I started in photography many years ago when an old Praktica film camera was passed down to me by my late father. I grew up in rural England and liked to get up early and take the camera out and catch the sunrise in the early morning mist. The way the light diffused through the fog and the way the silhouetted trees broke the light into beams captured my imagination. These early memories set me on a creative path that has lasted to this day. I find nothing more rewarding than getting out into nature, usually somewhere remote, and exploring. I like to spend time looking for good locations for a photo and then wait for the sun to produce that beautiful light when it’s closer to the horizon.
I’ve been asked more and more lately about what my suggestions would be for getting into this field. Any tips for someone just starting out? So here I have compiled the 10 most important things I’ve learned from all my years of taking landscape photos.
First and foremost learn you camera and its settings. My current go-to camera is my Canon 5d Mark 3. Digital cameras are improving with every iteration, every model that appears is for the most part better and easier to use than the last, but don’t let that make you too comfortable. Manual mode is the only setting I use when taking pictures of scenery, and sunsets. Shutter speed, focal length and ISO all need to be adjusted based on the ever changing lighting conditions throughout the day. This is so important and more so at sunset, when light changes minute to minute. So learn to shoot manual and take all those settings into account, learning to shoot that way takes time (and I’ve made many mistakes along the way) but its the correct path to take when learning how to shoot landscapes and will prepare you for every type of light and scene you will encounter out there when shooting. Also, shoot in RAW, These are your cameras digital files and unlike jpg image files, the RAW’s can be used to obtain much more information from the scene, including exposure/white balance and other tonal settings. RAW files will be much more forgiving if your shot needs any correction later on.
This is a must have for any serious landscape photographer (My go to wide angle lens is my Canon 16-35mm 2.8L II). wide angle lenses allow you to fit more scenery within the frame. The wider you shoot the more depth in the image, however, things will also look further away so you need to move around for the perfect frame. Ensure you’re using nice high apertures as well on your photos, using f8 and above should ensure much more of the image is in focus (see Tip #6).
Before you go buying any other fancy camera gear or gadgets, a tripod should be the number one purchase for anyone serious about landscape photography. As light fades and moves into the golden hour, there will be a point when your shutter speeds are going to go below 1/60th of a second, and anything under this will cause some blurring from camera shake. This is where the tripod comes in and ensures your shots remain tack sharp. (They are also essential for long exposure, HDR and multiple bracketed exposure images too.) Tripods start at $20 and can go up over $1000 for lightweight models. This is one area you need to invest as much as you can as it will be a trade off between carrying weight and sturdiness. The more you spend the more these factors align. Carbon fiber tripods are lighter then their cheaper counterparts and extremely sturdy. I currently use a Manfrotto 190CXPRO3 tripod with an XPRO magnesium ball head. Its a 3 section tripod which is light enough to carry on long hikes and not break my back. It’s also very sturdy, even when the weather gets choppy.
I rarely shoot during the day unless I am on a trip or somewhere really special. I always aim for sunrise or sunset when going for the shot. This is when the light is lower and the colors are more vibrant and not washed as with midday light. Also, shadows are longer at these times. All of these factors make the landscape come alive. Sunrise and sunset have what is called the “golden hour” which starts 30 minutes before sunrise and ends 30 minutes sunset. This is the best time of day for landscape photos as the light is low and blue light has a shorter wavelength and is bounced out of the atmosphere, leaving the warmer colors from the sun. Be sure to hang around after the sun has gone down- occasionally you will be treated to a last burst of color as the sun will light up the higher altitude clouds nice and red, if you’re lucky this happens about 15-20 minutes after sunset.
For anyone just starting out in photography the instinct is to put the subject matter in the center of the frame. With “The Rule of Thirds” you should place your subject where any of the lines in the image above intersect to ensure a better composition. You’ll have the image tell more of story by doing so. Off-center subjects seem to convey more emotion and interest and offer the photographer more ways to think about how to get the shot. I also like to place my horizon on one of the horizontal lines to either show more of the landscape if there is no cloud, or the sky if the landscape isn’t so great and the sky lights up at sunset. Please note this is not something that needs to be done every time, its a guideline. There are situations where you should break these rules, such as with photos that have symmetry. At the end of the day its up to you, its your eye and creative vision so experiment! Occasionally my best shots have been ones that I haven’t been aiming for.
Just as portrait photographers use a lower aperture (f1.0 – 4) to blur the background behind the subject, a landscape photographer mainly uses a higher aperture to ensure that the whole scene is in focus and all details can be seen nice and sharp. When out shooting landscapes I mainly use f8 or above to ensure everything is nice and crisp in my images. However, as the light gets lower you will find at those higher apertures that your shutter speed will decrease to compensate for the lower amount of light hitting your cameras sensor. (This is where the tripod comes in.)
We’ve all seen those images of waterfalls with silky smooth blurs where the water should be and city shots of cars with the lights trailing of into the distance. This is accomplished by keeping the shutter open longer and blurring the motion within the scene. The image above of downtown Los Angeles is a 30 second exposure (meaning the shutter was open for 30 seconds and anything moving in that time was blurred). For shots that are close to the beach I normally use a shutter speed of half a second to give the waves some motion as they break over the beach. I’ve taken shots of stars with the shutter open for 30 minutes and above. To accomplish this, you will need to use the bulb setting and have some short of shutter release cable or remote to ensure you don’t move the camera while pressing buttons.
Occasionally I come across water that is perfectly still. If you come across this and have something behind it you can create a shot with reflection and symmetry, (the same works with glass and windows.) Above is a shot from Yosemite in which I only moved about 20 feet away from rapidly running to perfectly still water. It definitely pays to scout around before you setup and get clicking.
The thing about landscape photos is they cannot completely relay the depth of the landscape around us. Because we see in three dimensions, when we’re out in big wide open spaces they look breathtaking and you can feel really quite small. I’ve stood on the edge and marveled at the immensity of the Grand Canyon and on the edge of volcanoes in the South Pacific ocean only to get home and not feel the same way when I view my images. The depth is lost with a 2 dimensional print or image on a screen. One dimension of image data is lost when we click the shutter, so it’s up to us as photographers to bring something into the scene that can try and bring that depth back. People, or something we recognize for its size, can fool our brains into bringing that 3rd dimension back for us.
Sooner or later you’re going to come across a scene where the camera just cannot expose everything correctly, usually its because the sun is behind an object causing it to appear dark and the camera cannot expose such a large dynamic range. This is where exposure bracketing comes in. Exposure bracketing is where you take a minimum of three shots, one as close as you can get to the correct exposure, and then one shot 1-3 stops under exposed to correctly capture the bright sky, and then one more shot 1-3 stops over to capture all the details in the darker areas. This procedure needs a tripod firstly, secondly images need to be combined in image processing software such as lightroom or photoshop. You can also use HDR (High Dynamic Range) software such as photomatix but I find it creates way too surreal images for landscapes. I like realism in my photos, and to me, you lose realism with colors that look far too crazy or psychedelic. Just my opinion!
Bonus Pro Tip: Aperture f16 and up will cause any light source to flare like a star just as it does in the image above.
I hope you found something useful in these tips, these are all things I need to consider when I go out and take photos of any landscape. There is a lot to remember, and it took a fair amount of time before I could remember everything. Early on I would be disappointed when I got to editing and found blurry images, things out of focus or grainy images from too high an ISO. It all comes together eventually and become natural after a while. If you feel I’ve missed anything important please feel free to add it in the comments below. And feel free to ask questions!