Landscape photography is a popular genre of photography for a number of reasons. It is relatively easy to get into due to the fact that even the most basic cameras and lenses can capture landscapes rather effectively. It is great for those who like getting into the outdoors and immersing themselves in nature. Landscape photography is also a lot of fun and there is always something new to learn with the huge variety of opportunities which we have in SA and indeed the rest of Africa. This short piece sets out to introduce this genre and includes tips, tricks and techniques to get you started or help you along the way in this type of photography. I admit that this is not my first photographic love, wildlife photography being that, but being part of “wildlife and nature photography”, it certainly a is a huge part of it, especially when I can get the two to come together.
It is amazing to see how quickly the world is changing. What seemed to be wild and pristine just a few years ago is getting destroyed (“developed”?) by humans. One of the reasons for photographing nature is because it is a way of showing people that the beauty around us is very fragile, volatile and seemingly not permanent at all. If we don’t take any action to conserve it now, this beauty will only exist in history, not giving a chance for future generations to enjoy it the way we can today. Hundreds of docu-movies have been filmed, thousands and thousands of great images taken and yet the world is not listening. What can we do and is there hope? It is very unfortunate that we only act when a disaster of a great scale hits us and the unbalanced force of nature enrages upon us. Think Fukushima, Thailand’s Tsunami’s and so on. As photographers must show the world the real story out there – the deforestation of our rich lands, the pollution that is poisoning our fresh waters and causing widespread diseases, the melting of glaciers, the extinction of species and many other large-scale problems that are affecting the lives of billions around the world. Therefore, it is our responsibility as photographers to show the true story. Landscape photography is a form of landscape art. While landscape art was popularized by Western paintings and Chinese art more than a thousand years ago, the word “landscape” apparently entered the English dictionary only in the 19th century, purely as a term for works of art (according to Wikipedia). Landscape photography conveys the appreciation of the world through beautiful imagery of the nature that can be comprised of mountains, deserts, rivers, oceans, waterfalls, plants, animals and other scenery or life. Some speak also or urban landscapes as including architecture. While most landscape photographers strive to show the purity of nature without any human influence, given how much of the world has been changed by humans, depicting nature together with man-made objects can also be considered a form of landscape photography.
Photographing landscapes involves three key elements: photographic equipment, skill/technique, and light. We will look at each of these three elements one by one.
Good and reliable photo equipment is extremely important in order to achieve the best results for landscape photography. If your camera can take exceptional photographs, but cannot withstand extremely cold or hot temperatures, it could limit you in what you can do. In SA and many parts of Africa, this is not major factor but cannot be ignored. Therefore, it is best to have a camera that can both take good images while being able to withstand tough weather conditions. Why is the latter important? Because some of the best landscape photographs are taken in very challenging weather – during a storm, after a heavy snowfall (think Northern lights, snowscapes, Kgalagadi and Namibian dust storms, to name a few), early in the morning at below freezing temperatures, etc.
What about camera capabilities? No matter how weather resistant your camera is, it must be able to deliver images that are sharp and vibrant, and provide sufficient features for you to be able to capture even the most complex scenes. That’s where having a camera with a large sensor, rich in-camera features, good support and a wide selection of solid lenses / filters are important. Let look at this more closely.
For most people, a high-resolution digital camera is the way to go, because it is going to be simpler to use and one can get pretty amazing results. With digital, one can instantly preview images, take many exposures and combine them in post-processing, and even shoot multiple images to create an HDR or a panoramic image. Modern digital cameras today have excellent dynamic range that far surpasses that of film and it is very easy to nail things like focusing and exposure, especially with the right gear and technique. However, some photographers prefer to shoot landscapes with film using medium format and large format film cameras and if it is done right, it is possible to create spectacular images, with extreme detail and resolution. Film is certainly not for everyone, and the cost of owning and operating a large format film system can get quite high over time, which is why most landscape photographers tend to use digital. Let us therefore leave film right there.
