Landscape photography is more than simply finding a beautiful location and capturing what you see – you need some specialized gear and in-camera techniques in order to produce pro-quality images. While there are many different avenues you can pursue, most landscape photographers employ the following techniques when they capture those magazine glossies.
Rule of Thirds
You’ve probably heard of this rule before, but it’s one to abide by – especially in the realm of landscape photography. The simple concept behind this is that a photo is more balanced when it’s divided into thirds – two vertical lines and two horizontal lines evenly spaced. Your horizon (or any other prominent line) should fall on one of the two horizontal lines. Additionally, the four intersections are where you should place any focal point in your image – or at least the most obvious one.
When you compose your image in this manner, things just seem more balanced with an overall good flow to it.
Photo by Raymond Larose
Landscape photography is probably where filters are most commonly used – and it’s easy to see why. It’s hard to control the landscape environment – particularly lighting – so filters are used to create the images we want.
ND (neutral density) Filters – These work to slow down our shutter speed so that we can capture moving objects in slow-motion – think of them as a pair of sunglasses for your lens. In landscapes, this is typically done during the daytime to capture water and cloud movement in an ethereal way.
Photo by Christopher O’Donnell
ND Grad Filters – Working on the same concept as ND filters, they decrease the exposure time by limiting how much light is let in through the lens. However, with the grad filters, they only block out a certain portion of your frame.
Photo by Carl Jones
Why would this be useful in landscapes? For one, most landscape images have the sky in-frame which often has a completely different exposure than the ground. Since your camera can’t have two different photo settings within the same image, an ND grad filter can be lined up with your horizon line to reduce the exposure of the sky -thus giving you a perfectly exposed image despite different lighting situations.
Photo by Juan Diego Jimenez
While many of these effects can be created in post-process (such as combining different exposures vs. using an ND grad filter), it’s always better to use a filter to create the effect in-camera. The output will be of a higher quality and less work for you in the post-process.
I mentioned above that landscape photos often will need entirely different settings within the same frame in order to have all elements exposed properly – i.e. no blown highlights or blocked shadows. This is one of the difficult limitations of landscape photography as you have little to no control over lighting – although it’s lots of fun to overcome this in the darkroom.
Photo by Trey Ratcliff
Photos taken by point-and-shooters are often disappointing with blown out skies of what was a dramatic sunset, or blacked out foregrounds of lush green islands – they very rarely represent what you see in person and many vacationers complain of this when they bring their travel photos back home.
With auto-bracketing, you can set your camera to take three (or more) sequential images of the same exact scene – only at different shutter speeds. One photo will be an evaluative exposure – taking all aspects of your image and averaging out a weighted exposure setting – and the other two photos will have slower and faster shutter speeds than the evaluative.
Trey Ratcliff – also known as the Stuck in Customs guy – has one of the most detailed tutorials on how to use Photomatix to automatically tone-map (i.e. combine the wanted aspects of each exposure into one image) your photo. You can also do this manually in Photoshop using layer masks.
Another popular photo technique for landscapes is creating panoramics from several images – this is especially popular for those scenes that need 180 degrees or more to truly appreciate.
Photo by Garry
However, panoramics need specialized software to merge the photos seamlessly – and there’s usually a learning curve associated with the software. Photoshop has a stitching program built-in, but it does have its limitations when combining complicated images.
You also need to make sure that your photos are uniform in settings and focus – otherwise, you’ll be stitching images that look nothing alike and ruin your panoramic. I’ve detailed how to make sure your pano photos are ready for post-process in my article here on capturing panoramics.
These are just a few technical aspects of landscape photography – there are many more to look into, and there is a substantial learning curve to them as well. Be patient and take baby steps with your photography. Remember – as long as you learn one important skill from each photoshoot, you’re well on your way to becoming a true professional.