Landscapes in Concept
A landscape photograph is most often created to establish a context for a story. The story can be told with the landscape itself, or act as the establishing shot for a slideshow, collage or short video. Shooting landscapes is pretty easy — getting them to be great is a bit more work.
A landscape always has a horizon in it somewhere. This horizon line must be level. If it is canted, your viewers will be uncomfortable, subconsciously feeling that they are sliding out of the image. Your camera probably has a grid option for the display and may even have a built-in level. Use them. You can fix skewed horizons in post, but the process is going to change your composition, not always for the better.
A very common thing in landscapes is that the horizon is positioned right in the middle of the frame, meaning the sky portion is half the frame and the ground portion is the other half. Composition-wise, this is the least-desired view. It creates confusion for the viewer as to where you want them to look and do, and they end up looking at neither and move on. Remember to use the rule of thirds which is a basic compositional structure in photography.
It is very common that a landscape will have a portion a lot brighter than another. Expose for the part of the landscape that is most important to you and accept that this decision may make other parts lighter or darker than you prefer. You will not get everything exposed the way that you want.
If in doubt, expose for the shadows and shoot in RAW. In digital we have much more latitude to pull down brights in post-processing than we do in lifting shadows. If you are an experienced film photographer, this is exactly the opposite of what you would do in film. (The explanation is very mathematical and somewhat complex, but you can do a search online for articles explaining the concept of ‘Expose To The Right’ if you want more detail.)
Time of Day
If we presume the context that landscapes are being shot outdoors, then the time of day is critical to a successful landscape. Consider your optimal shooting times to be from sunrise to about one hour after, and from about one hour before sunset to just after. We frequently hear these referred to as the ‘blue hour’ and the ‘golden hour’.
Depth of Field
Most creatives when shooting landscapes want everything in focus from nearest to farthest. This means using a small aperture on whatever lens you choose. There is a real problem called diffraction that occurs at the smallest apertures, but more important is whether you can actually see the effects of diffraction.
If you are viewing your image at a proper viewing distance, the truth is that you probably cannot, but I find more photographers zoomed in way too much and way too close to their images than any regular human would. Consider using a depth of field tool to help you know what will and will not be in focus.
Angle of View
As we’ve discussed a lot in other articles, the idea of focal length has become incredibly vague with makers using the same numbers to describe function on different sensor sizes. I would propose that you think in terms of angle of view. For landscapes, it is more common to use lenses offering a larger angle of view than a smaller one. Doing so has the effect of putting more of the scene in the frame, with the corollary effect of increasing the perception of distance, sometimes at the cost of the perception of grandeur. Consequently, most creatives find it easier to use wide angle lenses for landscapes although the landscape is defined by the composition never by the lens.
When shopping for a wide-angle lens, you are always served better by more width than less. For a full frame sensor, look to a focal length of 24mm or less. For a crop sensor, look to a focal length of 16mm or less and for micro four-thirds look to a focal length of 12mm or less. Higher focal length numbers are not going to be wide enough for general landscape work. While you can shoot landscapes with your kit lens, you will never get the same sense of grandeur and scale.
Foreground Content for Scale
All landscapes need a sense of scale, and that means having a recognizable element in the foreground. This helps the viewer establish a sense of scale and of distance. A landscape without a recognizable foreground element lacks depth and scale. And consequently, is frequently boring.
To create a sense of grandeur and power you need to be shooting at bit of an up angle, or with the camera positioned to drive a sense of power into the image. You do have to be careful that you don’t end up with things falling over in your image. The more “up” you look, the smaller the angle of view that you will be able to use before perspective exaggeration makes elements start to look like they are receding and falling over. This is particularly evident in architecture photography.
This is why some landscape photographers go to the special purpose tilt-shift lens to allow for aggressive up angle shots and then use the mechanics of the tilt shift to bring things back into proper proportion. Shooting using an architectural base can help photographers get the best from their pictures.
A best practice is to get your camera low to the ground and try to keep the plane of the shutter parallel to the plane of the subject. Landscapes always benefit from a lowered shooting position. Shooting landscapes from eye level risks boring shots pretty readily.
A landscape in principle is sharp everywhere. That means lots of depth of field and small apertures. Rather than cranking your ISO into the stratosphere and giving up dynamic range and colour fidelity, let the shutter speed fall. Note that when this happens, you are going to need to stabilize things.
Remember that for most people, a resting heart rate is between 60-70 beats per minute. This proposes that shutter speeds of less than 1/60th of a second will increase the risk of microshake due to you. Contrary to some advertising, image stabilization is not going to do anything to help with this as its frequency ranges are both much lower and much higher by design.