Ease of use, low cost, relatively short learning curve, immediate results, free unlimited exposures and much shorter post-processing times are the reasons why full-frame and cropped sensor camera systems became so popular. An entry-level DSLR or a mirrorless camera with all required accessories for photographing landscapes can be purchased for under R15000. If one wants to step up to a full-frame camera, there are many different high-resolution options from a number of different manufacturers such as Nikon, Canon, Sony, Fuji, Lumix etc. There is much from which to choose for different needs and you will need to look into different options depending on your needs and your budget. For those on tighter budgets, lower cost cropped sensor cameras are going to be less preferred, but more popular choices for landscape photography. Most popular because of lower cost, and less preferred due to typically lower weather-sealing, potentially decreased dynamic range and a smaller feature set compared to higher-end alternatives. When photographing landscapes, you are often faced with harsh and extreme conditions, and you will need to be extra careful when photographing in dusty, rainy / humid, snowy and sub-zero temperatures in order to keep your equipment safe and functioning. By contrast, higher-end cameras are often specifically designed with superb weather sealing to withstand the toughest weather conditions without negatively affecting their performance. To sum it all up, here is how I would categorize cameras, in the order of preference for landscape photography:
Let’s now move on to lenses – a key part of the photography setup for landscapes.
Lenses and Why They are all Important
No matter how good your camera is, if the lens you have on it is poor, you will get poor results. Lenses are like your eyes – if you have bad vision, the picture you see is going to be blurry. Therefore, it is extremely important to use lenses that have high levels of sharpness right across the frame, good contrast, minimal ghosting and flare and other lens aberrations that can compromise your images. It is also important to make sure that your lenses are free from decentering issues that could damage all or parts of your images. When photographing portraits, the corner performance of lenses is typically not important – your subject is going to be close to the centre of the frame most of the time. However, when it comes to landscape photography, corner sharpness, often referred to as edge to edge sharpness, becomes highly important, since foreground elements can be located on the lower part of the frame and sometimes even touching the corners. That is why it is so important to look beyond centre performance of lenses when evaluating them for landscape photography. While selecting lenses, you have two selections – zoom lenses and prime or fixed lenses.
For landscape photography, prime lenses used to be the choice (and still are for medium and large format cameras). However, with the latest advancements in optical technology, manufacturers are able to produce exceptionally good zoom lenses that can match and sometimes even surpass the quality and sharpness of some prime lenses. Zoom lenses have a big advantage over prime lenses due to their versatility in zooming in and out, which is very important for landscape photography, especially when you need to stand at a particular spot and could not physically move to frame your shot (deep, ice cold or fast flowing water, edge of rocks, cliffs etc.). In such situations, it is helpful to be able to use a zoom lens to get better framing. I personally often carry both with me, which gives greater flexibility, but if I were to have to choose only one lens (weight on a long walk?), it would certainly be a zoom. Unfortunately, for medium format and large format systems out there, prime lenses are often the only choices that are available. So, what are the best lenses for landscape photography? With so many different prime and zoom lenses available from a variety of different manufacturers, it can get quite difficult to make the right selection, especially for a beginner. Personally, instead of focusing on one do-it-all lens that covers everything from wide-angle to telephoto, I would recommend to go for a set of high-quality lenses that will cover most of your needs. A good landscape photography lens collection should be comprised of a set of lenses from ultra-wide angle to telephoto. An ultra-wide angle lens will allow you to get close to subjects and show their grandeur. A normal range lens will probably be the most used lens in your arsenal for photographing most subjects, whereas a telephoto lens will allow you to focus on a particular feature of the landscape in front of you, or to photograph distant subjects.
To cover these needs, landscape photographers come up with their set of “trinity” lenses, such as 14-24mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses. Such lenses are of very high quality and are considered to be professional-grade lenses. Those on tighter budgets or who want to stay light often end up going for slower f/4 lenses such as 16-35mm f/4, 24-120mm f/4 and 70-200mm f/4, which can also be excellent choices for landscape photography. And those who shoot with cropped sensor cameras often end up with smaller and lighter lenses that cover similar equivalent focal lengths, such as 10-24mm, 16-85mm and 50-150mm, depending on sensor size / crop factor. While such a “trinity” of zoom lenses can be very useful to cover most landscape photography needs, some prime lenses can be still very useful to have in the field. For example, if you want to get into astrophotography, you will need a high-quality lens that is both wide-enough and fast enough to be usable for capturing the night sky. Zoom lenses, especially those that are f/4 and slower, are typically very limiting for astrophotography, which is why it is also helpful to have at least one prime lens in your camera bag. Personally, I really like the Zeiss Milvus 18mm f2.8 lens and find it to be an excellent, lightweight, manual focus lens that can be very useful in the field for this reason. Those who prefer the quality of prime lenses to zooms will often end up going for a set up that is comprised of the following focal lengths: 14mm, 20mm, 35mm and 50mm. For telephoto needs, most prime shooters still opt for something like a 70-200mm f/2.8 or f/4, since prime telephoto lenses are often quite large and expensive.
