Most beginner landscape photographers feel landscape photography is the easiest of all genres. They could not be any further from the truth. Let me tell you upfront very clearly – landscape photography is one of the most difficult genres of photography there is. Not only because it is physically challenging, which it is at times, but because landscape photography demands the best of skills, patience, and endurance from photographers.
The 9 Great Tips and Advice for Landscape Photographers Starting Out
So, the million-dollar question is – What does it take to be a successful landscape photographer? In this discussion, we strive to find the answers to that question. So, all you aspiring landscape photographers, grab a cup of coffee, and let’s get started.
1. Brush up on your understanding of Exposure
Exposure is the key to any image. Without a proper understanding of exposure and the relationship between the three parameters of exposure – Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO, you cannot capture a decent image. This is something that we are all aware of. However, for landscape imagery, you have to be extra careful when it comes to metering and calculating exposure.
Always choose the correct metering mode. There are several metering modes on your camera. Spot Metering, Partial Metering, Evaluative Metering, and Center-Weighted Metering are common. Choosing the correct metering mode denotes choosing the metering mode that is ideal for the scene. For landscape photography, the best metering mode is Evaluative or Matrix Metering.
2. Exposure Compensation
Where required, use the Exposure Compensation button to adjust the exposure. The Exposure Compensation button is an effective way to control exposure if you are shooting in Auto or any of the Priority modes (Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority).
Exposing for anything that is middle-gray in the scene will give you the most accurate reading of the scene. But even that is dependent on whether the scene is too bright or too dark. For example, a scene that is too dark exposing for middle gray will blow out the highlights.
Normally, only when a scene is average lit, metering for middle gray gives the best results. When the scene is too bright avoid using the meter reading that the camera tells you to use. The camera’s built-in meter always tries to ‘average’ out a scene. That means it presumes that everything in front of it is ‘middle-gray’ and calculates the exposure reading based on that. There are some inherent issues with that.
A snow scene, for example, is too bright. But the camera will try to average it and make it middle-gray. In other words, it will show up a meter reading that will force you to reduce the exposure.
In this situation, you will have to use the Exposure Compensation button and push the exposure up by at least one and a half stops to compensate for the ‘middle-gray’ reading that the camera gave you in the first place.
In Manual mode, the Exposure Compensation option is not necessary. It may not even work on some cameras. The reason is in Manual Mode you have to decide what the Exposure Values are going to be. The camera just gives an indication, but you are not bound to adhere to it.
3. Use a Hand-held Light Meter
The problem with the built-in metering system of your camera is that it measures the reflected light of a scene for metering purposes. That is an inherently incorrect method to meter a scene.
The best method is to use the incident light method and which is used by hand-held light meters. These meters give you accurate meter reading for any scene, not just landscapes. They are suitable for shooting with artificial lights (strobes, continuous lights) as well in a studio environment.
4. Learn the basics of Dynamic Range
Dynamic range denotes the number of stops of brightness between pure black and pure white that your camera can differentiate. The greater the dynamic range, the more contrasty an image will appear. An image with a less dynamic range will appear washed out.
Most cameras can see 10-stops of brightness levels. Some cameras can see 14-stops. The human eye is capable of differentiating between 24 stops of dynamic range.
The higher the number of stops ensures the higher the dynamic range of the camera. Sometimes, some scenes may have too high a dynamic range which your camera is unable to capture properly. Sometimes a scene may have very little dynamic range. Such as a low-lit scene or a night scene. In such situations, a camera will be unable to pick up a lot of dynamic range. With that understanding in mind, pick and choose the time of day and right weather to shoot your best landscape shots.
5. Play with the Depth of Field
The best landscape images are shot using a small aperture. A small aperture has the effect of maximizing the depth of field of an image. Because a small aperture ensures that much of the frame is in focus.
Which are the best aperture for shooting landscape? Shoot with at least f/8 or anything smaller than that.
6. Watch out for lens diffraction
If you are using a kit lens or an inexpensive lens you will notice that for a while sharpness will increase with each consecutive smaller stop of aperture.
But after a while, sharpness will tend to decrease rather than increase. This phenomenon is known as lens diffraction and this happens because at very small apertures light gets bounced off the aperture blades and that produces less than optimum sharpness.
With cheaper lenses lens diffraction will set in much quicker than with expensive lenses. So, you may have a situation where a kit lens starts to show the effects of lens diffraction at f/9 whereas an optically better lens will show the signs of lens diffraction after f/16.
It is always best to test the limits of your lens’ smaller apertures in a studio environment before using it in practical situations. That way you can know in advance the sweetest spot that produces the largest depth of field without any signs of lens diffraction setting in.
7. Hyperfocal distance
This discussion shall remain incomplete without a reference to hyperfocal distance. Hyperfocal distance refers to that focusing distance that produces the maximum depth of field for a focal length and aperture combination.
Technically speaking when you focus at the hyperfocal distance anything that is about half the distance to infinity should be in focus.
There is a scientific formula that can tell you what is the right hyperfocal distance for the lens focal length you are using and the aperture
H = (f²/ Nc) + f
Where H is the hyperfocal distance
f is the Focal length
N is the f-number
c is the acceptable circle of confusion limit.
This formula can be intimidating for someone just starting in landscape photography. I recommend you ignore it and go straight to the alternative technique, which is to focus at about half the way to the major subject of your image. Please note that when you are focusing at the hyperfocal distance anything that is at a distance halfway to it and up to infinity should be in focus.
So, taking that as our visual cue, let’s say that you want to have a small flower bed at 10 feet to be a focus along with the mountain behind it. Your target focusing distance should be halfway to the flower bed. That way the flower bed and the mountains in the background should be in focus.
8. Focus Blending
Focus blending is a technique that takes two or more images of the same scene using the same exposure but each time shifting the focus at a different distance within the frame. Later on, each of these frames is taken together and blended to form one image with a larger depth of field than what is possible with a single frame.
Focus blending is a technique that works the best when the lens that you use does not reflect any significant ‘focus breathing’.
Focus breathing is a problem that mostly plagues cheaper lenses. When you adjust focusing with such lenses you will notice that the lens zooms slightly. In other words, the focal length appears to change as focusing changes, which it is not supposed to do.
If your lens suffers from focus breathing issues you shouldn’t attempt this technique.
9. Use the right shooting tools and techniques
Always use a tripod. A tripod ensures that your camera and lens are not moving when the exposure is being recorded. Second, you can use the mirror lock-up technique to ensure that your camera is still when the exposure is made.
Make sure to switch off image stabilization on your camera and lens when you are using the tripod. Mirror lock-up will lock the mirror in the up position before the exposure is made. This reduces vibration and helps creates a sharper image.
Not all cameras offer the mirror lock-up option. If your camera does not offer then don’t get frustrated. Use the shutter delay/ timer option. This will ensure that the shutter is fired after a delay and minimize any movement because of your finger touching the shutter button. It also helps to use a remote trigger.