The key to amazing landscape photography is combining the all the basics (read on) with compositional prowess (you bring that bit). Picture it: you’re out with your camera, mysteriously you’ve been teleported to a secret location with a perfect landscape, and the light is exceptional. Several memory cards later you return home, fire up the computer, and inspect your photos; unfortunately they’re full of blown highlights, crooked horizons, and blurry details. So just in case you’re teleported to that perfect landscape, here are our top landscape photography tips...
Use Filters, not Photoshop!
Getting your image right in-camera is far more satisfying than relying solely on post-processing, and minimising the level of digital manipulation preserves image quality. Filters are the primary Photoshop time-saver for the landscape photographer. Here are the three essential types of filter for landscape photography:
Graduated Neutral Density Filter
Graduated neutral density (a.k.a. ND grad) filters are used to darken the brightest area of a scene, usually the sky. By bringing the correct exposure for the land and sky closer together, the scene can be recorded within the dynamic range of your camera. This means you can capture the landscape in a single exposure, without blown highlights or clipped shadows.
ND grad filters are available in different strengths, for cutting different amounts of light from a scene, and with soft & hard graduation. Deciding whether to use a soft or hard graduation depends on how defined the land / sky transition is. A soft graduation is preferable when an object crosses the transition, such as a tree (which would have noticeable line across it with a hard ND filter).
We’d recommend rectangular ‘slot-in’ ND filters rather than circular ND filters because you can adjust the position of the effect and use the same filter on lenses with different filter thread sizes. Cokin produce a popular ND grad filter kit with three different strength filters and a filter holder, all you need to add is an adapter ring to attach the filter holder to your lens. Alternatively you can select individual ND grad filters from Cokin & LEE.
Circular Polarising Filter
Attach a circular polarising filter to your lens and your photos will magically* have more saturated colours, fluffy white clouds, and reduced reflections.
* Physicists and well-read photographers are allowed to roll their eyes at this explanation. For more information about polarisers try Camerapedia.org.
Using a circular polarising filter is easy: rotate the front of the filter whilst looking through the viewfinder, until the effect reaches its peak. The polarisation effect is at its greatest when your camera is pointing at 90 degrees to the sun, but the effect is still noticeable at other angles.
The only major consideration while using a circular polariser is that less light reaches the sensor (usually 1.5 to 3 EV). Your camera’s metering system will compensate for this, decreasing the shutter speed if your camera is in aperture priority, which may force you to use a tripod unless conditions are bright.
The results from using a polarising filter are rewarding – so much so that beginner photographers should add a circular polarising filter to their ‘to-buy’ list, after a UV or Skylight filter to protect their lens. Circular polarising filters are available from Hoya, Sigma and B+W in our threaded filters section.
Neutral Density Filter
Neutral density (ND) filters without graduation are used to intentionally increase exposure time, perfect for blurring motion such as crashing waves and fast moving waterfalls. Using an ND filter to increase exposure time is a great alternative to using a smaller aperture, which may degrade image quality beyond f11 / f16 due to diffraction.
ND filters are available in a variety of densities, depending on how much light you wish to block. A good starting point is an ND4 or ND8 filter, high densities are quite specialist and ND2 may not be strong enough in most scenarios.
|Optical Density||f-Stop Reduction||% transmittance|
|ND10000 / NDX||4.0||13||0.01%|
Table source: Neutral density filter page @ Wikipedia.
Hopefully the benefits of using a real filter over Photoshop are convincing. Sure, you’ll probably still need to make minor corrections in Photoshop or your chosen photo-editing software, but hopefully not the bulk of the work – just imagine the screen time saved! For more views on the filters versus Photoshop debate, try this article about Filters vs Photoshop on PopPhoto.com.
Line-up the Horizon
Nothing spoils a great landscape like a wonky horizon. Correcting the image by rotating it a few degrees with photo-editing software isn’t the best solution. By rotating the image you lose resolution (cropping is required to exclude the skewed borders) and detail is lost in the rest of the image due to interpolation (lossless rotation is only possible for 90 or 180 degree adjustments). The preferred solution is to line-up the horizon before the image is taken, with any of these fine tools available to you:
- In-camera grid lines. Most digital SLRs have an option to enable a gridline overlay in the viewfinder. The gridlines are usually in a ‘rule of thirds’ formation, which is useful for devising effective compositions too.
- Virtual horizon. A selection of digital SLRs have an integrated virtual horizon tool which provides a digital spirit level on the LCD screen during Live View mode or in the viewfinder by commandeering the exposure compensation display. On the Nikon D700 and D3 this is particularly powerful with the programmable function (Fn) button – you can check a scene is level without taking you eye away from the viewfinder.
- Spirit Level. Adding a hot-shoe spirit level is a great option for ensuring a level setup. Manfrotto produce an accurate two axis hot-shoe spirit level and Seculine offer a digital spirit level.
Change your Perspective
With an ultra wide-angle lens stuck firmly of your digital SLR it’s easy to fall into the trap of taking all your landscape photos at the widest possible focal length. This is fine for many scenarios, but you may be missing out on some landscape gems: Swap to a tilt-shift, fisheye or telephoto lens to introduce a fresh perspective on the scene in front of you.
Ultra wide-angle lenses are great - the ability to capture a huge angle of view can add even more drama to a scene – for example the hugely popular Sigma 10-20mm lens has a 102 degree view at 10mm (on an APS-C format camera). The challenge with ultra wide-angle lenses is they can make it harder to create an interesting foreground or a focal point within the scene for the viewer’s eye. So remember to mix it up!
The only time your photo should be blurry is when you want it to be, whether it’s a flowing waterfall or panning with action. The rest of the time everything should be pin-sharp, capturing every detail and giving the option to print big, big prints. Try the following to create sharp photos:
Use a Tripod
A stable platform is an important first step to creating sharp photos, especially when your shutter speed is slower than a certain value. Handheld photos are possible at shutter speeds of 1 / focal length (as a rule of thumb), e.g. taking handheld photos with a 30mm lens at 1/30th second or faster. Even if your shutter speed is fast enough for a handheld image, a tripod will still improve the sharpness of your photo.
Selecting a tripod is a balance between stability, weight, cost and other measures. For landscape photography a stable yet lightweight tripod is the best choice, especially if you will be hiking over long distances. The Manfrotto 190CXPRO4 tripod is a great choice – it weighs just 1340g, has a maximum load capacity of 5kg, and the collapsed length is 50cm. The only caveat is the maximum height of 122cm with the centre column down (preferred for maximum stability), but this can be extended to 146cm with the centre column extended if necessary.
Use a Remote Control
At low shutter speeds even releasing the shutter can blur your photos with camera-shake, despite using a tripod. The solution is to use a remote control / cable release or your camera’s self-timer.
Enable Mirror Lock Up (MLU)
Images taken at ½ - 1/20th second shutter speeds can be blurred by ‘mirror-slap’ as the viewfinder mirror swings up to allow light to reach the sensor. Mirror Lock Up functionality is only available on mid-level to pro cameras, check your manual or menus and give it a try! Confused? Luminous Landscape has a guide to understanding mirror lock-up.
Setting your focus to the hyperfocal distance produces the greatest depth of field at any aperture value. This is a useful technique for obtaining the sharpest possible scene, from foreground to infinity. Check out this guide to hyperfocal focusing and determine hyperfocal distances with DOFmaster’s depth of field calculator.
Do you have any landscape tips to share? Please leave a comment & share with fellow photographers.
Thanks for reading!