Camera Support – Tripods
A landscape photographer without a decent tripod is a hindered photographer. Although modern digital cameras are capable of producing amazing results at higher ISOs, some images are difficult and sometimes even impossible to capture without proper support. For example, it is impossible to photograph the night sky without a tripod. Photographing colourful clouds and the high dynamic range of scenes before and after sunsets would be extremely difficult without keeping camera mounted on a tripod. Another example is taking pictures of moving water (say a waterfall or river) at slow shutter speeds. Basically, for any photography involving shutter speeds that are too slow for one to be able to hand-hold a camera without introducing camera shake, it is a good idea to use a tripod. A tripod is must-have, full stop. If you struggle with badly aligned, blurry or noisy images, you might want to invest in a solid tripod. Cheap, flimsy tripods are best avoided. If you are still trying to figure out if landscape photography is for you or not, then by all means, go for a cheap tripod when you start. However, if landscape photography is something you are genuinely interested in, then skip everything in the middle and go for a high-end tripod. Over the years, you will go through many cameras and lenses, but a solid tripod is something you will always keep reusing – it is always a worthy long-term investment. Don’t make the mistake of buying several tripods. Not only will you end up wasting more money, but you will also end up with a lot of frustration in the field. This is my exact experience!!! Learnt the hard way.
Filters and Why they are Important
Any experienced landscape photographer will tell you that filters are an essential and integral part of their landscape photography kit. Some shots are simply impossible to capture without specialized filters. There are three types of filters that are essential for landscape photography, which are a Circular Polarizing Filter, Neutral Density Filter and Graduated Neutral Density Filter. We will look at each one. Before we do that, a warning. Cheap and nasty filters in front of great glass causes nasty images to be produced, even from great glass, and good filter kits are EXPENSIVE.
Circular Polarizing Filter
Landscape photographers heavily rely on a Circular Polarizing Filter (CPL) for a number of reasons. CPL filters help reduce reflections, which helps in bringing out the subject. For example, if one photographs a scene after rain, reflections from the moist areas can really spoil the image, making it look rather distracting. With a CPL, it is possible to reduce and sometimes even eliminate most reflections in the scene, boosting colours and contrast. Another reason why CPLs are useful, is because they can help significantly reduce atmospheric haze in images. Haze can be a real problem when photographing landscapes, so if one uses a CPL in the field, it is possible to cut it down quite a bit in camera and then reduce it even more in post. Polarizing filters can be a bit challenging to use, especially for those who have never used them before. You also have to be very careful when deploying them on wide angle lenses. It is advisable to learn about their use. There are good sources of useful information available.
Neutral Density Filter
Do you know how images of waterfalls with silky and smooth-looking, milky water are captured? For many such images, photographers intentionally use Neutral Density (ND) filters that only let very little light through, which basically increases the length of the exposure. While you could stop down your lens to a very small aperture in order to reduce the amount of light reaching the camera sensor, doing so often does not block enough light to make the water look smooth. Plus, small apertures result in less detail in images due to the effect of diffraction. Multiple images can be used to do this as well but it is best to use a proper filter instead, while using the best aperture. Using a dark neutral density filter requires a good support system, since shutter speed will decrease significantly, based on how much light the ND filter lets through. For example, a 6-stop ND filter only transmits 1% of the light. With this little light getting through, the scene looks very dark when you look through the viewfinder and yet surprisingly, autofocus is still operational. 6 stops means that if I were shooting a scene at 1/250th of a second without a filter, the shutter speed would drop down to 1/4 of a second as soon as the 6 stop ND filter is placed on the lens.
