There are lots of these 5 or 10 Best Photography Tips - type articles on the internet, and they can sometimes seem a bit glib and superficial. On the other hand, they can offer an insight into what makes a particular photographer tick and how they go about creating images. I've found some of these articles very useful so I thought I'd have a go myself. My main rule in coming up with this list was to not think about it too much.....just jot down the elements of landscape photography that immediately come to mind as being fundamental to the way I go about things, and then flesh them out with some examples. Why 8?.....no particular reason except that this seemed like a good summary of my approach to landscapes at this time. I can think of lots more topics that could be discussed at length, but they can wait for future articles. Hope you find these tips useful.
1. Get there early and stay there late
Sunrise and sunset are prime times to be out photographing landscape scenes, but not just because of the vibrant colours you can get in the sky at these times. It’s also about the quality of the light in general. The periods just before the sun rises and just after it sets tend to have very even, soft light, which means there isn’t a huge difference between the darkest and lightest parts of the scene. This makes it a lot easier for a camera sensor to capture and record detail in all parts of the photo, unlike an image taken in full sunlight where you’ll often see deep black shadows and washed out, overexposed highlights without any detail. Images of waterfalls or in forests will also benefit from this approach even though there might not be any sky in the frame....alternatively try to photograph these sorts of scenes under a heavy cloud cover.
An early start and late finish also means that you’re likely to have popular spots like lookouts and waterfalls to yourself without sightseers standing in your way.
Sunrise and sunset aren't just about strong, vibrant colours.
2. Use a tripod and remote shutter release
If you’re taking photographs in low light conditions around sunrise and sunset, you really need a tripod to make sure your photos come out sharp. With landscape images you’ll often want to use a small aperture setting, maybe f11 to f22, to keep everything in focus from the foreground to the horizon, and also set the ISO low, say 100 to 200, to keep the noise at a minimum. Using these settings in the dim pre-dawn light will often mean your shutter speed needs to be set at 1 second or longer, and I don’t know too many photographers with a steady enough hand to get a sharp image by hand-holding their camera at this sort of shutter speed. A tripod will also allow you to experiment with long shutter speeds to get motion blur effects with flowing water and swaying vegetation.
The other thing I really like about using a tripod is that it helps you to slow down and pay extra attention to your compositions. It pays to be pedantic about composition – a stray branch poking into the frame or a slightly cut off feature rock in the foreground can easily be overlooked when you’re trying to make the most of the pre-dawn glow, but they can detract from the final image. Get used to using both the viewfinder and the LCD liveview screen when framing your composition – it’s amazing how you’ll see the scene differently, and find different flaws in your composition, depending on which view you use.
Using an infra red or cable shutter release will keep your hands well away from the camera to help avoid any camera shake when you take a picture....and they’re fun little tools to use!
3. Go wide angle
You can use any sort of lens from ultra wide angle to extreme telephoto to take landscape photographs, but if I had to pick just one focal length to take out with me, it would be somewhere around 16-24mm for a full-frame DSLR, or 10-15mm for a crop sensor DSLR. It takes a little getting used to a lens this wide if you haven’t used one before, but the possibilities it opens up are worth the effort. A wide angle lens can create a wonderful sense of depth in an image....that feeling that you could step onto the rock in the foreground and walk right into the scene. This sense of depth is created because objects that are close to the lens will look disproportionately large compared to objects that are further away, and because of the perspective created by strongly converging lines from foreground to background, say of the banks of a creek that get closer together as they wind towards the horizon.
By getting up close with a wide angle lens, this little fern in the foreground appears much larger than the trees in the background and immediately creates a sense of depth in the image.
There are some traps to be aware of with a wide angle lens. Distant objects will look very small compared to what you see with the naked eye, so a prominent hill or tree might be much less prominent in the final image than you’d expected. Another common mistake is to include too much in an image and clutter up the composition, because a wide angle lens will naturally include a wider view than our eyes normally perceive. There will also be some distortion in the image that may or may not be a problem – straight horizons can appear bowed, and trees and buildings near the edges of the frame can have an unnatural lean. These distortions can be corrected in software like Photoshop, or they can be left as they are for artistic effect.
