Landscape Photography

A Primer from someone who stinks at it…..

Mount Rainier, Washington

Mount Rainier, Washington

For me, Landscape Photography is one of the most challenging things to shoot.  Along with still life, I consider myself a rank amateur.  I can nail a lay-back spin from a figure skater in a single squeeze of the shutter release.  I can capture heart breaking emotion.  Things that move are easy for me to photograph.  So why do I struggle with things that don’t move.  They should be easy.

Well one of the main reasons it’s hard is the fact that they don’t move.  Just about anyone can point a camera at something still and take a picture.  To make something good requires the photographer to go beyond what’s easy.  In both cases its all about lighting.  For still life, at least you can manipulate the lighting so you’re limited by your creativity and skills to bring something dramatic to life.  Landscapes you have no control over the lighting or the position of your subject.

Which leads to the main reason I stink at landscapes:  I’m lazy.

Ansel Adams, one of the greatest landscape photographers of all time, worked hard to get his photos.  He would pack a very heavy large format camera to places mortals were never meant to reach and he would wait days for the lighting to be just right and with some incredible post processing he has created landscape masterpieces that will stand forever as the greatest.

Miami Beach Sunrise

Miami Beach Sunrise

To take good landscape photos, expect to get off the beaten path.  Be prepared to hike lugging heavy gear.  You may need to visit subject multiple times.   You cannot take good photos driving 60mph on major highways.   Sure, you’re going to see some great sights that you will want to photograph, but playing in traffic to get a photo is a very bad idea.   That said, you’re not going to get a masterpiece if all you have is an hour after work to chase a mountain.

Now of course every once in a while, you get lucky and Mother Nature tosses you a goody and if your camera is ready you can get the shot.  One of my highest rated photos on flickr was a grab shot from my hotel room as I woke up one morning and was handed one of those one in a million sunrises.

If you want to plan on shooting landscapes you need to research the subject you want to photograph.  Determine when is the best time of year and best time of day to get the most dramatic lighting.  Plan to visit the spot at the prime time several days as your lighting window may only be a few minutes and you may have to wait on the weather to cooperate.

Fellow Raleigh flickrati _Massimo_ has produced some fantastic photos from Lake Crabtree in Morrisville, NC.  He visits this location a lot and some days its not good, other times he creates masterpieces.

Okay, so the hard part is done.  Your at your location.  The light is perfect and you have a camera with plenty of film / card space and a charged battery.  Now what?

Ocean Sunrise

Landscape with no Subject

Add a subject.

Landscape with a Subject

Landscape’s need a subject.  A sunrise over the ocean with just water and sand, even with interesting clouds lacks substance.  Put a palm tree or a silhouetted person in the frame and the scene becomes much stronger.  Sometimes the landscape provides the subject naturally.  Perhaps is a rock formation at Red Rocks, El Capitan in Yosemite, or as I recently experienced, Mt. Rainier standing strong on the horizon.  Maybe its a glacier laden mountain range, or yellow wild flowers adorning the landscape.  You need something and you need to build the photo around the subject.

As with most photos, the Rule of Thirds can come in handy for landscape photography, but it can also create problems.

The Rule of thirds says that photos are more interesting when the subject is placed at the intersections of tic-tac-toe lines that divide the photo into 3rds.  For our portraits, we find subjects eyes generally fill two of the points.  Off centering the subject, placing it on one of the lines or at one of the four intersecting points will do wonders for your photographs.   If you have a subject in your photo that not the landscape itself, perhaps its that palm tree or a cow grazing in a field, try using the rule of thirds.

Distractive Negative Space at the bottom.
Cropped to minimize negative space

Cropped to minimize negative space

As great as Rule of Thirds is, it has a nasty habit of creating negative space or areas in the photo that isn’t doing anything for the photo or hurting the photo.  A simple example is our sunrise photo.  If the sky isn’t putting out clouds to die for and you place the horizon on the bottom rule of thirds line, all that empty sky is negative space and its boring and blah.  A tighter crop or centering the horizon to balance the land and sky could help.  You have to ask yourself “Is the empty space good or bad?” when composing the shot and make the best choice you can at exposure time.  Cropping in post can help, but depending on how big of a data file (or how grainy your film is) you might not have as good of a photo to work with.

So balance interesting composition with negative space.  Frequently the landscape will naturally provide you three layers, a foreground, an intermediate tree line or mountain range, and sky to make your “Rule of Thirds” compositions easier.