Graduated Neutral Density Filter
Graduated ND filters are similar to regular ND filters, except they gradually go from dark to completely clear. This gradual transition is important for landscapes, because it should only darken the brightest area of the scene without touching the darker parts of the scene such as the foreground. Although a lot of photographers seem to be utilizing HDR and blending techniques to capture the full dynamic range of the scene, I personally prefer to use Graduated Neutral Density (GND) filters whenever possible. For example, if I am photographing a sunrise or sunset and the sky is several stops brighter than the foreground, I will use a 0.6 (2 stop) or 0.9 (3 stop) Graduated ND filter to darken the sky. This filter transitions from dark on the top to completely clear on the bottom, with a gradual or soft transition in the middle. This is what allows some of the light to be blocked by the filter. Let’s look at how it can affect an image. An image which would have been very difficult to capture without a GND filter, because of a sky being so much brighter than the foreground, by holding a 3-stop GND filter in front of the lens can bring down the brightness of the sky and preserve its colours. Without a filter, the same image would have forced the photographer to exposure bracket several shots in order to create an HDR or blend images in post, which would have taken more time and effort. One major hassle with GND filters, is that they take up more space than CPLs do, since they are larger rectangular filters (there are some circular GNDs out there, but frankly, you should not use those). Reason? With rectangular filters you are able to control the point from which the scene will turn from dark into clear. In one scene, the sky might take up 20% of the image, while in another one with beautiful clouds it might take up 50% or more of the image. That’s where you will need to move the graduated filter up and down to accommodate different situations. This must be done with care to avoid banding. In order to be able to do this, you will need a filter holder system with rectangular filters. I personally use the Lee and NiSi Filter Holder systems, but there are other good ones to choose from.
Now that you know what camera gear you need, the fun part – photographic or shooting technique, which is comprised of three parts:
These three elements are all equally important in landscape photography and all of them have to be mastered in order to be able to produce great-looking images that you can be proud of, be it in competitions, sold or otherwise showcased.
Camera Gear Technique
The first thing you need to learn how to use properly is your camera. That begins with understanding the exposure triangle: Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO. Armed with a good grasp of each of these, the photographer needs to understand how they work together. Next, an understanding of basics such as Exposure Stops, camera modes and metering modes needs to be grasped. There are a many ways to get this knowledge and we all learn a bit differently. I personally feel that any learning which does not include much practice is fatally flawed. I also tend to highly recommend critical review of own images as well as those of others and yes, poor images teach us as well. If you are able to comfortably shoot in Manual Mode while being able to adjust the exposure by increasing/decreasing the ISO without automating it, your basic knowledge of the camera is quite solid. Note that by saying this, I am NOT saying that manual is the best mode. That which best suits the situation is. That said, for landscapes, I do favour manual (and for wildlife, aperture priority).
What are the optimal camera settings for photographing landscapes? I include this here with a huge caution as I do not see the shooting situation which is before you. Here are the settings that I personally use and recommend (good for most DSLRs and mirrorless cameras):
Camera Mode: Manual. Learn how to shoot landscapes in manual mode. Use the built-in camera meter to see if you need to increase or decrease the shutter speed.
Aperture: Start at f11 and stop up based on how much of the foreground and background you need to keep sharp. Try not to shoot beyond f/8 (on APS-C sensor cameras) and f/11 (on full-frame) to avoid diffraction. There are exceptions to this, situationally based.
Shutter Speed: This doesn’t really matter since you will be using a tripod and adjusting the shutter speed based on what your camera meters. In some cases, when you need to freeze or blur movement, you will have to adjust the shutter speed accordingly by changing aperture and / or ISO, or by using a filter.
ISO: Whatever your camera’s base ISO is (typically ISO 64 or ISO 100). Turn off your “Auto ISO” on your camera.
Image Format: Obviously RAW, Lossless Compressed or Uncompressed (if Lossless Compressed is not available). Set camera bit-rate to the highest number (if available). Many professional cameras allow shooting 14-bit RAW.
White Balance: Many suggest Auto, asserting that it doesn’t matter if you shoot RAW as you can easily change White Balance in post-production. I personally prefer to set my WB manually to select the tone I seek to achieve and “tweak” in post, if needed.
Colour Profile: Doesn’t matter, but you might want to choose AdobeRGB for a slightly more “deep” colour gamut.
High ISO Noise Reduction: Off, you should not be shooting at high ISOs anyway.
Long Exposure Noise Reduction: Off, since modern sensors are so good and you are likely to need it much and in many cameras it uses time between shots, which can limit you in rapidly changing light.
Vignette Reduction and Other Lens Corrections: Off, best to deal with these issues, if they arise, in post.