4. Know your location
Everyone loves to find new places to visit and photograph – it's exciting and keeps the photography fresh. But there’s also a lot to be said for getting to know a location and visiting it again and again. Familiarity can open up new levels of understanding about the nature of a place and allow us to build on what we learnt last time we were there. If you’re like me, every time you get home and review the photographs you captured on any given day at any given location, you’ll see ways you might have done things better – a slightly different composition, a more appropriate shutter speed or f value, or the possibility of finding more interesting light by visiting at a different time of day or in different weather conditions. By all means find new places to photograph, but don’t write off the ones you’ve already been to.
The other part of this point is to try and get to know a new location before you visit for the first time. An internet search will likely uncover loads of information and photographs that will give you some idea what to expect when you get there, and guide books, maps and satellite imagery can help orientate you to likely photographic scenarios. Sunrise and sunset times and tidal information are readily available online and can be essential factors in many cases. None of this information will guarantee great photographs but it can help set you in the right direction.
5. Work quickly but take your time
The worst thing about sunrise and sunset photo shoots is that it’s all over so quickly – the golden light or colourful sky that can raise your images above the ordinary might only last a few minutes, so you have to be ready for action. My favourite period for sunrise photography starts around 15-20 minutes before the sun pops over the horizon and, depending on clouds and other factors, usually lasts another 15-20 minutes after sunrise. But within that period there might be fleeting cloud patterns, sky colours or other lighting effects that only last a minute or two before they’re gone forever. So you need to be aware of what’s happening around you and work quickly and efficiently. At the same time, there’s no point in rushing things and being clumsy with your composition, focus or camera settings – that can only lead to frustration when you get home and realise your images aren’t as good as they could have been.
A gap in the clouds created this spotlight effect on the dead tree in front of me while the background hills remained in shade. The effect only lasted for less than a minute.
6. Shoot in the RAW
If you want to make the best landscape images you can, I’d recommend shooting RAW files. They contain the maximum amount of information your camera can record, and unlike JPG files, haven’t been compressed and ‘cooked’ with in-camera settings for saturation, white balance, contrast, sharpening etc. If you set your camera to take JPGs, your camera software will compress and convert the original RAW file into a readable image file. If you set your camera to RAW, then this in-camera processing is bypassed, but you will need to run the RAW file through a converter on your computer to produce an image file. A RAW converter on your computer allows much finer tinkering using much more powerful algorithms than your camera software, so the final result is going to be of a higher quality.
If your main aim is to show your photos on the web, or if you just don’t want to be bothered with any post-processing, then JPG files will give a very good result. But if you want maximum control over colour and exposure, or want the highest quality image just in case you happen to nail that once-in-a-lifetime world beater, RAW is the best option.
7. Get to know your polariser
A polarising filter is a must-have for landscape photography in my opinion. It can have both good and bad effects on skies, but perhaps its most powerful application is in cutting glare and reflections on water and other wet surfaces like vegetation. By cutting glare, a polariser can reveal the details of pebbles on the bed of a stream, or boost the depth of colour of vegetation in forest scenes. It’s just a matter of rotating the front element of the filter to see the effect it is having, and then pressing the shutter when you like what you see.
A polariser can cut through glary reflections to bring out colour and detail.
When used with a wide angle lens, a polariser can create some unwanted effects with skies so you need to be careful. There’s more on this in my article about Polarising Filters.
8. See the image before you take the photo
This is a skill that takes a lot of practice, and I suspect it’s something that will go on improving for each of us for as long as we take photographs. It’s a simple concept to grasp – you look at a landscape scene in front of you and visualise a completed image, maybe as a large print on your wall, and then work back from that to determine how to best align and frame the various elements of the scene, what camera settings to use, and how you will process and present the image to portray what it is about the scene that moves you. The final result you are seeking informs all the steps that come before it. Or as American landscaper Ansel Adams simply put it, visualisation is the “ability to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure.”
The concept is simple, but putting it into practice is not always easy....if it was, every picture we take would come out as perfectly as we imagined! The more images you capture and process, and the more critical you are of the final result, the better you will get at visualisation. There’s a very good article about the subject here.