101 Landscape Photography – beginner’s guide

According to me, landscape photography is just about the coolest thing you could possibly be doing right now!

But what is it?

I have prepared myself for expertly answering such questions by immersing myself in landscape photography and surrounding myself with landscape photographers for several years.

Here are some of my thoughts…

Nikon
D810 Nikon D810 in the landscape above.
Kirkjufell Summer Stone and blueberries

Kirkjufell Stone

Westfjords of Iceland

Westfjords of Iceland

So here we go…

Look at the 2 landscape images above and see if you can spot 3 things in common.

They have much more than 3 things in common, but what I am asking about is

  • visual, i.e. shape/size
  • content i.e. stones/water
  • emotional i.e. colour/depth

What can you say about these 3 aspects of the 2 photos above?

Can you still say these things about the 2 landscape photos below?

Godafoss waterfall of the Gods

Godafoss waterfall

Westfjords sunset

Westfjords sunset

In a general sense, Landscape photographs do have many things in common.

Elements

Despite various locations, Landscape photographers will look for an interaction of elements to arrange in the scene.

  • Air – sounds like a silly one, but air quality indicates depth, clouds suggest air, wind suggests air.
  • Water – this can make or break a landscape photograph. Water adds a higher dynamic range to the landscape and allows for reflection of objects and light. Fun with longer exposures.
  • Light – usually the sun or moon, but can be auroras or milky way. This is responsible for colours.
  • Land – important for supporting your tripod. That stuff we normally walk all over is the backbone of Landscape Photography.

Visual

The arrangement of these elements is important in a Landscape photograph.

  • Proportions – balancing areas, such as foreground object and the amount of sky. 3rds is a good place to start.
  • Depth – arranging elements to communicate the depth of a scene is important when you have no size reference.
  • Lines – lines make the proportions mentioned above, we use lines to lead the eye to important areas of the scene, lines are essential in telephoto (longer than 50mm) landscape images.

Emotions

It is important to convey some emotion in a landscape scene. How lost are you now? you came here because you have a new camera and now you have to capture emotion with it!! Let’s simplify emotion for Landscapes… we are talking about peace/ turbulence, bleak/vibrant. You can enhance “vibrant” with water/ice, you can capture “peaceful” with reflections etc…

Communication

It is really useful to understand photography as a form of communication. In landscape photography, the communication is the sense of being in that place at that time. Landscape photography communicates where things are in relation to the viewer. A successful landscape will leave the viewer in no doubt of the distances and depths of a scene.

Photography skills

There are 3 basic skills to consider as you practice landscape photography.

Composition

Composition = arranging the different elements into a meaningful scene.

This can be very simple, such as “foreground then background”, or it can get very complex such as “arranging colours for emotion” or “finding overlap for best contrast”.

Composition is best practiced with a prime lens which forces you to move in 3 dimensions; up-down/near-far/left-right.

Composition is more “Right-brain” so its enemies are “struggling with technology”, “mathematics”. Therefore it is important to learn and practice your camera settings, tripod mechanics, lens characteristics etc before you are faced with important scenes. So you can then use your powerful camera like an iphone – when you need it.

Exposure

You think composition is important? Exposure is just as important.

Apart from cropping, sharpening and spot removal, most of what you do in post processing will be exposure related. In post processing, noise is introduced if you increase levels. If you expose well (without clipping)so that you are mostly reducing levels in post-processing, you will have a better quality result.

The histogram is the digital tool for exposure control. This should be checked with every new scene to see that all the information is within the histogram boundaries. If there is a build up of information at either end of the histogram, you will have area of the image that you cannot process, i.e. they have to be black or white (clipping).

Focus

Composition and exposure are really important, but images can be cropped and levels adjusted.

Focus can’t be changed afterwards at all!! But don’t panic, in 95% of cases it is difficult to mess up Landscape focus.

There are some technologies that allow you to focus after the photo has been taken, but in most cases, if you mess up the focus, you are left with a picture that is only fit for facebook.

There is only one “focal point” in any image, i.e. 1.45 meters or 2.67 meters, but we control the area that looks in focus with the aperture of the lens – this area is called Depth of Field (DOF). Wide angle lenses with a small aperture will have a huge depth of field.

With most landscape images you will have a satifactory image by focusing a 3rd into the scene with say f/14. DOF is 2/3rds after the focal point and 1/3rd before. To get technical you could focus at the hyper-focal distance. This inloves understanding your lens focal length and aperture (because both determine DOF).

Tools

Here are some landscape photography tools and how to use them.

Camera – any camera will do, but best if you can control the aperture, exposure etc. Best if you can change lenses, so you can use fixed and zoom lenses. pro-landscapers use full-frame cameras to get the best out of wide-angle lenses. Modern DSLRs have live views which can help with composition, focus and exposure.

Lens – the best way to learn landscape is to practice with prime lenses. These are lenses that are fixed focal length and so don’t zoom in and out. 50mm is very cheap and you will lern a lot, but recommended for landscape are 17mm, 24mm, 35mm primes.

Tripod – not necessary for beginner landscape but as you advance you might find yourself with low light and needing small apertures. When you are well practiced, the tripod helps with composition, DOF and exposure.

My Camera

Canon 5D
mark III
Canon 5D mark III

Landscape photography gear

Full frame cameras

Quality Lenses

Long Exposure gear

Sturdy Tripods

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