Nikon D200 Viewfinder

Grid for alignment

Keep your horizon level.  Unless there are obvious buildings that need to stay vertical or vertical trees, level that horizon.  It shows a lack of care or a lack of paying attention when you took the photo and that little bit of attentions is the difference between a piece of art and a snapshot.  Of course there are times when it doesn’t make sense, like a sloping shore line, but even then, there is probably a water line that would be level.  You should always look at your scene and find the right vertical and horizontal lines and level your photo on those lines.  Many modern cameras have grids built into the viewfinder for use in leveling your photos.  Also many camera’s AF points are on the Rule of Thirds points and you can use that while composing your photo as well.

As for exposing your scene generally your camera’s meter will get it right for daylight shots.  But if your trying to silhouette that palm tree and capture mind blowing orange colored skies, your going to need to alter the exposure.  For Sunrise/Sunset shots where your shooting towards the sun, depending on how much black land and subject you have, you may need to shoot at -1.0 to -2.0 EV from the metered value.  If your shooting in manual mode, just underexpose the shot and shoot several variants.  If your shooting in an automatic mode, consider using Aperture Preferred mode (Av mode on Canon’s, A on Nikons) and using your +/- button and dial in a -1.0 to -2.0 setting (and don’t forget to set it back to 0 when your done).

This is also a good chance to use bracketing to try different exposures.  Most modern film and digital SLR cameras support this exposure mode.  Typically you will set the camera to automatically over expose one frame, shoot one frame at normal exposure and then underexpose one frame.  Then you shoot three photos back to back capturing a range of of exposures.  Cameras typically can set how many frames you want in the bracket, and the amount of exposure change to use for each one.  For instance you could do 7 frames at +/- 0.3 stops.  I’ll save bracketing for another post.  This also gives you a chance to play with HDR or High Dynamic Range photos should be be so inclined.

I like Aperture Preferred mode when shooting landscapes.  Shutter speed isn’t that important, but you want to control the depth of field. In Aperture Preferred mode you set the aperture and the camera figures out the shutter speed.  When shooting landscapes, in particular if you have layers (a distant mountain range and a near by flower filled field), you need as much DOF as possible.  But be aware, many lenses start loosing sharpness if you crank the aperture too high.  So getting an F8 or F11 is optimal for landscapes (unless you are specifically going for a low depth of field effect).

Since you want to keep your ISO low, that means your going to be pushing your shutter speed to a point of where camera shake might come into play.  Tripods are one of a landscape photographer’s most important tools because of this.  Vibration Reduction / Image Stabilized lenses will help those who don’t have tripods.  But if you want serious landscape photos, get a sturdy but lightweight tripod.

Add a cable release to the camera then your set to take better landscapes. From here, you can stabilize the camera, level the horizon, then you can wait on the light after you’ve composed the photo.  Sit back, drink a beer (no litter please), wait on the light, and trip the shutter when your ready.

The final suggestion is to work to find an shot that isn’t cliche.  Sometimes its not possible.  I had a chance to get back to Yosemite and I wanted to photograph El Captain and try my “Ansel”, but a search of flickr returned a bazillion photos of that rock that were all pretty much the same and none of them were an Adams.  You have to work for position.

Which leads back to the beginning, you can’t be lazy and you can’t let time and a busy schedule get in the way.  As I headed out to find a place to shoot Mt. Rainier on a recent trip, I drove what seemed like hours and had not found a good spot.  I started doubting myself saying, this is a long way and time to drive when I’m just going to get one or two usable shots.  I wanted to turn back and thought about quitting several times.  I knew that due to lack of time and not being prepared to get off-road and possibly hike to a great location, I was at best going to get cliche shots.

Finally I spotted a couple of places where it looked like I might get a powerline/modern building free view.  I’m glad I pressed on because at least I shot them, cliche or not.  I ended up finding two very reasonable locations that were drivable too.  Some day, I want to go on a real landscape trip, backpack full of supplies, hiking boots, off-road ATV and a guide.  But its not something likely to happen on my business trips.

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2 Comments

  1. Will
    Jan 31st 8:09am

    Good article, Rob! Your writing style is engaging and well thought.

  2. Richard
    Jan 31st 9:20pm

    Really well done Rob. This post is full of great information.

    Richard

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