Back Button Focusing: Move your focusing from the shutter release button to a dedicated button on the back of your camera. Some cameras might not have this feature, but most do. Most DSLRs and mirrorless cameras either have a dedicated AF-ON button or an AE-L/AF-L button on the back of the camera that can be programmed for autofocus. By switching focusing to a dedicated button, you can focus just once with your thumb, then continue taking pictures without needing to refocus each time. Keep in mind that if you change the focal length of the lens by zooming in / out, you will need to re-acquire focus each time! Autofocus: It is up to you whether to keep autofocus on, or switch to manual focus (which I personally prefer). No matter which focusing method you choose, make sure to use your camera’s live view screen to zoom in tight and focus accurately.
Depth of Field and Hyperfocal Distance
When you photograph landscapes, it is vital to understand the concept of depth of field very well. One of the biggest challenges of landscape photography is to master lens focus and make everything look acceptably sharp. Why is that a challenge? Optics have certain limitations and it is not always possible to bring everything from foreground to background into perfect focus, especially when some objects are very close and others are very far. A good way to illustrate this is to do a quick experiment with your eyes. You will need two objects that can stand on a flat surface – a small and a large object (like a dice and a box of playing cards). Place the larger object vertically about 10 feet away from where you are on a straight surface like a table. Then move back to your position and while holding the smaller object with your index and thumb fingers, extend your hand half way, pointing it towards the larger object. Focus your eyes on the smaller object. Note how blurry the background is and how blurry the larger object is, almost to the point where it blends with other background objects. Now, take the smaller object and place it by the larger object and move back again to your position. Take a look at the smaller object from this distance now. This time, you will notice that both objects look sharp to you and even if you move the smaller object a little away from the larger one, it will not make a difference. The larger object will not get completely blurred like it did when you looked at the smaller object from a close distance. This very simple experiment demonstrates how lenses focus and how subject distance impacts sharpness. While our eyes work like a fixed 50mm lens, camera lenses allow us to capture much wider perspectives, or allow us to get “closer” to our subjects. Without understanding the relationship between lens focal length, aperture and camera to subject distance, focusing for landscape photography can get rather difficult. For example, if you were photographing a shell on a beach from a close distance and wanted to get the background horizon to be equally sharp as the shell, which would you focus on – the shell or the background? Would you be using a wide-angle or a telephoto lens to get both in focus? What aperture would you be using? A good landscape photographer should know answers to all of these questions and come up with the right solution to the problem. For example, I would have certainly used a wide-angle lens (since longer focal lengths would only isolate the subject more), a relatively small aperture between f/8 and f/16 and would have focused on an area somewhere between the shell and the background. Where exactly would I focus? This is where you need to understand hyperfocal distance and how to find it.
What is hyperfocal distance? Basically, hyperfocal distance is the focusing distance that gives your photos the greatest depth of field. When you focus your camera on the hyperfocal distance, everything from half of the distance all the way to infinity will be in focus. For example, if my hyperfocal distance is 50 feet, everything from 25 feet to infinity will be in focus. Why is hyperfocal distance important? In the previous example with the shell, if I focused my camera on the shell or the background (infinity), either the shell, or the background would have been blurry. I want both to look sharp, so if I knew where the hyperfocal distance is and I focused on it, I could potentially get to the point where both appear sharp. Obviously, my camera to subject distance, lens focal length, sensor size and aperture are all variables that play a huge role here, so I will need to look into those very carefully in order to reach my goal. The camera to subject distance is especially important – if the subject is way too close, no combination of aperture and focal length will lead to a totally sharp photo…
The best way to calculate hyperfocal distance is to use the “double the distance method“, where you approximate the distance from your camera to the nearest subject you want to be sharp, then simply double that distance. In the example with the shell, if I knew that the shell was 5m away from my camera, the hyperfocal distance would be at 10m (double distance), yes, that simple! From there, I would have to roughly estimate where the 10m mark is for me to focus on (say a piece of rock in sand), then use my camera’s live view screen to focus on that rock and I’m sorted. With my hyperfocal distance in the right spot of the frame, I would have to play with my camera’s aperture to get to the point where everything looks reasonably sharp. If I’m maxed out on aperture and the scene is still not sharp, then I’m simply too close to the subject. I either have to use a wider lens, or physically move away from the subject. Some photographers give advice to focus somewhere in the middle of the frame or a third of the way, without knowing all the variables mentioned above. Handle that with care, or you will often end up frustrated and with blurry images. The double the distance method works very well and it is easy to use in the field.
