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Getting Started with Landscape Photography

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 everything you need to know to get started.

Landscape Photography - The Grand Canyon

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.

Camera and Lens

Obviously, you need to have a good camera and lens.  I have covered this subject at length, so let me just point you in the right direction:

  • Mirrorless Cameras:  These cameras are smaller, lighter, and cheaper than DSLRs, but are getting more powerful all the time.  If you are going to be doing a lot of hiking or are in a position where a smaller camera matter, you should consider one of these.  Check out the Mirrorless Camera Guide if this fits you.
  • DSLRs:  If the small size doesn’t matter to you so much, it is hard to beat a good DSLR.  They have top-notch image quality and they still carry the best lenses available.  Check out the DSLR Guide to learn more about them.
  • Wide Angle Lens:  The most important lens for landscape photography is the wide-angle lens.  You might add a telephoto lens later to capture details, but I would start with the wide-angle.  It captures the whole scene, which is what you are typically going to want to do.  Check out my lens recommendations for more on these lenses.

Tripods

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 many photographers say you just need a small tripod.

Or 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.  The one thing I would say is that if you are spending under about $100, you are probably going to have a problem with the quality.

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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Landscape Photography - The Guadalupe River

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 and Flickr – 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.

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.  Here is a list of books on photographing particular locations that I have started putting together for you.

Landscape Photography - The Colorado National Monument

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.

Landscape Photography - Monument Valley

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:

Manual mode – I recommend you use Manual mode and control your exposure settings.  Aperture priority mode is ok too.  This will allow you to take complete control over how the camera exposes the image.

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/11 and probably 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 + JPEGRaw 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.

Landscape Photography - Connemara Ireland

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.

Simplify –

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 worrying 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Landscape Photography - Giants Causeway

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.

Here is an article with some additional tips and information to make sure that you are getting sharp photos.

Landscape Photography - Vermont

7.  Tweak the Photo

Once you have the shot, you are not done.  Your photo can be improved, often dramatically, by using post-processing software.  To show you what can be done and get you started, check out this video.

Here is a before and after of that picture, which takes only a couple of minutes to do:

Before

Before

After

After

You can spend a lifetime learning new photo editing techniques and tricks.  Give it a try and if you enjoy it, keep at it.

What to Do Next?

These seven steps are everything you need to know to get started with landscape photography.  You can spend a lifetime learning about it though.  Here are a few directions you might want to take to advance your knowledge and skills:

Exposure – Check out our Exposure Series to fully understand how to operate the essential controls of your camera.

Composition – Learn some additional steps you can take to make sure you are composing your photos for maximum effect.

Subscribe – Don’t forget to Subscribe to Outdoor Photo Academy to make sure you get all the tips and resources for improving your photography.

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