How to get stability then? Our friend the tripod. We have discussed tripods before. Buy your last tripod first. Weigh your camera with its heaviest lens and multiply that by at least two, although I recommend three. Then confirm that the legs and the head are each independently rated for the calculated weight. You are going to find that a lot of the tripods you run into are significantly incapable of holding your gear steady. If the tripod does not go as low as you might like, consider a model without a centre column and whose leg splay angle is selectable. Carbon fibre legs pass less vibration and are lighter than aluminum.
For the last couple of years, I’ve been carrying a tripod base device called a Platypod that allows me to get my camera right on the ground or strap it to a tree or a post. You will need a separate ball head to use the device. At this time, there is not a Canadian distributor and if you want one, you must order it online. It’s far superior to those too light and too wobbly mini-tripods.
Most landscapes are shot horizontally which we call landscape mode, but if your subject is predominantly vertical, such as a lighthouse, feel free to go to vertical mode for your shot.
Also be comfortable using the crop tool in post to make your photo a different aspect ratio than what was captured. Our typical 3:2 and 4:3 aspect ratios are fine for general images but may not impart the sense of space that we desire. Trying cropping to 16:9, 17:9 or 24:10 for a more powerful look.
Getting Things Right in Camera
Obviously, you want to have a good understanding of your camera modes, your metering modes and your lenses. There are also some accessories that I believe are essential to your landscape success.
First and foremost, I recommend having a lens hood for your lens and using it all the time. Personally I wouldn’t shoot without it. Henry’s carries a variety of lens hoods for different brands.
Secondly, you will need to have a polarizing filter for your lens. Buy the filter size to fit the lens in your kit with the largest diameter and use step rings to fit it to lenses with smaller filter diameters. There is a huge difference between a cheap polarizer and a good one, that is not tied entirely to price.
I always recommend Polarizing filters that are multi-coated and that come from a known maker of high-quality filters. I myself use B+W and Heliopan polarizing filters, but there are other good ones. Consult your Henry’s professional for guidance. I just suggest staying away from no-name and house brands, but it’s your money and your photograph.
Neutral Density Filter
Very often when shooting a landscape, we want to drive the shutter speed down to produce motion blur, most often in water but also in skies to get the look of what we call “scudding clouds”. This requires a Neutral Density filter. The most common ones offer between 1 and 3 stops of reduction, and that’s insufficient. Look for a minimum of 5 or 6 stops, with 10 stops being very popular.
Do note that your light meter is going to produce invalid exposure information with a dark ND, and your autofocus will probably not work. Get the exposure information and lock the focus before using the filter. Use a ND filter application to calculate the correct exposure to set manually when using an ND. PhotoPills has a function for this, but the go-to app for this specific purpose is called ND Timer and it is available on both the Apple and Google stores.
A special variant of the Neutral Density filter is called the Graduated Neutral Density. These come typically as rectangular filters that slide into a filter holder mounted to your lens. They work well unless you have a bulbous nosed ultra-wide which can be a challenge. There are a number of graduated neutral density filters offering a range of light reduction values as well as different methods of offering the transition from hard edges to soft edges. Some even add a tint to the darkening part.
Back when we were shooting film these tools were really important because film had such limited dynamic range compared to today’s sensors. Nowadays, you can do graduated neutral density effects with much more control and coverage in post processing software, but they can still be handy if you are shooting a sequence of images and want exactly the same effect and coverage every time. Cokin makes decent low-cost offerings. Nisi and Lee offer a wider range but will be special order items.
Remote Shutter Release
Because the camera is often going to be very low to the ground, and even if your camera has a tilting LCD so you can frame your shot without lying on the ground, you may not want to spend all your time flat on your belly. A simple cabled remote release is inexpensive, needs no batteries and just works. It also separates you from the camera, so you do not impart camera shake when you release the shutter.
There are options from the camera makers and from third parties and a basic release is so simple that you do not have to spend a fortune to get one that does the job. I have a couple for each camera brand of the Henry’s Essentials units because they are inexpensive and if I lose or break one, I’m not going to freak out. Plus, they work a charm.
While the rules for flying drones vary, there is an entire subsection of landscape photography that involves using a drone for what is called “look-down” work. This perspective can provide a perspective that you will see nowhere else.
Making the step to great landscapes is not that hard. Give yourself time to practice and do not rush your shots. It’s sometimes easier to get into this kind of work going slow and on your own, unless you are shooting with someone else out for the same goals. Great landscapes are not typically achieved with members of your family howling “are you done yet?”