Bear in mind that hyperfocal distance calculators, readily available as phone apps and easy to use, can at times not be designed for modern high resolution digital cameras, so I’m a bit cautious to recommend them for landscape photography. In addition to this, why waste your time looking things up, if all you have to do is estimate the distance to your subject and then double it, which is simple and works!
When you face, as you often will, tough lighting situations, like where you have a huge difference in contrast between the darks and the whites, shoot in brackets of 3 to 5 (depending on your camera’s capabilities). Bracketing not only allows you to try post-processing techniques like HDR, but it also gives you options for better exposure . You might choose one exposure over another and then further work on it in post software like Lightroom or Photoshop. You might pick some parts of one image and merge them with another image using masking and other blending techniques in Photoshop or other software. Simply put, you will have more options to recover information from your images.
Composition and Framing
Composition is a key element of every type of photography, including landscape photography. Without good composition, pictures can look bland, lifeless and basically boring. How should you compose your images and are there any rules for composition? What is good and bad composition? How should you compose and frame your shots? Some detail on this all important subject:. When it comes to composition and framing there are no real set “rules”, only GUIDELINES. However, there are some tips and suggestions that might help with composing and framing your images better. Here are some of my guidelines:
Communicate with images – every image should have a particular voice or message attached to it. What are you trying to say? What is your story? What is the mood of your photograph? Will the viewer feel amused by the power of nature that you are trying to show, or feel crushed by the dark, dreadful clouds in your image? Or perhaps the viewer should just enjoy the beauty of the colours you are trying to show? Your image needs to be able to communicate and engage with the viewer, perhaps touching as I like to call it, their emotions.
Identify your subject(s) – every image should contain the most prominent / important subject you are trying to show to your viewer, which is your primary subject. There might be other secondary, tertiary and supporting elements in the scene as well. Learn how to properly identify the most important subjects in your images. Once you do that, you will be able to compose your images better, because you will be paying close attention to your subjects.
Scout the area beforehand whenever possible – you never know what might be around you. Scout the area before the best light kicks in and find the best spots to be in. How many times have you been in situations where the light is perfect, the subject is perfect, but you are standing in a bad spot? Scouting the area just helps you avoid that.
Slow down and be patient – if you are not photographing wildlife or other fast-moving elements, slow down and take the time to compose your shot. Wait for the right moment, the right light and be patient. Take pictures, then wait – your best photo might be minutes or seconds away. Having said that, watch carefully and be ever ready. I recently had a shot with a maybe 3 minute window.
Align / level your photograph before taking a picture – while composing, make sure that your frame is properly aligned. If it is not, you will have to align it in post-production and you will ultimately lose some of the image. I personally use the horizontal and vertical lines inside my viewfinder to align my camera most of the time, which works well. Many modern cameras have virtual horizons which also work well. I personally also have a small “error margin” allowed where possible just around my intended framing. As I shoot landscapes with a high resolution sensor, a few % cropped away, is absolutely fine.
Avoid always placing your primary subject in the centre – this is a real “rookie error” which mainly beginners make. While there is nothing wrong with centre composition, placing your subjects off centre might make your image look more interesting. Understand the “rule” of thirds and give it a try but do not be bound by rules. I always say “understand a rule enough to know how to break it well”.
Shapes and curves – try to locate curved shapes (especially the ones with an “S” shape) as part of your composition – they look much more pleasing to the eye.
When photographing mirror reflections, make sure that nothing disturbs the primary subject or its reflection –The key here is to know the essence of what you are trying to portray and avoid any “competing” elements to it.
Balance your image through symmetry – another thing to keep in mind when photographing landscapes, especially reflections, is to achieve a “balance” – one part of the image should not heavily outweigh the other.
Fit main subjects in the frame – if you have trees, single bushes or other objects in your corner frame, try to either fit them into the frame, or exclude them completely. There will be situations when it is too difficult or impossible to do that, but try as best to fit everything in the frame as you can.
Carefully frame your shot – Learn how to properly frame your shots and think before you press the camera shutter. Don’t just point and shoot carelessly. Think about your subject, lighting, composition and framing.
Don’t get stuck with only horizontal images – Most prefer taking horizontal images of landscapes, but take verticals as well. Do both to give yourself a chance to choose which one is better later. Some vertical shots do communicate better than horizontal ones.
Don’t let tall trees and other large objects touch the frame – I call it leaving some “breathing” space to avoid visual suffocation. A little free space is better than none.
