As you may have already noticed landscapes are my favorite subject to photograph. It combines two great things in life: being outdoors and photography. A win win situation if you ask me.
But getting that fantastic landscape shot you would proudly hang on your living room wall can be quite a challenge. There are a few pitfalls to avoid and things that are useful to know before you head out. So let me give you the 7 basic ingredients of a good landscape photograph so you are well prepared for your next landscape shoot.
Let’s start with the bad news. Landscape photography is a time consuming activity. Often people look at me in disbelieve when I tell then how much time I spent taking that certain picture they like. Shooting landscapes is completely different from a controlled environment, like a studio, where you’d just have to wait for customers to arrive and take their shots.
A lot of time goes into finding a good location to shoot and traveling to locations (unless you’re one of the lucky persons who’s house is right next to a national park or grand vista). I also like to arrive early so I have plenty of time to walk around looking for the best compositions and to setup my equipment.
If you want to take great landscape photographs you need to have a great landscape in front of your camera. It has been said many times before but it is still very true. And don’t worry. This doesn’t mean you have to grab your gear and head out to Africa or Antarctica. Everywhere on our planet there are beautiful locations to be found.
So no matter where you live within an hours drive you should be able to find wonderful scenery to shoot. A great advantage of shooting a location near your home is that you can go back to that place over and over again to get the most out of it. But if you’ve got the time and money to go to Antarctica you should definitely go there!
No matter how beautiful the scene if the conditions aren’t right it will never look amazing. Great landscapes need great light. If you look at award winning landscape photos they are almost always shot at sunrise or sunset. This is the moment when the light of the sun is warm and soft, and therefore the most flattering.
The sky is another important factor. In most landscapes the sky forms an important part of the image so it needs to be as beautiful as the landscape itself. Dull gray skies are horrible and so are clear blue skies. We want texture and clouds preferably lit by the purple or pink light of the setting sun. A sky that is on “fire” is the perfect ingredient for a fantastic landscape photograph.
4. Luck and/or Patience
Unless you can change the weather (if you do, please tell me how) you are dependent on what the weather Gods have in store for you. You don’t want to know how many times I went to a location to discover the conditions over there weren’t as good as I hoped. Or dull gray clouds moved in just when I was about to take that amazing shot. Landscape photography is a game of luck.
And if luck isn’t with you you have to resort to patience. Just keep going back to that location you want to shoot so badly and you will be rewarded eventually. And if in doubt always go out there. My greatest pictures were shot when the conditions looked debatable and I decide to go out anyway.
In order to make amazing landscape photos you obviously need to know operate your camera. But landscape photography is one of the easiest types of photography from a technical point of view. Just dial in the lowest ISO number and a small aperture. Put your camera on a tripod focus 1/3 into the scene and use a remote to take the shot. Done!
No fiddling with remote flashes and triggers. No fast moving subjects challenging your auto focus to the max. No models to direct. Just nice and easy photography. As you become more experienced you can start adding in filters making things a little more complex but still very manageable.
The most important skill a good landscape photographer needs isn’t a technical one. It is working the scene. The ability to spot the best compositions and get the most out of a scene is the best skill you can master.
Finally let’s talk about equipment. Of course you will need a camera to take your landscape shots. But I’ve put this at the bottom of the list because I believe it is the least important “ingredient”.
Don’t be fooled by people saying you need a 40 mega-pixel full frame camera and the fastest pro glass. Again if you can afford it by all means buy it. But most of us don’t need to create prints the size of a door in which case any proper DSLR or mirrorless camera will do.
The same goes for lenses. Yes the Canon and Nikon 16-35mm F2.8 are both fantastic lenses but not an absolute requirement for shooting great landscapes. You don’t need fast glass since you will be shooting at F8 to F16 most of the times to get everything nicely in focus. You do need sharp glass however and this is where the cheapest lenses will disappoint you (especially when it comes to corner sharpness which is so important for landscapes). So if you need to choose between investing extra money in a body or in good lenses I would suggest going for quality glass first.
Next to your camera and lenses you also need a good tripod. Especially if you’re shooting sunrises or sunsets and conditions get quite challenging for shooting hand held. A tripod is another thing you should not try to save too much money on. Cheap ones are annoying to operate, fragile and less stable so they can easily ruin your shots. When shooting on a tripod always use a remote trigger. You don’t need the official brand ones but don’t go for the cheapest either. Even the B-branded ones a really affordable.
The shot bellow was taken with a 16 mega-pixel Nikon D7000 APS-C camera and a kit lens but I still looks great printed as a 90 by 60 cm (approx. 35 by 23 inches).
7. Lightroom / Post processing
“Get it right in camera” is a phrase often heard in photography. Yes, you should always try to capture the best possible picture in the field. Always shoot in RAW and watch your histogram. Make sure the whites are almost blown out (also known as exposing to the right) because it is easier to dim highlights than to recover shadows.
But not matter how well you’ve captured your image in camera you will still need to post process it. RAWs are digital negatives that contain way more information than can be seen by the naked eye but straight out of camera they usually look pretty dull. All that ‘hidden’ information can be used to turn you files into fantastic images. Normally when you shoot JPG your camera does this for you but doing it yourself gives you far more control over the end result. And this is where Lightroom comes in.
Investing in Lightroom (or a similar tool) and learning to master it is money and time very well spent. It will really help to turn your photos into what you envisioned when you pressed the shutter. And it will allow you to develop your own style. Bellow you can see the difference between a RAW file straight out of camera and my final edit. Quite a difference right?! On top of that Lightroom is great for organizing your ever growing photo archive.
Hopefully these tips were helpful and inspired you to go out there and take some great landscape photographs. If you think I missed anything or got ingredients you’d like to add please leave a comment bellow.