26 of the best landscape photography tips
- By Digital Camera Magazine
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Whether you're a novice landscape photographer or have sold thousands of your photos through stock agencies, there are some fundamental rules of landscape photography that stay with you as a photographer, even once you've honed your craft and learned how to break the rules to develop your own style.
Below we've pulled 26 of the best landscape photography tips that everyone from working pros to famous photographers have told us they still use on a daily basis. Incorporate these lessons into your own landscape photography and you're soon to be taking better pictures in no time.
1 Map out locations You should never head out on landscape shoots in new locations without a good map; we like the Ordnance Survey Landranger series. Before you leave home, use your OS map to do a recce of the area you are planning to photograph. OS maps are invaluable, because they enable you to plan your route, working out elevations and exactly where the mountain peaks, lakes and scenic spots are, which road or trail you’ll need to reach them, and the best positions to photograph them from. This means that once you get there, all you need to think about is taking brilliant pictures.
2 Get in position Think about your scenes and find out where you should shoot from to make the most of them. Working out where the sun will rise and set, and the sun’s position in relation to you and your landscape, will ensure you’re in the right place at the right time.
3 Read the landscape Before you start taking landscapes, stop and survey the lie of the land. Make sure you’re in the best spot in relation to the position of the sun. Also look for an ‘anchor’ – a focal point that leads the eye into the image, whether it’s a farmhouse, a line of trees or foreground interest.
4 Don’t be lazy! When photographing landscapes, beginners often pull up at a viewpoint car park, get out of the car and take a few hand-held snaps of the scene, before driving off again. To improve your shots, use your feet. Walk around, get down to the lakeside or base of the mountain, or walk up to a higher viewpoint, so you’re involved in the scene rather than just a passing viewer. This will really help to improve your compositions.
5 The golden hours Sunrise (and an hour or so after) and sunset (and an hour or so just before) are the best times of day for capturing beautiful landscape shots with spectacularly colourful skies. Watch the forecast beforehand and try to avoid overcast or cloudy days – clear skies with only a smattering of clouds usually create the most colourful skylines. Set an early alarm or stay out late and be on location ready to capture moody, vibrant skies just as the sun rises or sets.
6 Shoot in RAW Some amateurs are more comfortable shooting JPEGs. However, it’s always best to shoot landscapes using your camera’s RAW quality setting, because the resulting images will contain much more ‘information’. This allows you more scope to increase or decrease the exposure or enhance the tones and colours in Adobe Camera Raw or similar RAW processing software afterwards, without compromising quality.
7 Use a tripod You’ll often find yourself shooting landscapes in low light, with shutter speeds too slow to shoot hand-held without risking camera shake (1/10 sec to 10 secs, for example). So, for the best results using a tripod is essential.
8 Follow the light Landscape photography is all about making the most of the light. You need to shoot not only at the right time of day, but also at the right time of year. Early morning sunrises and late evening sunsets are best, as they produce softer, more colourful light with longer shadows that will give your landscape shots extra depth and dimension.
9 Mirror movement Even the mirror moving up and down inside your DSLR can create enough vibration during long exposures to cause unwanted camera shake. Enable the Mirror Lock-up setting available on your DSLR (usually hidden in the custom functions menu) to make doubly sure your shots will be sharp.
10 Pre-visualise Before setting up, visualise the photo you’re trying to capture. Take sample shots by shooting handheld, moving around, getting up high and kneeling down really low. Take several photos until you’re sure you’re in the best spot for a good, balanced composition of foreground and background elements. Once you’ve found the best position, keep your camera in the exact spot and reach for your tripod before you shoot.
11 Get perfect colour using white balance You’ll generally find that your camera’s Auto White Balance setting is fine for shooting landscapes, because it’s so good on modern DSLRs and 99 times out of 100 it will set the best temperature colours for the scene. However, if your shots don’t do justice to the scene you saw, don’t panic – you can warm up or cool down the scene back home by shooting in RAW and using the Temperature slider in Adobe’s Camera Raw editor. Below 4000K cools a shot down and makes it bluer; above 6000K warms up the colours and makes the whole image more orangey.
12 Maximise the depth of field For successful, sharp landscape photos, you’ll want to ensure your entire scene appears in focus from front to back. To achieve this, select a narrow aperture of around f/16 or f/22 to get maximum depth of field, then focus one third into the scene to ensure your photos are acceptably sharp from the foreground to the horizon.
13 Get sharper shots When shooting landscapes, it’s best to use your camera’s manual autofocus (AF) point selection. If you leave your camera on auto point selection, chances are it will only focus on the objects closest to you, which is not ideal when shooting landscapes. If in doubt, select the central AF point, then focus ‘one third up’ the scene to ensure your photos are sharp from front to back.
14 Aperture control Set your DSLR to Aperture Priority (A or Av) mode and you can take control of the aperture. Use a wide aperture such as f/2.8 for a shallow depth of field and a narrow aperture such as f/22 to create a deep depth of field. Most landscape photographers prefer a deep depth of field, but wide apertures can also be effective. Experiment.
15 Manual control Many amateurs are happy to rely on their DSLR’s semi-auto Aperture Priority (A or Av) or Shutter Priority (S or Tv) shooting modes. However, to take control of your exposures it’s better to shoot in Manual (M). This means you’re able to set the aperture and shutter speed to get the results you’re after, rather than letting your camera dictate what it thinks should be bright and dark in the scene. This is especially important, for example, if you want to shoot silhouetted landscapes at sunrise or sunset and still capture colourful skies.
