Finding the View: A Guide to Landscape Photography
Sure … Landscape photography can be very easy. If you drive to certain overlooks at Yosemite National Park, you can pretty much be guaranteed an epic view and almost anyone with an iPhone can capture that photo. It is almost too easy. And to be honest, God is largely responsible for that image. But art is created on both sides of the camera, and that is the trick. How can you find those epic landscapes (whether known spots or unknown spots) and then take a photo that takes it to a whole new level? Here are some tricks to guide you in your next adventure …
Use the Right Lens for the Job
Often people will always grab that wide-angle lens when it comes to landscapes. But it can also give you too much of a good thing. The trick with a wide-angel lens is to not overcrowd your image. Don’t incorporate too many elements into your photo. There still needs to be a dominant subject and your eye needs to be drawn to it through the image. At the same time, take advantage of your zoom lenses and look for the details in a landscape. Zoom lenses also can compress the image which can have the effect of making something in the background seem much bigger. An example of this is the image of the rocks on the beach with the lighthouse in the background. This image was shot at 70mm. Had I taken it with a wide-angle lens the lighthouse would have been a minor detail in the background. So don’t be afraid to change it up and utilize all the lenses in your bag.
Guide your viewer through your image
A key element to a successful landscape photo is leading the viewer through the image. In a sense you can control where the viewer’s eyes enter the image, travel through it and even direct them to key elements in the photo. This can be done by guiding them with the composition or it can be done with how light is displayed in the image. An example of this can be seen in my image of Half Dome in Yosemite where the river flows through the image taking the viewer to the mountain scene behind it. Look at your compositions for natural leading lines and s-curves which will guide your viewer.
Utilize Foreground Elements
A basic rule of composition is to use the Rule of Thirds. But with landscapes, consider taking it to the next level. Don’t just capture that beautiful valley but find an element for the foreground such as a plant or tree. An example of this is this image of the Arizona desert where you have a foreground element (the plants) at the front of your image, and then the hills between that, and the mountains and sunset in the background. Finding these opportunities takes some practice. I should also note it often will require you to utilize focus stacking (images are captured with different focus points and later combined so all the elements of the photo are in focus and sharp)
Take Advantage of Shutter Speeds (particularly with water)
Waterfalls, ocean waves and lakes … you can create very different scenes based on your shutter speed. If you use a quick shutter speed, this can freeze the action and can be very powerful with large ocean waves. But I particularly like to blur the water to give it an element of movement. The ideal sweet spot for blurring water is often around a half second to 2 seconds which smooths it out but still gives it some dimension.
If anything, one of the most significant things you can do to improve your landscape photography is to just slow yourself down. Ideally you should arrive early, scope out the area for the best compositions and then wait for the ideal light. Unfortunately, this often is difficult to do if you are trying to take photos while on vacation. Your family may not be keen to sit around for two hours waiting for the sunset. So put together some trips that are just about photography or find some specific moments on your trips where you can spend a little time at those epic locations.
The Landscape Photographer’s Default Settings
When shooting landscapes, I always have my camera in manual mode with my ISO at 100 (my lowest level, and usually F8 or F11 (the sweet-spot for maximizing sharpness and depth of field). My shutter speed is whatever it is to make the photo work which is why it is handy to have a tripod. That said, there are times (such as shooting water) where you will want to adjust your shutter speed and in those cases you have to figure out the balance with the ISO, aperture and sometimes with the help of ND filters.
Use the Histogram
Your histogram is your saving grace when it comes to landscape photography particularly when it is bright outside. Use it to ensure you are not blowing out your highlights and push it right if you have room to spare so you can reduce noise in the shadows. I also recommend the RGB histogram over the luminance histogram. Using the RGB histogram will keep you from blowing out certain colors. If you have ever shot a red or orange flower on a sunny day and the colors looked off, it is probably because you blew out the reds. Same situation for sunsets and sunrises.
Take the Right Gear With You
Besides your camera and lenses, what else is helpful to have with you when taking landscapes? First on the list is a tripod. And the best part about a tripod is it almost forces you to slow down and think things through (which is a good thing as noted above). It also gives you the flexibility to set the camera to its ideal settings for the scene without having to worry about camera shake. I also highly recommend you bring your filter kit, particularly a polarizer (I use it probably 90 percent of the time) and neutral density filters (allowing you to do long exposures).
Plan Out Your Trip
Whenever I am traveling or going to some location, I do my research. I look at Instagram, Pinterest, and google to see what opportunities are out there. I often use Google Maps to pre-scout spots (street view and satellite view are particularly helpful). Some of the smartphone apps I use include: Tide Trac, Moon Calendar and PhotoPills. PhotoPills is particularly helpful as you can use it to see exactly where the sun will set/rise as well as where the moon and milky way will be. This is extremely helpful to plan out a night shoot. I also suggest you look at several weather apps to see what is forecasted. One app I recommend is Clear Outside. That app shows the cloud locations (low, medium or high). Premium opportunities are when you have very little low or medium clouds but a mix of high clouds at sunset or sunrise. That’s when the sky lights up!
The Key Moments of the Day … Sunrise, Sunset and Bad Weather
Unfortunately, there is a window for the best time to shoot landscape photography. If you look at my portfolio a vast majority are shot around sunrise or sunset. I recommend arriving an hour before sunrise/sunset and staying until the light is no longer ideal (which could be a couple of hours later). That said, bad weather can be taken advantage of at almost any time of the day and can create some amazing images. In fact, blue sky days are often less interesting than cloudy days. So don’t let the weather scare you away.
Be Responsible and Leave No Trace
Take in the landscape but be responsible. Don’t just visit the most popular spots but find new angels and new places. This world has some amazing locations and we need to ensure they will be here for the next generation.