For people that really enjoy the outdoors, the attraction to landscape photography is probably obvious. But I have never been a particularly “outdoorsy” person or a great lover of nature. And I certainly don’t like getting up at dawn.
Yet, even for me, there is nothing better than getting out early in some remote location and capturing it with your camera. Landscape photography has become my favorite type of photography.
If you are just getting started with photography, then let me introduce you to the joys of shooting landscapes. It requires different settings, skills, and gear than other photography you might be doing. This article will cover what you need to know to get started.
The 7 Steps of Landscape Photography:
1. Gear Up
The first thing we will need to do is make sure you have the proper gear. So let’s start with that.
Once you have a camera and lens, the only other necessity for landscape photography is a good tripod. Very often you will be shooting in low-light situations and in any case you will want to maximize sharpness.
The right tripod for you depends on a ton of factors. There is an old saying in photography that the perfect tripod is light, stable, and cheap, but you can only have two of those. The right tripod for you will always result in a compromise of some sort.
For example, you may just want a small and light tripod because you will be doing a lot of hiking, or perhaps because you just have a small camera that does not need a lot of support. You might give something up in the way of stability, but maybe not if you have a small mirrorless camera setup.
You may want to maximize stability and get a big heavy tripod. There are many photographers that point to the importance of stability in your photos and recommend not skimping here. But you can spend over $1000 for the tripod (which I don’t think is necessary), and there are a million options out there.
This is one item where it makes sense to visit a camera store to purchase, so you can play with all the different models.
Other Recommended Items
If you do a lot of landscape photography, you will end up with a lot of other items in your bag. I have listed some of the favorite tools of the landscape photographer below. Some of these are even considered necessities by some. Take a look and decide which would benefit you:
- Remote shutter release – this allows you to trigger the shutter on your camera without touching the camera and causing vibrations. They come with cables that plug into your camera or wireless. I recommend a cheap, off-brand model. They are camera-specific though, so make sure you get the right one. (If you don’t have one, just use the timer on your camera to trigger the shutter so you aren’t touching the camera).
- Circular polarizing filter – this filter will help make the daytime sky a rich blue, and will also cut down on some glare in any water in your shot. Put it on your lens and then twist it around until your sky is at the darkest point.
- Neutral density filters – these filters cut down on the amount of light coming into your camera. Use them when shooting waterfalls, waves, or any moving water. I’d start with a 6-stop filter.
- Graduated neutral density filters – these square filters fit over your lens and will darken the top portion of your picture. Since the sky is typically the brightest part of the picture, it evens things out.
Once you have some of these items, it is finally to think about getting out there and shooting.
2. Scout Your Location
The key to landscape photography is the location. You can have crazy photography skills and the best equipment in the world, but if you are in the wrong spot there is not much you can do. Here are some ways to make sure you find the best spots:
Google – A simple Google search of your location may yield some images. But the best way to use Google is to check out Google maps for the area where you will be. Google often include pictures of the area. You can also learn a lot by using street view and just moving “peg man” around.
500px, Flickr, and LocationScout – Every place in the world has been photographed. There are probably great pictures of your location published by somebody else on 500px from which you can draw inspiration. There will also be pictures on Flickr, and it has a handy World Map you can use to poke around. Another recent entry is LocationScout so be sure to check that out.
Other Photographers – It is very likely there is a professional photographer that specializes in the area you are about to photograph. Or there may be a photographer that runs photo tours there and publishes their itinerary. These are great resources, so look for one of those as well.
Photo Books – There may be a book published about how to photograph the place you are going. If there is, that’s all you will need. Just check Amazon.
3. Time to Shoot
Ok, so you are geared up and you’ve got your location. When should you go out to take your pictures? That’s easy: Sunrise and sunset.
Sunrise and sunset offer the best light and the most dramatic skies. In addition, there won’t be any harsh shadows to ruin your pictures.
This is more important than you might think if you are just starting out! Many photographers actually put their gear away except for these times.
4. Set Up Your Camera
Circumstances will obviously dictate the exact settings you use on your camera when you are out shooting. But here are some “default” settings for you to use to get you started:
Aperture to f/16 – Landscapes almost always require a wide “depth of field,” which requires a small aperture. Since aperture numbers are reciprocal (the higher the number the smaller the aperture), you will want a high number of at least f/8 and maybe as high as f/16. You typically won’t push it to the smallest aperture because of an effect called “diffraction,” which can make your photo slightly less crisp.
ISO 100 – Keep the camera’s ISO to the lowest native setting if you can. Since you will typically have the camera on a tripod, this should be doable.
Raw + JPEG – Raw files are the best files for editing. They are also the largest and give you the most data. JPEGs will look the best coming out of the camera, and they are smaller files. But why not just get both? You can. It will cost you more in the way of data storage, but data is getting cheaper by the day. Even if you don’t edit your photos now, you might one day, and you will have the Raw files to use.
5. Compose the Shot
Now that your camera is set up, it is time to actually take the shot. Here are some things to think about to help you get the best shot possible.
Rule of Thirds –
If you are not familiar with the Rule of Thirds, it will really help you compose your photographs. All you do is mentally divide your image into thirds and place important items on or near those lines.
In landscape photography, this comes into play with the horizon line. Don’t put it right in the middle of the frame. Put it about a third of the way from the top if the focus of your picture is on the ground; and put it about a third of the way from the bottom if the focus of your picture is the sky.
The rule of thirds also works left to right as well. Try to put important points of your picture on the third-lines to the left or right of the center of your image.
Don’t try to capture too much in your photo. Decide what your subject is, then capture it and only it. Omitting extraneous elements is harder than it sounds, and makes a big difference.
Often your subject is a scene rather than a thing. Don’t overlook simplification here though. Think about your scene. What can you cut out? What doesn’t fit with it?
Focus on the Foreground –
When you are photographing a scene, roughly 80% of your mental energy should be spent thinking about the bottom third of the picture. An interesting foreground element is almost always what separates interesting photographs from mere snapshots. A couple of ways to do that are:
- Find A Foreground Subject – Some common examples of this are flowers, interesting rocks, or old logs. If there is nothing like that available, look for patterns on the ground. Oftentimes these will be invisible to you, but will appear in the LCD or viewfinder, so you may have to look through the camera a lot to find one.
- Get Low – The next thing you are going to need to do is get low to the ground when you take the picture. If you found an interesting foreground element, get right behind it. If you are using a pattern on the ground, hold the camera very low to exaggerate it.
6. Getting Sharp Photos
You may have noticed that in our settings above, there was nothing about shutter speed. That is because it often does not matter if you are on a tripod. But if you are hand-holding your camera, you will need to make sure you are using a fast enough shutter speed to avoid “camera shake.” That is the number one reason that most photos do not appear sharp.
After that, check your focus. Make sure it is on the subject. If you photo is of a landscape view without a definite subject, you will typically want to focus on something about a third of the way into the picture.
7. Tweak the Photo
Here is a before and after of that picture, which takes only a couple of minutes to do:
You can spend a lifetime learning new photo editing techniques and tricks. Give it a try and if you enjoy it, keep at it.
Conclusion (or just the beginning)
This article is meant as an introduction to these techniques. You’ll notice there are a lot of links in it, and the idea is that you can start with this high-level overview and then tunnel down into whatever areas you need help with.
Do that and I think you’ll find your landscape photography improves markedly. And as always, if you have questions, just contact me and let me know.