Pro Spotlight: Landscape Photography with Mike Kelso

Landscape photographs inspire creativity and a desire to see the world in a more open-minded way. The best thing about it is the sheer glories of unforetold wonder can never be capped, therefore the job is unending. There is always more to see, more to aspire to, more to explore. We asked pro Landscape Photographer Mike Kelso a few questions about his passion and what drives his ability to photograph these wonders so well.

1.Tell us about yourself. How long have you been in photography and what inspired you to become a photographer?

My adventures started with windows. During childhood road trips, my father would encourage me to see what we were passing, not to just look out the window. Then came the challenges of ‘did you see this’ and ‘did you see that’.

I grew up in western Nebraska, where I learned to love seeing horizons and nature. My career as a computer programmer, nearly forty years so far, has engrained a passion for details and precision that spills over into everything I do. When we can, my wife and I squeeze in trips both here and abroad, trying to fill the thirst for adventure.

I find myself perpetually wondering what is over the next hill, what is around the corner. I am fascinated with patterns, from the veins in a tiny leaf, to the evening’s shadows on distant mountains, and to the dimples punctuating a grandchild’s smile.

I’ve traveled, but not enough.
I’ve lived, but not enough.
I’ve seen, but not enough.
I’ve shared, but not enough.

I started taking photos back on those road trips as a child, saving memories for myself. Later, my computer career created more travel, more photos, and more opportunities to share those photos. Eventually, family trips turned me into ‘the person that took all the pictures’. But it was my wife that turned me into a photographer. She decided we would do Mother’s Day gifts of photo albums of 50 of my flower pictures selected from our family trips. The responses were “you need to do more”. So we have.

2. How do you choose the focal point when photographing a landscape?

Focal point is, well, whatever is the most important object in the scene, usually. Pick what you want the viewer to really see. Make that your focal point and let bokeh blur the rest of the scene. If you just want to show ‘vast and distant’, try a focal point about one-third of the way into the scene.

3. How do you choose which equipment you use for each shot?

Each piece of equipment will contribute to the final photo in a different way: lights, shades, tripods, filters, lenses, surroundings, etc. You are the artist. You envision which contributions will bring out the feelings/look you intend to capture. Then I have to add physical limitations like ‘how much stuff do I want to carry’. During shooting, I go through ‘what I remembered/was able to bring’, and ‘how much time do I have to change equipment before the next shot’. Bottom line: you plan ahead; you do; maybe you plan differently next time.

4. How do you decide which settings to be used for your landscape shots?

I tend to approach landscape settings like any other photo situation. I find the focal point(s). I decide what brings out the feelings/look that I envision. I tend to use wide aperture settings for more bokeh and so my ISO can be low for less noise. And then I balance the shutter speeds that give the desired exposure. The settings will vary widely, depending on whether it is sunrise or mid-day, across a field or across a valley, no breeze or windy. There is no ‘wrong’ if it captures what you want.

5. What are 3 tips you’d give to someone who’s just getting started in landscape photography?

1. If you want to start taking landscapes, then by all means try it. Get to know your camera, its settings, the other equipment, and how they work together.
2. Research other photographers, what they produce, and how they get those shots.
3. Practice A LOT, reviewing your results as you take the photos, and review the photos again later when you can be more objective.

6. What style of tripod head do you like to use when photographing landscapes and why?

My budget, probably like most photographers, has 'encouraged' me to put tripods somewhere below 'more important' components, like lenses, camera bags, and memory cards. Subsequently, my tripods and tripod heads are a collection of 'this should work ok' pieces. But in the field, I've learned a few lessons. I work with ball heads and pan/tilt heads. I found that panning back and forth is usually easy with most any tripod head. I found that putting a camera and a heavy, long lens on a ball head will cause an uncomfortable balancing act when shifting the camera to a new angle: releasing the head can cause the camera/lens to flop over in some unexpected direction if you aren't holding on (true, this can be reduced by tension adjustments that are usually available - but you have to know your equipment and how it works ahead of time, and how different weights of lenses will behave). I found that a pan/tilt head will be frustrating if you really want a diagonal shift and need two controls released/tightened in unison (again, knowing your equipment can allow you to shift you hands, adjust the controls, re-aim the camera, tighten the controls - and not lose your mind in the process).

So, after thinking about it, I guess I usually go with the ball head style. That might be just because I've spent more time working with them. But it is probably because that happens to be what I have on my favorite tripod. But that is another story.

You can learn more about Mike Kelso at

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