Be careful when using ultra-wide angle lenses – ultra-wide angle lenses always make the foreground objects much larger than they are and make the background look much smaller. Wide-angle lenses can create stunning images, but you need to know how to properly use them by getting closer to your primary subject and paying close attention to the background and framing. Lastly, be careful when using fisheye lenses – if you don’t pay close attention and you angle your camera a bit too low, you might end up with your or your tripods feet in your images!
Keep it simple – avoid adding too many distracting and busy elements to your images. Sometimes simplicity is the key to a good composition.
Diagonal compositions – if you come across straight lines in a landscape, experiment with diagonal composition. In some cases, you might be able to convert an otherwise boring scene to a more dynamic and interesting photograph. I am at the early stages of trying this one out. Purists will hound you for doing this but if you get an engaging shot, blame me!
Try multiple lines for composition – sometimes a mix of straight and diagonal lines (a distant tree line with a river bend in the foreground for instance) in the scene at different angles can give a different feel and dynamic to an image U
se elements in the scene to add depth – Ok so I am nuts about depth in landscape photography. When thinking about your subjects in your compositions, you might want to position them in a way that adds depth to your photographs. This is especially important when using wide-angle lenses.
Look for patterns and lines – always be on the lookout for patterns and lines in the scene.
Use tighter framing – if you have a zoom lens, you can often improve your composition by moving away from your subject and zooming in tighter in order to eliminate other distractions around the subject.
Get those “S” curves – as I have already pointed out above, curves always look better than straight lines, especially the “S” curves.
Recurrence of objects/elements – another interesting concept that you can apply to your composition, is recurrence of objects or elements in your photograph. The element of recurrence itself is not always important – you can do this with , trees, mountains, rock formations, etc.
Try taking panoramic images – rather than being stuck with square or rectangular images, try shooting panoramic images. You can either crop images to be panoramic (see below on cropping) or you can shoot a bunch of vertical or horizontal frames and then stitch them together in Photoshop or other third party software. While the above composition guidelines are there to help you, feel free to play around and do something different – after-all, engaging images are created by your vision and your creativity which I call YOUR CREATIVE VOICE!.
Post-processing is an integral part of landscape photography. I recently read of a monthly wildlife competition to which the rules say editing is allowed but “No Photoshop”. What nonsense. So If I sharpen say in PS, does that mean I cannot enter my image but if I sharpen in LR I can? Ansel Adams, the master of landscape photography, was a darkroom magician. He spent countless hours working on his images and I am sure that if he was alive today, he would have loved Photoshop! How are Ansel’s post-processing skills in the darkroom different to someone’s Photoshop skills? Knowing how to post-process images is a big part of every photographer’s life today. And that’s a fact. At the same time, many photographers say “do everything right in camera”. I agree with this approach and when it comes to landscape photography, it is best to minimize post-processing efforts and do as much as possible in the camera. However, it is one thing to photograph a scene with a heavily overexposed sky, thinking you can fix it later in Photoshop and another to use filters and other tools to expose the sky at least partially right, so that you could finish it up in post. Some things, like the effect of a polarizing filter cannot be replicated in post-processing. Other things take enormous amounts of time to fix. Just learn to balance your workflow and you should be fine.
Cropping When it comes to cropping, I highly recommend minimizing your cropping efforts for landscape photography if you shoot digital. The main reason is that cropping results in smaller images, which results in reduced resolution and smaller prints. If you are just posting images for the web you can certainly crop much as you want, but what if somebody gets interested in buying a large print of your image after seeing it online? That’s where cropping could hurt your image. If you shoot medium format or large format, you have a lot more resolution, so slight cropping is generally not a problem. But I would still frame your images as right as possible in camera. I leave a very small margin. The type of cropping you certainly want to avoid, is cutting verticals out of a horizontal image and vice versa – you will lose half of your resolution by doing that. Aligning and levelling images also results in cropping and losing resolution. Therefore, as I have recommended above under “composition”, you should always align and level your camera as best as possible before taking the image.
