So you have already followed some basic advice for getting better landscape photos: Shoot during the golden hour, use f/22, and focus 1/3 of the way in. You are using a tripod, ballhead, and shutter release. Now you want to improve your landscape shots further.
I was in this same boat not long ago, and I can see my landscape shots getting much better recently because of a few areas I decided to improve. But they don't have all that much to do with the camera itself. Forget about all the settings on your camera for now. Literally. I mean it. We are going to concentrate on Framing, Lighting, Filters, and Multiple Exposures. We will get to some technical camera stuff at the end.
1. Framing your Shot
For Landscape, I believe Framing is a very important element, and probably given the least attention by beginners. I know I have ignored it for years, and my photos showed it. The first general guideline is not to put the horizon line in the middle, and unless using a Fisheye, this is a pretty solid guideline.
Focus on the foreground by putting the horizon line higher up, or focus on the sky by putting the horizon line lower down. If neither the foreground or sky have interesting elements, then you need to find some. No point of shooting uninteresting scenes.
Choosing between shooting horizontal or vertical is pretty easy: Shoot both. It is easy with good Ballheads that have a “Vertical Slot”, and cost is a grand total of Zero Dollars. I probably shoot 75% of my Landscape shots both ways, just so I have the option of a different view later on.
You may hear the term “Rule of Thirds”, and again, I think it is a pretty good guideline. But I like to call it “Rule of 4 points”, mainly because it is the 4 points that are created by dividing the photo into thirds both horizontally and vertically that you care about. Try putting something of interest on or near one of those 4 points, and you will see your composition start to look more interesting. Try it with a mountain top, a flower in the foreground, or a tree top. Don't feel constrained by this “Rule”, but try it and see if your vision doesn't get a kickstart.
Cropping in post can actually be a powerful tool in getting a Landscape shot with more meaning. Of course you could just shoot really wide and then crop only what you want, but you will lose data, and frankly it is kind of lazy. It is much better to get it framed correctly in the camera, since this forces you to concentrate on getting exactly what you want while standing there.
That process while on the tripod will actually help you develop vision since you must contemplate the shot, rather than doing it quickly with the crop tool in post. If you don't get it perfect in camera, that's OK, but try to get it close. A little cropping is totally fine to polish the photo. In fact, I tend to crop most of my photos to a small degree.
Pointing the lens down at the area just in front of you can really create a sense of depth, especially on verticals. It draws the eye in from the bottom all the way up. When I say right in front of you, I mean it. Also getting down low with your tripod can really make things interesting. Most decent tripods allow the legs to be adjusted so that you can get very low to the ground. The rocks in the following photo were about 18 inches from the lens, and the camera was also about 18 inches from the ground.
2. Understanding Light and Lighting
So we will assume you are working during the Golden Hour or Magic Hour (roughly the hour after Sunrise & before Sunset), but there is more to it than that. The biggest thing to consider is where the light comes from. There are of course infinite positions, but let's break it down to 3: Front Lighting, Side Lighting, and Back Lighting.
Front lighting is where the sun is behind you. Side Lighting is where the sun is to the left or right of you. Back Lighting is where the sun is in front of you.
Try shooting with just side lighting. It doesn't have to be 90 degrees to the subject, but avoid the sun being directly in front or behind you.
Rather than find a subject, and hope the light will be where you want, when you want, find the light, and you will probably have more subjects that you know what to do with.
In this shot of Half Dome from Sentinel Bridge in Yosemite, the light is coming mostly from my left, so it is a type of side lighting (it is slightly front as well).
3. Filters and Multiple Exposures
Landscape shots can be challenging because of the contrast differences present with a dark foreground and bright sky. If you expose for the foreground, the sky can become blown out. If you expose for the sky, the foreground can be too dark. What are the solutions around this?
The Graduated Neutral Density Filter (GND Filter) is touted by most Landscape photographers as the must have accessory to deal with this. I agree that this is a solution. Lee, Cokin, Singh Ray all make products for this, and can be pricey (about $300 to get started), and are currently hard to get.
However, you can also take multiple exposures (called Exposure Bracketing on most cameras) and combine them in post, and achieve similar results. While most people equate this with High Dynamic Range (HDR) imaging, they are not necessarily the same thing. I now use both a GND and take multiple exposures on a lot of Landscape shots, so I have the options later on to combine them.
You might be saying, “I have seen HDR photos, and I don't like how unnatural they look.”. I feel your pain. But those are photos that have been processed to the point of looking unnatural, sometimes on purpose. And maybe that is the look some people like, but for Landscape, I don't care for it.
However, you can do Multiple Exposure Combining, without actually using HDR. Or you can even use HDR very sparingly. Hydra HDR, PhotoMatix, and NIK HDR Efex Pro are some of the products available to do this. Many of these tools plugin to Aperture, Lightroom, Photoshop, and some even work as standalone product. Even Photoshop itself has built-in HDR, and there are tutorials on how to do Multiple Exposure Combining without HDR.
As long as you don't over do it, the effects of Multiple Exposure Blending, or even true HDR can be very pleasing. And when done sparingly, most won't even know, which is the point. And before all the purists start chanting for blood, this is not cheating. No more than a GND or a Tripod is cheating. The only cheating in my book is changing a photo and presenting it in a Photojournalistic context as something else. Everything else is fair game, in-camera or in-post.
The following photo used multiple exposures and a small of amount of processing. I used Silver Efex Pro 2 for conversion to B&W, and HDR Efex Pro (though I actually did not use the HDR feature of that tool):
4. Aperture and Depth-of-Field (Technical Stuff)
You might hear that using the smallest Aperture possible for Landscape photos is the way to go (typically f/22). I am going to suggest using a Aperture of one larger than the lens' smallest. So on a lens that has an f/22 as it's smallest, use f/16 instead. Why?
Let's assume we have a fixed focal length lens (Prime lens) that will do f/2.8 through f/22. While f/22 will give the most depth of field, it will likely be less sharp than f/16. Lets find out why, and also take a moment to talk about the difference between Depth of Field (DOF) and sharpness.
Depth of Field is how much is in focus; Sharpness is how sharp that focused area is. And there is always a struggle to balance the two, especially for landscape work.
Every lens has an Aperture that is the most sharp, and typically that will be somewhere between f/5.6 and f/11 depending on the lens and manufacturer (called the “Sweet Spot”). You can check online to see what it is for your lens. What people sometimes forget is that most lenses are also the least sharp at the very far ends (f/2.8 and f/22 in our example).
Additionally, the smaller your aperture opening (higher aperture number), the more depth of field you will get, but you also start to get less sharpness, since you are moving away from the sweet spot.
By definition, because we typically want as much Depth of Field as possible in Landscape work, we will not be at the sharpest Aperture. But by dialing back from f/22 to f/16, we are still getting a fair amount of DOF, but also getting a fair amount of Sharpness. Simply put, it is a compromise that will give us what we want in terms of both DOF and Sharpness for Landscape shots.
Hopefully, some of these things I have learned recently will help you in producing better Landscape photos as they have mine. I think the ultimate goal of most photographers is to inspire, and it takes a lot of work to accomplish that. Most of that work happens in your head, not in the camera.
Author: Chris Arnold