Photographing Great Landscapes

Landscapes

I have to admit, photographing landscapes is one of my favorite types of photography and is also the most challenging.  All too often, my pictures from an amazing hike (where I had to lug all my heavy equipment along!) don’t do justice to the breathtaking geography I just saw.  Granted, the human eye, or more appropriately eyeS, can do a better job viewing a three dimensional image than a camera sensor, but most unplanned “amateur” landscape photography ends up making everything look small.  Here are some tips for shooting your favorite landscapes.  Note: they also work for seascapes 😉

The first two things to keep in mind with landscape photography is scale and subject.  If you point your camera off to the horizon to capture the even the largest mountain, you’ll be disappointed when you see the picture captures what appears to be a small mound.  With nothing adjacent to, or in front of the aspect of the landscape you want to highlight, you quickly lose the perception of size.

Photography Landscapes: Big Sur Example

Big Sur

Take a look at the shots of Big Sur (above) and Gulfoss Waterfall in Iceland (below).  Both are rather bland, uninspiring and unimpressive images (I can say that, I took them).  Yet, these places were amazing.  The ridge in Big Sur is probably miles in the distance, the mountain in the background even farther, yet the image looks flat.  The Gulfoss waterfall is immense, over a hundred feet high, and the picture makes it look like nothing.  The reason is both lack a subject and scale.

Photographing Landscapes: Gulfoss

Gulfoss

 

Fortunately, not all was lost in Iceland.  Check out these images while thinking about subject and scale:

Photographing Landscapes: Iceland

Iceland

Photographing Landscapes: Iceland 2

Iceland

Photographing Landscapes: Iceland 3

Iceland

In each of these photographs, your eyes drift to and focuses on the silhouettes of the people in the first two images, and the large piece of volcanic rock protruding from the beach.  These subjects also help give the viewer a sense of perspective.  Based on the size of the people and volcanic protrusion, you get a better sense of the massive expanse these landscapes demonstrate.

Now compare two very similar images:

Photographing Landscapes: Peru

Peru

Photographing Landscapes: Peru 2

Peru

These two images were taken from almost the identical spot, of the identical landscape (a mountain in Peru).  Which is more interesting?

While the first photograph does give you some concept of scale by showing the small village off in the distance, the foreground is somewhat lacking.  The second photograph, demonstrating the same mountain, has two colorful rick-shaw taxis in the foreground to provide both perspective and interest to the eye.

This brings me to another point of landscape photography – always keep in mind your foreground, midground, and background.  Put simply, the image needs to have something in the front, middle and back.  Usually with landscapes your background is the sky so you already have that taken care of without much effort.  The effort is ensuring you have both a midground and foreground in the image.

Most of the time, the scenic element you wish to capture – a mountain peak, a large river etc. – is the natural midground.  Photographers get hung up on the midground and subsequently omit a foreground.  That is what happened in my Big Sur picture.  The ridge and mountain were so breathtaking, I must have forgotten that I needed something towards the bottom of the image to create a foreground.  The ocean that is there is somewhat inadequate.

So, now that you’ve successfully composed your image of an amazing landscape, keeping in mind subject and scale such that you’ve obtained a foreground, midground and background, what do you actually do with the camera?

First, as a general rule of thumb you want to maximize your ISO.  Keeping the ISO as low as possible will minimize any graininess that appears in images as they get enlarged.  Use 100 if possible, and I never go above 200 unless absolutely necessary (for shutter speed purposes).

Second, use a small aperture.  Sometimes I’ll start at f/8 because I’ve been told lenses are usually sharpest around f/8, but I will frequently shoot at f/16 or even f/22.  Why such a small aperture?  This is because smaller apertures (or larger f-stops) create greater depth of fields and achieve a closer hyperfocal distance.  I discuss depth of field in another article.  The hyperfocal distance is the distance from the camera that everything and beyond will be in focus.  You can download a depth of field application for your smart phone to help you figure out where the hyperfocal distance is for a given lens and camera settings.

Now, because you’ve maximized your ISO, shrunk your aperture, you’re probably left with a shutter speed, even on a sunny day that is somewhat slow.  So, the third important aspect of taking a landscape photograph is a solid tripod.  This doesn’t have to be a $400 carbon fiber deluxe model, but it has to hold your camera steady without any camera or lens creep (small or subtle movement), and it can’t blow away in the wind.  You can even use nature’s tripod such as a rock to brace your camera, but of course you’ll be limited in terms of subject composition.  This picture from Iceland was taken with my camera resting on the flattest rock I could find.  It has 1/4th second shutter speed due to an ISO of 200 and f stop of 22 and I didn’t have my tripod with me.  You’ll find that using nature’s tripod will require quite a bit of cropping afterwards as you likely wil not have a level horizon line.

example of how to photograph a great landscape

Iceland, using nature’s tripod (a flat rock)

With your camera on a tripod with an ISO in the 100 range and an aperture around 16, I suggest two additional things to really ensure the sharpest possible photograph: set your camera for mirror lock, and use either a remote shutter release, or timed shutter release.  These are two techniques that will, in a very obsessive compulsive way, reduce any human- and camera-induced movement into the image.  Mirror lock causes the mirror that ultimately reflects the image onto the camera sensor to lock before the image is taken.  On Canon cameras, you’ll need to press your shutter button twice after activating this feature to take a picture.  The first press will lock the mirror (and you’ll lose your viewfinder), and the second captures the image.  Without mirror lock activated, one press of the shutter button flips the mirror and then immediately takes the picture.  Theoretically, the flip of the mirror can produce very minor vibration that of course will be transmitted to the sensor.  Similarly, pressing and releasing the shutter button on the camera, even with it strapped tightly to a tripod, can cause very subtle movement that, during a long exposure particularly, can decrease overall sharpness.  Therefore, using a remote shutter controller or the timed shutter release (the way you get yourself into a group picture) will eliminate and motion caused by you touching the camera itself.

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