pools around a waterfall.

The azul waters are achieved through rich mineral deposits upstream. The waterfall basin is a big tourist draw, though one that still merits fighting through the crowds. Day hike in Volcan Tenorio national park, Costa Rica.

Kaieteur falls in Guyana is iconic and the largest (by volume), single drop (rather than tiered) waterfall in the world.

This image could have been improved by the use of a polarizing filter which would have deepened the blues in the sky, enhanced the double rainbow and cut some of the haze from the mid-morning sun. Photo taken at Kaieteur fall, Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

Rainforests can be dark places with little to distinguish one location from another. The forest can appear uniform and as a result there are few features to draw the viewer in. In these situations, a person, tent, or other focal point not normally found in such an environment can help generate interest. It is also helpful in the context of a narrative.

A personal touch. Photo taken in Braulio Carillo national park, Costa Rica. Copyright Paul Bertner 2012.



I will update this section with other landscape photos from future trips as well as any other tips or information that I come across that might be useful. If anyone has any suggestions or advice for landscape photography or how to improve this section you can either leave a comment or email me directly.


About pbertner

Studied cell biology and genetics at UBC in Canada with a focus in microbiology. However, have gravitated more recently towards ecology and biodiversity. Have traveled the rainforests of Brazil, Brunei, Cambodia, Colombia, Costa Rica, DRC, Ecuador, Guyana, Indonesia, Madagascar, Malaysia, Panama, Philippines, Rwanda, Tanzania, Thailand, Vietnam with plans to visit many more.
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10 Responses to Beyond macro photography

  1. bee rose says:

    best photos of the chocolate hills I’ve seen, most do not capture it..none of mine do. I lived in the Philippines from 80-82.

    • pbertner says:

      Thanks bee rose, much appreciated! It was indeed a challenge given the development in the area, the haze and other factors. There is apparently a road/path leading further into the hills which would probably have provided a better perspective, though getting there by sunrise would have proven pretty difficult.


  2. Joe Warfel says:

    Hello Paul,
    You kindly responded to a few questions I asked you a couple years ago about Borneo. Unfortunately my plans for Borneo fell through that year but now at last (Aug, 2014) I actually will be visiting Malaysian Borneo for the whole month of November.

    You have apparently visited SE Asia (including Borneo) again by reading your various posts here and on I have one question that I hope you may be able to answer. Did you do any in-country plane travel (such as from KK to Lahad Datu) and if so did you have any troubles with baggage/weight limits on the regional planes (50-90 passenger). Were you able to carry photo gear as carry on?

    Thanks so much. Always enjoy your photos and writings!
    Joe Warfel

    • pbertner says:

      Hi Joe,

      Glad to hear that you’re finally making it out there and have a full month to take advantage. Most of my travel was by bus (KK to LD was roughly 7hrs), air asia tends to crack down on extra baggage, the charges are usually in the $20-30 range though they are unpredictable in their enforcement. If your flight originates in Borneo typically they are unenforced, and if you push them then you can get away with being overlimit, especially if you stress that you are carrying photography equipment and it is valuable and can’t be stowed. If originating in KL then they are more strict and often use overlimit to bump up their thin margins on the ticket and it is more difficult to wriggle out of. If you have any other questions let me know.


  3. Joe Warfel says:

    Hi Paul,

    Appreciate your detailed information, thanks. I have been observing your most recent posts of another trip to Borneo (along with Indonesian locales) and am wondering where in Borneo many of these great creatures you photographed so well were located? Malaysian/Indonesian Borneo, and where?

    Planning for a November 2014 trip to Malaysian Borneo I have had no luck in getting responses from Danum Valley Field Center, whether e-mail, phone calls. In your experience if I show up in the Lahad Datu DVFC office cold, would access likely be granted? My research tells me without a research purpose one must have some special permission granted for travel there?

    Will only have a month but hope to experience a good share of the amazing life found there.
    Thanks in advance for any help.

    Joe Warfel

    • pbertner says:

      Hi Joe,

      My most recent trips have been to Mt. Kinabalu and Danum Valley. In the first it’s much more economical to stay outside the park, about 30 RM/night in a dorm style accommodation or 40-50RM for a private room. For Danum Valley the best is to show up early in the morning at the LD office on one of the days that they have transportation service to the park. If you can show any university affiliation, even if it’s simply an alumni card then you will receive significant discounts. I stayed in the camping grounds which were about 60RM/night and would have been about 100RM without a university card. The private rooms also have a similar 40% discount rate for researchers and school affiliates. They are pretty easy going once you actually get the office and failing any kind of proof you can always fill out “dedicated naturalist” on the forms and they don’t have a problem with that. It has never been confined to strictly researchers in my experience. Just be sure that your entry and exit dates match in/out days of the vehicles.


  4. Joe Warfel says:


    Thanks again for your information. Very helpful and much appreciated.

  5. Joe Warfel says:

    Hi Paul,
    Sorry to bother you again about Borneo, but I hope you could answer a couple more questions for me?
    Al my bookings are set including a deposit for Danum. Do they (and the National Parks such as Bako) accept credit cards for payment or do they require cash?
    Did you hike up to top of Gunung Danum and if so how were the trails?

    Thanks for your time.

    • pbertner says:

      Hi Joe,
      I thought I had answered your question but seems like it was lost in a bad connection. So, Danum Valley is more of a timber concession from the oil palm/forestry industry and is administered by a consortium of NGOs and universities. The organization is excellent and though I’ve never paid by credit card there, there’s a chance that you might though to be sure I would still get out enough money through one of the 2 banks in Lahad Datu or in KK. The other state administered national parks (except maybe mt. kinabalu) you are not going to find credit card payment option available, especially in the remote offices rather than their central office in Kuching or KK. To be safe cash is your best bet.

      I never hiked up Danum Mt. but I know several people who did. Lots of them weren’t in particularly good shape and they mostly had on sneakers or even sandals. The trails might get rough in the rain, and the leeches might make things a little less pleasant but otherwise they should be fine. It’s one of the main activities to do there and so it is also a well kept trail so I wouldn’t worry. I seem to recall it takes about 45 minutes or so.


  6. Joe Warfel says:

    Hello Paul,

    Thanks so much for your information. It’s helped a lot in my planning. Leaving at end of month and looking forward to the adventure.
    Wishing you well in your next explorations and travels. Always look forward to your posts.


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