5 Ways to Make Your Landscapes Better
When I go shoot a landscape there are a few things that are a must in order to capture sharp and technically sound images. These are 5 methods that are crucial to becoming successful as a landscape photographer and are really no secret to the experienced shooter but if you are a enthusiasts looking to hone your landscape shots this post is for you and can help take your landscape to the next level.
1. Use a tripod
I have had a few people in the past tell me that they don't use a tripod to shoot landscapes, my reply to them is, "well then you are not shooting landscapes". It is very rare to be able to capture a sharp image, in the right conditions, without the use of a tripod. If I could recommend any additional piece of gear to someone who wants to start taking landscape photography more seriously it would be a tripod. It doesn't even have to be a super good one, I mean it helps to have a solid carbon fibre Really right Stuff rig but I started out with a Wallmart special and it did the trick on calm days.
These two options will get the job done. The tripod on the left is much like my first, a plastic light and flimsy, but on a calm morning or evening this guy did just fine. When the wind was blowing or the ground was soft or uneven I began to run into problems. The second option, the tripod on the right, is the tripod I currently own and use often. It is big, burly, and is super reliable when the wind is blowing and the ground is uneven. It goes for around $300 US, but is worth its weight in gold when the conditions call for the added stability. I also own a Mefoto Backpacker tripod, this is a lightweight travel tripod that I use when I am in the backcountry and not willing to tote my tank Manfrotto along for a week long hike.
2. Use a remote shutter release or the self timer feature
The ultimate goal when shooting landscapes is a tack sharp image, you may have heard that phrase being thrown around the old photo club "tack sharp!", it may just sound like more photo lingo but a landscape image that is blurry or "soft", is the equivalent to you going to the grocery store filling your cart with $300 worth of grub and then realizing you forgot your wallet after the semi-retired clerk has spent 20 minutes chatting you up about his less than comfortable prostate problems. Without the use of remote you cause your camera to shake on the tripod and this leads to blurry images. Often, in a pinch, I will use my 2 second self timer. This allows the shutter button to be pressed and then gives the camera a moment to recover from the shake. I use this a lot and rarely find an issue but as I described before better to be safe than sorry so having the ability to fire your shutter without making contact with the camera is the best option. There are many options for remote shutters out there, I use a small infrared remote that is both small and light as well as a wired remote that connects the camera. All makes and models from beginner to pro camera bodies allow for the use off this feature, so there's no excuse not to have one in the bag at all times.
3. Shoot small apertures (big numbers)
If you are just starting to figure out your camera this concept can be slightly confusing, shooting small apertures, a physically smaller hole in the lens creates a wider depth of field. I know this is getting jargony again so here's a digram that gives a visual explanation of the concept.
Basically the larger the f stop the wider the depth of field is. This causes more of what is in the photo to be in focus, ranging from the foreground to the background. You can see within the example that f/2.8 causes a large hole in the lens, resulting in only the cat on the box being in focus. This is not the desired look for a landscape image. With the third example we see f/11, this creates a very small hole in the lens resulting in a wide depth of field. We can now see that the bunny, the cat on the box, and the tree are all in focus. This is what we are looking for when we shoot landscapes. I often use f/18 when shooting because it also allows me to slow down my shutter speed and this creates longer exposures, a style of landscape image that I am really into. So, to sum it up larger number, f-stop, creates a smaller hole in the lens, resulting in a wider depth of field. A wider depth of field allows both the foreground and the background to be "tack sharp". If this still doesn't make sense message me and we can take it a step further, still working on my teaching skills.
4. Change your perspective
One thing I rarely do when shooting landscapes is have my tripod legs fully extended. When I get to a location before my camera even hits the tripod I am taking test shots at variety of elevations. From inches of the ground to finding a large rock to stand on, I try to see the scene in a unique way. Far too often I see the same beautiful location shot the exact same way, and don't get me wrong I am all about the overshot mountain locations but I just think that everyone should try to put their own spin on the classics. So, before you get locked in on the scene in front of you take a walk and get high and get low. This might just give your landscapes the new kick of drama and excitement that you are looking for. Here are two images that I shot using two different perspectives, the first being the classic Moraine Lake in Southern Alberta, Canada.
This shot has been done in a number if ways but one perspective that I had yet to see was one from very close to the water. I shot this from behind a rock standing in about three feet of water. Two out of three of my tripod legs were extended about half way while the third was fully compacted and was sitting on a rock out of the water. this unique tripod setup allowed me to get a unique shot that I was am still happy with today!
The second shot is one that I captured after many attempts and trips to this location. I had tried a variety of perspective never really being completely happy with the outcome. After getting on my knees I discovered the perspective I was looking for. There was just enough waterfall to mountain ratio in this scene to create an appealing and dramatic image. Both of these shots were taken with my tripod legs all being positioned in different heights. I let my eye command the the composition and not the restrictions of a fully extended tripod.
5. Shoot when the light is right
One of the biggest changes to my shooting technique, that changed my landscapes 100%, was when I was started shooting in the early morning and late evening light. Light is everything and when it is harsh, like it is during the middle of the day, you get harsh shadows and blown out highlights. No I am not taking the blonde streaks in your hair, I am talking about super white skies that are unsalvageable in post production due to overexposure. By shooting in the early morning or late evening you are allowing your scene to be filled with the softest light possible. This light is diffused by the earths atmosphere because the sun is low on the horizon. This eliminates strong contrast in highlights and shadows and allows the camera to capture rich saturated colour tones that give your images drama and a ton of beauty. Almost all my landscape images, 99%, are shot during these time frames. I don't even consider a landscape shot unless it is during these times of the day and won't even bother to take a tripod with me if I know we are headed out in the midday sun. I reserve my middle of the day trip for scouting locations to return to once the right is right. This tip is by far my most valued and I strongly encourage you to practice this and I can guarantee that by doing so you will get some incredibly dramatic landscape images.
All these tips and techniques are the ones that are automatics for me. They are less about my creative process and more about the practical and crucial aspects of being a successful landscape photographer. Put these to use and you will soon finding yourself capturing stunning landscape images that you will want to show off to all your nerdy photo pals in your local photo club.