16 Try using a wide-angle lens You’ll be able to capture reasonable landscape shots with your standard 18-55mm or 24-70mm zoom lens at its widest focal length. However, to take really expansive, dramatic landscape shots you’ll be better off with a decent wide-angle zoom lens. Choose a lens with a focal length range of around 10-20mm for SLRs with a crop factor of 1.5x/1.6x (or around 16-35mm for full-frame SLRs) to obtain really big scenic shots.
17 Keep your ISO low As you’ll be shooting with a tripod you won’t need to obtain fast enough shutter speeds to shoot out of hand, so keep your ISO locked to its lowest setting of ISO100 (or ISO50). This will ensure the best quality images with no grain or noise problems that could spoil your scenic shots.
18 Use a wireless remote trigger Using a remote release is a must for long exposures when shooting landscapes. You may think that gently pressing the shutter won’t cause any movement, but you’ll be surprised at the effect this has on the quality of your shots. Wireless remote triggers are very affordable and offer you greater freedom of movement, because you’re not literally tied to your camera at all times. You can also use a wired remote shutter release cable – you just won’t be able to move around as much.
19 Composition Getting your composition and framing right in-camera is crucial – if it doesn’t look right through the viewfinder, it won’t look right later on your computer monitor. Visualising the rule of thirds when evaluating a shot is a simple technique to help you achieve balanced shots (for more on this, check out our guide to the 10 rules of photo composition - and why they work). Imagine the landscape in front of you split into a grid of two vertical and two horizontal lines. Decide which of the four intersections you want to place your main subject on and compose your shot around this. If this means including a lot of sky, consider fitting a lens filter…
20 Enhance dreary and dull skies When photographing landscapes, especially in the UK, you’ll invariably encounter dull and cloudy grey skies. You can get around this by attaching a Neutral Density graduated filter (ND grad) to the front of your DSLR’s lens. ND grads enable you to get a balanced exposure when a foreground landscape is darker than a bright-yet-boring sky, and will capture better, infinitely more inspiring skies, as well as revealing more detail in your foregrounds.
21 Get the best out of your polariser Circular polarisers (you should avoid linear ones) enable you to cut out unwanted reflections on water and foliage, and boost the contrast between clouds and skies. Remember, though, that a polarising filter doesn’t have any effect on a scene if you’re directly facing the sun or it’s behind you. You need to be positioned between 45° and 90° to the sun to achieve the best results.
22 The golden rules of composition Effective landscape shots will always include one or all of the three main principles of composition: the rule of thirds, the golden mean or the golden spiral. The most commonly used is the rule of thirds, where the frame is dissected by equidistant lines – two vertically and two horizontally, creating four points where the lines meet. Placing your subject or points of interest on these intersections creates a good sense of balance. The golden mean divides the frame into three triangles using two lines. One runs from a corner to the opposing corner, the other from the bottom or top corner to the dividing centre-line. This splits the frame into diagonals and works well as an aid to composing architecture, abstract patterns and natural lines. The golden spiral is an infinite arc, like the cross-section of a snail shell, which runs through the frame. Placing shapes in petals, landscape hedgerows or winding rivers along any part or section of the line of the spiral will create depth and give an extra dimension to your shots.
23 Go wide for impact Shooting and stitching panoramic photos has never been easier. For the ultimate wide-angle shot, shoot with a panoramic image in mind. Today’s stitching software is so good that, unless the work is really critical, you don’t even have to worry about using a dedicated panoramic tripod head. Just remember to turn your camera to its vertical position (so you end up with an image you can print much larger) and give plenty of overlap between the shots. Bracket the exposure of each image and you can layer them to create a pseudo-HDR shot, where essential detail is retained in both the highlights and the shadows.
24 ‘Seeing’ a scene It can initially seem daunting trying to train your eye to see a landscape shot in black and white. It’s important to look out for simple, balanced shapes that sit well within an image. Give yourself time to stand and look around. Don’t set up your tripod too early; instead, fix a telephoto zoom to your camera and move around, zooming in to isolate elements that you find visually interesting. We came across this scene in Wales at 6.15am, only to discover that there were a number of possible landscape opportunities within it. By positioning the camera high above the valley, we were able to get a good look around and enjoyed 15 minutes of shooting as the sun rose and the mist lifted.
We used a 70-200mm lens and shot away without a tripod – we had to work quickly because the sun was coming up and the mist disappeared rapidly.
25 Use the histogram Don’t rely on the LCD screen alone to assess a shot’s exposure. Instead, call up your camera’s histogram (for more, learn how to read a histogram). This simple graph shows the tonal distribution of your image, with the darkest areas of the image shown on the left, and the brightest highlights on the right. If the bulk of the histogram is shifted to the left, the image is dark (possibly under-exposed), while a right-shifted graph means the image is light (potentially over-exposed). The key is to make sure you haven’t lost any detail – and if you have, it’s in areas you are happy to lose. Lost detail is displayed by a histogram that extends beyond the left or right edge, indicating blocked-up shadows (pure black) or blown highlights (pure white) respectively. If this happens, use your camera’s Exposure Compensation feature to adjust the exposure, then re-shoot and check again.
26 Review your shots Unless you’re photographing a once-in-a-lifetime, split-second moment, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t check your images after you’ve taken them – even if you only look at the first one in a long sequence. The most important tools for this are your camera’s LCD screen and histogram display. Using the screen, you can easily check your composition and framing, and make rudimentary checks on colour to ensure the white balance is set correctly. Checking the frame is especially important if your camera’s viewfinder doesn’t offer 100% coverage, because you might find a stray branch or figure has appeared at the edge of the frame. If so, you’ll have time to re-shoot.