Shooting landscapes demands a very different way of working compared to photographing people. Typically taken with the camera mounted on a tripod, the aperture is given priority to ensure the image is sharp from front to back. As for light, the window of opportunity is small, limited to the beginning and end of the day.
The magic hour
Beautiful landscape photos are often defined by the quality of light they were taken in. As a consequence, photographers tend to shoot early in the morning or during late afternoons when the sun is lower, less contrast and often displays a subtle color palette of moody hues. For this reason, the hours after dawn and before dusk are known as the “magic hours”. If rising at dawn doesn’t sit well with your idea of a relaxing weekend, don’t panic – there are plenty of great landscape opportunities throughout the day.
When confronted with a beautiful scene, it’s tempting to select the widest possible lens to try to get everything into your composition. But landscapes don’t always have to take in the big scene: rather, isolate the elements that say something about the environment and complement the panoramic views.
Composition is key to successful landscape photography, and if you don’t know where to start, use the “rule of thirds” to get things going. Perhaps the king of all beginner landscape photography tips, it’s an easy principle to apply – simply divide your frame into imaginary thirds on both the horizontal and vertical axis. Now simply place areas of interest at the points at which the lines intersect or – in the case of a horizon – along one of the lines. However, don’t be afraid to throw away the rule book and totally disregard the conventions of composition. While you might have some awful failures, you might also create an original and striking masterpiece. Be bold and experiment.
Horizons should be straight. Start with the rule of thirds to ensure the horizon is placed away from the middle of the frame. If the sky is dull and lacking detail, it will look flat – so place the horizon in the top third of the frame. If the foreground is uninteresting, place the horizon in the bottom third. If both do nothing for the photograph, eliminate them by moving closer or zooming in.
Get out there
There’s no substitute for putting in a bit of groundwork before embarking on a photographic adventure. Research and find the best photo locations, get a map, a compass and remember that you’ll probably have to get out of the car and walk to get the best shots.
Most landscape photographers will have a circular polarizing filter in their kit bag. There are many uses for filters like this, but for the landscape photographer the two key characteristics are their ability to cut out reflections and nasty glare from a scene and the increased color intensity, saturation and contrast they create. You’ll really notice the effect in clear blue skies.
Depth of field
As with all good compositions, there needs to be a point of interest in the landscape, a main feature that will hold the viewer’s attention. Choice of an appropriate lens plays a major part in achieving this.
Wide-angle lenses increase the foreground and sky content, exaggerate sweeping lines and make the subjects in a landscape smaller. Telephoto lenses allow you to flatten the perspective, making the foreground and background elements appear closer to each other. What you focus on becomes larger.
Many landscape photographers desire an image that appears sharp throughout the scene, so that elements of foreground interest, such as a rock in a lake, look just as sharp as the distant horizon. This can be achieved relatively easily using the principles of depth of field, whereby the smaller an aperture you use, such as f/22, the greater the area both before and beyond the point of focus also appear to be sharp. This principle can be taken one step further with hyper-focal distance focusing. Generally, when you’re using small apertures you’ll need to compensate with slow shutter speeds, so it is essential to use a tripod.
ND gradient filters
One of the great problems for landscape photographers is the difference in brightness between the sky and the land. While the human eye is capable of perceiving detail across this tonal range, a digital sensor isn’t capable of recording it. So ND Grad filters (neutral density graduated filters) were created and have been avidly used by landscape shooters ever since. Their gradual transition from clear to dark neutral density allows the photographer to balance the exposure between the sky and the land to make a more even exposure in which detail remains in both the highlight and shadow areas. An alternative to this is exposure blending, where different exposures are made of the scene and combined in software later.
Man and the landscape
Great landscape photography is not necessarily about hunting out the most picturesque scene, in the most wonderful light and at the most perfect time of day. Indeed, there are many aspects of the world’s landscape that are less glamorous, such as the effects of heavy farming, rapidly expanding suburbs and sprawling industrial wastelands, that can make a poignant subject for the concerned photographer. Take a look at the effects of man on the landscape near your home and use them as photographic subjects.
Shoot in RAW
To maximize on quality and also to allow you to edit your original images non-destructively, always shoot raw files when taking landscapes. RAW processing software, such as Adobe Camera Raw, is now so sophisticated that unless you want to significantly manipulate your image you rarely need to switch to traditional image-editing software, such as Photoshop.
Slow exposures are regularly used by landscape photographers, whether it’s to optimize depth of field with a small aperture or to create smooth and milky seascapes by taking long exposure pictures of the sea. Exposures can be seconds (rather than fractions of a second) long, so a sturdy tripod is a must. To further minimize camera movement during the exposure consider using a cable release or your camera’s self-timer, as well as locking the mirror up.
On windy days, slow shutter speeds will record movement in the landscape. Swaying branches will blur at 1/15th or slower – this can be very effective if desired. Clouds may also blur if exposures are longer than half a second, which isn’t so effective.(via Digital Camera World, via The Guardian)