Sharpness and Why it is Important While sharpness does not matter as much for certain types of photography, it certainly carries a lot of weight in landscape photography. A sharp landscape image is always better to look at than a blurry or a fuzzy image – it communicates good technique by the photographer, gives a more realistic feeling to objects and just looks more pleasing to the eye. Having good sharpness across the frame requires the following: A good lens that is able to resolve a lot of detail and is sharp from centre to corners. A high-quality camera with plenty of resolution. Good camera technique by the photographer that can set proper exposure, acquire correct focus and eliminate camera shake. Good post-processing skills by the photographer for adding additional sharpening for printing/publishing. All of the above depend on each other. You might have the best post-processing skills, but if your lens is soft, you will never be able to get sharp results. Similarly, you might have the sharpest lens in the world and yet if you cannot set the right exposure settings and focus correctly, you will end up with a blurred image which cannot be fixed by sharpening in post. If you have the right gear and camera technique, sharpening images in post-processing is easy. You can also use special plugins in Photoshop for selective sharpening, which work really well. Selection sharpening is for emphasis.
Post-processing Images Other than sharpening and cropping, there are many different ways to improve your photographs. You can darken the sky and make it look more blue, you can saturate some of the colours, you can add more contrast to your images, you can convert images to black and white and so much more. It is not appropriate to go through all of these techniques here, as there is just too much to cover.
Here are some additional post-processing tips for landscape photography:
Be careful with dark shadows in the scene – while shadows are a normal fact of life, don’t let the shadows steal your viewer’s attention. Make sure that shadows do not occupy too much space, or they will spoil your image. Also, if your shadows are too dark, try to lighten them up either by adjusting the exposure or in post-production. In Lightroom, you can use the “Shadows” slider to add some light to the shadows. Don’t overdo it though – you still want shadows to look like shadows. That’s one of the biggest problems with HDR photography – the shadows can look unreal.
Don’t oversaturate your images – it is very common for photographers to purposefully oversaturate images. There are cases where you might actually need to desaturate some colours or even the entire image Don’t overexpose – always make sure to expose correctly, so that you don’t end up with especially overexposed images. Overexposed parts of images are impossible to recover in post-processing, since there is no information in them. If a scene has too much contrast, always bracket your images or use an appropriate filter.
Monitor Calibration When you work on your images, make sure that your monitor is calibrated. You do not want to be editing images using a non-calibrated monitor, because your colours might be way off. That is a topic on its own but an important one.
Light Let’s look at Light – this is a highly important element of landscape photography. Many photographers will argue that it is the “first” in terms of importance – I agree. Although photo equipment and skill/technique are certainly important, no photograph can look good without beautiful light. Portrait photographers can work with pretty much any light, because they have powerful external flashes that can imitate natural light. Landscape photographers do not have this luxury – we have to work with the available light all the time (maybe other than when painting some foreground objects with an artificial light in night photography).
Sunrise and Sunset The best landscape images are either taken at sunrise or sunset, the “Golden Hour”. I personally prefer sunrise/early morning light than sunset/late afternoon light, because it seems like there is less haze in the morning (obviously depends on many factors, pollution, wind, fires, etc). But it all depends on the direction of the subject I want to photograph. In some places, some mountains are best photographed at sunrise, while others are best photographed at sunset. Before you decide when to be at a particular location, I would highly recommend scouting the area first. Mid-afternoon is a good time to scout and estimate where the sun will rise and where it will set. I personally rely on some apps for my phone to tell me when the sun rises/sets and where in the horizon the sun will show up and where it will set. My favourite app is Photo Pills – I simply set my location and it tells me everything I need to know. I also use my own eye, which is pretty good for that.
Best Light When people ask photographers about the best light, the typical answer is “early in the morning or late afternoon, with the worst light at mid-afternoon”. While it is true for many locations around the world, but not necessarily correct for some regions. It is all about the angle of light in relation to the sun. Direct sunlight that we typically see in the mid-day is the worst, because it creates straight and ugly shadows. But if sunlight is always at an angle, there is no really bad time for shooting. Sunrise and sunset times are the best, because you see the most amount of colours.
Seasons What about seasons? This too depends on where you are and what you want to capture. Spring and Autumn are typically my favourite seasons to photograph landscapes, pretty much everywhere in SA although I favour cloud so the Eastern part tends to die a bit from Autumn in favour of the Western parts through winter. The autumn season is something you do not want to miss, especially in places with lots of non-evergreen trees. Some trees and plants go through dramatic colour changes. For example, before losing leaves from dark green to light green, then from light green to yellow, then from yellow through browns and russets and reds. We trust you have enjoyed these thoughts. Feel free to view some of our landscape images by clicking:
Marc and Stella